What’s on : Activities
Virtual event on Zoom
Cost £10.60 per person including £1 YPS admin charge
On a sunny January afternoon, 35 members of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society participated in a virtual encounter with Bletchley Park. We were conducted through the gates by our knowledgeable guide, Andrew Fryer, pausing only to offer up our ID for inspection at the military police hut before proceeding to the mansion, built in 1883 in a veritable cocktail of styles reflecting the owners’ travels. In 1938 the mansion had been purchased by Sir Hugh Sinclair for £6,000 in anticipation of the Second World War. It proved to be an ideal location, secluded, but with ready access to both Oxford and Cambridge both of which provided many recruits for Commander Denniston, the officer in charge. When personnel started to arrive at the Park, the locals were told that they were part of Captain Wrigley’s Shooting Party to divert attention from the real reason. The first instance of subterfuge.
We were given a virtual tour of the grounds including the motorcycle shed used by the many despatch riders, mostly women, travelling between Y stations and Bletchley Park. As many as forty riders would arrive each hour, carrying many thousands of messages. This was followed by a glance at the garage housing the bomb machine, the crucial element in working out settings for enigma, designed, but not built by Alan Turing. Surprisingly the enigma machine was first created in 1918 to be used commercially in peace time. The Polish memorial nearby had been erected to three Polish workers who had first broken the enigma code.
From there we were shown the huts, all with their different functions. Hut three was for the translators, hut six for naval intelligence and hut eight was where Alan Turing and his associates were based. These were clearly very uncomfortable buildings, hot in summer and cold in winter to the extent that disused paper was recycled by being stuffed into gaps in the walls.
It was clear that the work was very intense, but alongside this were many opportunities for socialising within the Park, such as tennis and amateur dramatics. With the end of the war in 1945 all this stopped and much of the site was destroyed. Many women returned to their lives as housewives and the men to their former lines of work. Thanks to the Official Secrets Act, no-one was allowed to explain how they had spent the war which must have been extremely difficult, with many men being regarded as cowards for not being seen to engage in active service.
The tour complete, we were then initiated into code-breaking. Morse code proved rather tricky even at the very slow speed for our first attempts. Andrew then demonstrated the enigma machine, one of 350 still in existence, showing how each rotor on the plug board had a different wiring, and explained how the German operator was supposed to change his or her password each day. The number of ways of setting up the enigma machine amounted to 153 trillion and with the password, a mind boggling 103 325 660 891 587 134000000. It is not surprising that even after the war the Germans did not believe that with this many permutations the code could be cracked.
Margaret Leonard had provided the group with study sheets and a map of the Atlantic in advance so we were set the task of decoding six messages which helped us plot the movement of enemy action to ascertain the safest route for convoys from the USA to Britain. The interactive nature of the afternoon gave us all an insight into and respect for the work of the code-breakers and the way in which they undoubtedly helped to shorten the war.