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03-07-03, 10:28 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, 10:29 AM
Constant Stream Of Work

Motorcycle outriders (and later secure teleprinters) carried intercepted messages -- up to 50 per hour -- to Bletchley for code-breaking and analysis. From there, noteworthy decrypts went immediately to the Prime Minister in his own secret complex at the Cabinet War Rooms in central London.

The joint military and civilian staff at Bletchley worked on trestle tables set up in drafty and poorly lighted huts. Women outnumbered men eight to one. The military wore uniforms without badges of rank or unit markings. Civilians dressed in tweeds and corduroy. Everyone worked furiously, eight hours on and eight hours off around the clock, from the day the war started until it ended almost six years later.

Quiet Diversions

Some of the staff lived in stately homes vacated for the duration -- such as Steeple Clayden and Beaumanor -- and others slept in lonely cells above crossroads pubs. Betty Warwick, now of Lancaster Gate London, and other Royal Navy WREN personnel were billeted at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, home of the Duke of Bedford. "Secrecy was so great that at the end of a watch we never talked about our jobs, nor spoke with those in other huts or knew what they did. We sometimes spent an off-duty day in Oxford or Cambridge, or walking the beautiful grounds at Woburn and enjoying the fresh air." Life at Bletchley was not without opportunities to socialize and temporarily disengage from the crushing stress of duty. Recreational outlets included a drama club and dances, and American swing bands and Bing Crosby recordings frequently played on phonographs. Predictably, considering the peacetime occupations of the staff, bridge and chess were also popular diversions.

"Magic" Bombe

Much of the success achieved at Bletchley Park derived from an intelligence coup before the war even began, when Polish scientists gave British agents a working model of a German Enigma encoding machine and plans for an electromechanical code-breaking device called a "bombe." Britain also cooperated with the United States by exchanging covert intelligence well before America officially entered the war in 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave Churchill the secrets of "Magic," the American code-breaking system that had penetrated the Japanese naval ciphers. In return, Churchill shared details about Ultra and the Enigma intercepts. A massive British undercover operation at Rockefeller Center in New York City controlled joint intelligence exchanges. U.S. Army, Navy, and civilian cryptanalysts arrived at Bletchley Park months before Pearl Harbor. One of them, William Friedman, America's leading cryptanalyst, strategized with Alan Turing, the English code-breaking genius and inventor of modern digital computing.

Turing's Colossus

By 1943 Bletchley Park cryptanalysts were intercepting and reading a deluge of 3,000 messages per day. The torrent of incoming information threatened to overwhelm the capability of the sprocket-driven Polish bombes, persuading Alan Turing and engineer Tommy Flowers to co-invent a revolutionary digital, electronic, programmable computer. The sole purpose of their 2,500-tube mainframe, named Colossus, was to read the coded personal correspondence sent by Hitler to top battlefield commanders. Colossus turned even this most secret German communication into just another open book in Bletchley's vast archive of information. Communiqués faced almost immediate decoding by Colossus, which automatically printed solutions in the original German. Bletchley often learned of precise enemy orders even before the German generals to whom they were dispatched. Despite several clues that should have raised suspicions, the German military continued to trust Enigma's security throughout the war and used the fatally flawed system until the end.

The Ne Plus "Ultra"

The "Ultra Secret" changed the lives of the millions who fought and unknown others affected by its global reach. By discerning the names of enemy units as well as their strength, exact location, orders of battle, and ammunition and fuel status, Ultra neutralized entire divisions while at the same time conserving Allied resources. Penetrating the German naval code disclosed the specific locations of U-boat Wolf Packs and their refueling vessels. Ultra even provided attacking destroyer captains with knowledge of the U-boats' operational depth. As a result, German submarine losses grew to unacceptable levels, forcing them to redeploy in safer waters. Ultra was the silent partner in winning the Battle of the Atlantic, in sinking the Bismarck, in the victorious Battle of El Alamein, the successful Normandy invasion, and in many other engagements. By learning that Hitler expected the Allies to aim their invasion at the Pas de Calais, Ultra enabled Allied commanders to fool Hitler into moving 19 invaluable German divisions away from Normandy by the ruse of a fictitious army commanded by a very real General George Patton.

Without Ultra, the 1944 Normandy invasion might very possibly have failed or been postponed, and the European war would have continued until at least 1946. Scores of new high-speed U-boats then under construction, as well as new German jet fighters already in the skies, could easily have prolonged the fighting into 1947.

Abandoned Secret

Even when the war ended, Bletchley Park's contribution remained secret. Churchill ordered the destruction of all the code-breaking machines. The Bletchley mansion was closed, the staff discharged, and the huts emptied and boarded-up.

Today, across from the still-operating Bletchley Park rail station, a narrow lane overgrown in vines leads contemporary visitors past rusty barbed wire fencing to the unchanged red brick Victorian mansion. Echoing with abandonment, the same huts emerge beyond the great house like sections of a crooked ladder carelessly littering the Leons' gentle lawns, marking the site where history was made and where the secret can at last be told.