Posts Tagged ‘Bletchley’

The Deb of Bletchley Park: ‘There was always a crisis, a lot of stress and a lot of excitement’

January 11th, 2015

“In contrast, we felt slightly ashamed of having only done Bletchley, like also-rans. So when everything we had done, which we knew had been very hard work and incredibly demanding, suddenly showed its head and we were being asked to talk about it, it felt quite overwhelming. I’d never told a soul, not even my husband. My grandchildren were very surprised.”

Like many of the Bletchley recruits, Fawcett – or Jane Hughes, as she was then, who features in a new book, The Debs of Bletchley Park – had few academic qualifications to equip her for life in the Intelligence Service. Aged just 18, from a well-to-do London family, she had been training at Sadler’s Wells to be a ballerina, until Dame Ninette de Valois told her she was too tall and her “back too long” to make the grade.

Heartbroken, she was despatched to Zurich to study German for six months – something that proved invaluable – before her parents demanded she return home to “come out” as a debutante.

“I hated being a deb, I thought it was a complete waste of time,” she says. “It made me angry that so much money should be spent on such a stupid cause – young aristocrats getting married.”

But then in February, 1940, a letter arrived from a former school-friend, who was working at Bletchley. “She said, ‘It’s perfectly frightful, we’re so overworked, you must join us.’”

Bletchley’s codebreakers had just had some successes cracking the German Enigma code, meaning there was a huge amount of work to do. But with most of the brightest young men away in the armed services, there was an acute lack of suitable staff.

Convinced that only the “right type” of person could be trusted with such confidential work, recruitment was mainly carried out by word-of-mouth among the upper classes. Unable to tell her anything about what she would be doing, Fawcett was enlisted, after two cursory interviews. “I think they could have done better [than me] really,” she muses. Her parents never asked what she was doing: “I think they thought I was being a typist, they knew I was working on something, and they knew they couldn’t press me, so very sensibly they didn’t ask.”

What Fawcett may have lacked in academic qualifications, she made up for in her work ethic. She was assigned to Hut 6, the hut tasked with breaking German air-force and army Engima ciphers, mainly staffed by young male maths graduates.

Fawcett, however, was in the all-female Decoding Room. Once some of day’s codes had been cracked, she set her machine to the correct keys and typed in incoming German radio messages, glancing over them for potentially important information.

Conditions were difficult. “It was just horrid, there were very leaky windows, so it was very cold with just a frightful old stove in the middle of the room that let out lots of fumes but not much heat and just one electric bulb hanging on a string, which was quite inadequate,” Fawcett recalls. “We were always working against time, there was always a crisis, a lot of stress and a lot of excitement.”

After the installation of the Bombe, the decoding machine devised by Alan Turing and Alan Welchman in late 1940 that proved highly effective, all efforts turned to working out which city would be the next victim of the Blitz. “It was all go until lunchtime because we had by then to try and find out where the Germans were going to bomb the next night in order in order that we could get our very insubstantial defences in place before they attacked that evening.

“But not surprisingly, Churchill recognised this was a dangerous thing to do, because it would make it quite obvious we could read the German codes. So he decided to let go Coventry, I believe, to break the pattern.” This story is disputed, however, by many historians

In May 1941, Fawcett pulled off a huge coup. The British navy was hunting the German’s prize battleship, the Bismarck, with the search concentrated around Norway. Fawcett was typing in a decoded message when she noticed the word “Brest.”

“I remembered Brest was down towards the Mediterranean and wondered if it was something to do with the Bismarck. It turned out to be a message from one of the top brass in the German navy, who was getting in touch with the Bismarck’s captain, saying: ‘Where is my son? I’m worried about him’ and the captain replied saying this was where they were heading.”

In a moment of high drama, Fawcett’s spot was passed on to intelligence operators who sent out an urgent message that their enemy had been located. The navy chased the Bismarck to west France and sank her.

“I felt it was desperate, a great tragedy, something like 1400 people died. But everything about war is a tragedy and we had to be glad we were in a position to help.”

Initially, Fawcett was billeted with a lorry driver’s family, who lived in the nearby village next to a brick factory. “It used to belch out ghastly, rancid smoke all the time. We lived on white bread and potatoes, which was more or less all we could get.” Fawcett was working through the night but found the noise of the family’s two boys made sleep impossible in the day. “I was exhausted, the Battle of Britain was going on, we were under great pressure at work, but then a friend of my father’s, who was the local aristocrat, said: ‘We can’t have Jane living in a council house, why doesn’t she come and join us?’”

