View Full Version : The Secret War

03-07-03, 09:28 AM
The Secret War

One of the keys to Allied success during the war was the ability of British, Polish, and American code-breakers to read intercepted German transmissions. They carried out their top-secret work at Bletchley Park, which now opens its doors to the public.

By Jerome M. O'Connor

Thousands of books, articles, and personal reminiscences by the generals, admirals, and civilian leadership who masterminded the war effort never mentioned Bletchley Park. The usually loquacious Winston Churchill said nothing in his six-volume History of the Second World War. Sworn to silence by an oath of secrecy, the 10,000 men and women who worked there neither spoke nor wrote anything about it for three decades after the war.

Mysterious English Estate

As a result, much of what happened at Bletchley Park remains as mysterious today as when the 581-acre Buckinghamshire estate became the centre for an unprecedented technological offensive against Hitler's encrypted military communications. Under the code name Ultra, cryptologists at Bletchley intercepted and decoded confidential German radio signals, including the supposedly unbreakable Enigma code, the primary method the German armed forces use to encrypt radio dispatches.

Bletchley Park, with its hulking red brick Victorian mansion, can trace its roots to a landed manor that William the Conqueror awarded to a notable commander after the Battle of Hastings. The estate passed through several succeeding families before being sold in 1883 to a London financier, Sir Herbert Leon. Through the years, the owners periodically enlarged the unassuming residence, adding a servants' wing, ice house, a new entrance hall, a library, a ballroom, and more bedrooms, as well as adding to the existing drawing and dining rooms.

Crossroads And Connection

Though the mansion lacked architectural harmony and refinement, its location made it ideal for Government use. Bletchley Park stood midway between Oxford and Cambridge, fertile sources for young code-breakers. The main trunk highway, the A5, was only a mile distant. Across the street, the mainline Midland & Scottish Railway connected Bletchley with London's Euston station, and the nerve centers of Whitehall and Downing Street were only 42 miles from Bletchley. For all these reasons, the Government appropriated it in 1938 when war seemed imminent.

Breaking Through Stagnation

Prior to Hitler's invasion of Poland, the Western democracies faced no greater danger than the malaise of governmental neglect. In the last days of peace, the British army maneuvered with only 259 tanks and even fewer anti-tank guns, all obsolete. The Home Guard trained with antiquated sporting guns, most lacking ammunition. Only 620 aircraft were combat-ready, and the RAF faced shortages of both fighter pilots and aviation fuel. The proud Royal Navy sailed in a fleet of mostly ancient dreadnoughts, the mightiest of which would soon be on the ocean bottom. The Admiralty ignored the rapidly developing U-boat threat, and the United States could hardly be expected to come to the immediate aid of its cultural cousin; its standing army ranked 18th in the world in size, just behind tiny Holland.

Against this background of stagnation, and in the face of the Nazi threat in late 1938, the first 30 members of the government cipher school began basic operations at Bletchley Park in the mansion's castellated tower. As the code-breakers set to work untangling the Enigma puzzle, the staff rapidly increased in size. Lawns and flower beds outside the mansion's drawing room disappeared beneath crude temporary huts. After an early visit, Churchill ordered that the Leons' cherished Victorian maze be sacrificed to make room for two tennis courts for the entertainment of the staff.

Gilded Geese Gather

At an impromptu gathering outside the mansion, the Prime Minister saluted the intelligence officers, all of whom worked in the greatest anonymity, as the "golden geese that never cackled." The odd-bodies and boffins arriving at the estate were a peculiar lot, even by the often droll standards of the time. During the First World War, linguists did most of the code-breaking work, but by the late 1930s, ciphers had grown much more diverse and puzzling, and the civilian occupations of the new code-breakers included crossword puzzle experts, mathematicians, librarians, literature dons, classicists, musicians, language instructors, historians, accountants, bankers, publishing executives, philosophers and pedagogues from museums, and owners of rare book stores. Housed in scores of huts surrounding the mansion, these savants undertook the desperate task of turning intercepted gibberish into plain-language text.

The translators, linguists, and specialists focused on the four main branches of the German armed forces, and on the Abwehr (the intelligence service) and OKW -- the Nazi general staff, each of which used its own variation of the German code. Naval WRENs operated the hot and noisy decoding machines. Typists transcribed German language plain-text solutions into English. In other huts, clerks catalogued mountains of intercepts, each written in longhand on file cards, into thousands of shoebox-sized cartons.

Bletchley Blended In

Security for these secret inner workings was extensive. Troops, anti-aircraft batteries, and five RAF air bases formed a protective cordon around the complex. While these defenses would have made Bletchley Park a prickly target to attack, they were mainly stationed in the area so the large intelligence staff would blend in and not attract unwanted attention. After France fell and invasion seemed imminent, a train with engine under constant steam waited at the station to transfer the vital code-breaking equipment to Liverpool and passage to America, so the intelligence work could continue even if the Nazis overran England.

Farther afield, thousands of radio operators manning coastal intercept stations, including Knockholt in Kent and Kedleston in Derbyshire, supplied Bletchley Park with encrypted German messages. This raw intelligence often originated under appalling conditions. Enemy transmissions alternated among 226 radio frequencies, and Enigma-coded messages averaged only 10 seconds in duration. Successful detection of important radio traffic had to overcome constant frequency changes, enemy jamming, static caused by storms and other natural phenomena, howling whistles and squeals, and the ordinary sounds of music or dialogue.


03-07-03, 09:29 AM
Constant Stream Of Work <br />
<br />
Motorcycle outriders (and later secure teleprinters) carried intercepted messages -- up to 50 per hour -- to Bletchley for code-breaking and analysis. From there,...