Enigma variations

“Bletchley Park was the goose that laid the golden eggs – and it didn’t cackle.”

THE BLETCHLEY women kept their eyes on the codes, so as not to miss a vital message. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE BLETCHLEY women kept their eyes on the codes, so as not to miss a vital message.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Bletchley Park in England’s verdant Buckinghamshire is a stately home surrounded by pastoral lawns and gardens, complete with swans gliding on the water of the sparkling lake.
Therefore, prior to World War II, it was the last place that one would expect to find a vast industry, the hub of code-breakers, a concentration of Britain’s finest scientists and mathematicians. It was here in the British Government Code and Cypher School that they succeeded in penetrating the secret communications of the Axis Powers, the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers, thus shortening that war by at least two years, saving thousands of lives and ending the torment of Jews and other innocent civilians under Nazi occupation in Europe.
Winston Churchill’s famous speech, “We shall fight on the beaches, on the landing-grounds, on the seas and oceans, in the air, in the fields and in the streets and in the hills,” did not mention fighting in the peaceful gardens of Bletchley Park, for this was the most closely guarded secret of that period.
As far back as the First World War, Churchill had realized the importance of Intelligence, and throughout the establishment of Bletchley he gave financial and moral support, whether it be better living conditions, more efficient supplies or recreational facilities, including tennis courts.
“Bletchley Park was the goose that laid the golden eggs – and it didn’t cackle.”
The secrets of Bletchley remained in locked files for decades and only in the last few years have we heard its stories through documentaries, books such as Enigma by Robert Harris and the magnificent performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in the film The Imitation Game.
It is only in the past 20 years that Bletchley Park has been opened to the public. As the neighboring new town of Milton Keynes has spread out into the countryside, the mansion and its grounds were destined for demolition to make way for housing development. Outraged, war veterans, academics and historians got together to raise the £8 million needed for the restoration of the site. English Heritage Lottery, private donors and companies including Google rallied round and today the site is maintained and constantly updated by the Bletchley Park Trust. Only in 2014 was restoration completed and dedicated by the Duchess of Cambridge, whose paternal grandmother and greataunt both worked at Bletchley during the war. Today it is an amazing experiential museum where this writer spent five enthralling hours on a recent visit to England.
Other major donations funded a new Science Centre dedicated to Alan Turing and the original Block H houses the National Museum of Computing, where guides demonstrate the rebuilt Colossus and computing history from the 1960s.
ORIGINALLY BUILT in 1711 and demolished in 1793, the mansion at Bletchley was rebuilt in 1877, combining Victorian Gothic, Tudor and Dutch Baroque, a picturesque if unusual architectural statement.
The estate was bought and lived in by Sir Herbert Samuel Leon, a Jewish aristocrat, in 1883, and in 1938 the mansion and 58 acres (24 hectares) of surrounding land were bought with the personal money of Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, who was head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), after the government could not find the necessary budget. The location was ideal, sufficiently far from London and therefore less vulnerable to bombing but nevertheless near a railway station that linked lines to the capital as well as to Oxford, Cambridge and other universities where the nation’s intelligence genius was recruited.
It is amazing that although the villagers of Bletchley were involved in providing accommodation and necessary supplies and were told that the estate had been taken over for war offices, they were unaware of the significance of the Intelligence Centre even while enormous infrastructure work was in progress.
Although at its peak there were 10,000 people working at Bletchley Park, each team worked separately within the mansion or in the huts that were built around it, sworn to secrecy, not permitted even to talk shop during meal breaks to make sure that vital information was not leaked or overheard. Nevertheless, there was at least one notorious case when John Cairncross, a Soviet mole and member of the Cambridge spy ring, managed to work at Bletchley and leaked material to Moscow. Churchill distrusted the Soviets even during the alliance against the Nazi threat and did not include them in the Bletchley information loop.
The iconic code-breakers and crypto-analysts such as Alan Turing, “Dilly” Knox, who liked to do his thinking in the bath, and others who became famous in the birth of the computer age, were recruited from a variety of backgrounds: linguists, mathematicians, scientists, chess champions. Women made up three quarters of the staff at Bletchley, and the leading female code-breakers were recruited through cryptic crossword puzzles published in newspapers, thus bringing in the brightest brains in the nation, women who prior to the war had not necessarily had a university education. Bletchley, however, did attract the higher-income educated women university graduates who were just waiting for an opportunity to prove that women were equal to men in organizational and academic skills. Although it was Turing who became famous for cracking the advanced Enigma code, that eureka moment was actually preceded by deciphering the German Abwehr code by two women, Mavis Lever and Margaret Rock, who only received official recognition in 2009.
