“The next time you’re in London town, Kathleen,” writes Correspondent Paul Lewis, “take time to visit one of the most crucial battle sites of the Second World War…which is not in North Africa, Italy, or Normandy, but just 40 minutes by train from Euston station.
“Your destination is a small town called Bletchley, one stop before the larger Milton Keynes and reached by several trains every hour. Cross the road running past the station and 50 yards to your right are the wrought-iron gates of Bletchley Park, an undistinguished Victorian pile standing in extensive grounds dotted with ugly wooden huts and square concrete blockhouses.
“Today it is a museum, open every day of the week year-round; entrance 10 pounds (or about US$15). But, during the World War II years, this was one of the most secret places on earth–home to a team of mathematicians, linguists, and other clever people who broke the supposedly unbreakable Enigma Code used by Hitler’s armed forces against odds of 158 million million to one.
“The ability developed here to read the enemies’ most secret communications gave Allied commanders an inestimable advantage over their opponents and probably shortened the war by two to three years.
“Bletchley Park’s presiding genius, a Cambridge University mathematician named Alan Turing, also designed and built the first computer–nicknamed Colossus on account of its size–in the course of this code-breaking odyssey and thus ushered in the Information Age.
“Moreover, the code breakers accomplished their task under conditions of such absolute secrecy that even though more than 8,000 people worked at Bletchley Park, their existence–and the work they did–remained unknown to the general public until the mid-1970’s. Churchill later described them as ‘the geese that laid the golden egg but never cackled.’
“Inside the Spartan buildings surrounding the big house at Bletchley, visitors can follow the code breakers’ story. It starts with the acquisition of the first Enigma machines–they look like oversized typewriters in suitcases–by Polish resistance fighters or stolen from captured German U-boats (which were then sunk to conceal the loss). It leads to the construction of Colossus and other complex machines developed to pry open the Enigma codes.
“As the Enigmas could be reset at will to transmit messages in an infinite number of different codes, this involved a never-ending mathematical tussle throughout the war years to work out the settings the Germans were using each day and in each war theater.
“‘Ultra’ was the code name given to everything that went on at Bletchley and to all the information it produced. Probably this intelligence was most useful in helping the Allies keep open the vital sea lanes between the United States and Britain by enabling them to track the U-boat ‘wolf packs’ scouring the north Atlantic Ocean.
“But the now quite extensive literature on Bletchley Park also shows the contribution its intelligence made to the victories in North Africa and Italy and to the success of the D-Day landings in Normandy.
“Nevertheless, the information pouring out of Bletchley was never received uncritically by commanders. There was an ever-present danger that if the Germans discovered their Enigma machines had been compromised they could use them to feed false information to the Allies. And some generals were intrinsically mistrustful of intelligence, believing victory would come from their superior tactical skills alone.
“Besides telling the code breakers’ story, the Bletchley museum also offers a nostalgic look back at British life during those days. It reminds us of the furniture people used, the clothes they wore, the stoves they cooked on, and the radios they listened to. It shows us ration books and gas masks and the endless official posters discouraging unnecessary travel and loose talk, along with the model tanks and warplanes that children played with.
“Alas, the Bletchley story ends unhappily. After the war, Turing, whose homosexuality was well-known among his colleagues, took a mathematics post at Manchester University and quickly found himself in trouble with the law for what was then illegal behavior.
“Faced with a choice between prison or a form of chemical castration, he ate an apple stuffed with cyanide. Years later, when an American entrepreneur, Steven Jobs, founded a computer company he called it Apple Computer, in tribute to the father of the machine, treated so ungratefully by the country he had saved from Hitler.”