Website Update 10/12/17 — BLETCHLEY PARK AND ITS UNSUNG HEROES
I just saw an article about a reunion that Bletchley Park held on the seventy-eighth anniversary of Britain’s declaring war on Germany (after Hitler invaded Poland). More than a hundred veterans gathered at their old stomping grounds to commemorate the occasion and their contribution to the war effort.
The one hundred men and women had all worked at Bletchley Park as cryptanalysts, translators, mathematicians, file clerks, typists, Typex machine operators, Wrens, traffic analysts, wireless operators, and dispatch riders, indexing, cross-referencing, translating Morse code into letters, sending, receiving, and decoding messages.
The reunion event, which included a tour of the museum’s displays, media interviews, and photograph-taking, was a far cry from the one at the end of the war, when they burned documents and were re-sworn to secrecy about what they’d done at Bletchley Park and then went home to their families, unable to tell anyone about the critical part they’d played in the war. All they could say was that they’d had “a clerical job” or “worked in the War Office.”
What they’d really done was to win the war. Working in absolute secrecy, they’d intercepted, decoded, and translated Hitler’s (and the Italians’ and the Japanese’s) impossible-to-break Enigma codes and then used that information in dozens of decisive battles. They were responsible for the winning of the Battle of the North Atlantic and the success of D-Day, as well as many other battles, and if it weren’t for them, Rommel would have reached Cairo and the Allies would have lost the North Africa campaign.
But they couldn’t tell anybody, including families and spouses, that for over twenty-five years after the war, even though for some it meant being accused of shirking their military duties. They kept the secret nonetheless, during and after the war–so completely that husbands and wives were unaware the other worked at Bletchley Park, and so were roommates. Mary Every and Betty Webb both worked in Block F, Mary translating intercepted messages between enemy aircraft and Betty paraphrasing those same messages so that if they fell into enemy hands, the Nazis wouldn’t’ be able to figure out their Enigma codes had been broken, but they were unaware they were working within a few yards of each other.
Some of them carried their secret to the grave, and one woman nearly did–she initially refused to have emergency surgery because she was afraid she might blurt out something under the anesthetic.
In 1970, F. W. Winterbotham’s book about the work Bletchley Park did, THE ULTRA SECRET, was finally published, and people were finally able to talk about their experiences. In 1995, while doing research at the Imperial War Museum for my two-volume novel, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, which is partly set at Bletchley Park, I had the unique opportunity of interviewing a group of women who’d worked in World War II as ambulance drivers, fire watchers, and ARP wardens. One woman in the group said very little, and I thought she was probably just shy, but when I asked her what she’d done in the war, she smiled slyly and said, “Well…until a few years ago, I couldn’t tell you.” She had worked at Bletchley Park.
In 2009 the British government announced that Bletchley Park personnel would be recognized by a commemorative badge (which says, in typical understated fashion, “We also served”), and in 2012 Bletchley Park began holding reunions for the staff. At those reunions, Mary Every and Betty Webb found out they’d both worked in the same building and finally got to talk about their experiences in Block F, and many others made similar discoveries. For veterans like them, coming back to Bletchley Park has had a special meaning. As Doris Tuffin, aged 94, a former message transmitter, said, “It’s such a relief to come here because you had to keep the secret so long.”
This year’s event, which included a tour of the mansion, museum, and the new Codebreakers Wall, on which their names are listed, doubtless brought back memories of their time there. Bletchley Park still looks much the same as it did during the war.
I visited Bletchley Park last year–with considerable trepidation. I was terrified I’d find out I’d gotten some detail of my portrayal of it in BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR wrong. But it looked exactly like it had in photographs taken during the war. Originally a gingerbread-style Victorian estate with extensive grounds just outside the town of Bletchley, the house was transformed into offices, guards were posted at the brick-and-wrought-iron gates, and a score of wooden huts were erected on the grounds to serve the ever-expanding workforce.
The Victorian house looked exactly the same, and so did the pond, which the scientists and Wrens skated on in the winter and swans swam on in the summer, and the beautiful lawn, where people played tennis and sat listening to concerts. The gate through which thousands of workers poured every shift change was still there, and so was the gravel drive.
