• Sat. May 18th, 2024

Bletchley Park

  • Home
  • Bletchley Park

Alan Turing and the Hidden Heroes

Bletchley Park – A well-kept secret that changed the course of WW 2 in favour of the Allies

“In our world of big names, curiously, our true heroes tend to be anonymous.”  – Quote

Bletchley Park

Alan Turing and the Hidden Heroes

Recognised as one of England’s top 100 “irreplaceable places”, Bletchley Park, was once a British government cryptological [science of codes and ciphers], highly secretive operation during World War II. This was where Alan Turing and other agents of the Ultra intelligence project decoded the enemy’s secret messages; most important of them all, those encrypted with the German Enigma and Tunny cipher machines. The Enigma machine was a field unit used in World War II by German field agents to encrypt and decrypt messages and communications. It is believed by war experts that the efforts of Turing and his fellow code-breakers shortened the war by several years. This is one of the least known facts above pivotal events that changed the course of the war.

The decision to start the Bletchley Park operation was made by the then head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair. He was known as “C”. The chief of the Secret Intelligence Service typically signs letters with a “C” in green ink. “C” was the initial used by Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, when he signed a letter “C” in green ink. Since then, the chief has been known as “C”. The private house was taken over by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in 1938. There was a small code-breaking organization prior to WW-II called the Government Code & Cypher School (GC&CS), which was part of MI6. They moved in just before the war began.

Later Alan Turing’s uncle Dermot Turing wrote a biography of his famous uncle. He began writing in 2014 after a career in law. Dermot is a trustee of the Turing Trust, set up in 2012, the centenary year of his uncle Alan Turing’s birth. The paperback version of Dermot’s book became available in the United States in July 2020. It is titled “The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park”. That Secret Intelligence operation finally helped defeat the Nazis.

Recruitment
In the months before then, GC&CS had been recruiting extra staff for inclusion in their “emergency list”. Twenty-four academics from Cambridge, thirteen from Oxford and a handful of others were on the list. It was a reflection on the sort of people who were conceived to be useful. Alan Turing was one of these academics. He was recruited in 1938 and sent on a training course to learn about codes and the Enigma machine in early 1939. To start with, the total team was a couple of hundred, but the success of the codebreaking effort was so great that the number of additions grew enormously, to a peak of around 10,000 in 1944. That meant that in addition to Bletchley Park itself, new buildings had to be constructed to house all these extra people.

The head of GC&CS, Alastair Denniston, referred to the initially recruited academics from Oxford and Cambridge as “men of the professor type”. To begin with, there were not many women on the list. But that changed too during the course of the war. By the middle period of the war, the Bombe machines [electro-mechanical devices used by British cryptologists to help decipher German Enigma-machine-encrypted secret messages] were up and running, Bletchley needed lots of junior staff too for routine roles. A lot of these were from the Women’s Royal Naval Service, nicknamed (the Wrens).

The complex picture of Bletchley included tweedy garment professors who smoked pipes and teenage Wrens doing rather unexciting run-of-the-mill numbering assignments. However, with time a large number of women were also employed in senior code-breaking and intelligence analysis jobs. From available accounts of the codebreakers themselves, and it’s quite clear that a large cohort was recruited from women’s colleges to do the same sort of jobs as the men. Given the top secrecy level of the operation, sadly they went unsung, if not completely anonymous for a long time.

On arrived at Bletchley Park for the first time, every recruit attended a special ceremony where the significance of secrecy was hammered into their mindset. They had to give a written undertaking based on the Official Secrets Ac. They were made crystal clear about the severe criminal consequences for any violation of the Act or for any disclosure about what was happening at Bletchley Park.
In case anyone was in any doubt about it, at the end of the war the head of Bletchley Park sent round a memo telling everyone that the code of silence applied not just during wartime but forever. The extremely camouflaged work of Bletchley Park was kept a secret against all odds because the recruited and trained eccentric staff convinced locals that the place was in fact a lunatic asylum.

Motorbike riders
Amongst other heroes was a large group of motorcycle dispatch riders who carried transcripts of encoded German transmissions from radio receivers around southern England to Bletchley Park. Bikes were considered a more secure way of sending messages than radio or telephone transmissions that could be intercepted. Most of the signal intercepts that arrived at Bletchley Park came by the hands of the motorcycle dispatch riders. They entered and left Bletchley Park by a gate at the rear of the complex.

One rider recorded that there was always someone to show the pass to at the gate. “You just walk straight in. You never had to wait and gave it directly to the Wren on the desk. You emptied your bag and put the new stuff of outgoing messages in the bag and went straight back out. They were big envelopes with big red seals that said on His Majesty’s Service and most secret. All I knew was that it was a secret place. What they did, I didn’t know. It’s only after the war we realised the stuff we were carrying was really vital in the war effort. Darryl Briggs – Dispatch Ryder.