So Fawcett and several female friends spent the rest of their war living in an empty staff wing at an Elizabethan stately home, Liscombe Park. “It was very rural, so it could be quite hairy having to go down little country lanes in the pitch dark to find the mini bus that took us to work. People said I carried a hammer, but actually it was a torch, which was much more useful. But otherwise, it was a wonderful place to live.”

While Fawcett took part in Bletchley’s “jolly reel club” and the choir, she was usually too tired for fun; besides, she had already met her future husband. But many of Bletchley’s staff were single, with morals being described by other female recruits as “very loose.”

“A lot of people did have good fun, and why not?” Fawcett smiles. “They were all in their twenties and there were some beautiful girls around and some very desirable young men and we spent all our time together.” There was also, with everyone fighting for the same goal, an unusual spirit of equality. “Class barriers didn’t exist at all and women were treated as equals. It was totally irrelevant. Great days.”

She was only dimly aware of Alan Turing, recently played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film The Imitation Game (“very beautiful and very touching”). “He was desperately screwed up, like all the codebreakers, they were all in a little knot in one room desperately trying to get the frightful codes out. The whole business about his persecution [for homosexuality after the war] was just too unbelievably frightful. All I can say is we wouldn’t do it today, but that doesn’t make it up to him. Still, on the whole, I think the Turing episode has been overplayed: there were a lot of other people doing the same thing, and the fact he was sexually a bit uncertain is something we know all about now.”

Like many of the Bletchley “graduates”, Fawcett’s post-war career was long and distinguished. She became a professional singer, then after the birth of her two children, secretary of the Victorian Society, helping save many historic buildings from demolition including St Pancras station and its grand hotel, for which she was awarded an MBE and an honorary fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

“But I still feel that what we did at Bletchley was the most significant thing we ever did in our lives,” she says. “We were just chickens, but they say we saved 40 million lives, by being in the right place at the right time, by having a job to do – which we did.”

In June, Fawcett returned to Bletchley, now restored and a museum, to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. “As we were preparing to leave we suddenly heard in the distance this wonderful, very distinctive, sound of a Hurricane engine about to do a flypast.”

Most unexpectedly, Fawcett’s voice catches. “It was very moving actually, the pilot flew very, very low and did some turns and it felt as if he were saluting us. Then he flew off into the evening sun. We were just bowled over.”

The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories by Michael Smith is out now (Aurum Press)


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The extraordinary female codebreakers of Bletchley Park

January 5th, 2015

These worker ants came, mostly, from middle-class backgrounds. Colchester, now 91, had heard of Bletchley through her father, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Charles Medhurst, an air attaché in Rome. At the time, she was living in Italy, where her family moved in high circles – before the war, she had met Hitler and been flirted with by Mussolini at an embassy party – but she found the prospect of working for her country equally thrilling. She passed the interview, she remembers, “and immediately it was a completely different sort of life than I had been used to. When you’re 19, everything’s romantic and exciting. You’re away from home, meeting all sorts of wonderful people.”

One such person was Pamela Rose, an actress from London, then 24, who had been urged by an interfering godmother to apply for The Park. “I’d just been offered a part as an understudy in a play called Water on the Rhine in the West End, and I was rather excited by it,” she says. “So I asked the man who’d interviewed me, the head of the naval section, what he thought I should do. And he said, ‘Well, I think the stage can wait. The war can’t.’ So that was that.” Rose, now 97, believes she was recruited on the basis of her well to-do background: “I don’t think it was as snobbish as some people say, but they had to be careful about how they selected you. They seemed to think that if they took in girls from families they knew something about, they were less likely to get a German spy.”


Pamela Rose, photographed for an acting shot before her days at Bletchley

Their work was varied. While Colchester focused on decoding, Rose was stationed in the indexing hut of the naval intelligence section, taking words and phrases of interest from French and German messages, noting them down on cards and cross-referencing them. “The codes came in broken up into something like a text message,” she explains. “We had to have a card for the battle ship, another for the port it was leaving, another for where it was arriving, and so on. Some days it was incredibly exciting – other times it was very dull, about the captain’s socks or something.”

