Threat to computer that won the war

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The home of Britain's wartime code-breaking geniuses, who played a crucial role in the Allied victory, faces an uncertain future after being rejected for funding by the Government and the Millennium Commission.

Bletchley Park, which during the war played a vital role by breaking the Nazis' "uncrackable" Enigma code, and building the world's first programmable computer, could be sold to developers unless pounds 15m can be raised for its trustees to turn it into a permanent museum.

With only three months to go before their lease expires, the Bletchley Park Trust, whose trustees now look after the site and its historic computers and calculators, are trying to team up with German museums. By doing that, they could raise funding from the European Commission to preserve the site and its contents as a museum of computing, radar and cryptography. Tony Sale, a former MI5 agent and director of the would-be museum, says it could cost up to pounds 15m to buy the buildings and land outright and set up the museum. Presently, they are owned jointly by British Telecom and the Government's land disposal agency, and were made available to the Trust in 1995 on a two-year lease.

The Trust applied last year to both the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Millennium Commission for funding.

"The Lottery Fund told us that the sum we were asking for, of pounds 12.5m was too small," said Mr Sale. "But then the Millennium Commission said our bid to them - for pounds 8m - was too big." He now intends to apply again to the Department of National Heritage, though he has not ruled out approaching computer companies.

During the war, the site in Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes, was known simply as "Room 47, Foreign Office". But the bland name hid brilliant scientists such as Alan Turing, who played a vital role in breaking the Germans' Enigma and Lorenz ciphers. Without this, the war could have lasted two years longer, historians suggest. The world's first programmable computer, called Colossus, was also built there in 1944, beating the US by two years. A restoration built by Mr Sale over two-and-a-half years, began working last June.

The site's existence and purpose was kept secret for 30 years, and only revealed in the 1970s. Since being opened to the public in 1995, it has received 50,000 visitors - the first of whom was German.

"It's absolutely vital to keep this for our heritage," said Mr Sale last week. "It was a crucial factor in winning World War II, and a marvellous exemplar of brains over bullets. People these days don't understand how a secret can be kept for 30 years - 15 minutes is the average nowadays." BT said last week that it was prepared to donate the freehold of the buildings, but that the sale of the surrounding land was not decided: "There has to be a balance between our responsibility to shareholders and the community," said a BT spokesman. But BT does not feel that it should continue to pay all the costs associated with the site. The Millennium Commission said the bid for funding a museum of computing and cryptography had been turned down because it was "not as distinctive as some of the others we have received". Funding requests are presently two-and-a-half times greater than the available funds, a spokeswoman said. "Some of the others we have received had more distinct millennium elements."