I cannot remember what got me interested in Bletchley Park. Was it the film ‘The Imitation Game’ or was it the fact that Doreen, my neighbour, used to work there in her younger days. Probably both. I finally book my day to go to Bletchley Park.
It is the 75th Anniversary of the Normandy landings, a historical turning point in the Second World War in which the intelligence gathered at Bletchley Park played an important role in the battle of Normandy. Messages, which the Germans thought were unbreakable were intercepted, deciphered and delivered to Eisenhower within two and a half hours of the time the Germans had sent it. Code named Operation Fortitude, the Allied nations were then able to provide Hitler’s army with false information as to the location and time of the Allied invasion away from the actual intended location. The real location of invasion was Normandy, and it became the largest seaborne invasion in history. This invasion helped the Allies to finally defeat Germany. The Duchess of Cambridge was there yesterday to view the special D-Day exhibition commemorating the occasion.
We couldn’t have chosen a better day. With the sun out and the temperature in the high teens it turned out to be the perfect day for the outing. On entering the town, a board welcomes us to the ‘Home of the Code Breakers’. On our way to the Park we pass a building broadly proclaiming that it is a ‘LGBT’ centre, with the logo painted on all sides in big bold letters. I am all in for equality and diversity, but do you have to shout it out so loudly, I wondered.
It is midday by the time we arrive at the Park. We have five hours to walk around and see the place and listen to the audio guide before they closed for the day.
In September 1938 tensions were high in Europe and in anticipation of war breaking out a small group of ‘Code-breakers’ under the leadership of the then Director of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC & CS) met up secretly at Bletchley Park. Over time more staff joined and finally about 12,000 people worked in the Park, the majority of whom were women. Their job was to intercept enemy messages, decipher them and find out what the Germans, Italians and later the Japanese government were planning. The operation was a huge success and is said to have reduced the duration of the second world war by two years. The codes were initially broken manually using innovative mathematical analysis, a painstaking process, and this led to the invention of the first computers, Bombe and Colossus, which significantly speeded up the process. The story of how the code-breakers were able to achieve this feat is explained in the mansion, huts and museum which is preserved now as a heritage site.
The story begins with the German armed forces acquiring and using the enigma machine to send encrypted messages securely. Three Polish mathematicians managed to decipher and read the German secret messages in 1932. In 1939, when the Polish invasion became imminent they decided to share this information with the English and French code-breakers. Using this information Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman designed the Bombe, a machine which was able to decode up to 5,000 intercepted messages each day.
The scale of this achievement can only be understood when you see the huge number of combinations that is possible when trying to decipher the encrypted messages. This number is said to be over 150 quintillion combinations. Also each day the Germans changed the machine settings before their work began and this meant that the code-breakers had to find the right key combination for that day before they could decipher the messages. The down fall of the Germans came through simple human errors which resulted in the code-breakers being able to follow the pattern till they finally cracked the system.
In 1942, the Germans introduced the Enigma 4 and the Bombe that was made for the 3-wheel Enigma was now useless against this. The Americans took over the job of creating the 4 wheel Bombe. The history of the Enigma machine is quite complex.
The Germans later upgraded the Enigma machine to the Lorenz. This was a more complex and secure machine than the Enigma. Bill Tutte was able to understand how the machine worked and broke the Lorenz code without ever seeing the machine using mathematics in 1942. Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer was designed by Thomas Flowers, to break the Lorenz machine.
All this work happened at Bletchley and was highly classified with the information only being made public years later. Some of this information was only declassified recently. Following the war Alan Turing started work at the National Physical Laboratory and designed the ACE computer. A brilliant mathematician and computer scientist by trade he was unable to build the computer himself but knew if it was done it would work. After he left the team the pilot ACE was built in his absence and the first program ran in May 1950.
Alan Turing is considered as the father of modern computer science. He died at the age of 41 from cyanide poisoning, bitter at the way he was treated for being a homosexual which was illegal in Britain at the time. Thus England lost one of it’s genius minds at a young age. As I leave I feel that I was wrong about the prominent LGBT building that I passed on my way here this morning. This is the Home of the Code-breakers with Alan Turing being the famous one of them all. If not here then where else should such a building exist. I haven’t mentioned all the great minds who worked at this centre and who were instrumental in shortening the war and thus saving the lives of countless who would have otherwise died needlessly.
I had a great day today and was able to see Doreen’s name on the roll of honour. When I rang Doreen to tell her this, she reminisced about walking past the lake at night to Block E, her workstation. She was seventeen then, seventy five years ago.