Archive: June2014

The Women of Bletchley Park

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The Bletchley Park code breakers

Today, June 6th, is the 70th anniversary of the landing of the Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy, France. That the Allies even made it to Normandy was the result of hundreds of men, women and soldiers, among them, the women of Bletchley Park.

After a contest was held  in which women competed to complete the  Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle in 12 minutes or less, nine thousand women winners found themselves recruited by the British Government.  The talent of being quick to solve a puzzle, in 1941, had multiple benefits, among them, the ability to crack foreign intelligence codes.  Those 9000 women were sent to work at Bletchley Park, a quiet, nondescript manor in the English countryside of Buckinghamshire to decipher German intelligence.

During their time there, the women eavesdropped on  both German and Japanese communications, deciphering codes and planting false intelligence, particularly on the German Enigma codes; a mechanized rotor based coding machine. Where code decryption had previously been done by hand, a great engineer by the name of  Tommy Flowers aided by mathematician Max Newmen, developed what had become known as the first computer. The Colossus machine was a mammoth of a computer used exclusively at Bletchley Park for the deciphering of the Enigma and Lorenz codes. Women such as Mavis Batey used this computer to break German codes and plant false intelligence back to the Germans. Batey, a high level code breaker, had achieved great success in her time at Bletchley Park.  Her work contributed to a great English victory over the Italians at Matapan, but her greatest success came when in the winter of 1941 when she became the first person to decrypt a message from Belgrade to Belgium from the Enigma code machine. That development lead to the success of D-Day, June 1944,  when the code breakers planted false intelligence to the Germans that the Allies would land at  Calais rather than Normandy., thus allowing the Allied invasion to proceed. It has been said that the work done by the women of Bletchley Park not only ended the war earlier by several year and saved thousands of lives, but also potentially prevented nuclear war in Europe. Had Batey and her fellow code breakers not played such pivotal role in the war, it is said that the outcome perhaps, would not have been as favorable.

At the war’s end, most of the nine thousand women code breakers of Bletchley Park returned to live normal lives as wives and mothers. Because they had signed the “Official Secrets Act” upon their recruitment most of them never were given the chance to tell their parents, families and friends where they had disappeared to those many years at Bletchley Park or what they had done and contributed to the war effort. Their work, in fact, had been so secretive, that even during their employ, they were not to speak to each other of the projects they were working on, rather, they only discussed superficial topics of their daily lives.

The story of these amazing women laid hidden for decades, only surfacing for the first time in 1991,  a book entitled, Ultra; a reference to the Ultra intelligence decrypts at Bletchley Park that as Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “helped to win the war.”

Today, Bletchley Park itself has been turned into a historical site  now open to tourists. A  television series has been developed about the women of Bletchley Park entitled Bletchley Circle, the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, England has six rebuilt Colossus machines and the Computer History Museum, among others, in Mountain View,California has an Enigma machine on display. Below are a few of the only known photographs of the women and their work during their time at Bletchley Park.

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Code breakers working on the Colossus machine

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Bletchley Park

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