Bletchley Park – Still An Enigma
When, on a warm August day in 1938 amidst the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside, members of ‘Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party’ arrived at an imposing red brick mansion, I wonder if they knew then, just how significant their decision to employ this country estate as a centre for intelligence was to become.
Our party arrived on a chilly but sunny Wednesday in October 2015, to investigate whether there was anything left to learn about Bletchley Park’s secret past that we hadn’t already learned from the recent film (The Imitation Game). I have to say that, yes, there is a ‘colossal’ amount of general information, facts, figures and fascinating personal stories out there just waiting to be read or downloaded, that the filmmaker’s simply couldn’t fit into a two and a half hour film. The visit started in the Block C Visitor Centre, where the current exhibition ‘The Road to Bletchley’ tells the story of the pioneering work done by code breakers during The Great War, laying the foundations for Bletchley Park’s unparalleled successes of World War Two.
Although the Poles had already broken the Germany’s Enigma machine code as early as 1932, this was at a time when the machine’s cipher changed only infrequently, but during the run-up to World War Two the cipher was changed at least once every day, making it a virtual impossibility to crack, in fact, the odds were 159 million, million, million to one against choosing the correct setting. So, in July 1939 just prior to the German invasion of Poland, Polish intelligence informed the British of their success. Recruitment to Bletchley Park began in earnest, not only military personnel but so-called ‘boffins’ from the best universities, mathematicians, engineers, logicians, puzzle-solvers and free-thinkers alike were all tried, tested and welcomed, albeit in the strictest of secrecy.
The historic breakthrough came in 1940 when the team headed by Dilly Knox and including John Jeffreys, Peter Twinn and Alan Turing, momentously cracked the first element of the Enigma machine, the German Army or ‘Green’ key, shortly followed by the Luftwaffe equivalent ‘Red’ key, an achievement which cannot be understated. This was the defining moment when British and Allied Forces could begin to track, anticipate and perhaps even divert enemy troops and resources all the while safeguarding the knowledge that the Enigma code had been cracked, even a bogus MI6 spy code named Boniface was created who, along with a whole network of ‘agents’ would send their fake intelligence to Britain thus putting the German’s off the scent that the Enigma code had been broken.
Famously, it was Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman who designed the ‘Bombe’, an electromechanical device of immense complexity which dramatically reduced the number of possible configurations of the Enigma machine. By the end of 1941 several ‘Bombe’ machines operated by WREN’s, produced so much information that code breaking became a sort-of production line system, thanks to an idea from Gordon Welchman, whereby; the code breakers themselves were supported by personnel in the next hut along, who in turn, were supported by personnel in the next hut along etc. creating a stream of usable intelligence.
During this time, the complexity of the ciphers used by German High Command communicating with officers in the field was a major obstacle to British intelligence; the interception of orders direct from Hitler in Berlin to his Commanders across the globe would give an essential insight into the operations planned by the enemy and needed to be deciphered urgently. The engineering genius of the GPO’s Tommy Flowers combined with that of Professor Max Newman resulted in the invention of the world’s first ever semiprogrammable computer, named ‘Colossus’ this machine heralded such an enormous change to code breaking and intelligence-gathering that it is not possible to comprehend today. It is estimated that the men and women who contributed, not just man-hours of hard slog, but their ideas, meticulous calculations, engineering skills and indeed, their very hearts and souls into cracking an impossible code, actually shortened World War Two by a massive two years, saving countless lives in the process.
The corridors and spartan offices of Bletchley Park’s Mansion and ‘Huts’ which housed the thousands of personnel needed throughout World War Two and into the Cold War in the race to intercept, decode and deliver usable intelligence are eerily quiet now, the secrets of the people and their ultimate task are finally out in the open. Nowadays, many of those who once populated these buildings are gone, a great many took their secrets to the grave, unsung heroes of innovation and pure genius, faithful to the end, they remain an Enigma.