There’s an unexpected ordinariness to Alan Turing’s historic office in Bletchley Park. The former working space of the genius mathematician and cryptanalyst responsible for cracking German Enigma codes during the Second World War doesn’t have the drama of London’s cabinet war rooms or Normandy’s beaches; yet it, arguably, carries just as much historical weight.
As I stood looking at Turing’s typewriter, umbrella and briefcase casually scattered around the room as if he’d just popped out for a drink, I tried to absorb the significance of what went on there. Some historians argue that the indispensable work of Turing and other code breakers shortened the war by as much as two years.
Over the past decade, The Bletchley Circle TV series and The Imitation Game film have helped reinsert Britain’s Bletchley Park into the public consciousness. Part of an erstwhile country estate located 80 kilometres northwest of London, Bletchley was famously turned into a top-secret code-breaking factory during the war and ultimately went on to play a key role in the Allied victory.
At its peak in early 1945, up to 9,000 people worked at the site, 75 per cent of them women. All were sworn to secrecy and most had no idea about how their work was being used or the impact it was having. Even when the war was over, they were largely forbidden from discussing it.
Today, the complex, which sprawls over 58 acres, contains an expansive museum including a new permanent exhibition called the Intelligence Factory that was added in the spring of 2022. On a recent visit to Britain, I decided to pay it a visit.
Located less than 45 minutes by train from London Euston, Bletchley Park was chosen by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service as their main operations centre in 1938 because of, in part, its accessibility to the British capital.
Anchored by a large Tudor-Gothic-style mansion built in the 1880s, the park is arranged around a placid lake surrounded by trees and lawns, and overlooked by rows of utilitarian buildings erected in the 1940s as the code-breaking work force expanded.
One of these buildings (C-block) bears the main entrance and visitor centre. Here, I paid for my ticket and was ushered into a dark room where a short film introduced the site and its myriad exhibits. There’s a lot to absorb at Bletchley and the recommended visitation time is five hours (fortunately, there’s a decent café in which to rest and recuperate).
Ardent mathematicians can ponder the intricacies of data decryption. Those of a more cultural bent can learn about the vagaries of daily life at the park in the 1940s, everything from the dullness of the food to the irritations of Britain’s wartime Blackout. Scattered around the museum and grounds, you’ll encounter vintage cars, rebuilt computers and a stirring film about D-Day.
For me, the greatest attraction of the park is the way in which it explains the industrial scale of what went on at wartime Bletchley under a heavy veil of secrecy. Exhibits juxtaposing everyday life with extraordinary research tell a complex but riveting story that gives you a genuine sense of history.
The museum quickly dispels the long-held assumption that the war was solely fought and won by armies and soldiers. The Normandy landings would have been practically impossible without the smart decoding that went on at Bletchley between 1942 and 1945, work that provided detailed intel on German defences and troop movements as well as indicating how effectively Hitler had been fooled about the location and timing of D-Day.
While it’s no Downton Abbey, the park’s Victorian-era mansion is the most ornate of the numerous buildings. The bulk of the rooms today retain their pared down wartime furnishings, although some original features remain: The painted glass ceiling in the anteroom is particularly striking. As the war ground on, the code breakers and their support teams quickly outgrew the mansion and additional quarters were hastily constructed in a series of cement and wooden huts around the lake.
It is in these stuffy and claustrophobic buildings that much of the daily life of Bletchley has been recreated. Small, dimly lit rooms and narrow corridors (once thick with cigarette smoke) evoke the heavy secretiveness and cramped working conditions of the early 1940s. Many offices – including Turing’s in Hut 8 – have been dressed up to look exactly how they were during the war: jackets hung on coat stands, papers spread across desks, and rallying war posters urging people to save cardboard, knit socks and refrain from careless gossip.
Grade-A math students should gravitate to B-block for an insight into Bletchley’s precocious code breakers. Focusing on the famous Enigma machines and their lesser-known counterpart, the Lorenz, visitors can delve into the intricacies of the masterful work carried out by British and Polish mathematicians to intercept and decipher German intelligence. While much of the detail went over my head, I was able to enjoy some of the museum’s artier features, including a superb slate statue of Alan Turing by British sculptor Stephen Kettle.
The new Intelligence Factory exhibition is more user-friendly, taking you on a labyrinthine route through a series of interconnected rooms furnished with interactive maps, touch-sensitive screens and fascinating vignettes about the urgent, high-powered work that laid the foundations of modern computing. Charting its course, I was struck by the audacious ambition of Bletchley – the hasty recruitment programs, the fast-track training and endless paperwork – all of it set up practically overnight in top secret.
Leaving the site in the mid-afternoon, my head still swimming with facts and formulas, I climbed back onto the Euston train and tried to put things into perspective. It had been an illuminating and humbling visit. At Bletchley, it wasn’t just military elites that decided the fates of armies and navies, it was a melting pot of dynamic brainpower who were recruited, irrespective of background, to undertake crucial behind-the-lines tasks that helped win the war. We owe them a huge debt.