9 January 2017

Shhh Top Secret

Take some graduates, add a handful of linguists, a pinch of genius mathematicians and a sprinkling of eccentricity, and what do you have? Codebreakers. The brilliant men and women from all walks of life who came together to serve the war effort at Bletchley Park.

In August 1938 ‘Captain Ridley's Shooting Party’ arrived at a country mansion house in the Buckinghamshire countryside.  

To the outside world they appeared to be a group of friends enjoying a relaxed weekend, they even brought with them one of the best chefs at the Savoy Hotel to cook their food! But the group were far from relaxed, they were members of MI6, and the Government Code and Cypher School. Their job was to see whether Bletchley Park would work as a wartime location, well away from London, for intelligence activity. Their presence there was to set the scene for one of the most remarkable stories of World War Two.

Their mission was to crack the Nazi codes and ciphers. The most famous of the cipher systems to be broken at Bletchley Park was the Enigma. The Poles had broken Enigma in 1932, when the encoding machine was undergoing trials with the German Army. At that time the cipher altered only once every few months, but with the advent of war, it changed at least once a day, giving 159 million million million possible settings to choose from. The Poles decided to inform the British in July 1939, once they needed help to break Enigma and with invasion of Poland imminent. There were also a large number of lower-level German systems to break as well as those of Hitler's allies. At the start of the war in September 1939 the codebreakers returned to Bletchey Park to begin their war-winning work in earnest. 

The splendid mansion house is surrounded by beautiful parkland

Many brilliant minds passed through this impressive entrance

there are also outbuildings, stables, a tennis court and a lake.

The Office of Alastair Denniston, Head of the Government Code and Cypher School, and the room where the US Special Relationship was born. This was where Commander Denniston welcomed all new recruits to the Top Secret Bletchley Park.

The Library became a wartime office, initially housing the German and Italian subsections. 
It has been skillfully recreated using period furniture and paraphernalia. 
It looked and felt as if the men and women had just popped out for a lunch break.

I remember telephones like this one, and the pencil sharpener, inkwells and the various stamps!

Scenes from The Imitation Game were filmed in these rooms. I have only seen clips of it, but after visiting I am really keen to watch it. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and tells the story of how, in 1939, newly created British intelligence agency MI6 recruits Cambridge mathematics alumnus Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) to crack Nazi codes, including Enigma - which cryptanalysts had thought unbreakable. Turing's team, including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), analyze Enigma messages while he builds a machine to decipher them. Turing and team finally succeed and become heroes.

Alan Turing was not a well known figure during his lifetime. But today he is famous for being an eccentric and passionate British mathematician, who conceived modern computing and played a crucial part in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. 

In 1952 he fell victim to pious mid-20th century attitudes. The quiet genius encountered disgrace when authorities revealed his homosexuality and sent him to prison. After being hounded and chemically castrated he died at the age of 41.

This exhibition is in the Ballroom where key scenes were filmed. 

The process of breaking Enigma was aided considerably by a complex electro-mechanical device, designed by  Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman. The Bombe, as it was called, ran through all the possible Enigma wheel configurations in order to reduce the possible number of settings in use to a manageable number for further hand testing. The Bombes were operated by Wrens, many of whom lived in requisitioned country houses such as Woburn Abbey. The work they did in speeding up the codebreaking process was indispensable. 

The bar featured in the film.

As more and more people arrived to join the codebreaking operations the mansion house became overcrowded and the various sections began to move into large pre-fabricated wooden huts set up on the lawns of the Park. For security reasons the various sections were known only by their hut numbers.

Alan Tsurin's office

The note in the machine reads "Gone to lunch, please do not touch my typewriter!

The machine to the left, Geheimschreiber or 'secret writer', had a built-in teleprinter which could transmit messages. The messages were often sent over telephone lines so were difficult to intercept. On the right Enigma machine, temporarily removed!

The Germans’ every move was monitored. A chain of wireless intercept stations across Britain and in a number of countries overseas listened in to the enemy's radio messages. Thousands of wireless operators, many of them civilians but also Wrens, WAAF personnel and members of the ATS, tracked the enemy radio nets up and down the dial, carefully logging every letter or figure. The messages were then sent back to Bletchley Park (Station X) to be deciphered, translated and fitted together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to produce as complete a picture as possible of what the enemy was doing.

