Learning A Bit About Bletchley Park


I enjoy history for the fact that it is a road map showing us how we got here from there. Military history and the effect of intelligence gathering are at the top of my list. Think of the battle of Midway and the efforts of Joseph Rochefort & his team decrypting the Japanese military codes.

Of course you can have intelligence that is 100% accurate, but you need military commanders who believe it and act on it – thank Adm Nimitz & Adm Spruance for taking that intelligence and changing the Japanese Navy from an offensive to a defensive posture all at Midway.

Lest I completely lose my focus tonight, I was reading a fascinating article on Bletchley Park in the BBC History Magazine.

Bletchley Park was wartime Britain’s equivalent of the NSA (perhaps minus monitoring Angela Merkel’s conversations to her husband on what to get at the supermarket) and I learned that they did a lot more there than “just” cracking the Enigma, the code generated by that German  machine that was considered by many to be impossible.

The knowledge of this code is said to have cut the war in Europe’s duration by 2 years, according to some.

The biggest surprise for me was learning that Bletchley Park was more than just a place that housed math geniuses like Alan Turing .

It went from a population of 200 in 1938 to over 10,000 in 1944, and became an ‘Intelligence Factory”. It was highly segmented and efficiently organized. One of the funnier stories was learning that until declassification in the 1970s, some spouses found out that the other worked there only when meeting each other at reunions.

More surprising facts?

It was more than a code breaking operation but evolved to becoming an integrated signals intelligence entity.

 Because it was centralized, there was a lot of co-operation and knowledge sharing. (this I read elsewhere was the also main reason for focusing the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos)


It was the size of the operation that allowed the success of the code breakers.




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10 responses to “Learning A Bit About Bletchley Park

  1. AndyOH

    What has always fascinated me about certain remote corners of history like this is that we can now look back with 20/20 hindsight and see an enterprise with an outcome that seems inevitable. To most people we know the thought that the Allies should not have prevailed is unimaginable, however at the time the participants must have been truly desperate.

    • Bill Brandt

      What fascinates me about history – particularly military history – is how some things turn on a dime so to speak – the “if onlys” come into play.

      There was a strong chance of Britain being knocked out of the war before Pearl Harbor.

      There was an interesting program on PBS about Hitler’s 6 major mistakes

      Stopping his Army for 24 hours in France allowing for the rescue at Dunkirk, mistakes in Russia, shifting his bombing focus from the RAF airfields to London… they could have knocked out Britain and then imagine us trying to fight Hitler without the “world’s largest aircraft carrier”. Or imagine us then having to live with a Eurasia run by the Nazis.

      If I am not mistaken that was the thinking behind the design of the B29 – that we needed a trans Atlantic bomber. It ended up doing what its original intent was, although not from the US to Europe but Tinian 7 Saipan to Japan. It was about a 4,000 mile round trip. 14 hours.

      Then there was the Abwehr and Wilhelm Canaris.

      Read a fascinating out-of-print book called Secrets of D-Day about the Abwehr – the Nazi’s MI6 – it was inferred that Canaris deliberately helped Churchill on a couple of occasions.

      He was hung by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war.

  2. AndyOH…reminds me of a passage in Herman Wouk’s novel The Caine Mutiny:

    “It seemed to Willie that the war against Japan would be the largest and deadliest in human history, and that it would probably end only in 1955 or 1960, upon the intervention of Russia, a decade after the collapse of Germany. How could the Japanese ever be dislodged from their famed “unsinkable carriers,” the chain of islands, swarming with planes which could massacre any approaching fleet? There would be, perhaps, one costly Tarawa a year. He was sure he was headed for the forthcoming one. And the war would drag on at that rate until he was bald and middle-aged.

    Willie didn’t have a historian’s respect for the victories at Guadalcanal, Stalingrad, and Midway. The stream of news as it burbled by his mind left only a confused impression that our side was a bit aead in the game, but making painful slow work of it. he had often wondered in his boyhood what it might have been like to live in the stirring days of Gettysburg and Waterloo; now he knew, but he didn’t know that he knew. This war seemed to him different from all the others: diffuse, slogging, and empty of drama.”

    • Bill Brandt

      David – I enjoyed Trent’s write up of “what might have been” at Chicagoboyz.net with Operation Olympic (the invasion of Kyushu and Honshu) – and remember that had it not been for the Bomb it was predicted by the planners that the Pacific war would have gone on until November 1948,

  3. I wrote about some of the codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, and the reconstruction of one of types of devices used, here: The Bombe Runs Again


  4. Great post Bill. Bletchley Park started what we have today in places such as GCHQ, your base in North Yorkshire etc. There is some great reading for you on the place that cracked Enigma. On a similar vein, give yourself a treat and get “Agent Zig Zag” by Ben McIntyre about how the first criminal in Britain to use gelignite to blow safes became our greatest double agent.

    • Bill Brandt

      Hogday – I remember reading a book years ago on the cracking of the Enigma – actually according to this article there were numerous Enigma codes – but interestingly the Enigma started out as a commercial machine invented in the 20s (if my flaky memory is working) and nobody was interested in it commercially.

      Thanks for the book recommendations.

  5. Anthony Cave Brown’s Bodyguard of Lies is the foundation book for Ultra, spies, and deception in WWII Northern Europe. It’s a very large book,so If you are put off by the size of it try the fascinating Ultra Goes To Warby Ronald Lewin. It’s a well written overview. For the full picture, slog through the five volumns of British Intelligence in the Second World War by F. H. Hinsley

    For naval interests Ultra at Sea by John Winton, and Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-boat Codes, 1939-1943, by David Kahn are very good.

    For the spies turned by England the official history The Double-Cross System by Sir John.C. Masterman is a good start. This has been updated by Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre.

    There are other books out there for specialized interests, like the poorly written The Hut Six Story by Gordon Welchman.

    Let me know if you need a steer for more.

  6. Pingback: The Bletchley Circle (TV Review) | Green Embers Recommends

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