The television screen shows two confident teenagers sitting opposite each other alongside a pair of radio hams. They are both given a sentence to send to their counterparts by text message and Morse code. The question is which is the fastest?
The audience is confident modern technology will win the digital dual over a system invented in the 1830s, but as the youngster’s fingers continue to fly across his keypad the Morse code translator has put together the dots and dashes and is reading out the message. The showdown, screened on a loop in the National Radio Centre at Bletchley Park, is one of numerous thought-provoking displays of man’s extraordinary achievements decades before the advent of mobile phones.
The country estate at Milton Keynes is devoted to finally telling the story of the silent army of unsung heroes credited with shortening the Second World War by an estimated two to four years. Many of the accomplishments are both humbling and staggering in their magnitude – on both a personal and professional basis – coupled with the sobering fact that at one time Bletchley Park was set to be bulldozed.
A committee was set up to save the park, which comprises the original mansion house and its outbuildings along with the surrounding complex of single-storey wartime huts occupied by the codebreakers. In 1994 the Bletchley Park Trust opened it as a museum and over the years various buildings have been restored, with work ongoing, to create the absorbing and comprehensive visitor attraction that can be seen (and heard) today.
Walking around I feel as if I have been transported back in time as I listen to snatched conversations which are broadcast from cleverly concealed speakers. A tennis match is taking place on the court beside the mansion and next to the lake two staff members are chatting.
Bletchley Park, formerly a private home, was bought by the government in 1938 to house the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) which was part of M16. Academics from Cambridge and Oxford were originally recruited to work there and learn about codebreaking. The original complement of 150 peacetime staff swelled to an incredible 10,000 at its wartime peak.
Living in an age where some people reveal the minutiae of their daily lives 24/7 on social media, Bletchley Park was another world and I try to imagine the lives of the codebreakers, both during and after the war. All employees were bound by the Official Secrets Act and forbidden from talking about their work, even to their families. At the end of the war, they received no public recognition for their incredible feats and quietly blended back into society. It was only in the 1970s, when the information became declassified that they were allowed to reveal what they did, but even then, many chose to remain silent.
The wealth of exhibits around the estate brings the covert operation to life, with the most well-known element being the role Alan Turing and others played in cracking the seemingly impenetrable messages sent using the German Enigma and Tunny cipher machines. There is an impressive working reconstruction of the pioneering Bombe code-breaking machine housed in the hut where the original ones stood.
Elsewhere, there are film shows and interactive exhibits where you can try (and in my case mostly fail) to decipher codes and atmospheric rooms with audio and visual content that recreate the wartime offices inside the huts. Particularly fascinating are interviews with former Bletchley Park employees. New this year is the Early Days display in the mansion house. The permanent exhibition telling the story of how Bletchley Park was selected as the GC&CS base.
After the war Bletchley Park housed a variety of training schools and was finally closed in 1987. It could so easily have been lost forever but for the work of the Bletchley Archaeological and Historical Society and Bletchley Park Trust. Its reincarnation today is certainly a belated and well-deserved tribute to the extraordinary people with brilliant minds that changed the course of the war.
Bletchley Park is open daily from 9:20am to 5:00pm March to October and 9:30am to 4:00pm November to February. For more information, please visit https://bletchleypark.org.uk
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of Bletchley Park Trust