The dispatch writers could stop any army vehicle in an emergency and ask for patrol. They were not held up or delayed at the roadblocks by either the police or the military and they could seek assistance and shelter at army camps or barracks when on duty.
But it was a hard and dangerous job. They had to travel back and forth from the intelligence intercept stations at all times of the day or night and in all sorts of weather. One worker at Bletchley noted, “I can still see a motorbike dispatch rider arriving one dark night at the Bletchley Park from an intercept station covered from head to foot with snow.” Another recalled, “The debt that we owe to these riders who faced all kinds of weather on their motorcycles has never, to my knowledge, been properly recognised.” Gordon Welchman.
By 1940, all of the British Navy’s dispatch riders were women. That it was a dangerous job is obvious from the fact that over the course of the war, more than 100 of these women were killed serving for their country!

Turing’s tragic end
He died in tragic and unfortunate circumstances. He couldn’t receive any public recognition for his gigantic contribution to the outcome of the war and for triggering the computer age that followed. In 1952 homosexuality was illegal in UK. Turing was convicted of having the sexual relationship with another man. He offered no defence saying he saw nothing wrong in his actions The conviction robbed him of his GCHQ security clearance. He died from cyanide poison. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide. Turing was a genius with a vision whose work remains relevant till today. Turing was an exceptional mathematician and was vital to Bletchley Park’s codebreaking operation. In addition to his intellectual prowess, he was also an accomplished athlete, achieving world class marathon standards during his days with King’s College, Cambridge. His life tragically ended at the age of 41.

Turing reportedly had an IQ of 185. But in many ways, he was a typical teenager. The report card from Sherborne School in Dorset, England, noted his weakness in English and French studies. In early 1941, Turing proposed to Joan Clarke and subsequently introduced her to his family. He privately admitted his homosexuality to her, but she was reportedly unperturbed by the revelation. Turing, however, decided that he could not go through with the marriage and broke up with Clarke in mid-1941. Clarke claimed that the two were interested in one another, despite their relationship lacking a certain physical element. They went on dates to the cinema and other places and despite there not being much physical contact, they did kiss.
Almost half a century went by without any governmental attempt to remove the stigma attached to a person’s name who saved millions of lives during the war. Finally, Gordon Brown apologised to the real war hero of World War II nearly half a century after the codebreaker had taken his own life following his conviction for gross indecency Being gay at the time when he was, it was illegal in Britain.

In a letter published by the Daily Telegraph, Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote, “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course, utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.

Given his status, Allen was one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia. But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of the War are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present. So, on behalf of British government and all those who live freely, thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say we are sorry. You deserved so much better.”


End of war
Staff working in the night shift in Hut 6, based in Block D, were amongst the first people in the world to learn of the formal surrender of Germany in the early hours of 7 May 1945. Head of Hut 6, Stuart Milner Barry wrote in the Hut 6 history. “The final message of surrender signed, By George of Doenitz and Keitel sent in the small hours of May 7th came both to the control and registration rooms and was known all over the Hut on the night shift. It is worth remembering, I think that my appeal to all staff was that it should not be passed to the next day shift was honoured in full. The first news they heard was in the public announcement after lunch on the German wireless.

V.E. day celebrations. Bletchley Park is not far away from London. A lot of staff who were on leave at the time, headed to the capital to join with the V.E. Day celebrations there. The joyful and passionate atmosphere of that evening kindled lifelong romances. For instance, Jeanne Evans Bertels, who joined Bletchley Park in 1943 and worked as a typist in Hut 3, reminisced about events on V.E. Day. “We weren’t on duty. So went down to London and met two Canadian chaps. Irene, this girl who was with me, she continued seeing him, married him and went to live in Canada.”

Bletchley Park was vital to Allied victory in World War Two. The Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) devised methods to enable the Allied forces to decipher the military codes and ciphers that secured German, Japanese, and other Axis nation’s communications.
The most intriguing fact is that all talk is about machines but in the end, it was the human factor that clinched the issue. Although the machines had the capacity to use logic to decipher the encrypted messages produced by the Enigma, it was the Bletchley Park team which made educated and intuitive guesses at certain words the message would contain.

Admin: Zahir Kaleem

More info links & sources
• Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983) is a biography of the British mathematician, codebreaker, and early computer scientist, Alan Turing (1912–1954) by Andrew Hodges
• The Imitation Game is a 2014 American period biographical thriller film directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore
• Info and photos collected through visits to Bletchley Park

Code breaking staff listening to the enemy