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An Interview with Bletchley Park’s Oral Historian

Decoding Room in Hut 6, Bletchley Park © GCHQ

It's a big year for Bletchley – Alan Turing was named "Greatest Person of the 20th Century", GCHQ turns 100 years old, and there are some major new exhibitions opening at the Park! We spoke to Jonathan Byrne, who's the Oral History Officer at Bletchley Park Trust.

Why is Bletchley the place to visit if you’re interested in the history of GCHQ?

Well you can’t visit GCHQ itself for obvious reasons, but you can visit Bletchley to see the wartime story of the operations that became GCHQ, and learn about how it contributed to Allied success in the Second World War. We have a lot of first-hand stories available to listen to, even without coming to Bletchley Park there are many on our website.

What commemorations are planned this (centenary) year?

The D-Day experience is our major event this year, and it's also the 80th anniversary of the WAAFS in 2019 – all three women’s services have had similar anniversaries either from start of WWII or end of WWI – so there’ll be pop-up display for the WAAFS later this year. Each service will quite rightly be recognised. There’s a big exhibition in the Science Museum, which we’re providing support to, and there’ll be a centenary display in the Autumn at Bletchley celebrating 100 years of GCHQ.

How and why was Bletchley Park chosen in the first place?

From 1919, the Government Code and Cypher School was based in Central London, near St James’ Underground Station. The people at the top of the organisation realised that if war were going to come they’d need to expand, and move out of London and away from the danger of bombing. The head of the GCCS found the Bletchley Estate, with a big house and lots of space to expand if necessary – it was away from any cities, available to buy and had good transport links. And just down the road there was also a big GPO “repeater” that boosted telegraph messages from London to the North, so it was a very convenient place to plug in.

Who was recruited, and how?

Deniston, the head of the GCCS realised you’d need to bring in people with skills, so he thought the obvious place to look would be universities, which meant Oxford and Cambridge to start with. They drew up a list of people who could be called upon – Mathematicians, Classicists, Historians, linguists – people with good analytical skills. The list was recruited very quickly when war broke out, including Alan Turing. As the war went on, they needed more and more people – graduates but also less highly qualified people for support roles. In those days, sexism applied, so at first they just recruited men, and then realised women had degrees and could do the job as well… They also went on to target universities like Sheffield and the Scottish universities.

Did they really get picked up on Bletchley Park station platform by mysterious strangers…?

Well. We’ve seen lots of letters from the Foreign Office asking people to make their way to Bletchley Park station at a specific time, where they will be met or have to ring a phone number. They didn’t know what they were being recruited for, which I suppose was quite mysterious. But as far as I know, no long raincoats or whatnot. These interviewees would have been very young, too, in their late teens. You would also have people who were already in the armed forced, people who spoke German perhaps. And then they’d get the letter and the rail ticket to Bletchley, or whatever.

And were people recruited via crossword competitions?

I’ve never got to the bottom of that – I think it was done, but it was by no means the only or indeed major way of recruiting. My volunteers and I have interviewed over 450 veterans over the last few years and none of them have mentioned being recruited through those means.

What was the scale of the operation?

At the height of the war there were about 9000 people working at Bletchley Park itself. There was a shift system so 3000 at any one time. The work varied from high intellect stuff that people like Turing were doing to more routine – but very important – stuff. The process was all manual, and as I’ve heard from the veterans very repetitive and boring. So it wasn’t all “Eureka!” moments – those were fairly rare. It was a process. Messages would come in from intercept sites, they’d then be indexed, sorted, people would look through them and having a guess at how the message would be set up. They would then come up with suggested settings for the Bombe machine. Then another machine would start typing the processed message and if it came out as meaningful German, you knew it was right. They were doing this every day with dozens of groups of settings. So for a lot of people it was boring – but they knew it was important. Keeping secrets was part of the national culture.

What about the secret of Bletchley? Did people really keep schtum for decades after the War?

They were certainly told never to talk about it – not during the work nor afterwards. They went back to normal lives afterwards, and in many ways they put it to the back of their minds. Some kept in touch with former colleagues – but they didn’t talk about “remember that time you de-coded that message?” – they carried on as normal friends. It wasn’t until 1974 that the book came out… There was someone called Fred Winterbotham, who was not at Bletchley himself but part of the network – he set up the system by which the ultra intelligence, the highly secret intelligence that Bletchley produced was sent to Churchill or senior military commanders or whoever. After the war he retired and wrote an autobiography. A writer he doesn’t name approached him about Bletchley and the secret code breaking, so he went back to the Ministry Of Defence saying that it was going to come out, why don’t they let him write the story? They agreed as long as he didn’t say anything about how they actually broke codes, which was fine as he didn’t know – he had nothing to do with that. That came out in 1974 and it was the first time most people had ever heard about Bletchley – including the people who’d worked there and always wondered what they’d been doing! That opened the floodgates and over the years more and more books have appeared.

Many of the people working at Bletchley were women – what was their involvement?

We have a Roll of Honour, which is a list of everybody we know about who worked at Bletchley. The total number is currently over 13,100 working for Bletchley (we don’t just honour those who worked on site) and over 7,900 at the Park itself – so we’re missing over a thousand names. 63% of the 13,100 were women and 73% of the 7,900 were women, doing things like operating Bombe machines and Holorith equipment that stamped data onto cards so that they could be indexed, which were pretty skilled jobs. Another major area where women were employed was teleprinting, mostly done by the WAAFS (The Women's Auxiliary Air Force) and Bombes were mostly WRENS (The Women's Royal Naval Service), maintained by RAF technicians. We currently have a display on site commemorating the 80th anniversary of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), open until summer 2019. Overall the ATS was the largest of the women’s services in the British Forces during WW2 with 250,000 members at its peak, yet the smallest of the three stationed at BP, so we’re keen to highlight their role on site.

The D-Day exhibition opens to the public on 11 April, and the commemoration of the WAAFS will coincide with their 80th anniversary on 28 June.

To find out more, visit the Bletchley Park website.