(The big house)
We’re in Bletchley Park (near Milton Keynes) the home of World War II code breakers and the birthplace of digital computers. Ciara and I are sitting in Hut 4, having lunch and resting after a guided tour. Denis is on his second tour… of the Computing Museum section. Bletchley is a very interesting place. Way back in 1937 the big house and about 500 acres went up for sale when the owners died. The estate was divided into lots and a local builder bought fifty acres along with the big house – he wanted to knock the house and put up a housing estate.
(Hut 1.. with part of its protective wall)
The secret service at the time were watching Hitler and considered war a likely possibility. They needed to be in a position to do secret things and not be noticed and Bletchley Park offered the perfect solution. It was forty miles from London so protected by distance. It was close to a railway station. It was halfway between Oxford and Cambridge – where the smart puzzle solvers were to be found. And I can’t remember why but it was in the perfect location for telephone communication, and people who were smart communication device builders (telephone engineers.) A compulsory purchase order meant that there’s no housing estate and the big house still stands.
(An Enigma machine)
So the secret stuff began… when the British found a German coding machine called the Enigma. Also, three Polish secret service officers, realising they would soon be invaded by Germany, gave information they had uncovered about a very similar coding machine to the British and French governments. With that information smart puzzle solver Alan Turing took four months to break the puzzle of the Enigma and uncover how it worked. But that was just the first step….. they had to build a machine (with more help from the Polish secret service) that would turn the coded messages into German language messages and then into English. This was in 1940 and for most of the rest of the war all messages sent from the German military were coded using the Enigma, thinking they were secret. It gave the British military a big advantage.
(The lake with the big house in the background)
By the end of the war there were 8,000 people working at Bletchley Park. Everyone who worked here signed the official secrets act and had to keep the secret of Bletchley and they did. Stephen, our guide told a story of a recent woman visitor whose mother had worked in the Japanese message-breaking hut. The woman told him that she had only recently discovered that her mother worked for the secret service and spoke fluent Japanese. Today Bletchley is run by enthusiasts and volunteers who maintain the grounds, the house and the huts, they also run the tours and make the sandwiches.
Take the first step, it’ll give you a big advantage, Mairead.