Monday, November 07, 2011

Bletchley Park - Station X

A building with a tale to tell

This could well be the most important building in Britain. It’s situated in an anonymous little town in Buckinghamshire, about 100 yards from the main London to Birmingham railway line. To look at, it’s a second rate mid-Victorian Pile built in what can only be described as the “Dog’s Breakfast” style of architecture. But it’s not the building that’s important here, it’s what went on in it inside.

This is Bletchley Park, also known as Station X, the home of the UK’s code-breaking activity in the Second World War. If it hadn’t been for the work of the people in this building, this blog, if it existed at all, would be written in German. What was done here 70 years ago quite probably made the difference between winning and losing the war. It certainly shortened it by two years, some say four. It is a unique piece of this country’s history.

Here, people like Dilly Knox, Tommy Flowers, Gordon Welchman, Max Newman, John Tiltman and Alan Turing, together with the other 8,500 people who worked there systematically broke the German Enigma codes, and the even more complex Tunny Codes to put the British Government in a position where they often knew what the German High Command was intending to do, before that message had reached their own German generals in the field. This one achievement tilted the war dramatically in the favour of the Allies.

A German 4 Rotor Enigma machine

A Lorenz 12 rotor machine used by Hitler for his
personal High Command "Fish" codes
The issue which worried Churchill above all others in the War was the possibility (and for much of the time, the probability) of the country being starved into submission by lack of food, fuel and equipment coming over the oceans from other countries around the world. The astounding change in the rate of detection and subsequent destruction of the German U-Boat fleet, when Enigma was working, made all the difference. Who knows what the result would have been if the men and women in Bletchley had failed to break the code? Quite simply, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

If you read about the way they all achieved this, and the unbelievable intellectual power and unremitting dedication that was needed to make it happen you cannot fail to be totally astounded.

There are enough books and articles available on the internet where anyone can find out all the details they could wish for, but two things keep knawing away at me. Firstly, how did it all remain a secret? Over 12,000 people worked at Bletchley Park during the war, ranging from weirdo-intellectual giants whose brains were the equal of anything anywhere in the world, to local girls from just down the road, who did the filing, and served in the canteens. The secret of what went on there did not get out into the big bad world until the mid 70s, some 30 years after the end of the war. You couldn’t imagine that happening today.

Everyone involved at Bletchley Park had signed the Official Secrets Act, and the stories about how they all kept their mouths firmly shut is almost unbelievable in the Twittery, Facebooky world of today. There are stories of people who went to their graves with their children not knowing what they had done there. One of the elder guides there yesterday told me that they had sent out Reunion invitations not too long ago to people who had worked there. A married couple had received two letters, each addressed to one of them. Inadvertently they had opened the letter addressed to the other, and it was only then that they both became aware that their partner had been working there. Extraordinary.

An original 1940s poster
I suppose it was what happened in war. Your country was in the gravest danger of invasion, and you knew that, if the information you were handling became known to the enemy, the results could be utterly catastrophic to the future of England. People working there didn’t even talk to the man or woman on the other side of the Hut they worked in unless their work necessitated it. “Careless Talk costs Lives” wasn’t an idle slogan. After the war, they were all told to say nothing about it to anyone including loved ones and family, and this was exactly what they did – to a man.

The other thing which I still cannot come to terms with is why the Germans went all the way through the war not realising that they had been compromised. I suppose it stems from the fact that, when they developed the Enigma system, they believed it was infallible. And, if you are German, that is it. It had been designed to have in excess of 158,000,000,000,000,000,000 different combinations in the way the settings could be made, so logically, there was not enough time in any wartime scenario for any decryption to be made. So because they could not dream of solving it themselves, then the logical consequence was that nobody else could do it either. It’s an arrogance of course, and one which quite possibly lost them the war.

In truth, their own human fallibility and the genius of British intellectual brainpower undid them. Their operators, once or twice, made huge errors which allowed massive shafts of detective light to shine into the darkness of the code’s secrets. And once the light had shone once, that was all the Bletchley brains needed. They were in.

