Bletchley: a national disgrace

It was the code-breaking nerve centre that helped win the war. So why, asks Andy McSmith, has Britain allowed Bletchley Park to descend into ruin?

Sixty-six years ago in Block B of the old Bletchley Park, a discovery was made that saved thousands of lives. A young woman, doing the filing, noticed a lot of coded messages, all concerning fuel deliveries to a small village in northern Germany called Peenemünde.

She didn't think much of them at the time. But she reported the information upwards – and the Allies stumbled on the concealed factory site where the Germans were constructing the V1 and V2 flying bombs. An air strike later and the factory was destroyed. Proof, if ever it was needed, that a well-run filing system can help win a war.

Today moss, weeds and wild flowers have taken over in Block B, a place where the course of history was changed. Nature has reclaimed its ceiling and its floor, and unless something is done soon it will either collapse or be pulled down.

Bletchley Park is one of the world's greatest and most neglected wartime monuments. But large parts of it are being left to rot. The north wall of the main building, a 19th-century country house, is now covered in scaffolding, and part of the roof is missing. The Bletchley Park Trust scraped together £100,000 to repair a quarter of the roof. The rest of the building also needs attention, but the money is not there.

In the grounds nearby, a blue tarpaulin covers a whole wall of Hut 6. The windows are boarded; the white paint is so cracked that you could remove it with you thumbnail. It is so unsightly that it would have been broken up for firewood long ago, were it not for its incredible past.

This was where some of the world's cleverest mathematicians pored over passages of gobbledygook trying to find the formula that would convert it into intelligible German – and save Allied servicemen.

Having worked out the key to the code, they passed it through a connecting hatch to the adjacent, Hut 3. That, too, is now an unsightly morass of peeling paint, rotting planks, and boarded windows.

Everywhere around the site there are the same signs of decay. Even on the brick buildings, constructed to be shrapnel-proof, there is chipped masonry, rotting window ledges, chimneys in an unsafe condition, and guttering needing repairs. Weeds are everywhere.

For Block F, where Colossus, the world's first computer, was set to work in December 1943 reading the private messages between Hitler and the top command, it is already too late. It has been flattened to make way for a housing estate and grass pitch.

Bletchley's history since the war has been chequered to say the least. Originally it was the private property of the director of naval intelligence, Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, who liked its handy location half way along the railway line that ran from Oxford to Cambridge.

In utmost secrecy it was taken over by the Government during the war where it became home to Britain's code-breakers in a story that would not be told until nearly 30 years later.

The British had been tipped off by Polish intelligence officers that the Germans were using a encrypting machine called Enigma, the updated version of which was so elaborate that the chances of decoding any of his messages were reckoned to be about 158 million million million to one. The Germans and Japanese never wavered in their conviction that Enigma was invulnerable, and the British took great pains not to disabuse them.

A veteran intelligence officer named Dilly Knox, whose hobby was translating ancient papyrus, realised that its existence meant that decoding was going to have to be an industrial process, rather than an operation conducted by a few experts in a single room. When the war began, he set himself up a cottage in the Bletchley stable yard and set the code- breaking operation in motion.

The breakthrough was achieved by an eccentric genius named Alan Turing. He was one of the greatest mathematicians of the century, who is also much admired for how he came to terms with his homosexuality. In Bletchley, there is now a statue of him, made from a million fragments of slate. If Turing and his team had failed, there was a real chance that Britain would have been starved into submission by the damage that German submarines were inflicting on transatlantic convoys.

Perhaps the greatest single achievement of all began when a team of mathematicians set out to analyse an apparently meaningless set of lines on German ticker tape, and imagine what sort of machine was producing them. They correctly guessed the construction of the Lorenz, which they called "Tunny" – the cipher machine used by German field marshals and central command, including Hitler's own staff. As "Tunny" became more sophisticated, it became impossible for the human brain to make enough calculations to decode it within a reasonable time, so the Bletchley analysts invented the machine they called Colossus, capable of reading 5,000 characters a second. There is now a working model in one of the surviving outbuildings, which the trust wants to convert into a museum of computer technology.

After the war, Bletchley Park was used by the government and British Telecom until 1991, when it was in danger of being demolished. At that point the Bletchley Park Trust was assembled to take over ownership. Since then they have raised more than £5m to develop and restore parts of the site. In the past three years visitor numbers have increased by 40 per cent to more than 50,000. But it is still far from safe.

Alarm about Bletchley's future was raised in May, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation turned down an appeal for money and Bletchley Park's director, Simon Greenish, put out a warning that some buildings might have to be pulled down within two years.

This inspired a petition on the Downing Street website, which has attracted almost 11,000 signatures. Then last month 97 senior academics, mostly professors and heads of department, wrote a letter of protest about the state of much of the park.

They said that "the ravages of age and a lack of investment" have left the historic site under threat.

The signatories called for Bletchley to be made the home of a national museum of computing.

"As a nation we cannot allow this crucial and unique piece of both British and world heritage to be neglected in this way. The future of the site, buildings, resources and equipment at Bletchley Park must be preserved for future generations," they wrote. Mr Greenish believes that if he had £10m to spend on renovation, it could be a heritage site to rival the Imperial War Museum. Part of the reason for the long neglect of Bletchley Park is the rigid secrecy under which it operated, which lasted until the 1970s. Some of its 10,000 employees went to their graves without telling even their wives or husbands that the place existed. Asked what they did in the war, they either dissembled or said nothing. Bletchley's staff were, Sir Winston Churchill said, "my geese that laid the golden eggs – and never cackled."

Now though, those that care about one of the most celebrated sites of Britain's recent history are being forced to cackle – to prevent it fading into the past.

Voices
voices
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Urgently looking for Qualified Teachers and NQT's

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Urgently looking for Quali...

Year 5 Teacher

£21000 - £32000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 Teacher Would yo...

Teacher

£100 - £120 per day + key stage 1, key stage 2: Randstad Education Chelmsford:...

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried