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.

Enigma
Enigma

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 Bombe
The Bombe

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.

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: http://www.codesandciphers.org.uk/bletchleypark/

 

The Imitation Game—Breaking the Code Breaker

 

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch

Alan Turing, a pivotal code breaker during World War II, was almost completely unknown until the release of this movie. A hero who contributed a master plan for breaking the German military codes, Turing ultimately sacrificed everything . He committed suicide in 1953 when his homosexuality was called out. Being gay was a crime punishable by imprisonment, not only in Great Britain but in most of the West.

For many years, breaking Enigma—the Nazi code believed to be unbreakable—was considered a top security secret under the Official Secrecy Act. The Enigma machine, brought to Bletchley where Turing lead the “brainiac” team, was finally disassembled and re-engineered by Turing and his co-workers. With the computational power of the Bombe, a  machine Turing co-developed,  the brainiacs came to understand the Enigma.  Turing is considered the father of modern computers.

Bombw
Bombe

“The Imitation Game” is named after the quest to differentiate machine from brain, coining the term “artificial intelligence”. It could as easily indicate the trials and tribulations of Turing as a child and as an indicted “criminal” for his homosexuality— “imitating” what conventional norms dictated in British society.  Additional plot points are introduced with the historical figure Joan Clark, (one of many women code-breakers at Bletchley, played in a confident, nuanced interpretation by Keira Kneightley) who adds a human interest element of friendship not based on sexuality but on mutual respect for mathematical genius. Kudos also to the excellent performances by the ensemble cast including Charles Dance , Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, and Mark Strong.

The drama and the personal sacrifices Turing made are a spellbinding narrative that flows seamlessly in this film. Benedict Cumberbatch, as the stuttering, socially inept Turing, is as much a thespian genius as Turing was a mathematical one.

The movie holds the audience’s attention due to the brilliant way Cumberbatch has inhabited Alan Turing’s psyche. His malaise amplifies the tension of the tragic consequences  he will have to endure for his sexual identity.

For those who wish to know more about the women code-breakers (more than 80% of the total brainiac team), watch “The Bletchley Circle”, a PBS series loosely based on these women after the war had ended.

[Note: “The Bletchley Circle” is a series of whodunits available on Netflix. And Alan Turing was finally “mercy pardoned” and acknowledged for his contributions to ending the Second World War  on December 23, 2013 by  Queen Elizabeth of England, but she did not pardon the other 60,000 imprisoned for similar charges of “gross indecency”.)