WORLD TRAVEL NEWS ARTICLE
THE UNITED KINGDOM
'THE SECRETS OF BLETCHLEY PARK'
Home of the legendary World War II ‘Enigma’ codebreakers and the world’s first operational digital computer, Bletchley Park is an intriguing place and a brilliant day out, says Sue Dobson
A grand country mansion overlooks a lake and pleasant gardens. In its grounds are a collection of low-rise buildings and non-descript huts. The atmosphere is so peaceful and relaxed that it’s hard to imagine the place packed with people, crammed in amid complicated and noisy machines, all working intensely around the clock.
From 1939 and throughout the Second World War, Bletchley Park was the world’s largest code breaking factory. Long before the Internet we use today was invented, Bletchley Park had a worldwide secure communications network. Over the years, 10,000 people worked secretly here. Winston Churchill called them his “geese that laid the golden eggs – but never cackled”. Historians consider that their work shortened the war by at least two years and saved thousands of lives.
A team of brilliant mathematicians worked not only to break the Enigma codes but those of the Japanese, Hitler’s allies and the even more complex Lorenz, a 12-rotor cipher machine used by the German High Command, which was based on encoded teleprinter traffic. It was the effort to crack the Lorenz codes that led to the creation of Colossus, a forerunner of today’s computers.
Colossus in action
Also known as Station X, the code breaking operations were Britain’s best kept secret and continued to be so for decades. At the end of hostilities, all trace of what had taken place at Bletchley Park was destroyed and it was not until the mid-1970s that some knowledge began to emerge.
In the early 1990s, the site was due for demolition and a housing estate planned in its place. A long struggle ensued to save Bletchley Park for posterity and reveal its importance to the nation. Fascinating exhibitions now give visitors an insight into a secret world.
Cracking the codes
The main exhibition, the Bletchley Park Story, is in Block B, which is also where you buy your entrance ticket, shop for books, gifts and souvenirs and watch an orientation film.
Upstairs you can learn all about the infamous Enigma cipher machines, how they worked, the ingenious methods used to crack their codes and the people who made it possible. You begin to realise the enormity of the task when you discover that even the basic three-rotor Enigma machines used by the German Army and Air Force had 150 million, million, million possible settings.
There’s a lot more to read and see on this floor with battle stories, amateur radio equipment, model planes and tanks, a reconstructed German signals room and a Home Front exhibition with wartime posters, room sets and a collection of imaginatively constructed children’s toys.
Downstairs houses an array of ever more complex cipher machines, including the four-rotor Abwehr Enigma used by the Wehrmacht’s intelligence service, but the highlight is the rebuild of the Turing Bombe. This huge electro-mechanical device, which greatly speeded up the breaking of Enigma codes, was created by the inspirational mathematical genius, Alan Turing, and there’s a splendid sculpture of him nearby. The story of the rebuild is told in a 3-D film show that’s well worth watching.
Alan Turing's statue
With practically every scrap of information destroyed in 1946, it took many years of dedication to rebuild the Bombe and the Colossus, the world’s first semi-programmable electronic computer that’s on display in the National Museum of Computing housed in Block H. It’s amazing to see them working.
Hall of Fame
From Block B, take a walk around the lake and along the American Garden Trail to reach the Mansion, headquarters to intelligence staff during the war. Often in use for conferences, weddings and events, this grand Victorian pile has an impressive entrance hall and splendid wood-panelled rooms. A colourfully patterned glass ceiling decorates the Hall of Fame room, which highlights the life and work of some of the key codebreaker personnel at Bletchley Park.
While honouring ‘the few’ it reminds us that in the early weeks of 1945 there were 8,900 people working here, some 6,000 of them women, most of them young and in the Services. Their work, much of it tediously repetitive, demanded concentration and fine attention to detail, astonishing feats of memory, insight and intuition, with long hours spent in conditions acceptable only in wartime.
One careless mistake could undo hours of laborious teamwork, while one careless word could have jeopardised the whole operation. Yet Hitler never knew of the existence of Bletchley Park and never discovered that the German codes had been broken.
The café and restrooms are next to the Mansion in the green-painted Hut 4. In 1940 this was the Naval Section, where decrypted Enigma messages were sent to be translated and forwarded to the Admiralty. Stop for a coffee and some rather good cake, or drop in for lunch, then backtrack slightly to Hut 12.
The exhibition there shows how Ian Fleming’s wartime years with Naval Intelligence, and his links with Bletchley Park, provided the background for his James Bond novels. Proving that truth can be stranger than fiction, display panels tell the real-life stories of men and women who operated as spies and double agents.
A walk in the park
A walk around the back of the Mansion will lead you to the old Bletchley Park Post Office, now a stamp-collector’s heaven, a toy collection, scale models of warships and classic cars in the Mansion’s garages.
Pass under the ornate Victorian archway to enter the Stable Yard, where the pigeon loft above the garages was in constant wartime use. Its occupants brought back messages from the Resistance in France. Ahead, cottage number 3 was where Alan Turing lived and where the first breakthrough in cracking Enigma codes was made in 1940. The nearby Polish Memorial recognises the role played by Polish crypto-analysts in the early days of the war.
A left turn takes you past some huts in poor condition – sadly Bletchley Park gets no government funding and there is still much renovation work to be done. Take a look in the brick building known as Hut 11, the Turing Bombe room, and imagine it filled with a dozen of these clattering code wheel machines, each one requiring constant attention.
Cross the grassy area ahead and make for Block H which houses the National Museum of Computing and the rebuild of the 1944 Colossus Mark II. Watch this extraordinary machine at work to find the 12 wheel settings on a German Lorenz cipher machine.
The rebuilt Colossus Mark II
Tommy Flowers spent 11 months of 1943 designing the monster, which used over 2,500 valves and took about eight hours to find all the wheel settings. Using only scraps of diagrams, old pictures and half-forgotten memories, it has taken 15 years to reconstruct.
Retrace your steps to find Hut 8, where the elite codebreakers worked. The excellent displays here include the role of women in intelligence, espionage and resistance movements and the part played by the National Pigeon Service in delivering messages and saving lives.
You are almost back at the pink-painted Block B, but don’t miss the Enigma cinema that shows wartime newsreels at weekends or the huge array of Churchill memorabilia in Block A. There’s so much to see and take in, it’s easy to spend a day here. Bletchley Park is a truly fascinating place.
Bletchley Park, Sherwood Drive, Bletchley, Milton Keynes MK3 6EB. Visit www.bletchleypark.org.uk
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