Accolades are pouring in for the movie The Imitation Game – featuring an amazing performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as the Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing.
The movie has served to focus attention on Turing and his work at the secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. It’s also served to highlight the injustice of the treatment he received when he was convicted for what was then a crime – being homosexual.
Recently I visited Bletchley Park – that was before the movie publicity began, and my knowledge of what happened there was pretty sketchy.
The old saying is right – truth is sometimes much stranger – much better – than fiction.
The first thing that struck me about the place was its size. At the height of its activity – there were 9,000 people working there. Most of those were billeted with local families. Everyone MUST have seen those thousands of people entering the site every day. Yet the secret was never revealed. Can you imagine that happening in this day of mobile phone cameras and social media?
Not only that – the secret was kept for years after the war. A book released in 1974 broke the silence – but it wasn’t until the place was at risk of demolition in 1991 that moves began to conserve the site and tell its remarkable story.
The buildings that once housed the code-breakers have been turned into a fascinating museum – we went planning to spend a couple of hours, and were there the whole day.
The guides did their best to explain how the codes were broken – and how the famous bombe machine works – but it wasn’t easy to understand. I like to think I’m reasonable intelligent – but I stood in awe of Turing and his team and the work that they did – work which formed the basis of so much of our daily lives today. Every computer, every computerised system – owes something to the work done at Bletchley Park.
Towards the end of the day – we were watching a demonstration of the Bombe machine – and the guide told us a story…
Not all that long ago, he was giving a demonstration, to a group which included an elderly couple. When he was finished, the woman said – It wasn’t quite like that – but you almost got it right.
She then admitted she had worked in one of the huts during the war. Her husband turned to her, shock on his face. She had never told him. Just as he had never told her that he had also worked there – in one of the other huts. They worked just a few yards apart, but didn’t meet until after the war. In their long marriage, until that day, neither had ever told the secret they held.
To this day Bletchley Park keeps its secrets.
People who worked there during the war have been approached to tell their stories – so that the history can be preserved. Some have agreed to do so – now that the war is long past and the secret is out. But others have declined – saying they would still abide by the official secrets act that they signed so long ago.
Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 and sentenced to chemical castration. He lost his security clearance – even though there was no evidence he was a spy. And he was removed from all his ongoing government work. Turing died of cyanide poisoning in 1954. He was 41 years old. It was ruled a suicide, but that has been disputed by people who believe it was an accident. His story reached an ending of sorts just a few months ago. In August of this year, the Queen officially pardoned him.
There are still buildings at Bletchley that are closed to the public, and not restored… yet. I wonder what stories they have to tell.