Explore Bletchley Park and the Codebreakers of WWII

by Sharon Odegaard
Stripes Europe

Did you know you can visit the place where the Allied Codebreakers of World War II (WW II) carried on their secretive, vital work? It’s an unassuming spot outside London called Bletchley Park, a Victorian mansion and its grounds and outbuildings. The house, on its way to ruin, was grabbed up by the Allies in WWII. Some of the greatest secrets of the war were uncovered here by the brilliant Codebreakers recruited to work in the huts hastily built on the property. The whole operation remained top secret through the war, and those who worked here kept their wartime occupation a mystery for decades. About the time the huts got so dilapidated they were falling over, people rallied to save the complex. History, they felt, should reveal what went on here – the tedious and the amazing.

The Bletchley Park website notes that the values celebrated by the code-breaking displays are “broad-minded patriotism; commitment; discipline; technological excellence.” The dramatic history of the activities of the Allies during World War II is presented here, on the very grounds where it took place.

Bletchley Park has been open to the public for about 20 years. You can tour the mansion, the grounds, and some of the huts that have been restored. More than 250,000 people make their way here every year now. The decaying buildings are being restored as funds become available. You can learn how the German messages were decoded using Enigma machines and elaborate precursors to computers called “bombes.” Two men headed up the development of these machines: Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman. All the bombs were destroyed after the war, but an organization raised funds to rebuild one from existing plans. You may have seen this bombe in the movie about Bletchley Park, “The Imitation Game.” Demonstrations here give an idea of the complexity and noise of these computers.

If you go to Bletchley Park, be sure to visit Hut 11A, which was home to a bombe. An excellent and detailed exhibition explains the machine its role in the Allies’ success. You see the original blueprints for the complicated bombe along with decrypted Nazi messages. The hut itself is nothing other than functional. It’s clear that day-to-day life at Bletchley was not glamorous. Those who worked here called the hut a hellhole (should this be quotes?).

The steps before the final decoding were done by teams of different people. Enigma messages arrived in Hut 6, then went to Hut 3 for translation and analysis. Most people who worked at Bletchley knew only their small part of the operation, which helped maintain the secrecy. Everyone knew that if the Germans discovered that their Enigma machines were being decoded, they would quickly switch the way they conveyed messages.

More than one million German Air Force and German Army messages were decoded at Bletchley. One example of the impact of decoded messages is the intelligence uncovered at Bletchley Park before the battle of El Alamein in 1942. The Allied victory in this Egyptian campaign is one of the turning points of the war.

It’s interesting that the secrets of the Codebreakers held until decades after the war ended. Those sworn to secrecy took their oath seriously, war or no war. Our tour guide told us he’s had a few people on his tours who worked at Bletchley. They would only say they worked there and still held any details to themselves.

If you are near London, consider spending a day at Bletchley Park. The world of the Codebreakers is sure to fascinate you!

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