Others among Dunlop’s 15 Bletchley girls had different roles – Muriel Dindol, at 14 the youngest of the group, was a messenger girl; while Cora Jarman, now 88, professes she still doesn’t know what exactly she was doing back then. “It was just noughts and crosses on a sheet,” she laughs. “I only went to The Park because I liked the uniform of the Wrens.” There were, of course, a few female codebreakers – notably Joan Clarke, who worked alongside Turing, played by Keira Knightley in the recent film – “but they were hardly representative,” says Dunlop. “Once you had all these gigantic thumping machines, you needed girls to run them. And Joan looked nothing like that.”

With its unique mix of military and civilians living in the same quarters (many of them were billeted in nearby villages and bussed in and out of The Park each day), Bletchley was an extraordinary experience, beset by highs and lows. The girls worked on shifts, through the night in smoky, claustrophobic quarters, and they amused themselves with card games and gossip. There were tea dances in local hotels; theatre performances in the canteen; clubs and societies and cliques for like-minded interests. “We all used to meet over coffee breaks in a little room in the main house,” says Colchester, who can still sing the ditties she learned by heart seven decades ago. “There was a pressure to work, but it was very much a together community.”


The good old days: life as a ‘Bletchleyette’ (picture taken from Cora Jarman)

The girls were younger than the men, but they did socialise together – to the extent it was acceptable at the time. “They might have flirted but it was all very dignified,” says Dunlop. “They’d never have rolled into bed together. This was the last generation to get married before they even thought of having sex.” Indeed, Rose (nee Gibson) met her husband, Wing-Commander Jim Rose, at The Park – he was head of the air section – and, through him, was introduced to Turing. “I didn’t know Turing well,” she insists. “He was polite and intelligent, but he preferred the company of men.”

The four years at Bletchley flew by – and most of its women subsequently gave up their careers, got married and never looked back. Rose stayed until the end of 1945, wed Jim the following January, “and did the usual old fashioned thing of settling down and having a family”. Colchester took a more unconventional path; having lost her brother, Dick, in the war, she applied for a transfer to Cairo, where her parents were living. There, she moved from the world of codebreaking to a career in espionage with MI6, where she later crossed paths with Kim Philby, the notorious Cambridge spy.

For the majority, however, Bletchley was the pinnacle of their intellectual careers. “It simply couldn’t have functioned without them,” says Dunlop. “And this talks for all the women of the war – Wrens, Land Girls, radio operators. Their job was to be the facilitators; but it’s about time we made them the focus.” Both Rose and Colchester’s names appear in The Park’s official Roll of Honour, created online in 2013, where they are lauded “for service in support of the work of Bletchley Park during World War Two.” Three words accompany their names: “We Also Served” – a nod, perhaps, to the fact that it has taken so long to recognise their contribution.


Pamela Rose (left) and Rozanne Colchester (right), pictured today

Modesty characterises the Bletchleyettes today – every one of Dunlop’s 15 retains the dignity and discretion that made them such perfect employees 70 years ago; loyal, still, to that iconic institution. “There was a sense that we were doing something important,” says Colchester, cautiously. “I am proud of what we did. But did we feel appreciated? Well, you didn’t think much about that in those days. There was a war on. You never thought whether you were happy doing it – you just got on with your job.”

She gained something else from her days at The Park – a lifelong friend. Having been introduced by one of their tutors on the lawn outside the huts, Rose and Colchester struck up a friendship that endures to this day. They wrote letters to one another after the war, comforted each other when their husbands died – and ensured their children and grandchildren became firm friends. “That is one lovely legacy of that time,” muses Rose, her eyes twinkling. “As for the rest of it… There are so many people who say they ‘saved the war’. I know I didn’t. But I daresay I – we – did alright.”

The Bletchley Girls by Tessa Dunlop (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £17 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk. Tessa Dunlop will be in conversation with some of the Bletchley veterans at Waterstones Piccadilly on Thursday, January 8 at 7pm. To reserve your space at this free event, email piccadilly@waterstones.com


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Bletchley: the women’s story

January 4th, 2015

These worker ants came, mostly, from middle-class backgrounds. Colchester, now 91, had heard of Bletchley through her father, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Charles Medhurst, an air attaché in Rome. At the time, she was living in Italy, where her family moved in high circles – before the war, she had met Hitler and flirted with Mussolini at an embassy party – but she found the prospect of working for her country equally thrilling. “When you’re 19, everything’s romantic and exciting. You’re away from home, meeting all sorts of wonderful people.”

