In 1938 as the threat of World War 2 loomed, the Government Code and Cypher school needed a new base for its operations. Busy Ealing Broadway (its previous location in London) was not an ideal location for its top secret activities. Bletchley Park, just as with the new city of Milton Keynes itself, was chosen for its excellent transport and communication links with both London and the North, as well as being roughly equidistant from the University cities of Oxford and Cambridge.
A crossword competition appeared in the Telegraph newspaper. Those that could complete the crossword within 12 minutes were invited to a hotel in London to collect their prize, whereupon they were asked to complete another crossword under supervision. If they completed the second test successfully within the allotted time, they were asked if they were prepared to undertake “a particular type of work as a contribution to the war effort”. They were told to report to Bletchley Park as “Captain Ridley’s shooting party” in order to maintain the secrecy of their activities. In August 1938, they arrived in earnest. Station X, as Bletchley Park was known, was born
Over the next 7 years, leading mathematicians, puzzle solvers and cryptanalysts such as Dr. Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers were assembled at Bletchley Park for the purposes of deciphering the German Enigma codes. By January 1945 – at the height of the code breaking – over 9,000 people were working on the site each day. The Enigma cipher – a substitution cipher – was staggeringly complex – the odds of someone decrypting the encrypted message who did not know the key were 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.
In 1943, the Colossus machines – the world’s first programmable, electronic computing devices, were designed at Bletchley Park to assist in the process of decrypting the German codes. The first prototype was working by December 1943, with an improved design ready just in time for the Normandy landings by June 1944: computing history was being made too at Bletchley Park.
Decrypting the German codes played a significant success in numerous battles throughout the Second World War, by advance knowledge of German air force, naval and military positions. In the Battle of the Atlantic, for example, it enabled the Allies to know the exact locations of German U-boats. Prior to the D-Day landings of June1944, the Allies knew the positions of 56 of the 58 German divisions on the Western Front. The contribution made by those working at Bletchley Park to the War effort therefore cannot be stressed enough. Historians have calculated that the work done here shortened the War by at least 2 years, saving countless lives. The Second World War, by 1944, was claiming 11 million lives a year.
Nearly 50 years later and by 1991, most of the buildings and huts at Bletchley Park were empty, and were in serious risk of demolition. In 1992, Milton Keynes Council declared the Park a conservation area, and shortly afterwards the Bletchley Park Trust was formed. In 1994, the site was opened as a museum to the public, opening its doors every other weekend. By 2004, the site was opening every day as a museum. However, this proved to be a critical point for the site, as many of the buildings were in a state of disrepair: the “temporary” huts, where the work of the code breaking was done were simply rotting away, and the iconic Bletchley Park mansion had severe leaks in the roof threatening the building completely.
In 2008, Sue Black, head of information and software systems at the University of Westminster, began a campaign “Saving Bletchley Park” which sought to raise public awareness of the site and its condition. A number of initiatives were highly successful: an open letter to The Times newspaper drew the support of over one hundred prominent academics; an e-Petition to the Prime Minister raised over 22,000 votes, and a motion to “call on the government to provide operational funding” in parliament was launched in late 2009.
The Saving Bletchley Park campaign has been successful in raising awareness of the state of the site and its current funding issues. The Bletchley Park Trust faces the dual problems of deteriorating buildings, many of which were only ever envisaged as temporary and now require extensive restoration, and crumbling infrastructure. In November 2008, English Heritage provided an investment of £330,000 to repair the roof of the mansion, and another £100,000 per annum for three years, subject to another body matching the funding, to help upgrade the crumbling infrastructure of the site. The National Lottery Heritage Fund has provided first round pass funding, providing £460,000 to enable detailed plans for the restoration and redevelopment of the museum. These will be submitted in around 12 months’ time and, subject to Bletchley Park raising £1.5 million in match funding, the National Lottery Heritage fund have allocated £4.1 million for the project. English Heritage and Milton Keynes Council have also provided funding, and more recently the Department for Culture & Sport – the first time central government has provided funding. Individual supporters are also helping with personal donations.
How Can I support the Bletchley Park Trust?
There are a number of ways in which you can support the Bletchley Park Trust:
As a self-funded museum, Bletchley Park receives most of its income through museum admissions. The museum and tour are great for those interested in history, computing, cryptography ,World War 2 or any or all of these! The tours are sometimes conducted by those actually involved at Bletchley Park during the war, and their witty take on events is often highly amusing: the work of Bletchley Park is presented in a way that is engaging for a modern audience, but never makes light of the subject matter at the same time. Exhibits include a working replica of the Colossus machine, and a replica of the Bombe machine, a personal donation of Mick Jagger from the film Enigma.
Another way is by way of personal donation. Details are available on their website: http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/content/paypal-donate.rhtm . The Bletchley Park Trust is a registered charity, and is therefore able to take advantage of the Gift Aid scheme
For those wishing to hold conferences in the information security space, what better venue than Bletchley Park? Large conference venue facilities are available– with a guided tour of the site afterwards available. The Annual ACCU Fundraising Conference is being held at Bletchley Park on 6th November 2010, with cryptographer Bruce Schneir attending. Further details are available on: http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/calendar/event_detail.rhtm?cat=special&recID=618139 . All proceeds of this conference will be shared equally between the Bletchley Park Trust and The National Museum of Computing to help with the upkeep of the Bletchley Park site, and to support the Museum.
Please take the time to support this important part of our National heritage in whichever way you can.
Phil Stewart is director of Excelgate Consulting.