Unscrambling Bletchley Park’s secrets
By Betsa Marsh
They worked in utter secrecy, decoding messages around the clock. Even as their brains overflowed with numbers and words, they never spoke a syllable. Some people were so terrified of talking that they postponed surgery for fear of blurting secrets under anesthesia.
These were England’s Bletchley Park codebreakers, the brilliant men and women who broke the German Enigma code during World War II. The silent heroes who were credited by General Dwight D. Eisenhower with shortening the war by at least two years, saving countless lives.
Their brainpower and sacrifice are especially heralded this month, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
And yet no one knew their story until 1974, when one of the Bletchley Park staffers broke Britain’s Official Secrets Act with a tell-all book. Some of the codebreakers called this treason: They were determined to go to their graves without ever speaking of their secret missions at Bletchley.
Some never did speak, but others have come forward to help tell a remarkable story of human intellect and perseverance under grueling conditions. They might not know what their off-duty bridge partner did in the next sweltering Bletchley hut over, but each knew that their collective work was vital to helping the Allies win the war.
The military and much of the British intelligence organization hadn’t a clue about Bletchley, a venerable estate tucked away in leafy Buckinghamshire. Even the Royals were in the dark. So, it’s only recently the world has discovered the grandmother of a future queen helped win the war at Bletchley.
Foreign Office civilians Mary and Valerie Glassborow worked in signals intelligence in Bletchley’s Hut 16 from 1944-45. Of the twins, Valerie is more renowned today as the paternal grandmother of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. It was Catherine who opened the restored Bletchley Park to the public in 2014, and she’s revisited the campus since.
At Bletchley, the duchess got close to the keys of an Enigma machine, whose ever-changing combination codes the Germans felt were unbreakable. She touched her ancestors’ names on bricks in the Wall of Honour. Her visits spotlight the sacrifice of these unsung patriots, who celebrated victory in 1945 and then picked up their lives and never told a soul about their accomplishments at Bletchley.
At public memorial events, Catherine wears a special metal poppy Codebreakers Brooch in honor of her ancestors. The image, inspired by the rotors of the Enigma machine, is inscribed with “lest we forget” on the back. Her Grandmother Valerie died in 2006.
“I have always been immensely proud of my grandmother, Valerie Glassborow,” Catherine wrote in a commemorative book from the Government Communications HQ. “She and her twin sister, Mary, served with thousands of other young women as part of the great Allied effort to break enemy codes. They hardly ever talked about their wartime service, but we now know just how important the men and women of Bletchley Park were, as they tackled some of the hardest problems facing the country.”
So secret was the Park that when the war ended, there was no comprehensive list of who had served there. It made the task of creating a memorial and living museum 50 years later that much harder.
But the people of the Bletchley Park Trust persevered, drawing upon stories from codebreakers to bring the rooms to life. What was it like receiving encrypted messages all day long and looking for the sequences of letters or numbers that would be the way into the puzzle?
What was it like for the young WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) to run the giant computers that made such a shattering din, straightening their filaments with tweezers by the hour?
And what was it like to bend over a German dictionary day after day, piecing together fragments that could help the troops?
The curators have done an admirable job of setting the rooms in the ’40s, from the pack of Players cigarettes tossed on a table to the leather handbag and gloves at the end of a desk, the emblem of a young woman hoping to wrap up her shift.
The codebreakers worked 24/7 in rotating shifts that made sleeping difficult. Most boarded in houses around Milton Keynes and often walked or biked home in the dark. Looking back, it was the absolute metaphor for their top-secret work.
When you go
Bletchley is still full of secrets for the uncovering:
- Bletchley Park’s code name was Station X.
- Station Ys were staffed listening posts around the British coastline, gathering radio messages to transfer to Bletchley.
- The supply of intelligence was codenamed Ultra.
- James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, worked in London in Naval intelligence and regularly dropped by Bletchley.
- Some codebreakers were recruited by solving the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword in less than 12 minutes.
- Bletchley Park is about 50 miles north of London in Buckinghamshire.
Next month: Revealing more secrets from the mansion and huts of Bletchley Park.
Travel journalist Betsa Marsh
has reported from more than
100 countries on seven continents.
She is the past president of the
Society of American Travel Writers.