My Time at Bletchley Park

This post was written first and foremost for the many people I worked with and learnt from while volunteering at Bletchley Park between 2010 and 2012 . I owe them a tremendous debt and only wish that I could visit them and the Park more often than I can. It is these people that make it a jewel in Britain’s crown and a place I am proud to have a small but memorable association with.

When I was 16, I read a book by Simon Singh called Fermat’s Last Theorem. In it, Singh briefly mentioned the incredible work of the Codebreakers at Bletchley Park in WWII. Being from Bletchley, this was a period in history that I felt was unjustifiably peripheral to me. I resolved to visit Bletchley Park, now one of the UK’s foremost museums and heritage sites, to learn more. It was 1/2 mile down the road from where I lived. I had no excuses not to go.

I went with my mum with the vague notion of scoping the place out as somewhere I might like to volunteer, but with the primary intention of getting some dusty old knowledge in me. It was a Tuesday.

I’m embarrassed to say I don’t think I learned a great deal that day about the war and such like, though this was entirely my fault and not Bletchley Park’s. The most inquisitive I got was a brief 1 minute chat with an old guy about some codebreaking. I wasn’t very engaged and it went over my head mostly. I could quite easily have gone forward from that day, having been too shy (I know, me too shy right?) to ask about volunteering opportunities, and thought no more of Bletchley Park.

But my mum nagged me (thankfully) and so I sent a short email asking if I could help out on my weekends in any way. The reply to that email was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Far from the car park stewarding and gift shop work I’d envisaged being on offer, I learned that a retired engineer called John Harper had recently finished rebuilding a working replica of Alan Turing’s Bombe and was looking for people to run and demonstrate the machine which was housed in block B of the Park. I was told he could be found, along with the rest of the rebuild team, tinkering with the Bombe on Tuesdays. (Yes, this was the same the old guy who I’d met days earlier – John if you’re reading this, sorry for calling you an old guy. It was a story telling device, I promise!)

I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to press the buttons and twiddle the dials of the world’s only working example of Turing’s Bombe (I should stress at this point that I didn’t, much as I suspect you don’t, have any clue what this machine was or did). I signed right up and went along to my first training day a week or so later. There I met a whole host of John’s ( by my count there were at least 5 associated with the project in some capacity) and immersed myself in the history of the Codebreakers.

Some of the 108 drums of the rebuilt Bombe. While John endeavoured to use original part wherever possible, these components had to be painstakingly constructed by hand. I would estimate there are at least 170 of them. If I recall correctly, they cost £300 each to produce each
Some of the 108 drums of the rebuilt Bombe. While John endeavoured to use original part wherever possible, these components had to be painstakingly constructed by hand. I would estimate there are at least 170 of them. If I recall correctly, they cost £300 each to produce.

I won’t spend this post repeating everything I learnt in the following two years. There’s too much to say, and I haven’t the memory nor patience to recall it all with the attention to detail it deserves. Instead I would implore that you visit Bletchley Park yourself and then go again. You will not be disappointed. That said, to give context to what I did there, you should know a few small facts.

Bletchley Park was the home to Britain’s brightest minds during the Second World War, intercepting enemy communications and deciphering them to be used as intelligence. The park’s most famous codebreaker was undoubtedly Alan Turing, whose Bombe machine cracked the German’s enigma code on a daily basis*.  Enigma was a means of enciphering plain text communications. Most people thought it uncrackable with the technology of the day. Turing didn’t, and he built the Bombe to show that it could be done. The story goes that after the war all the Bombes were destroyed (at peak numbers, there were around 206 in the UK). No one was to know of Britain’s code breaking capabilities, which meant Turing wasn’t recognised publicly for his work of genius which, combined with the rest of the work at the Park, by conservative estimates, is said to have shortened the war by two years, saving innumerable lives. As such, Turing’s story is a tragic one; an uncomfortable memory of a darker time for our country. If you are ignorant to how it ends, please take the time to educate yourself.

Two weeks and a head full of history later, I was unleashed on the public. At the time I was studying for my A levels so spent about 2 weekends a month talking to anyone who’d listen about the many miles of wire that went into each Bombe, the hundreds of bristles of each drum (of which there were 108 per machine) painstakingly tended to by the heroic wrens (Woman’s Royal Navy Service, WRNS) who operated them, the immense British feats of logic and the inadvertent German errors that all contributed to the code breaking effort.

It was a machine you couldn’t begin to understand before first learning how the enigma enciphered plain text, so I had to master the art of explaining the enigma to 8 year olds and 80 year olds simultaneously. Thankfully it worked on a rather simple premise, though I daren’t boast a success rate of greater than 50%.

What I remember most fondly when I look back are the conversations I had with the many engineers and historians who dedicated their time to the Park. They were the first people I’d ever met who were experts in their field to a degree of detail that beggared belief. It sharpened the senses to know that as I described to a room full of people the inner workings of the Bombe and the state of wartime Britain, there were several far more qualified people behind me, listening to my every word.  I remember adopting the technique of answering all visitors’ questions that started “Around what time…” no more precisely than to the nearest year.

Inevitably I would mess up, but I was never made to feel stupid. Being the only 17 year old in a group largely comprising retired engineers and historians was intimidating to say the least, but I was welcomed like any other volunteer who wanted to learn about the Park and help out as best I could. Beyond any lesson in history, I learnt humility in the presence of people far smarter and patient than myself.

My fondest memories are of working the Bombe. The satisfying mechanical clicks, thuds and whirs it made evoked a giddy excitement (and anxiety) in me each time I turned it on. To have run the machine alongside Jean Valentine and Ruth Bourne, two veteran wrens who worked the original machines back in the ’40s in wartime Britain and did not speak of their work at the Park until the ’70s, was an honour and a privilege that I cannot envision ever being eclipsed.

I encourage you to watch the video below and hear Jean’s incredible story in her own words.

When I left for university in 2011, it was with the intention to pop back to the park during my holidays and on the occasional weekend to continue demonstrating the Bombe. I managed this in the beginning, but the bustle of life as a London student soon put a stop to it and I feel a pang of  guilt that I never formally said goodbye to the people who I’d learnt so much from and who shared so much with me.

This post serves to formalise those thank-yous as best a thousand thank-yous can ever be formalised. For each name I’ve mentioned there are ten more who were unparalleled in their patience, knowledge and generosity. I’ll never forget my time at Bletchley Park or the people I worked with.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

*When mentioning Turing in the context of Bletchley Park, it is important to acknowledge the many other equally sharp minds, for whom we have Poland to thank as much as our own shores.

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