It may be a regular in our local headlines but how much do you really know about Bletchley Park? The latest in our series celebrating the city’s rich heritage, looks at a secret that needs to be shared.
Getting the secret out
It’s when I get chatting to a steward who drives almost 90 miles to volunteer at Bletchley Park that I realise the immense hold the so-called ‘home of the codebreakers’ has on many people’s hearts.
Such a hold that it was saved from the bulldozers not just once, but numerous times. And inspired a small team of local enthusiasts, awed by the remarkable stories of 400 former staff they’d invited to a ‘farewell party’, to ditch the farewell and dedicate themselves to begging, borrowing, cajoling and campaigning to begin restoring Bletchley Park for a nation that needed to know what a huge debt it owed those who’d worked there.
Half a century of silence
Looking at the engrossed faces of the tour groups travelling to Bletchley from all over the world, it’s hard to understand how we could have allowed it to run so close to the wire.
The reason only becomes clear when our guide, John Oxley, shares some of the stories he’s garnered from visitors who were part of the effort to unencrypt enemy messages during the Second World War: people like cryptanalyst John Herivel whose contribution to cracking the Enigma codes was key, but who, movingly, remained silent, even when his dying father voiced regret that John had been ‘so good at maths but never did anything with it’.
A crucial contribution
Without its veil of absolute secrecy Bletchley Park could have achieved nothing and that message was so fundamental that many who worked there took their stories to the grave. It’s hard to imagine in a world where people’s private lives and secrets are the stuff of newspaper headlines every day, yet at the height of the Park’s war effort 10,000 people were able to come and go from their Bletchley and district digs 24 hours a day without the local population knowing why.
(One story from someone who grew up in the town has it that most locals believed it was a hospital for people with psychiatric problems – which has a resonance given the fragility of some of the brilliant minds that worked there.)
Their sacrifice was worth it of course. Intercepting and extracting intelligence from around 300 enemy messages a day was not only crucial to the Battle of Britain, North Africa campaign and the D-Day landings, but may even have saved Britain from going under as German attacks wrought havoc on the essential supplies trying to reach us by sea.
Historians now believe that the efforts of these 10,000 people shortened the war by at least two years, saving countless lives.
Turing and Colossus
Equally monumental in terms of its contribution to all our lives was the development of the world’s first electronic computer: the codebreaking Colossus which deciphered messages passing between German high command. Among those involved was Alan Turing, who history is now beginning to recognise as the ‘father of modern computing’.
The centenary of Turing’s birth this year has delivered a further boost to Bletchley Park’s profile and reputation. Yet, ironically, the Park’s supporters are as much up against the clock as Turing’s generation. Time and the weather are no respecters of history and while we can all cheer Bletchley Park Trust’s success in winning £7.4million to fully restore the huts where the army and airforce deciphering operations took place, the next hurdle – this time to secure £15 million for other major works including a proper visitor centre - has already begun.
Sadly, the clock is also ticking for the codebreakers themselves and the task of capturing their stories while we still can. Every volunteer guide at Bletchley Park has their own fund of fascinating tales, told to them by Bletchley Park ‘returners’, who’d been sitting modestly in the audience until they were convinced it was time to break their own code of secrecy and share. But there’s much still to be done.
Treasure in our midst
It’s this message that today’s Bletchley Park generation want to bring home to those of us living nearby, in the hope we too will be inspired to lend our support. Says Chief Executive of the Bletchley Park Trust, Iain Standen: “Bletchley Park is a national treasure, possibly one of the most important sites in British history, and it is part of Milton Keynes’ identity. We’d love to see more local people through the gates.”
That’s been made more attractive by an annual season ticket allowing multiple entries for just £12. Plus the Park’s laid on family fun days throughout the summer holidays and is always adding to an events programme which covers everything from fireworks to 40s days.
Plus there’s always volunteering. It turns out you don’t have to do a 90-mile round trip to be a part of helping Bletchley Park survive to tell its story for many more generations to come!
> Details of visiting, events and volunteering at www.bletchleypark.org.uk . Bletchley Park is one of five heritage organisations which have joined forces as The Milton Keynes Collection www.mkcollection.co.uk to ensure more people know about and can get involved in the area’s history.