The Quirky Codebreakers of Bletchley Park

Less than an hour northwest of London lies Bletchley Park, the top secret-codebreaking operation which helped turned the war against the Germans in World War II. As the spread-out complex documented, the concept originated during the First World War, when Commander Alexander Denniston formed “Room 40” to break enemy diplomatic codes. It’s most important coup was decoding the Zimmerman telegram from Germany trying to lure Mexico into the war. It was intercepted by Great Britain and, after being leaked discreetly to America, served to draw the U.S. into the war. “Room 40” later became the Head of Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS).

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“Room 40” carried over as a nickname when the enterprise moved to remote Bletchley Park in 1939 as the Second World War heated up. Some but not all of the buildings were reinforced to withstand possible enemy bombing, and situated near trees to make them less a visible target from the air.

The job had become more complicated during the all-to-brief period of world peace: The code-breaking of the First World War involved actual code words, while in World War II the art and science of deciphering coded enemy communication got exponentially more complicated. The ciphers created by Germany’s Enigma machine to conceal their communications were encrypted at the level of the individual letter, making them harder to break, with so many more iterations possible.  

A tour guide explained that the odds of cracking the code randomly was many many trillions to one, making the expertise and technology of Bletchley Park’s machines and human denizens vital to the war effort against Germany. They used Typex machines to break Germany’s Enigma codes.

I was impressed by how the Bletchley Park museum project managed to cover all angles. It emphasized the personalities as well as the complex engineering behind the code-breaking, both on the human and machine level. It showed no hesitation in showing the code breakers as an odd lot, without any singular kind of expertise or training, just semi-random people who had an arcane talent for the newly invented discipline of cryptography: historians, classicists, linguists, even injured soldiers. 

Clearly the team had its share of creatives, and the museum emphasizes that quirky human side to as well as the hard-core language analysis side to charming effect, rounding out the personalities by showing the work of the base’s amateur cartoonists, poets, and satirists, cooped up in Bletchley Park, winning the war. They also feature certain stars, like the young math whiz Bill Tutte.

Along with the sometimes heavy lift of the technical explanations of cryptography, the museum gave a good sense of the personal psychology of the workers at Bletchley: Crammed into huts in a sleepy town away from London, lacking the ability to breathe a word about their live-saving work to outsiders or even among themselves, the museum showed how Bletchley Park became something of a hothouse environment for romance.

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An Enigma machine used by Germany to encode messages during the Second World War

It was a diverse group of people (as Google, a museum donor, emphasized in a public-relations display) hurled together on a single task: To break Germany’s encryption intelligence machine, Enigma. Over half of those employed at Bletchley Park were women, unusual for the time. It was here that Alan Turing, later persecuted for his homosexuality, perfected a decrypting machine, the Bombe, that eventually broke Enigma. (Google also created a sort of encryption “Easter Egg” for “Bletchley Park” searches.) Among the exhibits were even some handy tips and warnings on the importance of internet security today.

With items scattered among the several rooms in the visitor’s center and the original huts and buildings, the layout came off as slightly cryptic (see what I did there?) but that probably goes with the territory.

 

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