One such person was Pamela Rose, an actress from London, then 24, who had been urged by an interfering godmother to apply for The Park. “I’d just been offered a part as an understudy in a play called Water on the Rhine in the West End, and I was rather excited by it,” she says. “So I asked the man who’d interviewed me what I should do. And he said, ‘Well, the stage can wait. The war can’t’.” Rose, now 97, believes she was recruited on the basis of her well-to-do background: “They seemed to think that if they took in girls from families they knew something about, they were less likely to get a German spy.”

Their work was varied. While Colchester focused on decoding, Rose was stationed in the indexing hut of the naval intelligence section. “The codes came broken up into something like a text message,” she explains. “We had to have a card for the battleship, another for the port it was leaving, another for where it was arriving, and so on. Some days it was incredibly exciting – other times it was very dull, about the captain’s socks or something.”

Others among Dunlop’s 15 Bletchley girls had different roles – Muriel Dindol, at 14 the youngest of the group, was a messenger girl; while Cora Jarman, now 88, professes she still doesn’t know what exactly she was doing. “It was just noughts and crosses on a sheet,” she says. There were, of course, a few female codebreakers – notably Joan Clarke, who worked alongside Turing (played by Keira Knightley in the recent film) – “but they were hardly representative,” says Dunlop.

With its unique mix of military and civilians living in the same quarters (many of them were billeted in nearby villages and bused in and out of The Park each day), Bletchley was an extraordinary experience, with highs and lows. The girls worked shifts through the night in smoky, claustrophobic quarters, and they amused themselves with card games and gossip. “We all used to meet over coffee breaks in a little room in the main house,” says Colchester, who can still sing the ditties she learnt by heart seven decades ago. “There was a pressure to work, but it was very much a together community.”

The girls were younger than the men, but they did socialise together – to the extent that it was acceptable at the time. “They might have flirted, but it was all very dignified,” says Dunlop. “They’d never have rolled into bed together.” Indeed, Rose (née Gibson) met her husband, Wing Commander Jim Rose, at The Park – he was head of the air section – and, through him, was introduced to Turing. “I didn’t know Turing well,” she insists. “He was polite and intelligent, but he preferred the company of men.”

The four years at Bletchley flew by – and most of its women subsequently gave up their careers, got married and never looked back. Rose stayed until the end of 1945 and married Jim the following January. Colchester took a more unconventional path, moving from the world of codebreaking to a career in espionage with MI6, where she later crossed paths with Kim Philby, the Cambridge spy.

For the majority, however, Bletchley was the pinnacle of their intellectual careers. “It simply couldn’t have functioned without them,” says Dunlop. “And this goes for all the women of the war – Wrens, land girls, radio operators. Their job was to be the facilitators; but it’s about time we made them the focus.”

Modesty characterises the Bletchleyettes today – every one of Dunlop’s 15 retains the dignity and discretion that made them perfect employees 70 years ago. “There was a sense that we were doing something important,” says Colchester. “I am proud of what we did. But did we feel appreciated? Well, you didn’t think much about that in those days. There was a war on.”

She gained something else from her days at The Park – a lifelong friend. Having been introduced by one of their tutors on the lawn outside the huts, Rose and Colchester struck up a friendship that endures to this day. “That is one lovely legacy of that time,” muses Rose, her eyes twinkling. “As for the rest of it… There are so many people who say they ‘saved the war’. I know I didn’t. But I daresay we did all right.”

* ‘The Bletchley Girls’, by Tessa Dunlop (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), is available from Telegraph Books at £17 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk. Tessa Dunlop will be in conversation with Bletchley veterans at Waterstones Piccadilly on Jan 8 at 7pm. To reserve your place at this free event, email piccadilly@waterstones.com


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The Imitation Game: who were the real Bletchley Park codebreakers?

November 14th, 2014

As the war progressed, Station X became a hidden city of 10,000 people working in hastily constructed “huts”. Many of the codebreakers were tweedy, pipe-smoking Cambridge mathematicians, both dons and recent graduates, but some were recruited because of their linguistic skills, knowledge of hieroglyphics, or brilliance at chess. All were expected to be able to solve the Telegraph crossword in less than six minutes. Many were eccentric. One boffin would pace around the lake drinking coffee as he pondered, and when he had finished his cup he would look at it in surprise, as if unsure how it had got into his hand. He would then toss it over his shoulder in to the lake.

At the end of the war, Churchill ordered that all records of the place be destroyed in a huge bonfire. Had one former employee not written a book in 1974 about his work there, we might have remained in the dark about Bletchley to this day. As it was, the world was astonished.

