Sinclair McKay attends the 70th anniversary reunion of the men and women who broke the Enigma code, and asks why the government won’t fund their museum
‘The turnout is very good,’ says eighty-something Ruth Bourne, glancing around at the tight, slow-moving mass of neat pink woolly cardigans, sensible skirts, pressed grey flannels and sports jackets. ‘More of us,’ she adds, ‘have come out of the woodwork.’
Ruth Bourne helped to shorten the second world war by two years, as did the 80 or so other elderly folk gathered here. We are milling around the big house of Bletchley Park — a Victorian manifestation of ‘lavatory gothic’ as one old BP veteran tartly put it — where, in conditions of total secrecy almost unimaginable now, the German Enigma codes were cracked, translated and analysed by the brightest people in Britain.
The impact of this intelligence on the course of the war can never be overestimated. Americans can drone on as much as they like about having saved us; but they would have had a job without the crystalline brilliance of the breakthroughs made in the draughty, rather primitive huts that are still clustered in the gardens around the house. Indeed, without the spectacular efforts of Alan Turing (more on him later) and fellow cryptographers, plus around 8,000 undergraduates, school-leaver linguists, chess champions, crossword experts, posh debutantes and women naval volunteers, well, WW2 could have ended a little less happily.
Yes, it is the 70th anniversary of the day Turing and the gang reported for duty at the outbreak of the war. But it’s also an excuse for an enjoyable get-together. These codebreakers — and Wrens like Ruth Bourne who operated the cipher-busting machinery — are really here to have a look at the place (now a terrific museum) and a chat.
Until the 1980s, all the old code-breakers were on an oath of total silence. For decades, wives did not tell husbands, and vice versa. Children had no idea what Daddy and Mummy did in the war. Even siblings who worked at the Park never talked about what they did. Since the silence has lifted, there has been plenty of catching up for these octogenarians and nonagenarians to do. But though the turnout today is very good, the melancholy truth is that there are many fewer than there used to be.
Some are back here for the very first time since 1945. ‘We worked in highly stressed conditions,’ says the architectural historian Jane Fawcett MBE who, after code-breaking at Bletchley, went on to run the Victorian Society. ‘Highly fraught. We knew that what we were doing was making all the difference. It really did depend on you.’ Does the old place look the same after 64 years? She looks around, surveying the neat lawn outside, the inviting lake, the old huts. ‘No, it was pretty derelict during the war,’ she says crisply. ‘And Bletchley itself was a dump. We felt very shut off.’ It was also very dark during blackouts on the night shifts. Jane used to carry a hammer with her when making her way from her billet in town to work. ‘You never knew who you might meet.’
But it’s not all fond reminiscing. There is some anger too. Why, these veterans wonder, has there been so little official recognition for what they did? Even the Land Girls got a Downing Street reception. And why is it such a constant struggle for the museum and the Bletchley Park Trust to find proper, regular public funding? Some of the huts in which the course of the war was decided are now rotting away. ‘Baroness Trumpington [another veteran] raised the matter of recognition in the Lords,’ says Ruth Bourne. ‘She told me we should have some sort of medal on the grounds of EOBGO — Every Other Bugger’s Got One.’
As to the question of money: of course there are generous divvies here and there, from English Heritage, from Milton Keynes Council (Bletchley is just several miles away) to mend roofs and keep the place open, but it’s not nearly enough. Especially when the museum — which now gets around 100,000 visitors a year — is so brilliantly atmospheric. Enigma machines, Bombe machines, the Colossus; reconstructions of the huts in which Turing et al worked are all laid out in an extremely dignified, unpatronising, unshowy way. Former Bletchley Wrens, and other volunteers, lead guided tours. Younger visitors adore it.
So why the constant financial battle? Why is Bletchley being allowed to collapse when West Bromwich, say, gets many millions spent on a giant pink Will Alsop arts trifle? ‘It seems others get to the Lottery funding first,’ says one veteran, shaking his head. Someone else suggests bitterly that government always makes sympathetic noises but always claims that money is just too tight. Just recently, a vast petition asking for funding was delivered to Downing Street. It met with a dusty response. Stephen Fry commented that if we cannot save Bletchley Park, what can we save?
Back to the reunion. It was not always intense pressure at the Park. There was intense leisure too. ‘We did Highland dancing on the lawn,’ says Jane Fawcett. And that was not all. Choirs, classical music, amateur dramatics, with a repertoire including Shakespeare and J.B. Priestley. Madrigal singing on the banks of the Grand Union Canal. These young people — the brightest and the best from Cambridge colleges, or other universities, or simply straight from school — played and worked to the same dazzling standard.
‘I worked alongside Angus Wilson,’ says one diminutive lady who is queuing for coffee. She launches into an extraordinary pantomime of flappy-wristed campness intended to represent Wilson. ‘He’d come in, mincing, and say, “Hullooo girls!” with cigarette smoke pouring through his nose.’ It was all go at Bletchley. Other famous veterans included historian Asa Briggs, the actor Anthony Quayle, and Roy Jenkins who, according to a veteran who worked alongside him, ‘was terrible at codebreaking, even though he had a first-class mind’.
In the house’s library, Mavis Batey — who joined Bletchley as a 19-year-old in 1940 — is now here to launch the book that she has just written; the book she has written is about Dillwyn (Dilly) Knox, the Park’s senior crypto-grapher, with whom she used to work. She and her mathematician husband Keith — they met and fell in love at Bletchley, as did so many others — feel that the memory of Dilly Knox has been rather overwhelmed by the giant shadow of Alan Turing.
Turing is known widely as the genius who brought the computer age into being. He was also the very image of the boffin eccentric — scruffy, prone to mumbling, wearing a gas mask while riding his bike, keeping his tea mug chained to a radiator. Knox was an eccentric too, of an older generation. He was a classicist, an expert in papyrii, who brought this skill to bear on unknotting the most intricate codes. When Knox learned that Mavis and Keith had become engaged, he observed of her fiancé: ‘You know, mathematicians are not that imaginative.’ She thanked him nicely, and responded that her one was just fine.
Turing is currently getting publicity thanks to a campaign to make the government apologise for the fact that he was prosecuted for homosexual acts in 1952. Turing was, unusually for the time, quite open about his sexuality. As part of his sentence, he was made to undergo some nightmare hormone therapy — in essence, chemical castration. Worse though was the fact that his security clearance was taken away from him. He committed suicide via the baroque method of an apple steeped in cyanide. So should the government say sorry?
‘He had a rough ride,’ says one veteran. ‘In that period, it was simply an unacceptable thing to be.’ Ruth Bourne agrees, adding: ‘It’s diffic
ult, because there was a bigoted attitude at the time. They should never have taken away his security clearance.’ And as well as recognising Turing’s contribution, perhaps the current campaign will have the knock-on effect of publicising the Park and its work.
To make a donation, www.bletchleypark.org.uk or call 01908 272677. To sign the petition for Alan Turing, http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/turing/. Sinclair McKay is writing a history of Bletchley Park, to be published by Aurum next spring.