Bletchley Park: Codebreaking and the War Effort

Bletchley Park was by far my favorite location in London. As someone studying engineering with a passion for history, I enjoyed expanding my knowledge of Alan Turing and those who worked with him at Bletchley Park.

Having learned of Ultra’s importance and selectivity, I imagined the Bletchley Park operation to be relatively small and capable of operating in a single building. The site, however, comprised more than 9,500 individuals. Operations started in a singular mansion that became cramped over time, forcing the creation of specialized huts that were not allowed to communicate with each other about the other’s discoveries.

Of the nine thousand personnel, one of the most widely talked about throughout history is Alan Turing. While the museum focused on World War II and the importance of the codebreakers, it also delved into the importance of the technologies that came from these operations and their implications for the modern world. From history classes, we learn that Alan Turing was a key figure in breaking the Enigma Code. On the other hand, the museum dives deeper into his life, giving audiences a story of a boy who grew up extremely intelligent, his contributions to breaking the Enigma cipher, his work to establish the basis for modern computer science, and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the end of his life. As an engineering student, seeing the root of many principles I learned in my classes from Turing was fascinating.

As the head of Hut 8, Turing worked with decrypting the German naval Enigma and designed the notorious Bombe machine. Turing’s Bombe machine aided in hastening the process of decoding the Enigma. Following this famous feat in the war, Turing designed the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) and moved to the University of Manchester as a Deputy Director of the Computing Company. In Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Turing outlined the basics of artificial intelligence through the “imitation game,” however, it is now much more commonly known as the “Turing Test.” Turing is now considered one of the fathers of computer science, and because of this, I believe that Turing’s work with artificial intelligence will overshadow his codebreaking work.

I was impressed that the museum covered Turing’s achievements and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his treatment after the war. The museum revealed that Turing was a homosexual, a criminal offense in 1941. He proposed to a fellow cryptanalyst Joan Clarke but broke it off, wanting to give her a chance at a successful marriage. In 1952, Turing started dating a young Arnold Murray, and his house was then broken into. Having to explain to the police the situation, his sexuality was revealed, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” Pleading guilty in March 1952, he was given the choice of probation with hormonal treatment, or imprisonment-he chose the probation. In 1954, Turing was found dead of cyanide poisoning.

A statue memorializing Alan Turing.

One notable story I have never heard was presented as a film in one of the Huts. Pinching, or stealing, was crucial to gaining information to crack the Enigma cipher, especially operations against German U-boats. Two British soldiers dove after a sinking German U-boat to steal critical naval Enigma keys and pass them to a fellow soldier at the surface. These keys aided Bletchley Park in breaking the new German naval Enigma. However, the two soldiers sunk with the U-boat and were posthumously awarded the George Medal.

The memorial to the Polish who aided in cracking the Enigma Code.

As with all the sites I have visited in London, credit is given where credit is due. While Bletchley Park did much of the codebreaking and intelligence work, the site credited the Polish via a plaque shaped like a large open book. Inscribed on the left page of the book states, “This plaque commemorates the work of…mathematicians of the Polish Intelligence Service in first breaking the Enigma Code.” Following this, the plaque states that their contribution led to the Allied victory in the war. Through this memorial, the British humbly admit that the Enigma Code could have taken longer to break without their assistance, possibly altering the Allies’ success in the war.  Credit is also given to the German SG-41, a cipher machine made in 1944 that defeated the code breakers. The war, however, ended before this could cause any problems.


The SG-41, an encryption machine that defeated those at Bletchley Park. Thankfully, the war ended shortly after its production.

Overall, I found Bletchley Park to be incredibly fascinating and informative. When looking at war, we tend to focus on the people on the frontlines, but Bletchley Park focuses on those impacting the war behind the scenes through intelligence. I was in awe of the work done by the over nine thousand men and women, and I feel that without their work, the Allies’ course of victory would have been delayed.

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