My Visit to Bletchley Park

My Dinner with Joel (Mokyr)
April 21, 2017
My 3D Printing Adventure
April 24, 2017

Two weeks ago (NOTE: This blog post was originally written in 2014) I visited Bletchley Park, the center of Britain’s WWII codebreaking efforts, and now a museum. I first visited BP a few years ago and at that time it was, I think it’s fair to say, a bit ramshackle. It undoubtedly carried the message that BP served a critical cause in the war and that the men and women who served there were incredibly talented and served their country’s cause honorably; however, the displays were not very engaging and you had to work to understand it.

The mansion itself was in desperate condition, with a tarp spread over the roof to prevent leaks, and without investment it is possible the museum might have closed. Through my interest in BP, I got acquainted with Sue Black (@Dr_Black), who had, upon learning about the museum’s challenges, raised a petition among her fellow UK CS professors, which led, in turn, to Google donating money to the museum, which ultimately led to the UK government lottery making a grant to the museum to preserve and improve it. Sue introduced me to Iain Standen (@BParkCEO), BP’s CEO, pictured to the right.

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Iain Standen, Bletchley Park CEO

Iain shared with me that, with the lottery grant and other donations, the museum was going to restore some of the huts that surround the mansion (and fix the roof, of course!). These huts were hurriedly constructed during the war to house the vastly increased BP staff (everyone was originally situated in the mansion; by the end of the war the staff had grown to over 10,000. A good sense of what it was like working there is presented in the 2001 movie Enigma). Built with no view to long-term use, they were abruptly abandoned by the codebreakers at the end of the war. Over the years, they had been used for other purposes, but by the mid-90s they stood derelict, in danger of collapse. They obviously deserved a better fate than being torn down. Moreover, it was only appropriate that they take their rightful place and be showcased as the place where codebreakers performed the tortuous work of breaking the German Enigma codes.

The hard work restoring the huts has finally been completed, and Princess Kate officially reopened them on June 28, just in time for my visit! I have to say that, while the museum was always fascinating to a visitor with an interest in codebreaking, espionage, and WWII (and there’s plenty of them), the new hut displays bring the entire BP enterprise to life and give the visitor a real sense of WWII life at BP. For a start, there’s a fantastic multimedia guide provided at no cost, which has descriptions of the huts (and other parts of the museum), along with descriptions of what each hut’s work represented in the chain of decryption and interpretation. To the left is a picture of the guide.

Museum Video Guide

The huts themselves have been restored to what they would have looked like during the war, as in the picture of Hut 8.

Bletchley Park Hut 8

The restoration extends to the hut interiors as well, which have been recreated as they were during their heyday. Visitors are encouraged to enter and walk through the huts to see where and how BP staff worked.

Hut room with projected figures

As you can see, the room includes projected figures (animated) that are accompanied by a dialog soundtrack appropriate for the hut’s (and the room’s) assignment. What is vividly evident is how primitive were the conditions the codebreakers worked in. The huts themselves had bare plank floors and plywood walls with no insulation — they must have been freezing in the winter! The furniture is wooden desks and chairs, or, as in this room, plywood  sheets laid across trestles.

One of the interesting things about the work at BP was how strictly secrecy was enforced, even among staff. They could not discuss their work with BP employees outside of their direct working group and could tell no one outside of BP what exactly they were doing. Or did, for that matter; all employees signed the Official Secrets Act and were forbidden to talk about their work even after the war ended. Even though the Enigma work is now well-known and former employees are allowed to talk about what they did during the war, some still refuse to speak, citing the OSA! One of the great things about Bletchley’s recent higher profile and this renovation effort is an increased appreciation of the men and women who worked there. As part of this project, many former BP employees have been interviewed and videotaped; some of these interviews are on the multi-media player, while others have been placed on facility posters. Of course, there’s a strong poignancy to the interviews as the former employees are quite elderly and, sadly, many memories were never captured due to the lengthy silence imposed by the OSA.

