16 February 2015

Bletchley Park - World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing (2.0)

Last Monday we began enthusing about a day trip we took to Bletchley Park. A mansion house with enigmatic links to World War Two, codecracking and Alan Turing - not to mention Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly's performance in The Imitation Game - we fell in love with this home of nerdvana.

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

During the war, German armies encoded every message with the aid of an Enigma machine - thanks to a series of lettered rotors, which were reset each day, Enigma machines could be configured in 150 million million million different ways. To read the encoded messages all that was required was the initial code setting to crack it.



Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing 
Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Around an hour from London Euston by train, Bletchley Park sits unassumingly on railway lines linking Cambridge and Oxford, London and Scotland. Posing as a Radio factory, it was the perfect foil for transporting ands housing some of the greatest (and craziest) minds to assist the war effort - literally saving thousands of lives by intercepting enemy code and translating it into important information for Allied troops - and shortening the war by at least 2-4 years.

Alan Turing masterminded the invention of the world's first programmable computer at Bletchley, a giant machine called Colossus that enabled the cracking of these codes quickly - usually within 20 minutes - by a process of elimination. He worked with an extraordinary team of the top cryptologists in the United Kingdom in the Bletchley building known as Hut 8.

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Within the ground of Bletchley Park, several army 'huts' were erected - cold, smoky and by the end of the war packed with tables of Wrens intercepting and translating messages to aid the war effort. Up to 10,000 staff worked here at the peak, all signing the Official Secrets Act, many going to their graves with details of the the secret work performed in Bletchley before the ban was lifted in the Eighties. 

One of the stories that amazed us, was of a husband and wife who separately in the post, 30 years after the war, received invites to a Bletchley Park reunion - have not even told each of their roles in the war. You can definitely tell they're not of the blogger generation, can't you?

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing 

With the Huts dressed to appear as if the inhabitants had only just left, it felt like we hearkened straight back into that era.  I sort of wanted to put in hair in victory rolls and don nylons with a hand drawn seam along the back in honour! Our guide told us several stories of secrecy, long intensive hours, much unrationed tobacco smoking, and a few inevitable trysts....

The jobs performed were of such high-level secrecy that clerks would only work on small individual portions before sending it on to a higher power. Often it would be phoned or sent through for piecing together (many times just to the next hut by phone, or a pushed into a clever shute operated with a broom handle). Sometimes would occasionally find out what happened as a result of their code cracking - in the public newpapers weeks later. Much of the information garnered was strategically released to both the Allied forces and fed wrongly to the double agents.

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

We were quite enthralled at the exhibitions arranged by the staff trust & volunteers; it was incredibly interactive - with many multimedia tables to teach about codebreaking, video guides with real life stories and enthusiastic volunteers taking tours and answering questions throughout the huts. Sadly we were only able to spend a few hours there due to a miserably cold winter day and rolling out of bed far too late!

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

At the end of one of the hut's long corridors we also stumbled onto a rather sweet 'Birds of War' exhibition celebrating the wartime efforts of pigeons and their handlers. Mentioning several of the feathered heroes buried at the PDSA cemetery in East London, it is touching how they have been remembered - one bird especially being injured multiple times, but always completing their mission.

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Then, we briefly wandered through a further exhibition of the Bombe machines and technical wizardry. There was simply so much to see we couldn't quite believe it.

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

Oh, and the movie? The Imitation Game (a reference to the 'Turing Test', a way to answer and measure a more precisely defined question around the level of technology and machine learning than the question of "Can machines think?") is about to fall off the London cinema lists, but it is a wonderfully sad telling of Alan Turing's last few years - he wasn't only a mathematician, but also the father of computer science and World War II code breaker. As a gay man - homosexual activity was unthinkably illegal at the time - after the war Turing had been convicted of gross indecency and given the choice of prison or hormone treatment. Opting for the hormone treatment, he died in mysterious circumstances two years later.

Bletchley Park: World War Two, secrets, code cracking and Alan Turing

We found the movie fascinating, heartbreaking and beautifully, beautifully carried (bar the slight squishing of the story and the directors not actually using the Bletchley Park mansion building, but a ornate stand-in). That aside, we've already earmarked a revisit with my Father-in-law who grew up during the war - we'll be taking a picnic and several more hours. Who knows, I might even wear those victory rolls!

See part two of this Bletchley Park Love in here!

4 comments :

  1. What a fantastic, informative and well-written post! (That sounds weird to say but it had to be said!). I love this type of thing and enjoyed the war time tunnels in Dover and the children in war exhibition at the IWM. Do let us know when you return!

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  2. I recently watched this movie and was blown away by the story. I would be interested to see the Bletchley in person.

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