15 July, 2012

Bletchley Park: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

A rather impulsive visit to Bletchley Park, home of military codebreakers during world war II. I set out a bit late really for a successful day at Bletchley Park, as really I should have arrived early in the morning. Never mind the ticket lasts a year so a revisit is on the cards. Hopefully small doses are better than large ones as the whole place was rather overwhelming. First off running the gamut of security who direct you to a pay station inside Block B. Secondly sorted into paying by cash or card, then do you want a guided tour (no thanks - but it would have been better to have one). The first display in Block B related to Alan Turing and breaking the codes sent by German forces via Enigma machines. Enigma machines had been in use by European banks for many years for telegraphic transfers and the codes were thought to be unbreakable unless you had the key. Work on breaking this code was carried out by Alan Turing, whose statue is installed in the area. He developed, in conjunction with others a code breaking machine called a 'Bombe' after an ice creame bombe served in the canteen (I understood that much). The rest I couldn't understand. Bombe was electromechanical and built in Letchworth by the British Tabulating Machine Company. As far as I could see it was a bit like a strowger telephone exchange and relied on the fact that Germans used set formats of their messages such as Wettervorhersage (weather forecast) and these could be picked up and tested against other parts of the secret messages sent. Hmm if I were a military strategist I think I would send things like weather forecasts unencrypted and save the encryption for something really vital. This is a bombe. Apparently Churchill ordered them to be broken up after the war and the designs destroyed and I think this is what happened. There are rumours that some of them were walled up at Eastcote but I think that is unlikely. Technology was moving forward and transistorisation would make such things obsolete quickly. There is probably more computing power in my telephone than in the bombe. The bombes on display in the museum are reconstructions made from memories of operators. However valves are much more resistant to nuclear attack than transistors... Turing went on to Manchester University. However he was persecuted (after the war) by a grateful Government during the clampdown on homosexual behaviour of the 1950s and he eventually committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple. I have heard it said that that is where the apple trademark comes from.  Other displays include a German signal station, occupation of the Channel Islands, military vehicles and model boats, diplomatic radio and some fine examples of British WWII military architecture . There is a memorial (something of an Enigma) and a cinema showing newsreels from wartime. A kindly old gent welcomed me to his Winston Churchill collection - and what a collection it was. A room like a small school hall packed to the rafters with Winston Churchill memorabilia. Overwhelming. Bletchley town had some points of interest. An old cottage near the church, but really just a suburb of Greater Milton Keynes.

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