Forgotten Places: Bletchley Park

DSC_0443 (2)

This whole Forgotten Metal thing has been becoming a bit more of a travel blog than anything else lately, hasn’t it? Well, I’m afraid today isn’t going to turn that tide any, and, to be frank, this Forgotten Places is more just an excuse to talk about a place that my school took us to that I thought was super interesting. With any luck, we’ll get around to some cars at some point too. We’re back in the UK for a spell, having said vaarwel to Amsterdam and the Netherlands, but not in London. No, we are about two hours north of the city, at Bletchley Park. We’re here to tell a story of technical innovation, war, secret machines, dangerous missions and, of course, the father of modern computing, Alan Turing.


We begin in 1938 with a rather unassuming hunting party, out for a few days of relaxation at a traditional English country home. They settle in at Bletchley Mansion, a “maudlin and monstrous pile” according to American architect Landis Gores, which is situated on a 581 acre estate owned by the Leon family. Or so the surrounding town of Milton Keynes thought. “Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party,” as the original group of MI6 agents called themselves, was merely the first wave of what became over ten thousand engineers, spies, typists and decoders, all working for the British government in trying to decode the German Enigma ciphers during World War II. These behind-the-scenes soldiers were selected based on characteristics such as liguistic proficiency, knowledge of hieroglyphics, or skill at chess. They were a ragtag and eccentric team, to say the least. Apparently, one such worker was known to stroll around the lake every morning, thinking to himself and drinking coffee. When he had finished, he would look at his empty cup in wonderment, throw it into the pond, and return to work. One of the methods the government at the time used to recruit such interesting people was the crossword puzzle in the Daily Telegraph. They had to complete it in under six minutes.


You’ll often hear Bletchley Park referred to as Station X, which makes it sound like the last stop on the train to Hell, but is actually a bit of a misnomer. Station X was the radio intercept station set up in the roof of the mansion, the tenth of its kind, hence the Roman Numeral “X.” In order to work at Station X, recruits had to sign the Official Secrets Act, which swore them to secrecy regarding their work at Bletchley. If any civilian were to ask them what they did to aid the war effort, they were to answer that they served on a Navy vessel called the H.M.S. Pembroke. To this day, many who worked there still have not shared their experiences. In fact, if one former employee had not written a book in 1974 documenting some of Station X’s importance to the winning of the Second World War, we could still very well be in the dark about Bletchley Park.


This is a Bombe. Actually, it’s a recreation Bombe. And no, it wasn’t a top secret weapon in the vein of the German’s V-1 Flying Bomb. See, this huge typewriter-looking thing can actually be considered the great great grandfather of what you’re using to read this blog right now. As is the case with much technology used today, modern computing can trace its origins back to the variety of ways in which the greatest minds of the twentieth century attempted to decode and break encrypted German messages, which is precisely what the Bombe does. Using my very rudimentary understanding of how it works (“rudimentary,” in this context, meaning “not at all”), I can report, firsthand, that it is very loud. And it was designed by one of those great minds mentioned earlier: Alan Turing.


This is Alan Turing’s office, located in Hut 8. Though it’s name may be uninspiring, much of what took place here, in this room, changed the face of how we communicate, gather information, transact business, and entertain ourselves. Turing was born in London, in 1912. Having been interested in math and science from a young age, Turing’s resume came to include an education at King’s College where he proved the central limit theorem and became a fellow, a proposal of a “universal machine” which would be able to compute, well, everything, a Ph.D. from Princeton University, and a basis for the modern personal computer in the form of several blueprints for an Automatic Computing Engine, which you can read more about here. He then decided to serve his country at Bletchley, changing the world of cryptanalysis and inventing the Bombe machine in the process. Those of you who have heard this story before, or have seen the movie, know what happened next. Homosexuality in the United Kingdom was outlawed until the year 1967 with the introduction of the Sexual Offenses Act. Turing was arrested in 1952 under charges of gross indecency. He had called the police to his house after a break-in. Over the course of the ensuing investigation it was revealed that the perpetrator was, in fact, Turing’s former lover, who just so happened to be a man. Following his arrest, he was barred from returning to work at the Government Communications Headquarters, and was chemically castrated, a process that left him impotent. Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, his death ruled a suicide. He was 41. In the interest of full disclosure, recent findings reveal that his death may not have been so clear cut, as Turing was known to regularly run scientific experiments with cyanide and, despite all odds and in the face of his unimaginable hardship, he maintained an attitude of good humor in his final months. Like much of history, we’ll probably never know for certain.


