I knew a little of the story of Bletchley Park and its role in assisting the Allies win World War II but I’d had never been inspired to visit until I saw the recent film The Imitation Game about Alan Turing and Bletchley Park.
In the film Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing the brilliant mathematician who, along with his colleagues Dilly Knox; John Jefferies & Peter Twinn, builds the machine that assist break the ‘unbreakable’ code from the Nazi Enigma machines.
The film is great but the full real-life story is better!
Bletchley Park Estate
Bletchley country estate, was secretly chosen to be a wartime base. the Drawing Room in the historic Mansion, was one of the first rooms to be used by the Codebreakers in autumn 1939.
This secluded country park was in a perfect location for privacy and within good transport and telecommunication links to London. GC&CS began urgently preparing to increase its peacetime workforce of around 150 in order to cope with the huge codebreaking task that was coming.
The Bletchley mansion was constructed during the years following 1883 for the financier and politician Sir Herbert Leon in the Victorian Gothic, Tudor, and Dutch Baroque styles, on the site of older buildings of the same name.
The site appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 as part of the Manor of Eaton. Browne Willis built a mansion there in 1711, but after Thomas Harrison purchased the property in 1793 this was pulled down. It was first known as Bletchley Park after its purchase by Samuel Lipscomb Seckham in 1877.
The estate, was originally 581 acres (235 ha.) In 1938, the mansion and a lot of the site was bought by a builder for a housing estate, but in May 1938 Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), bought the mansion and 58 acres (23 ha) of land for £6,000 and the site was in due course, used as a secret location for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS).
A visit to Bletchley really gives you an insight into the massive achievements that were made here in those few short years. The recreated Bombe (the machine they built to assist with the de-coding of Enigma), shown in the main image at the top of this article, is brilliant.
All of the original machines were broken up after the war as they were so secret and so some enthusiastic retired computer boffins rebuild one for Bletchley.
Before planning a visit to Bletchley, you will need to book a time slot through the Bletchley Park website to guarantee availability.
The Mansion, Bletchley Park, Sherwood Dr, Bletchley, Milton Keynes MK3 6EB
The Enigma machines were a family of portable cipher machines with rotor scramblers. Good operating procedures, properly enforced, would have made the plug board Enigma machine unbreakable.
During World War II the estate housed the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which regularly penetrated the secret communications of the Axis Powers – most importantly the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers.
The Nazi’s changed the Enigma machine’s settings daily – so every morning the code-breakers at Bletchley had to re-crack the code using the Bombe so as to be able to decipher the Nazi radio messages. There work created the foundation upon which computing was built.
The GC&CS team of codebreakers included, Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Hugh Alexander, Bill Tutte, and Stuart Milner-Barry. The nature of the work at Bletchley remained secret until many years after the war. The importance of their work could not be truly imagined, it is estimated that the intelligence produced at Bletchley, shortened the war by at least two to four years.
Alan Mathison Turing OBE FRS. Born in Maida Vale, London, 23rd June 1912 – died 7th June 1954 aged 41 Wilmslow, Cheshire, England
Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.
Known by most for his Cryptanalysis of the Enigma ciphering system, this crucial work enabled the western Allies in World War II to read substantial amounts of Morse-coded radio communications of the Axis powers that had been enciphered using Enigma machines.
Alan Turing was an English mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist. He was highly influential in the development of theoretical computer science, providing a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computation with the Turing machine, which can be considered a model of a general-purpose computer.
The whole story is told in the place it happened, at Bletchley Park which became a museum in 1993 – so if you can go and visit it is a great experience – If you are really stuck… watch the film….
Two interesting facts I picked up from the visit were:
(1) The Polish mathematicians that design the early code breaking machines (before Turin’s) called it a Bombe after the polish ice cream desert. I like that fact.
(2) Churchill referred to the Bletchley staff as
“the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled”
Such a great Churchill quote. To the point and memorable all at the same time.