Codebreaking at Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park has been on my list to visit for a few years now after watching ‘The Imitation Game’. So when deciding how to spend our Bank Holiday Monday, Anthony and I decided we would finally make the drive up to Milton Keynes and tick it off the list.

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We checked the website beforehand and noticed that they were running a ‘Past, Present, Future Cryptography Day’ for the Bank Holiday covering the various settings on the Enigma machine as well as learning how modern encryption algorithms work.  The workshop sounded really interesting and so we decided to sign up. It actually worked out much better value going to the Park with an event ticket so I would recommend checking the website in advance – we paid £10.30 each for the event which also gave us full access to Bletchley Park whilst entrance on the day is normally £17.75 each.

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The cryptography event wasn’t quite what I had in mind – it was in a classroom and we were all given worksheets to go through while the teacher stood at the front – so it felt a little bit like being back at school . However, it was fascinating to find out how cryptography works and how the techniques have changed over the years, and we both learned a lot from the day. The man running the session was really engaging and was able to explain everything in a way that was easy to understand for both the adults and children in the room.

I had never seen an Enigma machine before so to have one in the room that we could use was amazing. He taught us how the machine worked and explained why it was deemed to be ‘unbreakable’. There are 15 billion billion settings on the Enigma machine and so to try each of these out manually would have been impossible without Turing’s clever machine.

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Once we had looked at the real Enigma machine, we all got to have a go at breaking codes on a simulator app. If anyone is interested in playing around with an Enigma simulator, there is a free to download app which can be downloaded here.

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The cryptography event finished at 3pm and so we still had a few hours to look around the park. We found that we were able to cover everything we wanted to in those few hours but equally, we could have used the whole day to wander round and read everything in more depth in each of the rooms / huts so there is plenty to do even if you don’t sign up for an event.

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In the museum area of Bletchley Park, they have a fully operational Bombe machine – a machine that Alan Turing built to help break the Enigma machine. The machine runs at various points through the day and they have volunteers there to explain what the machine is doing and its importance in the war effort.

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Despite knowing a bit about the role of codebreaking in the war before going to Bletchley Park, I hadn’t quite grasped the complexity of the machine Turing had designed and the incredible intellect that he showed until I looked around the Park.

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The Park is designed well with each hut showing a different aspect of Bletchley Park and there are interactive games in some of the rooms.

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There is a mansion in the grounds which is where people assigned to Bletchley Park went to sign the confidentiality forms on their first day. It was also used for various functions including dances and the occasional Bletchley wedding.

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The office rooms in the mansion are kept as they would have looked during the war, with people’s cardigans and coats hung up and papers ready in the typewriters.

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Whilst the details of the work that was carried out at Bletchley Park was fascinating, I also loved finding out about the day to day life there. Despite the enormity of their work and the fear of war-time, people were still able to enjoy themselves and form life-long friendships and romances. Societies and clubs were formed so that people with similar interests could pursue their hobbies and passions in their free time. Amateur dramatic societies performed plays for everyone and dances were put on to help boost morale. In one of the rooms in the mansion, you can hear numerous recordings of former Bletchley Park residents talking about their memories of their time there and how they spent their free time.

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As well as the rooms on display, there is also plenty to explore in the grounds.

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There is a lake in the middle of the park so we had a slow wander around the perimeter of it and sat on the bench to enjoy the surroundings and look at the ducks and swans paddling and trying to steal people’s lunches.

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I tried to imagine young couples during WW2 walking around the park hand in hand as we were, trying to forget about the horrors of the war and just for a moment, enjoying their time together.

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I absolutely loved our day at Bletchley Park and would recommend a visit to anyone interested in that era. The Park has been designed very well so that it covers the work that went on there and how the codebreakers helped to win the war as well as the social aspect of Bletchley.

It is mad to think that these amazing people showed such genius but were unable to be acknowledged for their work for so long. Once the war was over, they simply had to continue their lives without telling their friends and family exactly what had gone on and their role in helping to win the war. It is lovely that Bletchley Park has been preserved so that they can finally be respected and admired by the general public and their legacy can be taught to new generations.

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for your review of Bletchley Park. So interesting to read about the Enigma machine and also the daily lives of people living during this time. I’d love to take the kids on a visit there – it’s on my list! – and now I feel like I will know what to look out for too. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comment Juliana – I’m so glad to hear that you found the post useful and I hope that you and your children enjoy Bletchley Park as much as we did!

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