#1190. “What was it like in the war daddy?”

By Paul Perton | Travel Photography

Apr 11

Art exhibitions aside, few attractions seem to disappoint as much as museums, especially those we grew up with and re-visit only to find them renovated and dumbed-down to appeal to an average age of under ten and IQ close to room temperature.

Hut 3

London’s Science and Natural History Museums are no longer exciting and involving. Their ancient engines, skeletons and explanatory descriptions repopulated with beautiful highly graphic exhibits, laced with photographs, interactivity and easy to understand words. The learning challenge of a visit to see how pumping engines worked in Cornish tin mines, or how Amazon explorers found a rare species of spider, are gone.

In their place, simple, PC, non-offensive captions are there to guide visitors, spoon feeding the little darlings with all the information they’ll (n)ever need.

Even the Imperial War Museum is close to removing one of the things it was designed for; reminding us of the often needless horrors of human conflict – lest we feel inclined to start another global conflict.

If you can manage Milton Keynes maze of bizarre roundabouts, just a mile or so from the centre of Bletchley (a small town in Buckinghamshire), you’ll find Bletchley Park (BP), a grand old Victorian mansion and one time home to Britain’s wartime code breakers. Today, one it’s of a very few museums anywhere that’s worth a visit.

Wartime Bletchley Park
Just a whiff of the ’40s
Huts 6 and 8
Huts 6 and 8
Essential wartime transport

Step into the entrance gallery and there’s a distinct feeling of an eerily different life. Britain at war, the criticality of reading Germany’s Enigma-encrypted secret messages and a tiny peep at life in the ’40s – it’s all there.

Austin ambulance
Hut 3

At its peak, there were 8,000 people working at BP, snatching Hitler’s secrets from the ether, grinding away at the encoded text, digging for a “crib” – a tiny glimpse of the message therein, which would enable yet more painstaking mental gymnastics, until, the secret would emerge and the plain text (in German) would emerge.

This was the world of Alan Turing, arguably one of the greatest of code breakers, the man behind the world’s first computer. Even after all these years, his contribution to the war effort is too great to estimate.

Alan Turing with a German Enigma machine

BP even discusses Turing’s then illegal homosexuality for visitors to read about – and the humiliation inflicted on him by ungrateful post-war governments and his peers, until he was driven to suicide. BP even has Gordon Brown’s governmental “apology” to Turing on display, albeit half a century late in its arrival.

BP is the ’40s. In those days, the work was done in a very British collection of hastily built wooden huts, each housing a different codebreaking activity and in later wartime years, the machinery developed to help and speed the work.

Dispatch rider’s greatcoat and helmet
BP handled encrypted messages from the Japanese forces too
Hut 3
Hut 3
Hut 3

Block B houses a recreation of Colossus, the first computer, while Hut 11 contained the Bombes, codebreaking machines, based on the pre-war efforts of the Polish codebreakers. Teletypes were everywhere.

The museum says that BP eventually handled more than 5 million messages, from all arms of the German, Italian and Japanese militaries. The Teleprinter Building houses the history of one set of decrypts that were handled with special attention; the decodes of German signals in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Europe (D-Day) in June 1944. The allies were desperate to know that Hitler had bought into the deception that the invasion would land in the Pas de Calais and move the bulk of his troops there to rebuff the landings.

Inside the BP mansion
Inside the BP mansion

BP managed that and confirmed Hitler and his High Command had been hoodwinked. The Normandy landings went ahead and the rest is…

Just as you would want to experience, there are glimpses of the wartime ’40s everywhere at BP. Plus, it’s a really well thought out and intriguing museum. Remember to take your camera.

“Job’s up” – the daily decrypt is done and it’s time to stop loafing and get work

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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I’ve no idea of your age, Paul – I do know mine! I was born in August 1942, when Germany was at the height of its military success in World War II. My earliest memories date from the middle of 1943. There were soldiers in uniform boarding with us as they passed through. We had a bomb shelter of our own in the backyard. The stories we were getting were horrific.

    Passing through Europe is often something that turns me inside out. Bordeaux – and brass plates set in the pavement, commemorating 4 children taken to the gas ovens in Germany – that was 3 years ago, and just writing this – et je pleure, encore – the pain never ceases, it only takes the slightest reminder of the horrors of that War and it’s there, immediately.

    No – I don’t need a museum. The world does, though.

    As for the treatment Turing received – that man dedicated his life, to saving the lives of others – his reward was to be abused by people who never even knew him, over something that was frankly none of their business anyway. As my late sister-in-law (an outstanding psychiatrist) told me once – “People who concern themselves about other people’s sexuality are not confident in their own sexuality!”

    Thanks anyway, for the photos you’ve shared with us. I don’t I’ll ever go to Bletchley Park – so far away, in distance and time – so close, in other ways – even the typewriters and other items scattered around the offices take me straight back to those years. I did try going into a “holocaust museum” in Prague several years ago – my wife found me some minutes afterwards, outside the building, bawling my head off. As I said on another page of DS only a few days ago, I will never understand war – or why people choose to keep doing it.

    • pascaljappy says:

      I see 2 factors :

      * Borders that do not match cultures.
      * Our “leadership” system, in which you need to fight your way up. This selects the alpha males rather than the clever people. It’s called democracy, but is still very very far from ideal, as our current presidential election is showing. Lies and bullying will get you anywhere. With leaders like that, how can peace ever exist for long?


  • Pascal O. says:

    Dear Paul, thank you for this set.
    Most interesting ! As mentioned before I recently read a captivating book on Winston’s first year at Downing street. BP is abundantly mentioned in the book.
    Alan Turing’s contribution around the enigma machine is pivotal to the victory in WWII.
    Your set of pictures, all in b&w, pay a proud homage to all those who participated in this considerable effort, again thank you so much.

  • Dallas says:

    Thanks Paul, for sharing an excellent set of images, our past history must be remembered. Turing was brilliant mind and it was a crime that he was driven to suicide. Our PC world drives me nuts.

  • Frank Field says:

    Thank you so much for continuing to bring us back to that challenging time. While I was born a few years after the end of WW II, I have always been fascinated by the war. As it began and even well into 1943, the final result was not assured. The dedication of so many against tyranny and the stellar leaders who emerged are truly something that we need today.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Great pictures, Paul… they achieve that feeling of “being there”…
    I was surprised you didn’t include a photo of Colossus… did they remove it, or was it not open to visit?

    And regarding ostracism, nothing changed… today Turing would be accepted the same way Tim Cook is… but I see everyday racism around me, even without mass manipulations, about whatever defines someone… and even within each group; we just need to look how our “modern” societies treat our elders… nearly parked out of our view, as “has been”…

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Alas so long as we no longer call a spade ‘ a fucking shovel’ and refer to it as a non binary soil realignment kit – the world is doomed to insipid ordinariness and so called safe spaces which are everything but – such societies are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history. Thanks for sharing. A sad demise of yet another once informative institution.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Thanks for bringing this fine museum to our attention, Paul. The story of Bletchley Park and the talented Mr. Turing is wonderfully dramatic, even though it ends tragically for the hero. Without his skills the war could have taken a turn for the worse. Your images truly capture the ambiance of the period and really pull us back in time. Kudos, my friend.

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