The A to Z Challenge asks bloggers to post 26 posts, one for each letter of the English alphabet, in April. Most of us choose to make these posts on a particular theme. My theme for 2022 is Codebreaking in World War II, which fits with the topic of the novel that I’m writing. Visit every day (except Sunday) in April for a new post on my topic.
B is for Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park is much more widely known among WWII aficionados than Arlington Hall, it’s American cousin that I wrote about yesterday. Here are my guesses as to why Bletchley Park gets more of the glory.
News about Bletchley Park in World War II leaked out earlier than similar efforts in the US. The popular book The Ultra Secret by F.W. Winterbotham spilled the beans in 1974. Ultra was the code name for the intelligence derived from decrypted enemy radio signals, including those encrypted with the Enigma machine. Although there were errors in Winterbotham’s book, it opened up the field for other researchers and memoirists. Enough military documents were open to the public by 1978 that Ronald Lewin was able to write Ultra Goes to War: the secret story. Lewin eventually wrote a similar book about American intelligence called The Other Ultra in Britain and The American Magic in the US, but not until 1982.
Alan Turing became an unlikely hero, especially among computer geeks and the LGBT community. When I was a college student taking my first classes in computer science in the early 1980s, we were taught about the Turing Machine, a mathematical model of computation, just after learning about Charles Babbage and just before learning about I.B.M. At that point, Turing’s war work, building a machine to decrypt Enigma, was newly available and our professors loved to talk about how the computer geeks saved the world. Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning, ruled a suicide, after a conviction for homosexual acts and while following a chemical castration treatment protocol. The “Alan Turing law” is the informal name for a UK law of 2017 that retroactively pardoned men like Turing who were convicted of violating laws that are now seen as unjust.
Bletchley Park is a museum. After the war, Bletchley Park passed out of government hands and was used as a teacher-training college and headquarters for the region’s post office. In the early 1990s, at risk for demolition, a successful effort was made to form the Bletchley Park Trust tasked with preserving the site and opening it to the public as a museum. The Arlington Hall campus, on the other hand, is still owned by the US government and is shared by the National Foreign Affairs Training Center and the Army National Guard Readiness Center. There is no facility for fans of codebreaking in World War II to visit at this site.
I have lots of things to recommend if you want to explore Bletchley Park more fully. Here’s my report of the day that I spent there in 2014. Two books by Sinclair McKay talk about what it was like to live and work in Bletchley Park, without too much technical detail: The Secret Lives of Codebreakers and The Lost World of Bletchley Park. If you like to learn about historical events from novels, try The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. If you prefer movies, try The Imitation Game.
I’ll share this post on Friday in the British Isles Friday link party.