Friday, 26 March 2010

Bletchley Park – Station X and more

BP Manor House
Bletchley Park is somewhere we have wanted to go for years. The tale of one of the most secret operations in Britain during World War 2 did not come out till the 1970s and the site was nearly lost in 1991 when there were plans to demolish the dilapidated mansion and redevelop the site.
Then, in 1992, Milton Keynes Borough Council stepped in and, thankfully, made it a Conservation Area. A few days later the Bletchley Park Trust was formed to maintain the site as a museum devoted to the codebreakers. The site opened to visitors in 1993 and we’ve been muttering “We must go there.” every time we travel South.
It was well worth the visit. The workers were housed in huts, the early ones of wood but the motley collection added to with brick buildings as the workforce increased.
Hut 8 Alan Turing Hut 12 Ian Fleming P1000812
In addition to the story of the code breakers, there is now a computer science museum, a Winston Churchill display and a lot of other exhibits about World War 2. It is all beautifully displayed, staffed by friendly volunteers and in a lovely setting.
It seems that something about the war which started in 1939 brought out the best of minds – Alan Turing, Ian Fleming and many more. I wonder if it was the last time that individualism and eccentricity were valued? Today, if a man was so absent minded that he threw his empty coffee cup into the lake because he couldn’t think what else to do with it, he would be ‘diagnosed’ with something and probably never reach his potential.
What is really fascinating is not just the achievements of the staff, but the sheer scale and successful secrecy of the establishment. By 1945, some 9,000 people worked there and, in the course of the war, over 12,000 people were employed (of whom 80% were women).
Churchill never shared the secrets of the code breakers with the Soviet Union and the story was not revealed till the 1970s. It seems that no one talked and they say that some are reluctant even now. There are stories of couples getting married who had both worked there and who never told one another what they had done in the war.
One woman told her story to the BBC WW2 Peoples War archives – which I recommend as a source of fascinating tales of ‘real’ Brits during the period. Joy Ettridge (1) wrote her story, as so many did, with an air of slight surprise that anyone would be interested.
“In 1942 I went to work at Bletchley Park, - Bletchley Park, BP, Station X, Ultra, Enigma - they were names which meant nothing to the world at large then, or for thirty years to come. National security and the Official Secrets Act saw to that.
In wartime no hint of what went on within the perimeter fence of Bletchley Park escaped to the world outside, and strict internal security meant there was virtually no contact between different ‘sections’, even between different rooms within a ‘section’, except at the highest level. That secrecy was maintained until the 1970s - and, indeed, some of my former colleagues still prefer to remain silent about the specific work which they once did, even amongst themselves.”
She goes on to tell how her husband was recruited.
“My husband, Hugh, whom I first met at the Park, received, literally out of the blue, a letter telling him to go to Bletchley station and ring a certain number.A car was sent to fetch him for interview. He was an Oxford M.A., had lived and studied in Germany and was fluent in the language. He had also just obtained his Yachtmaster’s certificate and had hoped that these qualifications would fit him to take part in secret landings on the coast of occupied Europe. Someone must have thought of another use for those qualifications: he found himself in Naval intelligence at Bletchley Park. Recently I’ve learned from other people that they were recruited in the same cloak-and-dagger way, via the summons to Bletchley station.”
There really is more to see than can be coped with in one visit but the entrance fee gives a year’s season ticket for as many visits as you like.  Will we go back?  You bet!
Acknowledgements(1) Copyright Joy Ettridge at WW2 People's War. The site is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at'

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