Bletchley Park: Home of the codebreakers and much more

11 Sep 2018

Bletchley Park mansion. Image: Eoin Murphy

PhD researcher Eoin Murphy took a trip to Bletchley Park as part of his Researchfest-winning prize. Here’s what he learned on his tour of Enigma codebreaking history.

In June, I was delighted to be announced as the winner of Researchfest at Inspirefest 2018. For the competition winner, BT Ireland generously sponsored a prize comprising a trip for two to Bletchley Park.

Truth be told, my knowledge of the important role Bletchley Park played in bringing World War II to an end was limited to what I had seen in the Oscar-nominated movie, The Imitation Game. I would soon find out that what was illustrated in the film was only a small fraction of the story.

‘The staff have a genuine desire to transport you back in time to when this facility was fully operational and up to 10,000 people worked around the clock to decipher the German Enigma code’

We set out from London Euston train station to take the 45-minute journey north-west towards Bletchley. Within a few minutes, you exit the urban sprawl of north London, entering the countryside to a backdrop of low hills and farmland.

The train station at Bletchley is small and old. As soon as we left the station, we began to sense the excitement from the other visitors as we made the short walk to the park entrance. Upon entering the park, we were immediately greeted by the smiling staff who directed us into Block C, which now acts as the visitor centre.

From the outside, the building has a military-style appearance, but on the inside it takes on a different life. The warmth and energy from the staff within the visitor centre really set the tone for the entire park. We could sense that the staff have a genuine desire to transport you back in time to when this facility was fully operational and up to 10,000 people worked around the clock to decipher the German Enigma code.

The people behind the codebreaking

We were welcomed by the manager, Stuart Nicholls, who really seemed excited and honoured to be in a position to help share this historic period with the public. He introduced us to a gentleman named Geoffrey Snowden, who would be our tour guide. Snowden had, in his early life, been a pilot in the RAF. As soon as he began to speak, you could sense the level of knowledge he had of Bletchley Park.

He gave a brief overview of the tour, and was keen to impress on us the fact that the real story of Bletchley is the community that was created by the men and women who worked tirelessly throughout the war years. Without these people, it is estimated that the war could have lasted up to four years longer and potentially 21m more lives may have been lost.

Alan Turing’s genius may have allowed for the decrypting of the coded messages being generated by the German Enigma machine, but Snowden really wanted us to recognise the role played by the thousands of others who allowed for this facility to function – 8,000 of whom were women.

‘Without these people, it is estimated that the war could have lasted up to four years longer and potentially 21m more lives may have been lost’

A slate sculpture of a man seated at an Enigma codebreaking machine stands amid a museum exhibition.

The stacked slate sculpture of Alan Turing created by Stephen Kettle. Image: Eoin Murphy

The technology that won the war

As soon as we stepped out of the vibrant visitor centre and into the open air, we began to see the full scale of Bletchley Park. Snowden guided us up the hill away from Block C and brought us to the first point of interest: the Bletchley Park Memorial. The memorial was unveiled in 2011 in remembrance of those who, due to the secret nature of the facility, never received any recognition for their work.

Behind the memorial lies the Block B museum. The museum contains a gallery documenting the life and works of Alan Turing, as well as the largest public display of Enigma machines in the world. What really struck me from Snowden’s description of the different Enigma machines on display was how inventive the creators really were and how devastating advanced technology can be when it falls into the wrong hands.

‘We really felt as if we were back in the war time as we made our way from one room to the next’

An old machine that looks like a large typewriter in a wooden case is showcased in a museum exhibition.

A German M4 Enigma machine. Image: Eoin Murphy

Continuing up the hill, we got our first glimpse of the lake, which is located in the centre of the park. To the right of the lake, there are a number of single-storey long huts. The first we entered on the tour was Hut 8, which contains an interactive exhibition illustrating the different methods used by the codebreakers in breaking the German naval Enigma messages.

The rooms are left exactly as they were at the time, with plain wooden floors and basic tables and chairs. We really felt as if we were back in the war time as we made our way from one room to the next. We also saw a recreation of Alan Turing’s office, exactly as it would have looked during World War II.

If the early part of the tour had been about the human story, Hut 11 gave us an insight into the level of ingenious technology that went into breaking the Enigma-encrypted messages. Assisted by interactive displays and films, visitors can really see how important this work was in bringing the war to an end. Snowden was keen to point out that it was mainly all women who operated these machines, again demonstrating how integral women were in the functioning of Bletchley Park.

The secrets of Station X

The Bletchley Park mansion is filled with so much history, it deserves its own tour. The stand-out message given to us by Snowden was that it was a place where those who worked in Bletchley Park could maintain a small level of social interaction during an extremely difficult period. Many clubs and groups were formed by the workers, offering a welcome distraction from the pain and anguish they would have felt as a result of the war across Europe.

This was the end of the official tour and I can honestly say I don’t think I have ever been on a tour where the guide had so much knowledge of their location. It was an absolute pleasure to spend some time with Snowden.

Fortunately for us, this would not be the end of our tour. Nicholls, the manager who had welcomed us on arrival, promised he would show us another aspect usually closed to the public. Having said our goodbyes to Snowden, Nicholls led us up the main stairs in the mansion, departing the tour zone. From the top of the stairs, we made our way along two narrow corridors, climbing some more steps before reaching a small room.

A young man sits holding an ear piece to his ear and speaking into a microphone connected to old communications equipment.

Eoin Murphy tries out the equipment at Station X, which is still fully functional. Image: Eoin Murphy

Nicholls informed us that the door at the end of this room led to Station X. The room contained radio equipment that allowed MI6 to maintain contact with their agents in destinations as far away as Norway and north Africa.

This room was so secret that even the Enigma codebreakers were unaware of its existence. To be allowed to sit at the actual equipment that was used for communications during World War II really was an honour.

Having finished the tour, we left with a real of sense of not only the importance of Alan Turing and the codebreakers, but also how it was the collective work of many thousands that potentially saved millions of lives. Bletchley Park remains a special place, and the continued work by those involved ensures we do not forget the important roles those in the past played.

By Eoin Murphy

Eoin Murphy is a PhD researcher and multi-award-winning science communicator based in NUI Galway. Murphy was the winner of Researchfest 2018 as well as a runner-up in FameLab Ireland 2018. When he’s not busy working on his research, he can be found climbing a mountain or backpacking around the world.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.