Government Code & Cypher School, Bletchley Park
Codebreaking, and the Codebreakers who worked at the Government Code & Cypher School (GC&CS) that operated at Bletchley Park throughout World War Two, have been in the news recently with the publication a flurry of books about one of the most famous of them, a 2015 feature film and various television productions.
Alan Turing was arguably one of the most famous of the Codebreakers, certainly amongst the general public, and only now are his achievements being recognised. Sadly much of the recognition is because he was a homosexual in times when that activity was illegal and he was prosecuted for that activity, subsequently committing suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple (so it is inferred).
So what has all this to do directly with my recent visit to Bletchley Park in late October 2015? My good friend Neil Mercer, whose company is named Enigma, after the German encoding machine of the same name, recently acquired a postcard sent by Alan Turing to an eight year old girl shortly before his death in 1954. This was one of the only personal items of Turing's memorabilia still in the public domain.
Neil discovered that Maria Summerscale, as she now is, was still living relatively close to Bletchley Park. As Maria Greenbaum, she was the daughter of psychiatrist Franz Greenbaum to whom Turing went for help in the last months of his life, and with whom she formed a friendship. Accordingly she accepted his invitation to join us for the day.
Andrew Hodges, the author of ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’, upon which the 2015 film ‘The Imitation Game’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley is based, was also invited. Although he had written about Maria he had never met her and knew nothing of the postcard.
Stephen Kettle, an outstanding sculptor and the creator of the unique and magnificent slate sculpture of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, joined the party, accompanied by his good friend and woodland park creator Robbie Ryder. Completing the group was Neil’s daughter Katy.
We were greeted by representatives of Bletchley Park and repaired to the coffee shop for introductions. Maria had brought many personal mementos of her family’s friendship with Turing and a photograph of her at the time of Turing’s death, few of which Andrew Hodges had seen. Neil had also brought his copy of Andrew’s book with him, which prompted me to dash to the Bletchley Park bookshop to collar a copy, allowing everyone present at this historic occasion to sign both. Neil also brought a slate maquette of Alan Turing, created by Stephen to help win the commission for the full-size sculpture and the postcard that brought about this historic meeting.
First stop on our guided tour was Block B, a hardened blast-proof block built in 1942 as Bletchley Park rapidly expanded. Then Block B housed the mechanised codebreaking factory, but today it is home to various exhibitions and galleries, including the Life & Works of Alan Turing, the largest public display of Enigma machines in the world and a working example of the Turing-Welchman ‘Bombe’ - the electro-mechanical machine designed to speed up the breaking of the Enigma code.
The room is dominated by a life-size slate sculpture of Alan Turing, seated and working on an Enigma machine. Stephen had crafted this from thousands of pieces of Welsh slate and he and Robbie alarmed many visitors by suddenly lifting up the top, chest section, of the sculpture! Of course it was designed to be transportable and this was the method of achieving that, although nobody recognised this fact at the time. A visiting Canadian was overwhelmed by Stephen's offer to scratch his signature on a piece of slate with his keys for her to take home as a memento of the day.
From there we went to Hut 8 which housed the office that Turing used during his time at Bletchley Park. The guide let slip that all the office fittings, which looked authentic to our untrained eyes, were in fact the result of many eBay purchases and scouring of secondhand shops. The curators had rooms full of spare typewriters and artificially ‘distressed’ text books to replace ones that visitors walked off with. In the same Hut is a superb interactive exhibition of codebreaking, demonstrating how modern computing is perfect for illustrating the dawn of the computer age.
Thence to Hut 4, now a cafe, for lunch and a few more photographs before the time came to say adieu to Maria. To meet someone who knew Turing and was involved - however marginally - in his life was a real privilege and we will all treasure the day. For me to spend the day in the company of three former matelots, one a world class sculptor, one an enthusiastic wildlife park owner, and one an eccentric solicitor, his daughter, an author of a best selling book and the charming recipient of a postcard sent by a renowned codebreaker was one that I shall treasure for ever - thank you for allowing me to be part of it.
If you want to know more about the codebreaking operations at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing and my fellow conspirators follow these links:
Shot on a Nikon D3S using NIKKOR AF-S 16-35mm F/4G VR, NIKKOR AF 50mm f/1.4D and NIKKOR AF 85mm f/1.4D lenses.