My two favorite things in this world are World War I and pop culture. My last two days in London have successfully quenched my thirst for both of these passions. Our study abroad group visited both Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum. These sites took up the majority of the last two days but I also managed to squeeze in Kensington Palace, the Tate Modern Art Museum, and a Jack the Ripper Tour.
Bletchley Park was the central site for British Codebreakers during World War II. It was the main aggressor in penetrating the secret communications of the Axis Powers – most importantly the German Enigma. The “Ultra” intelligence produced at Bletchley played an important role in shortening the war and was significant in the Battle of Atlantic and in the Mediterranean.
In order to arrive at Bletchley Park, our group had to ride a train shortly through the English countryside. During the war, the location was chosen for its rural nature and its close proximity to a rail line. I really liked looking out the window during the ride over and imagining the ten-mile bike ride that some of the staff would take to and from work each day. We passed by beautiful green fields, sheep, and even some short cobblestone walls. I kept being reminded of the poem “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, which I have read many times. In the poem two men in rural England argue over a stone wall about their property lines – I highly recommend the read.
The reason I mentioned pop culture earlier was because shortly before my trip I watched the movie The Imitation Game. This movie highlights the accomplishments of Alan Turing in cracking Nazi codes, including Enigma – which previous cryptanalysts had thought unbreakable. While the movie did tend to over glorify the central role of Turing and the effectiveness of Ultra – it piqued my interest in learning more about Bletchley Park. I was very excited to further compare the movie to the actual history during my visit. This caparison between film and written history I will revisit again during my site report at the Schindler Museum in Poland.
During the tour, I was able to visit the entire grounds of Bletchley Park, which has mostly been restored to the conditions that would’ve been present during the war. In one of the various huts, which housed the intelligence, analysis, and code breaking departments, I was able to see Turing’s office. They had also rebuilt the Turing machine, which was the machine used to crack German Enigma.
After the war ended all of these machines were destroyed by the British government and the staff was sworn to secrecy. The “People’s War” was especially evident in the 12,000 individuals that worked there who were able to keep the site’s activities secret until its declassification in 1974. It is hard to imagine this same level of secrecy being accomplished in today’s world of social media and rapid 24-hour news broadcasting.
While Alan Turing was a brilliant man who broke the unbreakable, his life was relatively short. Turing is now widely considered to be the “father of modern computing” due to his fundamental work during the war years. Turing, though, was sadly prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts that at the time were seen as criminal in the UK. Turing’s conviction led to the removal of his security clearance and barred him from continuing on in the British signals intelligence agency and later he would commit suicide by cyanide poisoning. In 2009, the British Prime Minister made an official public apology on behalf of the British government and the queen granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013. I really loved the memorial in his honor at the museum – it was made entirely of black slate and I have never seen a statue quite like it before.
After the tour of Bletchley Park, we only had a little daylight left so we didn’t stray very far from the hotel. Luckily, our hotel is situated in a prime location and Kensington Palace was less than a five-minute stroll through Hyde Park. The palace was beautiful and there was also I really interesting exhibit on Princess Dianna. I really liked the gardens and our group took a nice stroll around. One thing I find interesting about English gardens is their lack of flowers – unlike the dramatic colors that are seen in palaces, like Versailles, that English prefer manicured greenery. After catching a quick bite for dinner, we then headed across Hyde Park to the memorialization for the many animals whose lives have been lost throughout the many British conflicts – a casualty of war that is often overlooked.
The next day we went to the Imperial War Museum. The Imperial War Museum is one of the few museums funded by the British government and it is comparable to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The museum was built following World War I and their exhibit on WWI is extensive. I have studied this war extensively both at university and on my own time and especially enjoy studying the revolutions that occurred from 1848 on, which greatly added to the powder keg that made anything aside from a war inevitable. A quote during the exhibit that I believe summarized the fighting during this war is, “Fighting in an alliance meant honoring agreements.” These agreements led to long bloody battles aimed at not letting others down.
I really liked walking through the simulated trench that depicted the 250 miles that cut through Belgium and France. I also found the British sniper robe, that was used for blending into a position, to be really intriguing. They also had a lifebelt from the original Lusitania, which was a civilian ship attacked by German U-boats who believed that weapons were on board. This attack led to the loss of 1,195 lives, majority Red Cross workers, and greatly added to the American desire to join the war efforts.
During my visit to the Family at War exhibit within the IWM, I met a man who had survived through the Blitz of World War II. He had an interesting perspective regarding life in the war that I had never really thought of prior. We began the conversation by talking about shelters used during the Blitz attacks on London. He had stayed in a Morrison Shelter, which I was less familiar with in comparison to an Anderson Shelter. A Morrison Shelter was an indoor cage that was designed to protect the occupants from debris if a bomb hit the house. He also talked about the improvements of the working class during the war. Unlike during the depression, the working class benefited greatly during the war years. They often ate better during the war because they received constant rations and home evictions were suspended for six years. For once in English history the working class was receiving the same amount and quality of food as the Prime Minister and even the King.
The Tate Modern was fabulous. I love modern art and visiting one of the largest contemporary art museums in the world was definitely a privilege. I went to the museum by myself, which I now realize was my first time voyaging completely alone in another country. I got a free audio tour device upon entering and truly was able to immerse myself in the museum. I spent four hours wandering around the many rooms and one painting in particular sticks out. It was a painting by Mark Rothko and it was the sort of painting that I normally would have walked past without a second glance because it’s not the type of work that necessarily calls out to me. My audio tour, though, gave the immense background about the artist and the inspiration that went into his works. The part that struck me was that in 1970 the artist committed suicide and the composer Morton Feldman was so saddened that he composed a memorial symphony in his honor called “The Rothko Chapel.” Being alone in a low-lit memorial exhibit while looking at the large work that inspired this haunting melody really moved me. I listened to the composition three times and exited the exhibit with goosebumps and a new found appreciation for the broken artist, who like Turing, had his life end too soon while having so much more to give.
Officially on my way across the English channel by way of ferry. As I look out the window, I imagine the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II and the sinking of the Lusitania during the Great War. I cannot believe I am traveling across such a historic body of water, but am happy I am doing it without the threat of a U-boat attack. On my way to Bayeux, France and super excited for the culture shock that is in store for my comrades and I.