The intelligence produced by deciphering the Naval Enigma was passed to the Admiralty. However, in the early days, they struggled to get the naval commanders to take it seriously but a series of spectacular successes turned things around for the Codebreakers. Throughout the First Battle of the Atlantic, they helped the Admiralty to track the U-Boat wolf packs, considerably reducing the German Navy's ability to sink the merchant navy ships bringing vital supplies to Britain from America.

The Codebreakers began working around the clock to send the intelligence they were producing to London. In October 1941 after receiving a letter from some of the senior codebreakers decrying the lack of resources being afforded them, Prime Minister Winston Churchill directed:
Make sure they have all they want, extreme priority, and report to me that this has been done.’
From that moment on Bletchley Park began receiving a huge influx of resources and a major building programme ensued to create the space necessary to house the ever increasing workforce.

In 1942 the Codebreakers' many successes included the North Africa Campaign, when they enabled the Royal Navy to cut Rommel's supply lines and kept Montgomery informed of the Desert Fox's every move. Early 1942 brought serious difficulties with the German Navy’s introduction of a more complex Enigma cipher. But by the end of 1942 they had mastered it as well.

Perhaps Bletchley Park's greatest success was still to come with the breaking of the Germans' strategic ciphers. These complex ciphers were used to secure communications between Hitler in Berlin and his army commanders in the field. The intelligence value of breaking into these was immense. Initial efforts were manual and successful, but could not keep up with the volume of intercepts. Under Professor Max Newman the ‘Newmanry’ started to devise machines to mechanise the process. This ultimately led to the design and construction by the brilliant General Post Office (GPO) engineer Tommy Flowers of ‘Colossus’, the world's first semi-programmable electronic computer. Breaking into these ciphers allowed the Allied staff planning for the invasion of Europe to obtain unprecedented detail of the German defences.

The Codebreakers made a vital contribution to D-Day in other ways. The breaking of the ciphers of the German Secret Intelligence Service allowed the British to confuse Hitler over where the Allies were to land. His decision to divert troops away from the Normandy beaches undoubtedly ensured the invasion's success. 

As well as human effort animals were also vital to the war effort. Most people know about heroic horses and dogs, but pigeons also helped. They were recruited as messengers. 

WWII Parachute/Container used to supply European resistance groups with pigeon message carriers

When the birds landed, wires in the coop would sound a bell or buzzer and a soldier of the Signal Corps would remove the message from the canister, and send it to its destination by telegraph, field phone, or personal messenger.
A carrier pigeon's job was a dangerous one though. Enemy soldiers often tried to shoot them down, knowing they were carrying important messages. Some of these pigeons became quite famous among the infantrymen they worked for. One pigeon, named "The Mocker," flew 52 missions before he was wounded. Another, named "Cher Ami" lost a foot and an eye, but her message got through, saving a large group of surrounded American infantrymen. 

The Monument to all who served

the Polish Memorial

The stableyard cottages. Some of the most renowned codebreakers worked in these buildings. 

1940 Packard 6 cylinder Touring Sedan.
In June 1940 a fleet of cars and sedans was purchased by MI6. The cars were taken to Whaddon Hall, the headquarters of Section VIII and the Packards were sent to Tickfords, a coachbuilder in Newport Pagnell where their vivid showroom colours were sandblasted and camouflage paint applied. They were then returned to Whaddon Hall to be fitted with a custom made wireless receiver, transforming them into mobile wireless vehicles. 

1947 Sunbeam Talbot

1938 Austin 18 Six Cylinder Ambulance

Mick Jagger's film company produced the film Enigma and afterwards 
he generously donated these vehicles to Bletchley Park

As you walk around the grounds you can hear various recordings, sounds of despatch riders, conversations of people as they sat beside the lake, watching the skaters or rowers, laughter on the lawn, and a tennis match between two of the female workers (75% of the workforce at Bletchley during the war were female).

The genius minds of oxford and Cambridge are a great celebration of British academia and what it acheived. Millions of lives were saved. The official historian of World War II British Intelligence has written that the "Ultra" intelligence produced at Bletchley shortened the war by two to four years. It doesn't bear thinking about what Hitler might have achieved in those extra years.

I'm so proud of our heritage and the men and women who fought for the freedom we enjoy today.


  1. I enjoyed this post with all its history. It is one place I've always wanted to visit.

  2. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.


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