Hacking History: Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park, known as one of Britain’s best-kept-secrets (until recently) was the home of the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) where codebreakers worked tirelessly to decipher Nazi codes during World War II. As mentioned in my last two posts of this series, Bletchley Park housed Alan Turing and the teams which decoded the Enigma Machine, Colossus, the Lorenz Cipher, and other critical Nazi communications. Tucked away in Buckinghamshire, the Golf Club and Cheese Society (as those working there ironically called it) GCCS was-at a time- comprised of over 10,000 people, who have slowly been coming out of the wood-work as the Bletchley Park Trust has been working to uncover these covert code-breakers to create a “roll of honour”.
With so many teams and projects at Bletchley Park, and seeing as how nothing was public in their affairs until 1974 thanks to a book by F.W. Winterbotham called “The Ultra Secret”, there is still much to learn- and much that we may never know- about the work done at Bletchley during WWII. In this blog, I’ll make brief mention of a few specific key-players from Bletchley as well as some lesser known groups of people, all of whom performed important work in changing the outcome of Hitler’s regime.
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The Faces of Bletchley Park
Dilly Knox was at Bletchley Park since WWI and through most of WWII, as well. Knox became one of three Chief Assistants of GCCS in 1926 and continued to work on code-breaking through WWII where he headed the original Bletchley German Enigma team, where Alan Turing made his first notable contributions to the Resistance. Throughout WWII, Dilly Knox broke Italian Naval Enigma code, German Enigma, and Abwehr Enigma. He also compiled, and trained-up, teams of women who were working at Bletchley of the time. Some of these women became excellent codebreakers. In 1943, Dilly Knox was named the Chief Cryptographer of Bletchley Park. Sadly, this was the very same year he died, at home, of cancer.
Joan Murray is one of the most recognized, female codebreakers at Bletchley Park and rose the ranks of the GCCS unlike most other women involved, eventually becoming Deputy Head of Hut 8 in 1944 and even receiving an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1946. One of the more commonly shared personal stories of Murray is that, in order to give her a much deserved pay raise, Joan was promoted to the position of Linguist, even though she didn’t speak another language. She is often quoted as saying that she “enjoyed answering a questionnaire with ‘Grade: Linguist, Languages: none”.
Women had a unique role at Bletchley Park. Bryony Norburn of The Conversation wrote that “At its height there were more than 10,000 people working at Bletchley Park, of whom more than two-thirds were women.” There are more and more resources uncovering the exact impact these women had, and who they are. Between the “roll of honour” (linked above), historical and journalistic accounts of the women at Bletchley increasingly being published, and interviews of women who worked at Bletchley surfacing; it is becoming more apparent just what important role women had to play.
Another impressive group who impacted the work at Bletchley Park during WWII were their Jewish Personnel. A comprehensive list of the Jewish codebreakers who helped make history at Bletchley was compiled by the Jewish Virtual Library, where author Martin Sugarman had the opportunity of interviewing many of the veterans listed in his article. The article tells a great mix of code and cypher accomplishments and personal accounts of time at Bletchley Park. In his conclusion, Sugarman states “Despite the tiny size of the Jewish community (less than one half of 1% of the UK population) it is clear that the Jewish input to the work at Bletchley was very significant, even including the US personnel”.
These are just a very few stories and resources about the people who made huge impacts on the outcome of WWII via code and cypher cracking at Bletchley Park. The legacy from Polish Enigma codebreakers to the staff who continued codebreaking the “axis of evil” even after WWII; not only did they leave a legacy of war heroism, but also a legacy of codebreaking that has carried on through the internet age. The history of hacking is a legacy of heroism and deciphering deception, and much of that legacy was given to us from the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.
To learn more about Bletchley Park resident mathematician Alan Turing, check out last week’s post!