IT was the base of the brilliant code-breakers who helped the Allies to World War II success. The legacy of Bletchley Park was discussed by two eminent Warwick University professors and an award-winning author in a sell-out event recently. Catherine Vonledebur reports.
At a drinks’ reception prior to the Bletchley Park event at Warwick Business School a petite, white-haired lady walks in gasping for an orange juice.
Eighty-seven-year-old Sheila Howes has caught a bus from her Coventry home to Warwick University and spent an hour walking around the campus searching for the venue.
The lectures have a particular relevance to the widow, who studied German at Birmingham University.
Aged 15 during the Blitz in 1940, Sheila was evacuated to Atherstone after a landmine exploded in her street killing up to 12 of her neighbours.
She recently visited the museum at Bletchley Park and is fascinated by the secret code-breakers.
“It is quite interesting they cracked the code so early. They had to keep Bletchley Park a secret until comparatively recently – I only discovered it existed a couple of years ago,” she said.
A key-speaker at the event, best-selling author Mike Smith told a packed lecture room he is convinced there is no truth in the myth that Winston Churchill allowed Coventry to burn in the Blitz.
The rumour suggested that a captured German airman mentioned Coventry as a target and that Churchill failed to respond, partly lest the Germans realised their codes were being cracked.
The award-winning investigative journalist, who lives in Henley-upon-Thames, said: “The people I asked at Bletchley Park said it was nonsense, they simply knew the target was in the Midlands.” Mike, a member of the board at Bletchley Park, writes on defence and security issues for the Sunday Times and the New Statesman.
He interviewed many former codebreakers while writing the book of a Channel 4 television series on Bletchley Park, called Station X, the code name given to Bletchley by MI6.
An unfortunate incident occurred while Mike discussed his latest book, The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park Code breakers Helped Win the War. He misread the date of the Blitz in his notes.
Immediately Sheila, from Green Lane, Coventry, raised her hand to correct him. “The Blitz was not in 1941 but in November 1940. I should know, I was there!”
Laughter and applause ensued. Mike apologised profusely.
Mike continued to tell the fascinating story of how Oxbridge dons and civilians worked night and day at Station X to derive intelligence information from German coded messages.
They managed to crack the Enigma cypher used by the Germans for high-level communications.
The high-level intelligence produced at Bletchley Park, code named Ultra, provided crucial assistance to the Allied war effort. Sir Harry Hinsley, a Bletchley veteran and the official historian of British Intelligence, said it shortened the war by two to four years. Mike explains why.
“In August 1939 there were 120 code beakers at Bletchley Park – yet only half a dozen were working on Enigma,” he says. “There was a belief within the senior hierarchy that they would not be able to break Enigma. One person believed they could – and that was Dilly Knox. He broke Enigma in January, 1940.”
Knox was a Cambridge University Classics scholar and was also in the First World War code-breaking unit.
Despite military scepticism, the code breakers succeeded in supplying information that led to the sinking of the Bismarck, Montgomery’s victory in North Africa and the D-Day landings.
Mike said: “Dilly Knox went on to break the Enigma messages of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service – the most complex cypher broken at Bletchley Park.
“The British were able to fool Hitler into believing the allies would land at Calais, and not Normandy. If Bletchley Park had not broken Abewhr it would have been very difficult. It was a critical inception and was the most important in my view.
“Dilly never saw the D-Day landings as he was suffering from terminal stomach cancer and died in February, 1943.”
Speaking after the event, retired grammar school teacher Sheila, said: “Correcting the speaker was a spontaneous thing – I felt quite awkward afterwards. I get very cross when things are inaccurate – it is part and parcel of being a teacher.
“During the Blitz a landmine flattened four to six houses in our street and another 20 houses had to be demolished afterwards.
“There was also a time bomb in the street. I was hiding at home in a cupboard under the stairs as we did not have an air-raid shelter.
“The day after I was evacuated it was my 16th birthday and no-one knew where I was. I felt a bit sorry for myself but thought of all the families who had lost someone and resolved I would not indulge in self-pity. I have tried hard ever since.”
