Britain at War: Bletchley Park

The code-breaking work done at Bletchley Park during WWII is said to shortened the war by several years. It told the British where German U-boats were during the Battle of the Atlantic, helped them defeat Rommel’s forces in North Africa, and allowed the Allied strategists to plan the 1944 D-Day landings.

To encode their messages, the German military used rotor machines, the most famous of which was Enigma. The Enigma codes should have been unbreakable, but luckily, Polish intelligence had managed to work out Enigma before the war and had passed on all their information to the Allies. Then the British managed to capture a German U-boat in 1941, complete with an Enigma machine and code book. A large electromechanical device called the Bombe was used at Bletchley to work out which daily settings the Germans were using on their Enigma machines, and the deciphered messages were translated into English and sent off to high-ranking British military leaders.

Bletchley was staffed by thousands of ‘boffins and debs’, who took their vows of secrecy so seriously that it wasn’t until the 1970s that the general public began to learn about their remarkable achievements. Many of the ‘debs’ who worked there had been recruited because of their social connections (“they were really frightfully snobbish about the girls who worked there”1). Other workers were recruited due to their linguistic or mathematical skills, with several of them identified after winning a national crossword competition. Among the ‘boffins’ was the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, who was greatly admired by one of the debs, Sarah Norton:

“I once offered him a cup of tea but he shrank back in fear. He seemed terrified of girls and on the rare occasions when he was spotted, like a protected species, he would be shambling down to the canteen in a curious sideways step, his eyes fixed on the ground. It was explained to me that if you had spent most of your adult life closeted away in a study in Cambridge, you too would be scared of women and not know how to handle them.”2

Or, you know, you might be gay, which was then illegal. Sadly, Alan Turing was arrested after the war for consensual sex with another man, lost his high-security job, was given a choice of imprisonment or chemical castration, and killed himself. The laws against homosexuality were applied very selectively in those days. It was much easier to get away with being same-sex-attracted if you were rich and royal, like Prince George, Duke of Kent.

Tomorrow: My favourite novels about Britain at war.


  1. Jean Campbell-Harris, quoted in Anne de Courcy’s Debs at War
  2. Sarah Norton, quoted in Anne de Courcy

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