The story of Bletchley Park, MI6’s second world war code-breaking operation, has grown with the telling since the early 1970s accounts — although, as Briggs points out, Bletchley’s first public disclosure was in Time magazine in December 1945.
The story of Bletchley Park, MI6’s second world war code-breaking operation, has grown with the telling since the early 1970s accounts — although, as Briggs points out, Bletchley’s first public disclosure was in Time magazine in December 1945. In recent years it has become the stuff of fiction, film and feature, and almost anyone who was there and is still alive is guaranteed a publisher. Aged 90, Asa Briggs — distinguished historian, former chancellor of the Open University and vice-chancellor of Sussex — was there and is very much alive, as this gossipy and informative account shows.
Most of us can only guess what it must be like to be effortlessly clever at everything. A grammar school boy from Keighley, Briggs won a history scholarship to Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, where he might just as easily have read maths. While completing his tripos he secretly did an external London BSc (Econ), on the strength of which he was offered an LSE fellowship. But there was a war on, so he joined the army as a private and soon found himself at Bletchley, where he met others as clever as himself.
Some he knew from Cambridge and in this account he carefully notes the colleges, universities and schools that contributed to the informal military-civilian senior common room that Bletchley became. There were plenty of women and Briggs implies — discreetly, of course — that it was not only his intellectual horizons that were broadened.
But it wasn’t all good talk and fun: they worked hard, in shifts, around the clock, often in inadequate conditions, on a limited diet and with living quarters that could be anything but comfortable and convenient.