The imposing manor house above the lake doesn’t say much at all about what happened here during WW2. The house had been bought by a developer who would have built a housing estate but the manor and 58 acres of land was purchased in 1938 by Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) for use in the event of war.
Round about then, this was happening. Europe had a little less than a year of peace to go.
These days, Bletchley is a popular historical site and we went to visit. A volunteer guide took us on an hour-long walking tour. Most of you will have heard of the fairly recent movie, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Our guide told us those at Bletchley Park call it The Irritation Game because it is so wildly inaccurate. You’ll learn a lot about the events at Bletchley, and about Turing, by reading the comments about the movie. Take a look here.
The German Enigma machine was a clever device that translated characters according to a seed code which changed every day. It might have been invincible except for that intangible defect, Human Error, a fault in the process that code-breakers were able to exploit. But Turing wasn’t the first to crack the Enigma code. The Poles did that in 1938 and what was done at Bletchley built on their work. Bletchley also cracked the Lorenz code and codes used by the Italians and Japanese. Ultimately the team at Bletchley came up with the first programmable computer, Colossus, to process the huge amounts of variants the codes created. It was rather a lot bigger than the phone in your hip pocket and a lot less powerful. But it was a start.
If you’re interested in the technicalities of how the encryption worked and how it was cracked, this article gives a good, accessible explanation.
Secrecy was paramount at Bletchley Park. No-one was to talk about what they did here. Not to anyone. The workers in the huts received coded messages from various sources and then decoded them. The decoded messages were passed along to intelligence officers, who created a narrative whereby the information in the messages could have been obtained from other sources (for instance) spies. It was essential the enemy did not know their code had been broken. At its height, Bletchley employed 10,000 people, mainly working in huts around the property. Many of the employees were women (the men were at war) and many were well-qualified, and educated. It’s true that some were recruited via crossword competitions – but not how it was portrayed in the movie. The park operated twenty-four hours a day, three eight-hour shifts with a half hour for lunch. It was tedious work, requiring intense concentration in less than ideal conditions. It wasn’t until 2009 that the work done at Bletchley Park was finally officially acknowledged and a medal struck.
Our guide took us through the manor, an impressive Victorian house where the park’s administrators worked, and then outside to the huts where women from the Navy, Air Force, and Army were employed. Parts of the park were underground to protect the operation from air raids.
There were a number of school groups on the grounds at the same time as us. It’s great to see they’re learning some history. The kids had worksheets in which they were asked to find answers to specific questions.
Bletchley Park: Home of the Codebreakers gives a good run down of what happened at Bletchley, with photos and script. Recommended.
If you’re in the neighbourhood and such things interest you, Bletchley is well worth the time.
By the way, if you’ve happened upon this page by accident and you’d like to read more about the tour, go to the tour page where you’ll find the rest of our adventures.