For all the Germans’ formidable skills in so many areas, their code and cypher organisation were riven with political infighting, and there were something like 17 different organisations within Germany using the system. They were not all as diligent in their operations of the system as they should have been. The Navy was by a long way the most professional, and the Army and Air Force were the most slap-dash.

On more than one occasion, Admiral Dönitz, the German Navy Chief, suspected that their codes had been compromised and cracked, but others around him convinced him that this was not correct. At one time, because of  Dönitz’s feeling that the codes were vulnerable, the Navy had a further, 4th rotor installed in their Enigma machines, a development which suddenly left Bletchley Park completely blind to the German Navy codes for a period in 1943. Still the Germans didn’t twig what was happening in deepest Buckinghamshire.

The huge volume of data needing decoding made the need for more and more mechanisation an imperative to allow Bletchley Park to deliver the plain text of the German codes to the Intelligence services promptly. Information has a half-life of usefulness. Knowing that a convoy is going to be attacked a day after its ships had been sunk was not much use. So they set out to automate the process to allow massive increases in the speed of decoding, and hence the usefulness of the intelligence they discovered. Go to Bletchley, and you will see fabulous pieces of machinery they developed to do this, codenamed in the weird way this country has - Bombe, Heath Robinson and Colussus.
A replica of the "Bombe" machine
The rear of the "Bombe" machine, showing
the internal workings
After the equipment was destroyed following orders from Churchill at the end of the war, volunteers have painstakingly rebuilt Colussus. Forget what our American friends will tell you, what you are seeing when you crowd into the hot electronic valve heated room in one of the rickety wooden huts there is the world’s First Electronic Programmable Computer. It looks like something out of a Dracula Science Fiction film, but, in the early 40s when it was built by Tommy Flowers and his men, it was a staggering achievement. So, just go to Bletchley, admire and pay homage. And also wonder why Tommy Flowers’ name is not revered throughout this country.

Colussus showing the Tape reading section
Colussus - World's first Electronic computer
You will have realised by now that I think Bletchley Park is a stunning place to visit. The atmosphere there reeks of the 1940s. The shabby huts, many of them with peeling paint and rotting windows, and the austere Wartime no-nonsense architecture of the outbuildings takes you straight back 70 years. The guides there are superb. The subject of code-breaking, at this level, is not an easy one, and they wear their knowledge lightly and can answer any question you throw at them.

Outside Hut 6
Hut 1 - Diplomatic Wireless Station
The overwhelming feel there is of being in the midst of real history, where hugely important things occurred. You wander around the huts and tread the floorboards in rooms where monumental decisions and discoveries were made. The museum which venerates Alan Turing is quite moving on many levels. Here is the celebration of a man who was one of the greatest intellects of the 20th Century. A man who did more than almost anyone in this country to stave off Germany’s advance, who led the way to the development of the modern computer, and who, because of his homosexuality, was hounded and prosecuted by the authorities to the extent that he died, presumably from his own hand, with a cyanide filled apple next to his body.

Alan Turing Statue
"On Computable numbers" - Alan Turing
One of the most important Scientific Papers
of the 20th Century
In the part of the museum dedicated to him is a wonderfully moving statue of him, made from Stacked Slate by Stephen Kettle. Also there is a formal letter of apology from the nation written in a slightly uncomfortable New Labour way and signed by Gordon Brown – 60 years too late.

The Government's formal apology to Alan Turing - 2009
Signed by Gordon Brown
It’s all very moving – I keep using that word – and I can’t recall a museum which has had such an effect on me as this one. It’s all held together on a bit of a volunteer based shoe-string, and you have to wonder if there is another country in the world which would not feel ashamed at not funding the upkeep of such an important place through a miniscule allocation from the public purse.

Go there while you can.


1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

I've heard bits and pieces of this story before but your post fleshes it all out quite nicely. Very interesting, thanks.