Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Day 22 – Bletchley Park

Having read a lot of historical fiction set during WWII in which Bletchley Park and those who worked there played a part, I was excited to visit on Monday with my class. It was a gray London day as we took the tube to Euston and then the train to Buckinghamshire, about 40 minutes away. I was very surprised at how close Bletchley was to the station; I thought I recalled reading about people arriving with luggage at night and not being able to walk there.  Later, I asked one of the guides if the train station was in the same place as during the war and he said yes.  Perhaps the blackout and lack of signs made it seem farther or more impenetrable than it was?
The Bletchley Mansion
We started the morning at the nearby National Museum of Computing, which is located on the Bletchley Park Estate but is run separately, although there is overlap in some of the topics discussed. The Museum’s website can be found here. It has the world's largest collection of working historic computers and covers some of the history, from the Alan Turing machines of WWII to the rise of personal computers later on. What made this visit enjoyable was the delightful librarian who had joined the staff during the pandemic after working in a Holocaust museum for many years. She was ready for a new challenge, which will include getting this library cataloged and accredited, and shared some of the challenges with us. We all wished we were local so we could help her catalog! Her dedication and determination were very impressive, and visiting the museum was somewhat of a letdown after having such an interesting conversation.
A reconstructed office inside the mansion
Soon it was time for the main event and we dashed through the puddles to Bletchley Park (website). Bletchley Park is an English country house and estate in Buckinghamshire that became the center of Allied code-breaking during WWII. It had been a manor since the Norman Conquest but a mansion was constructed in the late 19th century on the site of older buildings of the same name, covering about 55 acres. In 1938, it was about to be demolished when Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, Director of Naval Intelligence and founder of the British government’s Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) bought it and started gathering experts to work on deciphering Germany’s secret communications, the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers. The best-known codebreakers were Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, and Bill Tutte, although hundreds of people contributed their work. All signed the Official Secrets Act so could not discuss what they were doing, even after the war.
Commander Denniston's office
In 1994, Bletchley Park was turned into a museum that would be open to the public as a visitor attraction paying tribute to these unsung heroes of WWII. It is now a self-funding historic visitor attraction with over 250,000 visitors per year, and additional buildings continue to be restored and opened to the public. At first, I was disappointed by the building that houses the Visitor Center, although it had all the necessities, a ticketing area, café, gift shop, and a few exhibits, but lunch and tea restored me and I realized that, of course, the mansion itself was part of the complex. It was used for administrative offices, and visitors can view Commander Denniston’s office and the library is depicted as when it served as a Naval Intelligence Office.  In a room not open to the public, an expensive high tea was being served at 4 pm after we left.  As we were walking back to the train, I asked if anyone else had looked in the window at the preparations and someone said that tea simply said Constance!
Outside Denniston's office
Most of the museum is in what is called Block B, which contains six galleries that tell different aspects of the Bletchley story. One gallery looks at the career of Alan Turing, considered the father of modern computing whose life ended tragically after the war.  One of these exhibits included his watch, a teddy bear, and a letter from someone who finally told his poor mother (who had tried to clear his name) about his brilliant work during the war. Another gallery looks at how the Germans' Lorenz cipher was broken, and Enigma machines are displayed in another gallery. D-Day and Eisenhower’s appreciation of the military intelligence he received from Bletchley also have their place. Of course, I particularly appreciated the social history that was provided – descriptions of how all these people were fed, complaints about the living arrangements, and the amazing way these people kept their work secret for so long.  As my friend Roz Parr just pointed out to me, apparently in the mid-1970s, when Bletchley’s role was finally declassified, married couples said to one another across the breakfast table, “I was posted there in 1942.” “Oh marvelous, darling. And I spent 6 months there in 1944.”
Two of the huts (Hut 3 and Hut 6) have been restored to show where the Enigma messages were decrypted, translated, and analyzed, with interactive exhibits. I would have liked to see more interviews, as was done in the Churchill War Rooms, especially with the women. There were a lot of interesting books in the gift shop (including piles of The Rose Code in hardcover) but I was very disciplined and only bought a key chain.  My classmates who had not seen The Imitation Game were glad we had watched it before our visit.  I enjoyed all the school groups who were visiting in their various uniforms, some with good teachers providing commentary as they went.  
For more on Bletchley Park, read my review of The Secret Lives of the Codebreakers.


Lark said...

Fun! I'd love to go here someday. :)

Katrina said...

I really enjoyed our visit to Bletchley Park although it was quite worrying that the house is in need of quite a bit of money being spent on it.

LyzzyBee said...

Wonderful, I haven't been but really mean to go soon. Funnily enough I was out at afternoon tea today to give an American friend a good send-off as she returns to the US after 17 years over here!