Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay
Published by Aurum Press
1st August 2011
Paperback Edition

Bletchley Park was where one of the war’s most famous – and crucial – achievements was made: the cracking of Germany’s “Enigma” code in which its most important military communications were couched. This country house in the Buckinghamshire countryside was home to Britain’s most brilliant mathematical brains, like Alan Turing, and the scene of immense advances in technology – indeed, the birth of modern computing. The military codes deciphered there were instrumental in turning both the Battle of the Atlantic and the war in North Africa.

But, though plenty has been written about the boffins, and the codebreaking, fictional and non-fiction – from Robert Harris and Ian McEwan to Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing – what of the thousands of men and women who lived and worked there during the war? What was life like for them – an odd, secret territory between the civilian and the military?

Sinclair McKay’s book is the first history for the general reader of life at Bletchley Park, and an amazing compendium of memories from people now in their eighties – of skating on the frozen lake in the grounds (a depressed Angus Wilson, the novelist, once threw himself in) – of a youthful Roy Jenkins, useless at codebreaking, of the high jinks at nearby accommodation hostels – and of the implacable secrecy that meant girlfriend and boyfriend working in adjacent huts knew nothing about each other’s work.
Sarah Baring - and her good friend Osla Henniker-Major - received the summons by means of a terse telegram.  She remembers that it read: 'You are to report to Station X at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, in four days time.  Your postal address is Box 111, co The Foreign Office.  That is all you need to know.'
     These two aritstocratic young women arrived one evening in the spring of 1941, having travelled by rail from Euston.  Their journey had been rendered a little fraught by a male passenger sitting opposite in their compartment, apparently manipulating himself obscenely through his trouser pockets.  After some whispered conference, the two outraged young women decided that Osla should deal with the grubby man by reaching up to the luggage rack and then 'accidentally dropping their case of gramophone records' on his lap..  The man got the message and 'fled up the corridor'.
     Just over an hour later, they were there. 'We decanted ourselves from the train at Bletchley station,' recalls the Honourable Sarah Baring, 'and then, weighed down by our luggage, we staggered up a rutted narrow path.  On the side of the tracks, there was an eight foot high chained fence.  It was topped by a roll of barbed wire.'
Having finally caught up with the second series of The Bletchley Circle on television the other night, I thought I would share this fantastic book with you, about some of the men and women who actually worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.
The house at Bletchley Park
It is a fantastically easy read, recounting the tales of those who were there, right from the moment that they were summoned to appear at Bletchley, to the present day.  Surprisingly, despite now being able to talk about their experiences, many still keep the silence sworn by the Official Secrets Act and have still not discussed their time at Bletchley with others.  No one talked to anyone else there, especially if they were working in different huts, and couples today, still haven't discussed with each other the work that they did every day.   If you don't know it's early beginnings, let me recount some of the history for you, courtesy of the Bletchley Park website.
The arrival of ‘Captain Ridley's Shooting Party’ at a mansion house in the Buckinghamshire countryside in late August 1938 was to set the scene for one of the most remarkable stories of World War Two. They had an air of friends enjoying a relaxed weekend together at a country house. They even brought with them one of the best chefs at the Savoy Hotel to cook their food. But the small group of people who turned up at Bletchley Park were far from relaxed. They were members of MI6, and the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), a secret team of individuals including a number of scholars turned Codebreakers. Their job; to see whether Bletchley Park would work as a wartime location, well away from London, for intelligence activity by GC&CS as well as elements of MI6.

The GC&CS mission was to crack the Nazi codes and ciphers. The most famous of the cipher systems to be broken at Bletchley Park was the Enigma. There were also a large number of lower-level German systems to break as well as those of Hitler's allies. At the start of the war in September 1939 the codebreakers returned to Bletchey Park to begin their war-winning work in earnest.

Hut 6

I was able to finally go to Bletchley Park last Autumn, despite only growing up nearby, and took my girls along for a day of codebreaking.  It really is a truly fantastic site, and reading this book brought home the fantastic work that these ordinary people did - imagine being recruited to decipher government codes by entering a crossword competition!

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x



  1. It sounds like a fascinating read and a great place to visit as well - I love the Bletchley Circle - it was a great programme, wasn't it. xx

    1. I love it too Amy, and its an amazing place to visit if you get the chance x

  2. I didn't realise how close I am to Bletchley Park.
    I was unable to watch the programme when it was on but I expect it will be out on DVD (or video as I still insist on calling it, much to my sons amusement)

    1. Oh do go if you get the chance, it's amazing and your ticket is valid for a whole year! X

  3. This has always fascinated me....Alan turing went to Sherborne school (where I work)...I have seen his school books too, amazing man and badly treated by the government of the time.
    d x


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