I think it is high time we talk about some cars. This is a 1940 Packard Six, featuring a 237-cid straight-six engine developing roundabout 100 horsepower, which wasn’t bad for the time. It also had a modern (for the time) steel body, innovative (for the time) four wheel hydraulic brakes and something called “Safe-T-fleX” independent front suspension. When it was new, the Six cost $795 dollars, which, because it is old fashioned money, is something completely different today, because of words like “economics” and “reasons.” It also was priced near-ish to comparable Fords, which, for a plushy luxury company like Packard, spelled the beginning of the end. So why is it here? Well, this particular Six represents a bit more than the fall from grace of a once-great American company. This car, you see, is a real life spy car. MI6 commissioned a fleet of Packard sedans for use as mobile telecommunications units during the early days of the war. At a specialized coachbuilder in Newport Pagnell, the Packards were fitted with HRO wireless recievers and custom transmitters produced by Section VIII (did everything have a cool name back then?). This allowed commanders on the front line of the war effort to communicate directly with intelligence personnel in England, even when those agents were on the move. The system also worked in reverse, allowing British officers to relay information regarding the content of German messages received by the codebreakers at Bletchley to commanders and other decision-makers in the war. And you thought Bluetooth in your car was hip and new.


Okay. Hmm. Right-o. This is… a motorcycle. It was made by a company called BSA, which stands for the Birmingham Small Arms company. They also made guns. If it seems like I’m out of my depth here, it is because I very much am. Cars are my strong suit. Motorcycles and I, on the other hand, share a relationship much like that of Leonardo di Caprio and Oscars, in that I don’t really get them. I think this one is called the WM20. It was designed during the early days of the war, and has a 500cc, one cylinder, side valve engine according to this Wikipedia article I just looked up. It has 13 horsepower. More interesting, perhaps, is what this two-wheeled contraption was used for with regards to Bletchley Park. Called “Dispatch Riders,” or “Don-R’s,” these men and women rode motorcycles just like this one all over the British countryside in a wide variety of weather conditions, which, in England, constitutes rain and, on occasion, light rain. The Don-R’s were responsible for collecting intercepted radio traffic as well as delivering top-secret military intelligence produced at Bletchley Park.


This though might be my favorite Bletchley vehicle. This is a 1938 Austin 18 Ambulance, and it has almost nothing to do with the place in which it now sits. It was used, during the early days of its life, as a service vehicle for Rolls Royce workers, first in Derby, then in Crewe. In 1970, it was purchased by a staff member, painted, and taken to Turkey. Years past, the Ambulance returned to England, this time under the ownership of the Veteran Ambulance Service, where it made appearances at a range of public events and television programs. It was then purchased by one Mick Jagger for use in the 2001 film Enigma, which is set at Bletchley Park and which Jagger produced. In the background of that picture is a bicycle, which is significant as well. Due to fuel rationing at the height of World War II, bikes were a popular means of transport for the staff at Bletchley.


Bletchley Park is an incredible piece of history. Its story is altogether heroic, stressful, awe-inspiring, sad, and, though it may be a bit of a cliché, world-altering. It is said that the work done by the brave, whip-smart men and women at Bletchley Park changed the tide of the Second World War, and saved an estimated 22 million lives. It was a place where the traditionally stodgy gender relations of the 1940s were challenged, great technological feats were accomplished, and Cambridge-educated professors, military generals, eccentric mathematicians, mad scientists, and random smart people off the street came together to help end a war. It would be hard to imagine the world today without Bletchley Park. And yes, there are always the people who say that if it wasn’t done here, it would’ve been invented, discovered or solved somewhere else not long after. That’s probably not wrong. But the simple fact of the matter is that it was done here; it happened here. If you are ever in England, if you have any historically inclined bone in your body, you have to carve out time to come see this place. To wrap up, here’s Alan Turing’s childhood teddy bear, Porgy, which he is said to have practiced his lectures in front of.


Additional Thoughts:

  • It was not until the mid-1970s that talk of the work done at Bletchley Park was permitted, and not until 2009 that the first awards of recognition were presented, by which point many recipients had died.
  • The name “Bombe” comes from a version of the device designed by the Polish called the “Bomba.” Reports vary on where that name came from, one source saying that it was named after a popular Polish dessert, another saying it was named as such “for lack of a better idea.”
  • Alan Turing was given a posthumous Royal Pardon by the British government in 2013.
  • Turing’s name lives on in the form of the Turing Test, which is used to determine the legitimacy of artificial intelligence, a concept about which Turing theorized. It was recently passed, actually.
  • After the war, Winston Churchill ordered all the documents at Bletchley be destroyed in a bonfire.
  • Okay, one more thing and then I’m done. This is Benedict Cumberpatch, star of the film The Imitation Game, reading an letter Turing wrote to his friend Norman Routledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s