Our visit to the computer museum at Blechley Park

Front of Bletchley Park House

S had already been to the Computer Museum at Bletchley Park, but I wanted to go too! So we arranged to go back during our week off in July.

Bletchley Park was a centre in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, where people worked tirelessly round the clock during WW2 to decipher messages sent by Hitler and his allies using enigma machines. They also translated the messages, picked out what was most relevant, and passed on crucial information to the military. This information could then be used to position troops where they would be most useful, intercept enemy forces, or even to see how well misinformation, intentionally planted by the UK and its allies was being believed. This became crucial in the D Day landings, because the German forces were expecting the allied troops to land elsewhere.

Today Bletchley Park is open to the public as a museum where you can visit a series of buildings that were originally used by the people working at Bletchley Park. I thought they were all bussed in each morning, but apparently some people lived there full-time as well with numerous groups and social events being organised for them. Of course, we know now what they were doing, but at the time their work was top secret.

Access to information

There is a good mixture of information –in terms of the codebreaking machines, how they worked, how they were used to decipher the encrypted messages, and what it was like for the men and women working in the facility. Some of the rooms have speakers playing conversations as if the workers were talking to one another including references to their work, free time (two women sharing a wedding dress because it was cheaper), and a romantic picnic between two of the people working there – who were allowed to talk about anything apart from what they were actually doing.

In other parts of the museum there were audio recordings that you could listen to by picking up an earpiece. It stopped playing when you replaced it on the cradle. These were first-hand accounts about everyday life, specific individuals, working on the code-breaking machines, and some more personal stories, such as the lady who found out through the intercepted messages that her fiancé’s regiment had been captured. She couldn’t continue her work and had to go home. That must have been so awful.

Working together

One of the things that really struck me was the need for collaborative working. Everyone had their job, but that job on its own didn’t contribute much. You needed all the people working together. The engineers, the people working the machines day and night (often the Wrens – Women’s Royal Naval Service), the translators, the radio operators, the military analysts, and the admin staff. Of course there are key figures like Alan Turing, without whose contributions and designs the process would have been much slower or even impossible as the German equipment became more sophisticated, but in order to be successful, everyone needed to play their part and pull together.

This applied to nations working together as well. Without the codebreaking knowledge provided by Polish experts with their bomba machine even before the war started, the British teams would have been years behind in their research. Similarly, the British team passed on information to their American allies.

Given that many of the men were away overseas in the armed forces, women played a key role in the code breaking operation, particularly as more machines were added that had to be maintained and operated 24/7.

Important figures

Block B contains the museum where you can learn about the life and works of Alan Turing, discover how the work at Bletchley Park influenced key WW2 events, see enigma machines, learn how the Lorenz cypher was broken, and find out more about the various stages of the codebreaking process.

The enigma machine was invented by a German engineer, Arthur Scherbius, after WW1. It looked a bit like a typewriter, but with a lamp board above the letters. The operator pressed the letter that they wanted, and the corresponding enciphered letter lit up on the lamp board. There was also a series of rotors that were set at the beginning of each message transition, and which rotated each time a letter was pressed, thus changing the cypher. In fact, one of the key breakthroughs was when an operator had to transmit a message a second time and didn’t bother changing the starting positions of the rotors. There was also a plug board on the front of the machine, where pairs of letters were transposed, creating further settings to choose from when encrypting the messages.

The bombe machine was a device developed by Alan Turing, with engineering design by Harald Keen, to discover the daily settings of the enigma machines including the rotors being used, their starting positions, and one of the wirings of the plugboard. With this information, the settings on an enigma machine could be replicated and the plaintext of the messages for that day (or pair of days in the case of the German Navy messages) could be discovered, translated, and disseminated. Identifying the settings was made easier by the fact that there were specific words that cropped up in most messages and it would therefore be possible to predict how these would look if you knew the machine’s settings.

You can visit Alan Turing’s office at Bletchley Park, complete with a mug chained to the radiator, and there is also a slate statue of him, which gave me an idea how he looked. It’s also relevant to mention the recent news here that Alan Turing was chosen to appear on the new £50 note, officially recognising his contributions. Alan Turing had been working with the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park part-time since 1938, and he signed up full-time once the war began. He worked with Dilly-Knox on deciphering the encrypted text produced by the enigma machine and also developed a procedure for working out the wheel settings on the Lorenz machine.

Alfred Dilly (Dilwyn) Knox was a codebreaker who worked at Bletchley Park. He helped decrypt the Zimmermann telegram, which brought the USA into WW1. He didn’t see the full extent of the work in which he was involved because he died in 1943, before WW2 had ended, but he worked at Bletchley Park on the cryptanalysis of enigma cyphers, and was responsible for the method that broke the Italian naval enigma.

The highly confidential and strategically important messages between Hitler and German commanders were encrypted using a Lorenz machine. Originally these were deciphered by hand, but the workers could not keep up with the sheer volume of messages that were intercepted and needed to be understood. Therefore, a plan was devised to automate this process using machines. Thanks to Tommy Flowers, a General Post Office engineer, this lead to the design of Colossus, the first semi-programmable electronic computer.

Accessibility

We went in the school holidays, and parking was tricky. Fortunately we have a blue badge! There is also a gift shop on site, and two places where you can buy food. The one with the more extensive choices is not the first one you see, so it’s good to pick up a map and orientate yourself.

In terms of accessibility, my main access to information was S, who read information to me as we went round. There are audio guides, but they are operated using a touch screen, which makes it impossible for someone with no sight to use them. There are also a number of interactive exhibits that demonstrate points about the code-breaking process. These weren’t accessible to me either, but they could easily be replicated later if someone were feeling helpful or creative! Still, it would be good if the museum could look into maybe having some more information available on its website, or at least some of the tasks. Even if they were behind a membership area paywall that you could only access as a ticket holder. It is a museum about technology after all and technology can be a powerful force in terms of making information more accessible.

My main point for going there though was to learn, and with S as my guide, I could definitely do that. In fact, we ran out of time and didn’t manage to see everything, so we’re planning another trip (tickets are valid for one year and disabled people can take an assistant for free).

On the way home we went to Windsor for some delicious Lebanese food. We also stopped by to say “hi!” to the swans of Windsor before making our way home.

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Author: englishwithkirsty

I have two blogs. Unseen Beauty is my personal blog. English with Kirsty is my business blog for people who are interested in languages or learning English.

6 thoughts on “Our visit to the computer museum at Blechley Park”

    1. I know it’s a bit of a trek for you, but well worth going if you can get there. Also if you got there early, it might not be too busy. Can’t really say though as we got stuck in traffic, which is the main reason we didn’t get to see everything!

  1. I’ve never been but I’m glad you got to go as it sounds fascinating and quite comprehensive in terms of the information you’re given and what you get to check out in the museum. I do like the idea of the audio headsets that give you first hand account of what it was like to work there, that must really bring it to life. It’s great the ticket is valid for a year so you can make that return trip to fully explore everything there! xx

    1. Yes, I’ve noticed a few museums and other places doing that lately. I don’t suppose it costs them much more as most people don’t come back, but for people who need a bit longer, or maybe others who can feel overwhelmed if it gets too busy, I think it’s a nice thing to offer.

  2. Good posting and did you know that they code breakers had a reunion yesterday (1st September) marking the 80th anniversary of the start of the conflict. There were up to 10,000 employees originally – amazingly over 80 still managed to attend the reunion this year.
    Good timing for your post today!

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