Bletchley Park—An Enigmatic Exploration
Bletchley Park is a modest museum which makes the visitor walk back in time to the astonishing world of espionage and code-breaking. After seeing the BBC series, “The Bletchley Circle,” and the movie “The Imitation Game,” (January 15, -2015 review) I had the opportunity to visit Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, approximately a thirty-minute train ride from London.
Once Britain’s best-kept secret, today Bletchley Park is a unique heritage site and tourist attraction, as well as an educational resource and memorial to the scientists and mathematicians of the pivotal Enigma project. Bletchley Park exemplifies the feat of organization and mobilization to tackle the difficulty of the German Enigma code as well as to guard the top-level secrecy required of their covert operation.
Members of MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) were assigned the job of cracking the Enigma code, the masterful and complex cipher system that changed at least once a day with 159 million possible settings produced by the Enigma machine.
The process of breaking Enigma was aided considerably by a complex electromechanical device, designed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, called the Bombe. Both an original Enigma and the Bombe are on display at the park. The Bombe ran through all the possible Enigma wheel configurations in order to reduce the possible number of permutations. Bombe machines were operated by Wrens (=the women codebreakers), whose work sped up the solution to breaking the Enigma.
As the project grew to over 12,000 (more than 75% women), the clandestine project had to build large pre-fabricated wooden huts set up on the lawns of the Park. Not unexpectedly, the women’s huts were crammed with twice as many lodgers in smaller rooms than the men’s. It was disturbing to see how small the rooms were (eight double-bunks to a 9’ x 9’ room) for such brutal all-night intelligence and computational sessions. It was not all grim, however. The women billeted in huts could join in the nightly concerts, lectures, dances and choirs at the adjacent Edwardian mansion.
Much of Bletchley’s equipment and documents were destroyed at the end of the war and the secrecy imposed on the former Bletchley workforce remained a government policy until 1974. And, it wasn’t until July 2009 that the British government announced that Bletchley personnel would be recognized with a commemorative badge
It was decades before the outside world learned anything of what went on in a warren of dilapidated huts surrounding the Edwardian mansion in Buckinghamshire. The estate has been restored, thanks to the Bletchley Park Trust. The visitor center was built in 2011 with funds the Trust raised. Formed in 1992 to preserve the spirit of Bletchley, the Trust rescued the site from a proposed housing development. Interestingly, it was private funds that secured the future of the site and helped to restore the decaying huts in which many of the codebreakers worked. A video documents the deplorable condition of the facility before restoration.
The main museum collection focuses on the wartime code-breaking efforts, including the Bombe and the Enigma machines, as well as extensive displays related to wartime code-breaking and espionage. Some quirky features of the museum are a “pigeons of war” exhibit on the important role of the 250,000 homing pigeons used in Great Britain, and the children’s corner where hands-on displays attempt to illustrate the laws of probability in computing possible letter/number arrangements on the Enigma.
Note: An excellent online tour can be viewed at: https://www.codesandciphers.org.uk/bletchleypark/