Indignant too, because Alan Turing, the genius who did most to crack the German Enigma codes and shorten the war by at least two years, was treated appallingly after the war, on account of his homosexuality. He was prosecuted for “gross indecency” in 1952 and given hormone treatment – “chemical castration” – which led to his suicide two years later. He was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013.


The Bletchley story is told in new film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing

A critically acclaimed new film, The Imitation Game, celebrates his work at Bletchley Park. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch (in what is being tipped as an Oscar-winning performance), Turing is revealed as an insensitive narcissist who found eye contact difficult, but who was very much the right man at the right time. Apart from saving millions of lives, he also had a hand in the invention of the world’s first programmable computer at Bletchley, a giant machine called Colossus that enabled him to crack codes quickly, by a process of elimination.

Everyone has heard of Turing now, and rightly so, but, as this film reminds us, he was part of an extraordinary team, some brilliant, others unprofessional, one treacherous. So who were they? Well, the second most important person at Bletchley was Hugh Alexander.

Hugh Alexander (played by Matthew Goode) – British chess champion

Hugh Alexander; Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander in The Imitation Game

Like many of the codebreakers, he had a first in mathematics from Cambridge, but he found himself in Hut 6 in 1940 thanks to his brilliance at chess. Twice British chess champion, and an International Master, he made important contributions to two classic chess strategies: “the Dutch defence” and the “Petroff defence”. Had he been allowed to compete in the Soviet Union during the Cold War – the authorities here thought the contents of his brain too valuable to allow him to go anywhere near there – he may even have become a world champion.

He was known in print at Bletchley as C.H.O’D – his full name was Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander – which sounds like a cryptic crossword clue. Perhaps not quite as dashing as the actor Matthew Goode who plays him in The Imitation Game, Alexander nevertheless had a reputation for urbanity and charm. In 1941, he was transferred to Hut 8 and became Turing’s deputy.

The great man would tease Alexander for being almost, but not quite, his intellectual equal.

According to a memoir written by one of his colleagues: “We all thought Hugh was crazy. Tall, blond, huge blue eyes, never stopped talking, a terrible energy.” And in the words of another: “We worked [at Hut 8] through the war on a continuous three-shift basis. The night shift was not generally popular because everybody quickly became tired through lack of proper sleep in the day; but Hugh had a strange passion for working at night and used to put himself on nights for weeks on end. This did not prevent him working much of the day as well – he seemed to thrive on this strange regime.” Alexander’s admiration for Turing was conditional – he found him annoying most of the time – and he eventually engineered a friendly coup against him to become the head of Hut 8. He did this because he rightly saw that Turing’s gifts were being wasted on the admin side of running things: he needed thinking space. It was Alexander, more than anyone else, who recognised Turing’s genius for what it was.

Station X was run in quite an amateurish way by MI6. Such was the lack of professionalism, in fact, Alexander and Turing broke with protocol and went over the heads of their MI6 superiors to make a direct appeal to the Prime Minister, requesting more equipment and personnel. Churchill responded instantly, agreeing to the requests and notifying his Chief of Staff. His memo was stamped with that memorable phrase of his: “Action This Day.” When the Germans introduced a “super enciphered” method of transmitting the day’s settings to their Enigma operators (using bigram tables), Alexander helped Turing develop a technique for breaking them called Banburismus, because it involved “punched holes on long sheets of paper printed in Banbury”.

Alexander also introduced a pneumatic tube system for transferring files and documents between huts. He had borrowed the idea from his pre-war job, working as the chief scientist with the John Lewis chain.

After the war he became head of cryptanalysis at GCHQ. He died at the age of 64 in 1974 and there has been speculation that the stresses caused by the mental demands of his career led to his early death.


The Colossus computer at Bletchley, used to decode Nazi messages. Photo: Alamy

Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) – female codebreaker who became engaged to Turing

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke in The Imitation Game

Joan Clarke, by contrast, was a much calmer, less intense character, which is perhaps why she lived until 1996, long after she retired from GCHQ. Like Alexander, she had a first in maths from Cambridge; unlike him, when she was recruited to Bletchley Park she was told that her work there wouldn’t really require mathematics.

This turned out not to be the case. After a period of clerical work with “the girls”, her mathematical gifts led to her becoming the only woman among a team of nine Banburists. And according to her boss, Alexander, she was “one of the best Banburists in the section”. Clarke wasn’t as glamorous as Keira Knightley, who plays her in the film, but her character is captured well by the actress. Records describe her as “congenial but shy, gentle and kind, non-aggressive and always subordinate to the men in her life”. Her enthusiasm and energy were legendary. She would often be reluctant to hand over her workings at the end of her shift and instead continue to see if a few more calculations would produce a result.

