Like many others, I am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming release of The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. In the film, the actor portrays the brilliant mathematician and cryptoanalyst Alan Turing, who was absolutely mission-critical to the breaking of Germany’s enigma code during World War II. The film delves, deservedly, much deeper into the troubled and complicated life of Turing, who died in 1958 from cyanide poisoning just a few days before his 42nd birthday. The film opens November 28 worldwide.
I’ve been wondering how many people have a good history of just what the men and women of Bletchley Park accomplished. I know my British friends and historian friends are steeped in the story, but so many people don’t learn proper history these days. I think it’s a very good thing to put Turing’s story on the big screen for all to see, especially as portrayed by someone of Cumberbatch’s extraordinary abilities.
We’ve seen Bletchley Park portrayed before, of course, though not quite so accurately. There was the 2001 film Enigma, based on the novel by Robert Harris, although that was filmed elsewhere. There was also the recent British television drama The Bletchley Circle, and either before or after you see The Imitation Game, I would recommend a viewing of the new drama-documentary Codebreaker, which goes into quite some detail about Turing’s life before and after the war as well.
I think I have some affinity for this story, too, because I stood where Turing did, once. Some time ago when I was living in London, we took the train out to Bletchley Park and spent the entire day exploring the grounds and buildings, talking to elderly volunteers who had either worked there or had relatives who had, and learning much more about the project than I had ever previously known. I was also lucky enough to have met the late computer engineer Tony Sale, who led the reconstruction of the Colossus computer that is now one of the centerpieces of the National Museum of Computing that is on site at Bletchley Park.
On the eve of the release of The Imitation Game I thought it might be worth revisiting the travelogue I wrote about Bletchley Park immediately after my visit. Enjoy.
The Secrets of Station X
It was by far the best-kept secret of World War II, England’s secret weapon against the onslaught of Nazi military power. Not a rocket or a tank, the savior of thousands of soldiers was a secret intelligence headquarters codenamed “Station X,” housed in a moderate country manor north of London called Bletchley Park. Here at the Government Code and Cipher School, more than 12,000 mathematicians, cryptoanalysts, linguists, engineers, and clerks worked around the clock to decipher Nazi codes being delivered between Germany and its armies in Europe and Africa as well as U-boats and other naval forces attacking Allied convoys in the North Atlantic.
During the entire course of the war, it never slipped that a secret army of code breakers was fighting a secret war on the Bletchley campus. In fact, the work of Station X was so secret that Winston Churchill himself ordered all of its paperwork destroyed and the site was not declassified for more than thirty years. At Bletchley Park, secrets were not just deciphered but kept as well.
Remarkably, today the site is open to the public, maintained by a charitable trust, and coordinated by a tremendously knowledgeable team of guides, staff and volunteers. The park is less than an hour from London’s Euston Station by train and makes for a splendid day out for both young and old visitors.
Guided tours are not always the best use of a visitor’s time but those given at Bletchley Park are a drastic exception. The tours (a little more than an hour) are a terrific introduction to the extensive site, which includes not only the Mansion (1883) but a sizable collection of original 1940’s huts and concrete block buildings constructed by hold the inner workings of the code breaking teams. In an astounding turn of events, some of the original “Wrens” – female clerks recruited to work in transcribing and recording the German coded messages – have returned to Bletchley Park to work as guides and share their memories with visitors.
One of the visitors on our tour even included a British chap who served as a motorcycle courier in 1942, rocketing across the British countryside to deliver messages from the “Y” Service, a chain of wireless listening stations to the intelligence services at Bletchley Park. Our guide shared not on the secrets of Station X but also his experience in debriefing visitors. While the historians at the site work diligently in recording interviews with former staff members, they have had several Wrens come to visit who would not discuss their work with strangers even to this day!
One tends to think of code breakers as strictly the stuff of spy novels but in fact, the diversity of personnel at Bletchley Park was staggering. Our guide informs us that the key asset for which military leads recruited for Station X was “lateral thinking.” Mathematicians were a boon and now-famous names like John Jeffreys, Gordon Welchman and Alan Turing were soon added to the rosters, along with more diverse talents like High O’Donell Alexander, the day’s leading chess grand master.
Another hidden gem of the tour is a stop at the Polish memorial. The British are rightfully famous for breaking German codes including “Enigma,” and “Shark,” as popularized in the novel Enigma by Robert Harris and the accompanying film starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott. However, it is little known that an early version of the Enigma cipher was originally broken by the Poles in 1932. In fact, it was a meeting in July of 1939 between the Polish and British cryptoanalysts, led by Dilly Knox and including mathematicians like Alan Turing, which led to the first break into Enigma in 1940.
In addition to the original artifacts of life at Bletchley Park, several items come from the dramatization of events in the Michael Apted film. While Bletchley itself was unsuitable for filming, several items were featured in the movie including a large collection of period automobiles, both full-scale and model reconstructions of a WWII German U-Boat, and fascinating true-to-life reconstructions of “The Bombe,” a complex electro-mechanical device designed by Alan Turing.
