Pocket Britain
Britain > South Midlands > Bletchley Park

The house that won World War II in secret

Bletchley Park is a mansion in Buckinghamshire, between Oxford and Cambridge. The building itself has an unremarkable history. It had many different owners, from businessmen to politicians, who each added new rooms, extensions or outbuildings. Bletchley ended up as a uneven, misshapen structure, in a messy mix of architectural styles. In 1938, this unattractive place was quietly acquired by the government. Within the next few years, as World War II broke out, it became one of the most important places in the country. Bletchley Park was the home of Britain's code breakers, who would prove to be crucial in winning the war.
Obviously, running a war campaign is a complicated affair, and the Germans would send thousands upon thousands of messages per day. These were difficult to intercept, but an even trickier problem was the codes. Each message was scrambled up into a seemingly meaningless jumble of letters and numbers, using extremely complicated patterns and ciphers. This was done using an apparently infallible device called the Enigma Machine.
Of course, Britain's intelligence agencies soon set about trying to break these unbreakable codes. They assembled a crack team of nerds, geeks and boffins, including librarians, mathematicians and crossword experts; some of the most intelligent people the country had. These people were all brought to Bletchley, and put to work inside specially built huts that surrounded the mansion.
Another key part of the operation was the technology. In order to crack the codes, British scientists invented the world's very first computer. It was nicknamed Colossus, and it nearly filled an entire room. Nevertheless, ten of these machines were in use by the end of the War.
Altogether, the operation at Bletchley Park was huge, with thousands of staff employed there. Despite this scale, the work was conducted under a veil of utmost secrecy. None of the code breakers ever divulged their business to anyone, not even to their families. The public hadn't the slightest clue about the operation until well into the 70s, when Bletchley's successes were finally unveiled.
As it turned out, messages were decoded at an astounding speed. By the end of the war, Winston Churchill was reading German messages several hours before Hitler ever set eyes on them. These had a vital military value, and the Allied armies won important victories. Without Bletchley Park, who knows how things would have turned out.
With World War II won, the code breaking machines were destroyed. Bletchley Park was emptied, closed, and boarded up. The staff who used to worked there continued to uphold their vow of silence, and for many decades, barely a soul knew about what really went on there. It was only in 1993 that the building was finally opened to the public as a museum, and the code breakers were recognised for the astounding work that they did.
The exhibitions at Bletchley include a recreated Colossus, as well as an entire computer museum. It explains how computing developed from the very beginning. Other exhibits tell the stories of what happened at Bletchley. They go into more detail about the fabulously complicated processes that were employed to crack the vital codes. The site is filled with other historical artefacts and displays, from children's toys to a recreated wartime post office.
There's also a section dedicated to Winston Churchill, where you can see his photographs, and hear his speeches. Churchill famously described the workers at Bletchley Park as "the geese who laid the golden eggs - but never cackled".
Visitor Information
Bletchley Park is open daily, 10.30am to 4pm. Entry costs around £10 for adults, £6 children. The Mansion, Bletchley Park, Sherwood Drive, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, MK3 6EB. Tel: 01908 640404

Back ~ Top ~ Home ~ Index

Pocket Britain is optimised for use on a smartphone or tablet with internet access. All content is subject to copyright. All reasonable methods have been used to ensure information supplied is accurate at the time of publication. However, it is advisable to check information before relying on it. Privacy Policy