A pay rise was arranged to recognise her contributions to the team and she was promoted to “Linguist” even though she spoke no other language. She delighted in answering a questionnaire with “Grade: Linguist. Languages: none”.

In the spring of 1941, she developed a close friendship with her Hut 8 colleague Turing. For a time, they became inseparable, with Turing arranging their shifts so they could work together. One day, in his awkward way, he proposed marriage to her and when Clarke accepted he added, “But don’t count on it working out as I have homosexual tendencies.” The romance continued regardless, unconsummated, until they called it off by mutual consent a year later.

Clarke became deputy head of Hut 8 in early 1944 and, after the war, she married an Army officer she had met when working at GCHQ.

Decoder Wrens working in Huts 6 and 8 at Bletchley Park during the Second World War

Stewart Menzies (played by Mark Strong)

Stewart Menzies (Photo: Getty); Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies in The Imitation Game

Arguably, the next most important figure at Bletchley was Stewart Menzies. His grandfather was a wealthy whisky distiller and his parents were friends of Edward VII, who was rumoured to be Menzies’s real father. At Eton he was sporty but never academic, and he didn’t go to university afterwards but joined the Life Guards instead.

At the start of the war he became “C”, the head of MI6. Churchill was initially sceptical about whether Menzies was up to the job, but he eventually made him part of his inner circle and Menzies would report to him daily.

Though not a codebreaker himself, it was Menzies who was in overall charge at Bletchley, and it was he who introduced what was called Ultra. If too many of the intercepts from Bletchley were acted upon, the Germans would get suspicious that the Enigma codes had been cracked. Menzies therefore introduced a system that meant only a certain percentage of the intelligence gleaned from decoding would be passed on to the British Army, Navy and RAF.

In addition to being married three times, he had a long-term affair with his secretary. He retired with the rank of major general.

John Cairncross (played by Allen Leech) – loner later revealed to be part of the Cambridge spy ring

John Cairncross; Allen Leech as John Cairncross in The Imitation Game

It is implied in the film that Menzies knew exactly what the spy John Cairncross was up to at Station X. An intelligent, spiky man, Cairncross was described by his colleagues at Bletchley Park as “a bit of a loner”.

This was an understatement given that he was the Fifth Man in the Cambridge spy ring. He knew Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, but didn’t like them much.

He admitted to spying in 1951 when Guy Burgess fled to Moscow and MI5 found a handwritten note from him in Burgess’s flat.

Cairncross arrived at Bletchley Park in 1942 and went to work in Hut 3 on Germany Army group communications. Unusually for a codebreaker, he read languages at Cambridge, rather than mathematics.

Throughout the war, Cairncross passed documents through secret channels to his KGB handlers, who gave him the code name Liszt, because of his love of music. He smuggled the decrypts out of the hut in his trousers, transferring them to his bag at the railway station.

But the truth is probably more ambiguous than this summary of his treachery allows. The Allies wanted the Soviets to know about certain German battle plans, just not where the intelligence came from. They were our wartime allies, after all.

Given the tight security at Bletchley, there is speculation that Menzies arranged things so that Cairncross was fed with documents that he wanted the Soviets to see. It seems the only explanation for why only the most relevant decrypts were left conveniently lying around, and why Cairncross was never searched as he left Bletchley.

Peter Hilton (played by Matthew Beard) – maths genius and inventor of one of the world’s longest palindromes

Peter Hilton; Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton in The Imitation Game

Our next notable Bletchley figure could not have been more different from prickly Cairncross. Unusually for a Bletchley Park mathematician, the precocious, sweet-natured Peter Hilton had studied at Oxford rather than Cambridge. He was recruited in 1942 at the tender age of 18 because he also knew German (a language he had taught himself in a year). He worked alongside Turing in Hut 8 on Naval Enigma and, thanks to his extraordinary powers of visualisation, he was able to unpick in his mind’s eye streams of characters from two separate teleprinters – a feat of mental gymnastics that proved vital when the Germans introduced a new system of teleprinter ciphers produced by a much larger and more complex machine than Enigma.

Many years after the war, this was revealed to be a Lorenz SZ40 encoder, but, at the time, staff at Bletchley Park called it “Tunny”.

In his off-duty hours, Hilton (played by Matthew Beard in the film) earned a reputation as a convivial companion.

