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The Secrets of Bletchley Park

Monday, 24th April 2012

'Station X', better known as Bletchley Park, was home to the famous codebreakers of the Second World War and the birthplace of modern computing and commun-ications.

After a slightly longer journey than expected due to traffic, we were greeted on arrival by a Victorian country mansion house built in 1883 by Sir Herbert Samuel Leon, financier and friend of Lloyd George. His interests took him all over the world and his mansion became a strange mixture of many architectural styles. Inside, the warm wood panelling, intricately carved staircase and decoration of the ballroom ceiling were indicative of his standing. It was here that we were served a welcome cup of coffee and given an introduction to Bletchley Park by our tour guide.

Set in 300 acres of land beside the London and North-Western Railway line that passed through Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, Sir Herbert developed sixty of those acres into his country estate. One of Bletchley's greatest benefactors, he was much loved by the local people. He was awarded a baronetcy in 1911.

Following the deaths of Sir Herbert and Lady Fanny Leon, the Park fell into the hands of property developer, Hubert Faulkner, who intended to demolish the buildings and sell the land as a housing site.

However, the Government intervened in 1938 (having obtained a tree preservation order to stop the building!), and as the threat of war loomed and Hitler invaded first Austria and then Czechoslovakia.

The Government Code and Cypher School, then based in London, needed a safer home where its intelligence work could carry on unhindered by enemy air attacks. At a junction of major road, rail and teleprinter connections to all parts of the country, Bletchley Park was eminently suitable.

Commanded by Alastair Denniston, the Park was given the cover name 'Station X'. After meticulous preparation and a series of trial runs, the codebreakers arrived in earnest in August 1939. They masqueraded as 'Captain Ridley's Shooting Party' to disguise their true identity. They also recruited top Mathematicians from Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere. But no one knew what was going on there!

We were told how the work of the codebreakers began in earnest. The most famous of the codes and cyphers to be broken there, was the Enigma but there were also large numbers of lower-level German systems to break as well as those of Hitler's allies. The Poles had already broken the original Enigma but became unable to proceed when the Germans changed their procedures and so, in a magnanimous gesture, they passed their information to Bletchley Park.

Our excellent tour guide Alan Pearce then gave us our next 'briefing'! Here we must pay tribute to Alan's professionalism, his presentations were so interesting and coloured it with a delightful sense of humour.

In this fascinating historical journey of the codebreakers, he took us round the many 'Huts' and 'Blocks' explaining the use that each one had in the quest to break the codes and cyphers. The back gates and windowless sentry box used exclusively for staff cars and despatch riders (who were not allowed in and knew nothing of what they carried). He told us that the Post Office, like so much of Bletchley Park, has its origins shrouded in secrecy.

But it is believed that during World War 2 it was an undercover mailroom with the secret address of PO Box 111 Bletchley. Like so much of Bletchley Park its origins are shrouded in secrecy. From the wartime sub-post office recreation to the stunning display of first day covers the once secret mailroom was a delight. It has examples of undercover mail sent using that address. In 1947 the GPO opened it as a small sub-post office for what was now a Post Office training centre. In 1994 it became Bletchley Park's first "gift shop".

Then on to the Turreted tower where a tiny radio room maintained contact with British Embassies in Europe between 1939 and 1940 and which first bore the name 'Station X'. However, it was short lived as it was too visible and was moved to nearby Waddon Hall.
The stable block which was converted to a garage, now houses the Rover, used by the first head of wartime Bletchley Park, Alistair Denniston, and other vintage vehicles. Above this was the pidgeon loft. The occupants of which were taken to neighbouring airbases, then to occupied France returning to Bletchley, under their own steam, with messages from the Resistance.

12.30pm ushered in a sandwich and drinks lunch in the ball room again which was followed by our third 'briefing' of what went on in the various Huts, including the Enigma machine, the Bombe an electro-mechanical machine with clattering code wheels which greatly reduced the odds and time required to break the ever-changing keys which was produced under the leadership of Alan Turing.

And then on to F Block where Tommy Flowers brought Colossus, the world's first programmable electronic computer and which was painstakingly rebuilt in the 1960's. Tommy was a brilliant PO engineer from the PO Research station and his skills in building Colossus are amazing when you look at the detail and size of the machine.The Churchill Collection and the many other exhibits and museum pieces were absolutely fascinating however there was so much to see one could well do with another visit.

Personally, I loved the two sculptures by Stephen Kettle made in 2007 - the splendid bust of Winston Churchill in the Churchill collection and the famous and large sculpture of Alan Turing in Block B. Both intricately made from small pieces of slate put together to form a very life like image of him sitting in a chair working.

As a Nation we are all proud of our men and women in the second world war and what they did. We also know that this country has produced large numbers of creative, inventive, talented people - what a debt we all owe to all those brilliant brains and their wonderful patient staff who dedicated themselves to solving some of the most important problems we have had to face.

Churchill had significant links with Bletchley Park and famously said of the workers at the Park 'The geese that laid the golden eggs - but never cackled'.

A cup of tea and a muffin went down very well at 3.30pm before boarding our coach and as we pulled away from our parking place, a wave and goodbye from three of the lady staff from the house standing on the footpath. What a lovely thing to do!

May Bletchley Park's success continue with its renovation of the site and the building of a new Educational Centre which they hope will inspire electronics engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists for the future. This was a simply fascinating trip and if you have never been - it's a must!

Jean Spira