A surprise was in store for Sheila. By coincidence she was introduced to Pete Brown, the present owner of the house in Priors Marston in Warwickshire, where one of her old school friends was evacuated to in September 1941.
Sheila, who taught German at Warwick High School, said: “He and his wife live in the house where my friend Mabel Harrison went after she was nearly bombed. We were friends all our lives.”
* The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park Code Breakers Helped Win the War by Michael Smith, £9.99, by Biteback Publishing.
One of the geniuses at Bletchley Park was Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician, whose name is often mentioned in connection with the code-breakers.
But Professor Chris Grey believes we need to “de Turing-ify our cultural memory” of Bletchley Park.
Talking about his new book, Decoding Organization: Bletchley Park, Code breaking and Organization Studies, the Warwick Business School Professor of Organisational Behaviour, challenges many popular perceptions.
He says the Buckinghamshire mansion was not just the home of eccentrics such as Turing, but “a large and complex intelligence factory”.
Some 10,000 other people also worked there at the height of the code-breaking efforts and their organization was a key component in the cracking of Enigma.
“The breaking of Enigma was an on-going process, not a one-off,” he said.
“Staff were involved in interception, crypt analysis, traffic analysis and intelligence analysis.
“While crypt analysis was physically and emotionally demanding we need to re-think the image of Bletchley Park – de Turing-ify our cultural memory. It was a joint accomplishment.”
Professor Grey has produced the first social scientific account of Bletchley Park. He examines the previously unexamined complexities of how 10,000 people were brought together in complete secrecy and yet worked as a team.
“The Government Code and Cypher School was formed in 1919 and moved to Bletchley in 1939. It grew from 200 in 1939 to 10,000 by 1944. Three quarters of the people who worked there were women – civilians and wrens.
“Staff were a mix of civilians – male and female – and branches of the three armed services. Each element worked in complete secrecy and most did not know what it was they were doing outside of their own specific task.
“Crucially it was a combination of highly-skilled work and highly routine, semi-mechanical work. “The range of processes was collectively called ‘signals intelligence’.”
Crypt analysts were selected for various intellectual achievements, whether they were linguists, chess champions, crossword experts or great mathematicians, which is why the school was often wryly referred to as ‘the Golf, Cheese and Chess Society’.
Professor Grey first began researching Bletchley Park in 2004 at Cambridge University. A Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship from 2010-2012 enabled him to write his book.
In order to ‘decode’ such a complex organisation, whose work was not publicly known until the 1970s, he examined new material at the London archives and Bletchley Park archives.
* Decoding Organization: Bletchley Park, Code breaking and Organization Studies by Professor Christopher Grey, published by Cambridge University Press is £55.
What happened to Bletchley Park after the Second World War?
That was the question posed by Richard Aldrich, Professor of International Security at the University of Warwick.
It became GCHQ in Cheltenham, Britain’s largest and arguably most secretive intelligence organisation, is the answer.
Professor Aldrich said: “When Mike Smith asked me to write a little essay about how Bletchley Park became GCHQ for a book raising money to save the huts at Bletchley Park I thought: ‘This will only take a week or two’. But the GCHQ is very secure and there are no records.
“In terms of collecting information the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Treasury and the Foreign Office had not been so careful...
“Two days turned into two weeks then two months, and 10 years later it’s still going.
“The archives are full of fabulous material related to GCHQ. It was great fun to write.”
* Professor Aldrich’s book GCHQ, The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency, £30, is published by Harper Press.
The birth of modern computing
BLETCHLEY Park and After was organised by the Dean of Warwick Business School, Professor Mark P Taylor.
Three lectures were given by Chris Grey, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Warwick Business School; Richard J Aldrich, Professor of International Security at Warwick University and award-winning investigative journalist Mike Smith.
The Dean said: “We are delighted to be supporting Bletchley Park’s fascinating place in history with this special event, dedicated to Alan Turing in his Centenary Year. Turing is seen by many as the father of the modern computer, and in the year we launch our brand new MSc in Finance & IT we acknowledge our debt to his work.
“Bletchley Park is fast approaching the status of a National Treasure. We have our own homegrown research at Warwick University.”
The link for the Bletchley Park podcasts is http://www.wbs.ac.uk/go/bletchley.