He was a regular in the bar of the Bletchley pub that was subsequently renamed The Enigma, and often attended dances at nearby Woburn Abbey, where Wrens were billeted. He also became a renowned exponent both of bawdy songs and dirty jokes and once spent a sleepless night composing one of the world’s longest palindromes: DOC, NOTE: I DISSENT. A FAST NEVER PREVENTS A FATNESS. I DIET ON COD.

After the war, Hilton became a professor of mathematics at Cornell University and helped create a new discipline, homology theory. Once the Official Secrets Act was lifted in the Eighties, his lectures about the years at Bletchley Park became highly popular at venues all over the world.

“For me,” he recalled in one of them, “the real excitement was this business of getting two texts out of one sequence of gibberish. I never met anything quite so exciting, especially since you knew that these were vital messages.”

Jack Good (played by James Northcote) – once cracked a code in his sleep


Jack Good, right, once cracked a code in his sleep. Photo: Des Good

And so we come to our final unsung Bletchley hero. Jack Good was a slender, good-humoured, bushy-moustached mathematician (Cambridge) who worked closely with Turing in Hut 8 and was prone to having catnaps on the floor of the hut, especially after a long shift. This was just as well because he broke one vital code in his sleep, with the solution coming to him in a dream. In it he wondered whether the dummy letters German telegraphists had to add to their messages in order to transmit them were random, or whether there was a bias towards particular letters. After inspecting some messages that had been broken, he discovered that there was a tendency to use some letters more than others. This being the case, all the codebreakers had to do was work back from the indicators given at the beginning of each message, and apply each bigram table in turn. The bigram table that produced one of the popular dummy letters was probably the correct one.

When Good (played by James Northcote in the film) mentioned his discovery to Turing, the genius felt embarrassed, and said, “I could have sworn that I tried that already.” It quickly became an important part of the Banburismus procedure.

After the war, Good became a professor and worked as a consultant to Stanley Kubrick on the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He never guessed Turing’s sexual orientation in all the time they worked together, and neither did the Bletchley Park authorities. “Otherwise,” as Good noted matter-of-factly, “Turing may have been driven to kill himself earlier, and we might have lost the war.”

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Bletchley Park codebreakers 'dried their knickers on Hitler's Enigma machine'

November 13th, 2014

“It used to be festooned with bras and pants all through our night duty. Back then it must have looked a real sight.”

Mrs Balfour’s father had to give his permission for her join the Wrens in 1944 because she was under 18.

She spent six weeks training in London before being assigned to “Special Duties X” and posted to the secret facility near Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.

She spent up to 10 hours a day sifting through reams of code and said they were never told where their work had actually succeeded.

The women were even forbidden from talking to each other about their individuals parts of the puzzle.

Mrs Balfour said: “We were given long strips of paper tape made by the Enigma machine and told to divide everything into fives.

“We used to get codes for the day, one I can remember is YO-SE-RO, a Japanese code for man.

“There were so many of them I can’t remember, but I’ve always remembered that one.

Wrens operating the world’s first electronic programmable computer, the Colossus (Bletchley Park Trust)

“None of us knew everything that we were working on. We each knew a bit, our own part of the puzzle, so if you were caught, you couldn’t tell them everything, even if they tortured you.

“We were told never to discuss with anyone else what we were doing.

“We never knew anything. We never knew what we had done, or if we had helped to actually crack the codes.

“I never even told my parents because we signed the Official Secrets Act, so they died without ever finding out what I was doing.”

Mrs Balfour, from Helensburgh, Scotland, said she and her fellow Wrens would see Turing walking about the grounds – often backwards as he read a book.

She said: “We used to see Alan Turing from time to time, and back then we used to giggle and laugh.

“We used to watch him walk backwards sometimes while reading a book, and we couldn’t help but giggle at him for how he acted.

“We thought he was queer for how he behaved.

“But I feel the government should formally recognise him for his work during the war. He did so much and his name has not yet appeared anywhere really.

“It’s too late for him now, but people should know what he did.

“I think because he was queer, he was pushed into the background, but all these people with these brilliant minds were a bit different in their own way.”


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Duchess of Cambridge visits Bletchley Park

June 21st, 2014

The Duchess of Cambridge has arrived at Bletchley Park, where her maternal grandmother, Valerie Glassborow, played a role in helping to decode German cypher systems.

She will meet with a codebreaker who worked with Valerie, who was employed as a civilian member of staff along with her twin sister Mary.