As I said, there was a chain of work that went on in decrypting and interpreting the intercepted Enigma messages. First, radio messages were captured in outlying radio stations and delivered via motorcycle messengers to BP. Here is a picture of the gate and guardhouse; as you can see, it’s pretty forlorn and doesn’t really indicate the drama that must have been present when the cycles roared up with the latest encoded messages.

Bletchley Park Back Gate and Guard Hut

What this secrecy meant was that each group had to hand off its work without interacting with the next one, which, of course, presented logistical issues. For two groups located in adjacent huts (one was a decryption group, while the other was an interpretation group; the former got the message content established, while the latter determined its military meaning), the solution was simple, if not very elegant. Two windows were placed in the huts facing one another, and a wooden box containing the paperwork hanging from a pulley system was hand-pulled between the huts.

As you can see from the picture of the two huts, it would have been relatively easy to put this rather Rube Goldberg-esque contraption together.

Decryption and Interpretation Huts

During subsequent use the pulley system was removed and the windows blocked up, but during my walk through the hut on the right hand side, I was able to see a trace of the opening on the wall, as in the hatch outline picture to the right.

Hut wall with hatch outline

I can’t say strongly enough how much the hut restoration improves the museum and the visitor’s experience and appreciation of what BP represents. The primitive conditions, the nerve-wracking work under incredible pressure, the depiction of life within a top-secret environment, and, of course, the immense satisfaction and pride in what BP achieved — during much of the war the allies could read the decrypted messages nearly as fast as could the Germans themselves.

During my visit, I met up with Iain again and from our conversation got a sense of what it took to implement the renovation; this wasn’t just a recreation of the facilities, it was a restoration back to as-near-as-possible original condition (as can be seen in the taped windows in the hut pictures above — these are what would have been in place during the war to prevent glass shards in the event of a nearby bomb explosion).

For example, it meant jackhammering up concrete floors that had been poured post-WWII and locating wooden planks like the ones that would have been in the hut originally. It meant replacing deteriorated wood siding and panels with identical replacements, and dealing with the complications when it was discovered that one panel was asbestos-based — obviously it wasn’t acceptable to use asbestos as the replacement so a decision had to be taken as to the best, most appropriate replacement. It even meant rebuilding blast walls that surrounded some of the huts to shield them from bombs — and that meant procuring bricks identical to the 1939-vintage ones used to construct the long-removed original walls. You can see the recreated walls in the picture at the left.

Hut Blast Walls

It took an army of specialized contractors to recreate the BP environment — and the recreation is by no means limited to the physical. As part of the improvements, BP had an audio soundtrack developed. The soundtrack plays on unobtrusive speakers placed throughout the facility and it broadcasts the sounds that BP employees would have heard during their working days: a dispatch motorcycle, whistles from the train station across the road, tennis balls being thwacked on the nearby courts — even a Spitfire racing by overhead. The soundtrack is a great addition to the museum — the sounds subtly infuse you with the sense of being at a WWII BP without  really being consciously aware of what it occurring. Here is what one of the soundtrack speakers looks like; as you can see they aren’t something you’d really notice (I certainly wouldn’t have spotted this one had Iain not pointed it out), but they make the BP experience much richer.

Bletchley Park Soundtrack Speaker

The new Bletchley Park is a vast improvement over the old one. It is now, as Iain put it, a national-standard exhibit. It communicates far more powerfully just how important was the work carried on at the facility. Any person with the slightest interest in the Second World War or the deadly point/counterpoint of secrecy, spying, and skullduggery should make a visit.

And, for those of us who work in the CS or IT world, there is an added attraction. The hut display recreates Alan Turing’s office.

Alan Turing’s Office

There’s something about standing in the environment, even a recreated one, worked or lived in by someone who changed the world that is indescribable — it’s as though the person’s presence is palpable.

Alan Turing was a genius who, in retrospect, can be seen to have had the impact of an Isaac Newton or a John von Neumann, and he is belatedly being awarded the respect and celebration he deserves. There’s even an Alan Turing movie coming out later this year called “The Imitation Game.” It stars everyone’s UK-actor-of-the-moment, Benedict Cumberbatch, he of Sherlock. Really, for those of us in the field, just this element of the renovation is worth a trip.


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