Some things have changed. The main hall of the mansion now holds a costume display from the movie THE IMITATION GAME, and Hut Four has been turned into a cafeteria for tourists (with much better food than in Bletchley Park’s wartime days of rationing). Block F is gone, demolished in 1987. There’s a visitors’ center and a museum, where you can see the bombes and Enigma machines and put a message into code yourself, and in the huts, you can see life-size holograms of cryptanalysts, Typex typists, and clerks working. But from the outside, when I was there, it looked just like it did in THE IMITATION GAME and ENIGMA, and, I hope, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR.
What it didn’t look like, then or now, was a military intelligence operation. It looked more like a college campus, with its assortment of bookish, pipe-smoking professors and sloppily dressed nerds and pretty girls young enough to be coeds. And a whole array of eccentrics, from Turing, who wore a gas mask while riding his bicycle, to Dilly Knox, who would absentmindedly stick pieces of sandwich instead of tobacco into his pipe, and Alan Ross, who wore a blue knitted snood over his beard, and from physicists and statisticians to Egyptologists, chess players, classics scholars, Morse code experts, and crossword-puzzle whizzes.
They didn’t look much like a crack team of anything. When Winston Churchill saw them, he told Commander Denniston, “I told you to leave no stone unturned, but I had no idea you had taken me literally.” And it’s no wonder there was a local rumor that it was an insane asylum.
To add to it, the place didn’t look anything like a military facility, let alone the site of the most closely held secret of the war. I’ve always felt that one of the reasons Hitler never figured out the Allies had cracked the Enigma code was that if he’d had a place devoted to deciphering messages, it would have had high stone walls topped with barbed-wire, searchlights, dogs, and sentries armed with machine guns, not tennis and concerts. And it would have been staffed with military officers in impeccable uniforms, not pretty young debutantes wearing lipstick and professors in tweeds.
And it would NEVER have occurred to him that those professors and debutantes would have kept the secret entrusted to them–and not just for the duration of the war, but for years and years afterward–not because they’d been bullied and threatened and terrorized into it, but because they loved their country and the values it stood for.
Bletchley Park is an amazing place, and I highly recommend visiting it. The exhibits are fascinating. But the true wonder of it is the people who worked there, from Turing, who designed the bombe that cracked Enigma and was the father of the modern computer, to Mavis Lever, who cracked the Italian naval Enigma code by realizing that the girlfriends of the Nazi coders could provide a clue to its decoding. From Tommy Flowers, who designed the Colossus computer and broke the Lorenz-encrypted messages between Hitler and his generals, to the thousands of WAAFs and Wrens and debs (many of them only eighteen) who intercepted messages, transcribed them, translated decoded messages into English, and typed, filed, cross-indexed, and saved the world.
I’m delighted they’re finally being honored and given their chance to tell their stories and reminisce about old times.
Shortly after I read the article about this year’s reunion, somebody posted the picture of the staff at the reunion with the caption, “We’ve called you here together today because the Nazis are back.”
It was funny–and yet not really. Especially after Charlottesville and the article I’d just read in the New York Times about the alt-right which quoted alt-right leader Jason Jorjani as bragging, “We will have a Europe, in 2050, where the bank notes have Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great.” And when I read the comments sections of articles about the reunion, the number of pro-Nazi screeds was sickening.
“I thought we’d done away with the Nazis, finished, kaput,” Betty Webb said in an interview in the Independent. But if they come back, she’s ready for it. “I helped defeat the Nazis in 1941, and I’m ready to fight fascism in 2017.”
With her–and the rest of Bletchley Park’s heroes–behind us, I think we’ll be okay. Though they still don’t think of what they did as heroic. Arthur Maddocks, a mathematician who came up with cribs to break the coded messages, said, “It’s rather an exaggeration to be called heroes–the real heroes were the poor buggers doing the fighting.”
To which I say stuff and nonsense. They were–and are–the epitome of heroes!
NOTE: If you’re interested in learning more about Bletchley Park and the work they did in World War II, I recommend:
THE ULTRA SECRET by F.W. Winterbotham
ALAN TURING: THE ENIGMA by Andrew Hodges
STATION X: THE CODEBREAKERS OF BLETCHLEY PARK by Michael Smith
THE SECRET LIFE OF BLETCHLEY PARK by Sinclair McKay
CRYPTONOMICON by Neal Stephenson
BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis
THE IMITATION GAME
THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, Seasons 1 and 2.