Kate’s tour of the park will mark the completion of a year-long restoration project, which has returned the buildings to their Second World War appearance and created new visitor facilities.

During her visit the Duchess will meet Second World War code-breaker veterans including Lady Marion, view the interactive exhibitions and demonstrations, and meet the design and management team and supporters who worked to deliver the project.

Before leaving Kate will be invited to plant a tree to commemorate the visit and the completed restoration.


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Female codebreakers reunited at Bletchley Park

May 6th, 2014

The 88-year-old was part of the Colossus C watch at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire in 1945, and was pictured alongside almost 40 female colleagues at Woburn Abbey, where they were housed.

Their identities had been closely guarded secrets but now six surviving members of the group, all members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens), have been reunited. The gathering was coordinated by the National Museum of Computing after the women got in touch having seen the photograph.

The Codebreakers at Bletchley Park in 1945

Among them was Margaret Kelly, 87, from Monmouth, Wales, who joined the Wrens aged 18. Mrs Kelly, who now has 33 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren, recalls “whizzing” off messages from the machine to be translated from German.

“It was lovely to see the other Wrens after such a long time and I hope we will meet up again,” she said.

The group also included Margaret Mortimer and Margaret O’Connell, both 87, as well as Lorna Cockayne, 88, who had all worked feeding tapes into Colossus.Betty Warwick, 89, who lives in London, worked at Bletchley Park as a registrar before going on to become a speech therapist after the war.

She said: “I had a call from Maggie (Margaret Mortimer) to say she had spotted my picture in the photo which was printed in the Telegraph. I then got a copy and recognised myself.”

Mrs Chorley added: “It was lovely to see everyone and be together again after such a long time.”

At the gathering the women were shown a fully-functioning Colossus Mark II, which had been rebuilt.

Regarded as the world’s first digital, electronic computer, Colossus was built to speed up codebreaking of the Lorenz cipher. By the end of the war there were 10 functioning machines.

The women described the gathering, which was held in March, ahead of a film of their reunion to be shown on the BBC’s The One Show on Wednesday evening.


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Bletchley Park code-breaker Jerry Roberts dies

March 29th, 2014

The spokeswoman said: “Jerry came to Bletchley Park straight from university but they were all in unchartered territory. It was new ground for everybody.”

The intelligence gathered at Bletchley Park is buy cialis 20mg credited with providing strategic information that was passing between top-level enemy commanders. It is believed to have shortened the war by two years and helped save millions of lives.

The spokeswoman said: “In the last six years of his life he campaigned absolutely tirelessly for awareness and the achievements made at Bletchley Park.

“During the war, people in one room did not know what people were doing in the next room, never mind another department. It’s still a jigsaw puzzle even now.”

Describing Capt Roberts as “lovely” and “absolutely charming”, she said: “He was passionate about what he and his colleagues achieved.

“He did not want to blow his own trumpet but to have the work of his colleagues recognised.”

Reminiscing years after the war, when he was finally free to talk about his work, Capt Roberts said he had taken delight in reading Hitler’s messages, sometimes even before the German leader.

In a BBC interview last year, he described the intelligence the team had gathered as “gold dust” because it was “top level stuff” that referred to the movement of entire armies.

The stream of intelligence from his unit at Bletchley Park proved vital in the Allied D-Day invasion and helped save many lives. “We were breaking 90 per cent of the German traffic through ’41 to ’45″,” Capt Roberts said.

“We worked for three years on Tunny material and were breaking – at a conservative estimate – just under 64,000 top-line messages.”

He added it had been “an exciting time” whenever the team “started getting a break on a message and seeing it through”.

Capt Roberts later received an MBE in recognition of his service and he became a tireless ambassador for the memory of those who had served this country in secret during the war.

He spent years campaigning for greater acknowledgement of his colleagues, including Alan Turing, who broke the naval Enigma code.

Capt Robert also called for the entire Testery group to be honoured, including Bill Tutte, who broke the Tunny system, and Tommy Flowers, who designed and built the Colossus, which sped up some stages of the breaking of Tunny traffic.

Capt Roberts said the work done at Bletchley Park had been “unique” and was unlikely to happen again.

He said: “It was a war where we knew comprehensively what the other side were doing, and that was thanks to Alan Turing, who basically saved the country by breaking Enigma in 1941.”

Capt Roberts, of Liphook, Hampshire, worked at Bletchley Park until the end of the war before spending two years at the War Crimes Investigation Unit, and then moving on to a 50-year career in marketing and research.


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