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Bletchley Park

On Tuesday morning, Neil and I checked out of our hotel and went to pick up our rental car. Then Neil had the adrenaline-filled experience of driving on the left hand side of the road in city traffic as we made our way out of London. Have I mentioned that there are no stop signs and next-to-no traffic lights in England? Thankfully he was more than up for the challenge (and did a remarkable job of it) because otherwise we would still be there, stuck on a street, me still shaking in the driver’s seat. Maybe next time we’ll pick up the car outside London.

Happily, we made it to Bletchley Park in one piece!

Bletchley Park was one of the best kept secrets of WWII. It was where the brilliant minds of men and women alike worked to break the codes that the Axis powers were using for their war-time communications. I first learned about Bletchley Park from a television show on Netflix called The Bletchley Circle in which three women who worked at the park together team up after the war to solve murders. The story of Bletchley Park was most recently featured in a movie called The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley.

The information used in this post was obtained from two Bletchley Park guidebooks: Home of the Codebreakers and Demystifying the Bombe (by Dermot Turing).

It is estimated that the work done at Bletchley Park shortened the war by 2 years and saved 14 million lives.

I have read a lot of novels set in WWII, so it was really fun for me to see these exhibits. The Churchill War Rooms were one of the many places in London that I wanted to check out, but didn’t have time. Hopefully on a return trip!

Below is a reference book that contained detailed information about all the world’s warships used by staff at Bletchley Park. Each time a German ship was sunk, they crossed out its name and wrote a note at the top of the page describing how it had been destroyed.

Below is a replica of a Marconi Universal Crystal Receiver set. The sign accompanying it reads: “This is a replica of a crystal receiver, cutting-edge technology in 1914. Sets like this were used to listen to enemy communication, picking up radio waves through their long wire antenna.”  Guglielmo Marconi, for whom this device is named after, is credited as being the inventor of the radio. I read about him in Erik Larsen’s book, Thunderstruck.

WWII ration books! I’ve read about them so many times, but this was my first time actually seeing them. I geeked out a little.

Enigma machines, such as the one below, were used by the Axis powers to code their messages. The Enigma used rotors to scramble messages into unintelligible cipher text. A standard three rotor Enigma (such as the one below) used by the German army and air force was capable of being set to approximately 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 159 million million million!) different settings. At midnight, the Enigma machines would be reset. Finding the right setting for the right day and then using it to decipher the message was the challenge faced by the Codebreakers. Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman developed the Bombe machine (detailed later in the post) to speed up the breaking of Enigma, so that messages could be deciphered in time for them to remain operationally relevant. The lid and the front flap of the Enigma machine below are open so you can see all the components: the rotors, lampboard, keyboard and plugboard.

A crossword puzzle? No. The sign accompanying it reads: “This is a stencil hand cipher page found abandoned as German troops were retreating. Thin paper was placed over a daily changing grid of black and white squares. The message was written on the clear spaces, starting in a random square.”

Radio set and headset. The sign reads: “Equipment of the type used by Intercept Operators at Y Stations.”

Card catalogue.

Below is a Phoenix bombe reconstruct. Remember the 159 million million million different settings a German army and air force Enigma machine could have? The German navy’s Enigma machine could have 889 million million million settings. A successful run of the Bombe could reduce that to a million possible settings in about 20 minutes.

The Bombe’s job was to find a possible start-up configuration for the rotors in an Enigma machine. The spinning drums mimicked the rotors in the Enigma’s scrambling unit. They rotated through each of the possible configurations until a contender for the right one was found. If the Bombe stopped in the middle of its run, it meant that the Bombe had found that configuration along with a single possible plugboard connection.

A smaller machine, a checking machine (such as the rebuild of one shown below) would then be used to see if the result produced by the Bombe was correct or just a chance stop, and also to find out the remaining plugboard settings.

Another Enigma machine. This one was once owned by Italian dictator Mussolini! It also features 4 rotors, adding another layer of complexity. Adding a fourth rotor locked the code breakers out for tenth months until they got new Bombes up and running.

Below is a display of equipment that was used for wireless interception.

Cool trench coat.

Dispatch riders (including many women!) used a motorcycle to get between stations.

More information below.

Alan Turing worked for Bletchley Park. Turing was crucial to the mission of deciphering the codes the Axis powers were using. He devised a number of techniques for speeding the breaking of German ciphers, and his work on the electromechanical bombe machine helped crack the settings that were used on the German Enigma machines. He is considered the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, Turing was prosecuted after the war in 1952 for homosexual acts. It is a sad, horrific story that ends with his death in 1954. A war hero condemned by his own country, to which he had contributed so much. An essential genius at the forefront of a new scientific field who had so much more to give. All because of prejudice.

The display case shown below has several items that belonged to Turing including his teddy bear, Porgy.

A transceiver (transmitter/receiver) in a suitcase, used by German spies who parachuted into the U.K.

More information below.

The fight was not just with the Germans at sea, but with the Japanese as well.

Below is a flag that possibly belonged to a Japanese Kamikaze soldier.

More information below. (Along with the reflection of my shoe, sorry.)

The huts are where the men and women of Bletchley Park did their work. Some of them have been set up to recreate the working environment. They were really cool to see and I definitely recommend a visit if you are interested in this period of history.

The brick walls located around some of the huts (such as below) were there to help protect from bomb blasts. The new brick is a rebuild, the lower discoloured brick wall is from wartime.

A recreation of Alan Turing’s office.

Apparently he chained his tea mug to his radiator so it wouldn’t be taken. Coffee/tea mug politics are the same in any era it seems…

The hallway outside of his office.

Blackout curtains were drawn in each of the rooms, so it was hard to get a non-blurry picture of the exhibits.

Hut 11 & 11a were built to house the Bombe machines developed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman.  The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNs) operated the machines.

Below is the exhibit in Hut 11 that describes the Bombe machines and the workers of Hut 11 in more detail.

Heroes of a different feather.

Thank you for your service!

The work of Bletchley Park began in the mansion. Then the huts were quickly built to accommodate the project’s expansion.

Below the library is set up to look as it did during World War II.

Inside the mansion, there were some props and sets from the filming of The Imitation Game.

The bar and dance hall is a lot smaller than I thought it was… but I guess that’s Hollywood.

The reconstructed Bombe machine that was used in the movie.

A little pond and green space that the staff were welcome to use. They went skating in the winter time when the pond froze over.

Amusing real estate ad. How is a house “bomb resisting”?

A German radio receiver.

At first, I didn’t want to take any pictures of the Nazi flags, arm bands, or pennants. I didn’t want to glorify it or show any appreciation for it. But it’s history and, whether we like it or not, show it or not, it happened.

I had never actually seen any real Nazi items before my visit at Bletchley Park.

Those who don’t know (or most importantly, understand) their history are doomed to repeat it.

At the time I took these pictures, in June, I thought history would remain history. I didn’t realize. I didn’t know.

To end the post on a lighter note… Here are some treats spotted in the gift shop.

The work at Bletchley Park was part of the Official Secrets Act. For decades, little was known about the work that took place here. A friend of mine discovered that his grandmother had worked there during the war. She took her secrets to the grave, not sharing any of it with even her closest family members.

The National Museum of Computing is on the same site as Bletchley Park. We didn’t have time that day to visit, but would definitely like to do so in the future.

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