Monday, 9 May 2011
Bletchley Park - A lack of direction?
The high life at Bletchley Park lasted until, like a number of the countries historic buildings, it was enlisted in to the war effort. In 1938 the Government Code and Cypher School took up residency. From that point on it faded from existence behind a veil of secrecy to all but those who worked there or needed to know. Eventually the tales were allowed to be told and the Park’s part in that conflict and many others became legendary.
Many radio hams were recruited to work at Bletchley and many more that trained or worked in the Code and Cypher School eventually became interested in the hobby. No surprise then that for as long as I can remember I have heard tales of espionage, code breaking and covert radio operations, sometimes in hushed voices and sometimes in fascinating talks at various radio clubs. One such talk involved how the person had been involved in breaking the Japanese version of Morse code and although I heard this talk several times over the years it never ceased to fascinate and enthral.
Books I read about the goings on at Bletchley Park such as the breaking of the Enigma code and the cloak and dagger of the cold war blended in my mind with the James Bond I had loved since childhood and spy fiction from John le Carré, Alistair MacLean, Frederick Forsyth and others to make a potent mix of expectation, which when blended with the personal accounts I had been privy to over the years was in retrospect bound to lead to disappointment.
What I expected to find when I visited Bletchley Park I cannot really say, but whatever it was I did not find it. The first impression when we handed over a small fortune for my family was good, the shop was well stocked with posters and tea towels emblazoned with the words ‘Don’t Panic’ , Union flags and postcards of Sir Winston Churchill giving his trademark two fingered salute (was it really V for victory or was he just telling Gerry to Foxtrot Oscar?). As we made our way through the exhibits the chaotic disorganised nature of the place became clear, here was a number of well meaning individuals doing their own thing without any systematic logic or plan.
Firstly all the displays had far too much reading material for anyone to truly absorb within a reasonable time and stood reading the more interesting of the panels one became aware you were holding up the queue if you stood long enough to read one thoroughly. Then the displays seemed to have been used as an excuse to get rid of someone’s lifelong passion for Airfix model aircraft, there were hundreds of them. Odd bits of memorabilia had been haphazardly strewn about to give the impression of a 1950’s jumble sale. Here and there the ignorance of the person assembling the mess shone through as we recognised items my wife and I had possessed and which were made a long time after the war. Occasionally some toys owned by my children cropped up and even my granddaughter said “I have got one of those”.
The Enigma display was better thought out but looked like someone had been sacked before they quite finished. Moving on to the Winston Churchill collection and a warehouse worth of the British Bulldog memorabilia, here we were greeted by the owner who had been collecting since the end of the war. After seeing the dusty disorganised mess of mostly complete tat it was hard not to feel sorry for the loony and feel he should probably have a nice cosy padded cell somewhere.
Eventually we made our way towards the main house and the cafe next door. After lunch we visited the manor but were shocked to find every room was a bare conference room and no attempt had been made to restore the place to its former Victorian splendour. The so called toy museum seemed to be another personal collection that looked and smelled like it had been recovered from a council tip. The Railways at War feature was just an excuse for the local model railway enthusiasts to show off their collection of toys and those in attendance seemed more interested in doing their own thing than entertaining the public. As a result hardly any of the displays actually had any running trains and none of them actually had anything to do with ‘Railways at War’.
There were other displays in various dingy, rotten and flaking huts but all of them were equally disorganised. The exception was the National Museum of Computing, the highlight of which was the full working replica of Colossus. It was at least clean and almost organized, but above all it was staffed by real enthusiasts who could talk the talk with the even most knowledgeable visitor. It was here my kids were in there element and we had to drag them away from vintage computers such as the Commodore 64, BBC, Spectrum and Amiga 1200. “Hey kids I have all those in boxes if want to use them” I said “and all those games”, but eventually we just had to wander off and hope they caught up.
Great swaths of the park is still covered in more dingy, rotten and flaking green huts, which when we looked through the dusty windows appear to have been used to store yet more obsolete computer junk and un-seen items for display. The local sea cadets have a place at Bletchley but we could not find the Milton Keynes Amateur Radio Society whose station is supposedly open to visiting amateurs. Then there is the Radio Society of Great Britain’s new headquarters, originally due to open in April 2010 and still not occupied, but more about the ‘Big Green Shed’ later.
What disappointed me most about my visit was not the impression of a dirty disorganised mess, but the fact that nothing had been done to capture the atmosphere of the geniuses at work, of the great minds that had worked feverishly for days, weeks and years to make sure we were always at least one step ahead of our enemy. Imagine the tension, the brain wrenching puzzles, the gallons of coffee and a million cigarettes. Take your average hippy hacker shave his head, put him in uniform and send him in a room with a hundred clones then give them a slide rule and an exercise book each, now your nearly there.
How good were these guys? How clever were these guys? One radio amateur who told me a tale or two was sat in his shack one day holding a conversation with me, at the same time he was working a Japanese maritime mobile station in Tokyo harbour on twenty metres on CW in Japanese and also at the same time playing chess with another amateur via SSB on eighty metres while filling in return QSL cards. I believe my friend was an unsung genius but if what he told me is true there were some people at Bletchley who almost redefined the word and yet a lot of them left after the war to live normal unsung, unremarkable lives. Blessed are the geeks for without them the wicked would have taken over the world!