Far from being strictly a museum piece, Bletchley Park is also home to its own set of resident geniuses. In addition to a ramshackle computer museum that shows off a quaint collection of former state-of-the art computers, H Block holds two captivating examples of early code breaking apparatus. The first is a redeveloped model of Alan Turing’s “Bombe,” a clattering, banging windfall for the code breaking process. A German Enigma machine, with three rotors and a byzantine series of electrical settings, was vastly too complicated to break using manual methods. Extrapolating a concept proposed by his Polish counterparts, Turing designed the machine which used numeric cylinders to propose solutions to the Enigma puzzle.
“In Hut 11 the Bombes never stopped working,” recalled Wren Morag Beattie for the museum, “And if, on a very good day, all the main codes had been broken there was always a backlog of unbroken codes from previous days.”
Even worse than Enigma were messages encoded by “Tunny,” a semi-automatic, multi-rotor machine produced a code that was not only more difficult to break than Enigma but worse; no one had ever seen one of the machines. After a number of first attempts, the answer was finally produced by Tommy Flowers, who designed an electronic machine using valves to decode the messages. The machine, Colossus I, was the world’s first programmable electronic computer and Bletchley quite suitably bills itself, “where the modern world began.”
Today, in a bristling hot room at the south end of H Block, Colossus has been recreated through the intense dedication of Dr. Tony Sale, a former consultant to London’s Science Museum. Sale became convinced in the early 1990’s that the machine could be reverse engineered using a combination of original WWII-era valves, reconstructed equipment, and modern know-how. His biggest challenge? All of the original machines, as well as their blueprints and schematics, had been destroyed at the end of the war. Using descriptions of the machine published by Dr. Flowers in the 1980’s and CAD drawings based on rare 1944 photographs, Dr. Sale has managed over the past decade to nearly complete the working model of Colossus I, complete with the ability to read the Tunny code.
However, Sale did have to go to an original source for a very specific problem.
“Modern computers all have to be cooled in air conditioned rooms but H Block still gets incredibly hot. So I went to ask some of the Wrens how they handled the heat during the war,” relates Sale. “They told me, ‘Open the window, dummy.’ and so that’s why all the windows come open now.”
It must have been difficult not only for the Wrens but for all of the thousands of workers at Bletchley. Not only was their work kept secret from the rest of the world but no one was allowed to discuss their work even with personnel from other huts. Every last member of the Bletchley Park community was required to sign the Official Secrets Act, right down to the Quartermaster’s 14-year-old daughter, who also required a pass to leave the park every day to go to school. To this day, those who kept the secrets of Bletchley Park are reticent to reveal their stories. However, their work is confidently considered by experts to be essential to the Allied effort.
“The 12,000 people who worked at Station X did not win the war but they certainly shortened it, saving countless lives on both sides of the conflict and their legacy lives with us today with the computer technology that dominates our lives,” says Michael Smith, the Defense Correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph.
In fact, the full account of Bletchley Park is a fascinating story of intrigue, deception and the dire machinations of Britain’s intelligence services. In addition to German intercepts, Bletchley’s cryptoanalysts also read Japan’s war plans. One of the most distressing messages broken by the station related the details of Germany’s massacre of Jews, an event for which Churchill personally assigned a staff member to collect evidence from the broken messages.
Surely no Wren ever realized that their work on Enigma was disguised to the Germans as having come from an MI6 spy inside Germany. The richest site on the campus is surely A Block, where the keepers of Station X have displayed one of the rarest artifacts, the “Abwehr G-312” Enigma machine. Unlike the simpler Enigmas bought for use by the German army, those used by the U-boats of German wolf packs in the North Atlantic used four rotors. One of the biggest “cribs,” or shortcuts to breaking Enigma, was gained by the sacrifice of British soldiers aboard U-boat 110 in May of 1941, when an Enigma code book was stolen and delivered to Bletchley Park. That code book is on display, along with the Enigma machine and many other artifacts, in Bletchley’s A-Block today.
In a strange plot twist straight out of a novel, the Abwehr Enigma was stolen from the museum on April Fool’s Day of 2000 and only restored after an international police investigation involving Interpol, London’s metropolitan police, and Mick Jagger, a producer on the film Enigma, whom the robbers thought would make a good buyer.
Station X is a story of thousands of citizen soldiers fighting against nearly impossible odds to solve some of the war’s most difficult challenges. The conditions, as evidenced by the remaining huts, offices and outbuildings, were austere and the work often dull and repetitious. No one doubts the importance of the work of Bletchley’s spies and cryptoanalysts, chess masters and crossword puzzlers, clerks and Wrens. They were the pride of Churchill’s Britain, who called them, “the geese that laid the golden eggs…but never cackled.”
If you go:
Bletchley Park is 300 meters walk from Bletchley Railway Station in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, about an hour north of London’s Euston Station. The park is open every day throughout the year except for December 24 through January 2. Admission is £10 for adults, £8 for children and a family ticket is available for £25. More information is available by visiting the Bletchley Park Trust’s official web site at http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk.
A fascinating companion visit in London can be made to the Cabinet War Rooms, a series of underground bunkers near Westminster, from which Winston Churchill and his staff ran the war, often using information gleaned from the cryptography work at Bletchley Park. Closed intact at the war’s end in 1945, the site is a fascinating glimpse of a hidden world. The war rooms are located on King Charles Street near the Palace of Westminster in London. Closest tube station: Westminster.