Sunday, October 30, 2011

The hidden stories of Bletchley Park

bletchley park decoding goodness

Photo: bletchley park decoding goodness by insert_user_name, on Flickr. Shared under Creative Commons: click photo for more info.

Taking a little break from writing long posts about leaving Oxford to write a short one about Bletchley Park. If you haven't seen Codebreakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes then (at time of writing) you still have six days to watch it, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

A few years ago, there was a special Cambridge alumni day at Bletchley Park which included a talk from Turing's biographer, someone who explained how the Bombe actually worked, a social historian who talked about life there, a demonstration of the Bombe in action, a look at the Colossus, and some other things I forget. I thought I'd take M as a birthday present, him being a mathematician and all. When I first tried to book it was completely sold out, but I put my name on the reserve list and when someone cancelled at the last minute we were offered their places.

It was generally a pretty weird day, as the majority of my fellow alumni present were of the elderly imperious entitled variety (I am very uncomfortable belonging to a club that has people like that as members), and their wives. I did not enjoy the smalltalk. But the big talk blew my mind.

I came away thinking why isn't visiting this place part of the National Curriculum? Why is it falling down? Why don't kids study Turing like they study Hitler?

What I didn't properly realise till I saw the Codebreakers documentary though was that the reason Bletchley was left to moulder away for so long -- and still struggles with funding -- is that so much of what went on there was so super top secret (and carried on being used in the Cold War) that even today we don't know the whole story. We did know about Turing -- and the government recently acknowledged that the fact that a grateful free world saw fit to persecute him to death after the war for his homosexuality is a source of national shame -- but there are others whose work was never recognised, who went on to live in postwar obscurity.

This documentary is an important part of beginning to recognise their incredible contribution, and the fact that a large part of what won the war was maths. It's all fascinating stuff, but what brought a lump to my throat was a bit near the end where someone explained why there was no German equivalent of Bletchley Park.

Firstly, the Allies weren't so reliant on codes, because there was more trust and less fear in the command structure, so messages could be carried and transmitted in different ways. And secondly, a lot of the best codebreakers were Jews or gays or wildly eccentric misfits. The Nazis were busy exterminating those minds, not valuing them. So it was recognition of the value of (or at least tolerance of) diversity that won the war too. We need to remember that.


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Anonymous jonathan said...

I'll have to watch that. My grandad's wife (his second wife; my mam's mam died before I was born) was stationed at Bletchley Park during the war. We're not exactly sure what she did there but we have always been given to understand it was absolutely vital and top secret. And it is taken as read in our family that Aunty Lynn more or less single-handedly defeated the Germans using nothing more than Northumbrian cunning, a Maths 'O' level, and a primitive computer the size of a sideboard. After the war, as far as I know, she returned to the workaday life of a coalfield housewife.

Which might explain why.. although Aunty Lynn is of advanced years now and frail of mind, the one time of her life she can still talk about vividly (although not in too much detail- it was all top secret, remember) is those few years at Bletchley Park 70 years ago.

11:58 pm  

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