What happened at Bletchley Park?

We’ve all heard of Alan Turing and Bletchley Park thanks to films like 2014’s Imitation Game staring Benedict Cumberbatch, but how many of us actually know about the work done at the home of UK code breaking?

Alan Turing’s office

Let’s rewind to the year 1883, when construction of Bletchley Park first began. At this time the land was owned by English politician Sir Herbert Samuel Leon who decided to build a rather grand Gothic/Tudor style mansion on the site as well as cultivating a garden with a lake. English architect Landis Gores called the property a “maudlin and monstrous pile” suggesting that the building wasn’t very popular. Herbert was famous for holding lavish Christmas parties as well as employing so many gardeners that ‘ a flowerbed of yellow daffodils could be turned into red tulips overnight’.

Sir Herbert would die in 1928, and ten years later Bletchley Park would be bought by a builder looking to construct a housing estate. Yet by 1938 the rumblings of war were beginning to be heard throughout Europe and the British government started to prepare. Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) bought Bletchley Park and all the surrounding land with his own money in order to house a codebreaking academy called Governemnt Code and Cypher School (GC & CS). This cost the Admiral £6,000 (£376,000 in today’s currency) as the government claimed they did not have the budget for such a purchase.

Bletchley quickly became a hive of activity, employing over 9000 members of staff by the end of the war, including some of the brightest scientific minds of the era such as Alan Turing, Joan Clarke, and Dilwyn ‘Dilly’ Knox. These staff members worked gruelling shifts, sometimes working over 16 hours a day, in hot sheds containing huge codebreaking machines called Bombes.

It was the creation of these Bombes that allowed Bletchley codebreakers to really speed up their process, with the Bombe machines processing thousands of calculations per minute in order to discover the daily settings of the enigma machines which were responsible for encoding German messages. Each machine measured around 7 feet high, 7 feet wide and 2 feet deep. These huge pieces of machinery required constant care to ensure the tape did not get tangled and that the oil levels were high enough, a job that was often given to the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Bletchley is the fact that over two thirds of the staff were women.

A recreation of a Bombe Machine

One of the other notable achievements to come from Bletchley was the creation of Colossus. This machine was created to decipher the much more complex Lorenz machine which was used by German high command and was actually the first electronic computer to ever exist, the forefather of the very device you’re using to read this article on!

This diagram shows the path decoded messages took once they’d been intercepted by Bletchley

The work done at Bletchley saved thousands of lives. During D-Day for instance, the work done at Bletchley decoding German messages allowed the allies to find out the location of 56 of the 58 German Western Front divisions. So great was Bletchley’s contribution to the war that the supreme commander of the allied forces, Eisenhower himself wrote a personal letter of thanks to the staff at Bletchley Park.

The work done at Bletchley Park completely changed the world we live in, and even today the team continues their intelligence work as GCHQ. This article just touches the surface of the brilliant work done at Bletchley and we could write many more articles on its many contributions to both the Allied victory in World War Two and modern computing.

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