Contrary to the myth that the Enigma code was a German product that evolved in the ’40s, a myth perhaps perpetuated by the popular cinema, it was in fact a challenge to British Intelligence even prior to the war. Crypto-analysts had worked together with Poland, France and the US and had indeed solved some of its intricacies. However, after Germany occupied Denmark and Norway in 1940, they made significant progress with the settings so that the variations were changed daily and increased the possible combinations by billions. And it was the Bombe machine invented by Turing at Bletchley as well as the Colossus created and built by Tommy Flowers of the Post Office Research Centre that turned the tide in 1944.
The famous Bombe machine significantly reduced the combinations of the codes by millions, was over two meters high and wide and weighed a ton, needing constant attention from technicians, mostly women, during its nonstop operation.
The automated machinery that enabled the Bombe’s decryption evolved into the Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. The prototype was delivered to Bletchley Park in 1944 and it was this that turned the probability of defeat into victory and ended the war.
Those who were at the birth of the hi-tech industry will remember that a computer occupied an entire temperature-controlled room, and in just more than a half-century has progressed to microchips that enable us all to carry advanced communication devices around in our pockets.
Breaking the German codes enabled awareness of the location of German U-boat submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic. These submarines were a constant threat to conveys of ships bringing supplies as well as troops into Europe. Intercepting messages provided early warning of German air attacks and broke through the German High Command and Secret Service communications. They also broke Japanese codes that helped to end the war in the Pacific.
A KNOWLEDGE of languages was also important at Bletchley, and German Jewish refugees who already had British citizenship played a vital role. In fact there were several hundred Jews on the staff, and attention was paid to their dietary needs and rituals.
On a note of serendipity, a Jewish family had been evacuated from London’s East End and were living in rented accommodation in Bletchley village. Their landlord was influential in local government and he encouraged the two teenage daughters to work at the Park. They tell their story in Tessa Dunlop’s 2014 The Bletchley Girls, a collection of interviews with 15 women now in their 90s. These two Jewish teenagers still remembered with pride their contribution in administration and technical assistance.
Dunlop’s book illustrates that not all the staff at Bletchley were code-breakers. There was a need for an enormous support system of administrators and technicians and these were recruited from the Womens Royal Naval Service (“Wrens”) and Womens Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS). Some of them worked at satellite stations beyond Bletchley, but even on the site no information was passed between teams.
These young women spent long shifts without vacations doing tedious routine but essential jobs, learning to read Morse code and keep awake while doing mind-numbing repetitious jobs. It was the women technicians in Hut 11 who worked long hours on the intricate wiring and plugs of the Bombe. The huts where the teams worked night and day were badly ventilated. In an era of chain-smoking (tobacco companies were promoting cigarettes as being good for relaxing during the stress of war), the huts were permanently fogged up, particularly at night when the windows were shuttered to maintain secrecy.
Restored now for the museum, the cigarette smoke is gone, but the visitor experiences the claustrophobic conditions of poorly lit and cramped laboratories and offices. The hats and coats on the clothes stand, the empty teacup on the desk give the impression that one of those nation’s quiet heroes is about to step back into the room.
Inevitably there was burn-out in those long years; the sick bay was often full of exhausted and stressed workers. The institution’s directors therefore created a program of culture and leisure activities to relieve the pressure. Mixing socially was encouraged, but ever-present were the posters: “Loose talk kills.” In such a closed community of geniuses and quirky characters, it was no surprise that some of the best theater groups and orchestras and sports teams emerged from Bletchley Park.
There were also romantic relationships, some ending in marriage. But the Bletchley veterans who married after the war were never able to talk about their work. For the men, this sometimes created a social problem as it was assumed that those who did not fight on the battlefront were somehow inadequate. The women, however highly qualified, had to minimize their contribution at Bletchley as “only doing clerical work.”
So today, wandering around this unique heritage center, the visitor can enjoy the art and exhibits in the mansion; learn about the social and recreational life of Bletchley Park; explore the Stableyard cottages where the chief code-breakers were based; walk through the warren of huts; experience the closed environment of the dim and shuttered rooms and corridors; do some hands-on experiments in the Science Centre; and have a leisurely picnic by the lake. For more human stories and technical information they can join an hour-long free guided tour.
Looking at the varied ages in his group, our guide concluded: “If it had not been for the work at Bletchley, the war would have continued at least another two years and some of you would not be here today.”
For those like myself, a Blitz baby and also Jewish, the prospect of that war going on any longer was indeed terrifying, and I left Bletchley that day determined to tell its tale.