return to Bletchley Park
The following page is OCRed from the Amazon.com "Look Inside" feature of the book
Saving Bletchley Park:
How #socialmedia savedů
by Dr Sue Black, Stevyn Colgan
OCR errors are likely present.
Introduction01 My first visit to Bletchley Park
02 "That is all you need to know"
03 The women of Station X
04 Establishing Station X
05 Bletchley Park in the news
07 Bletchley Park heroes
08 The Ultra effect
09 Tweeting Bletchley Park
10 A famous tweeter joins the campaign
11 Dilly's girl
12 The campaign gains momentum
13 Churchill visits
14 A celebrity visit to Bletchley Park
15 Turing's treasure
16 Devastating news and an apology
17 Can Twitter save Bletchley?
18 Colossus Tutte and Flowers
19 Talk at BCS Willtshire
20 The USA at Bletchley
21 A relationship with Google
23 A royal visit
24 The end of an era
IntroductionIn April 2003 I made my first visit to Bletchley Park, the home of the codebreakers. Like many people, I knew very little about what had happened there. I certainly didn't know that more than 10,000 people had worked there during WWII, or that more than half of them were women, and young women at that; many of them were away from home for the first time. I also didn't know that the secret code breaking work carried out there had shortened the war by approximately two years, and at that time 11 million people per year were dying. This means there were potentially 22 million lives saved as a result of activities conducted at Bletchley Park.
22 million. Lives. Saved. Why did I, and so many others, know nothing about these amazing achievements?
Over the next ten years I learned much more about what had happened at Bletchley Park, and, amazingly, got to meet many of the people who made it happen. I went away after my first trip wanting to raise awareness of the achievements of the women who had worked at Bletchley Park - the "Women of Station X". (Bletchley was the tenth listening station, hence the X.)
Bletchley Park had got under my skin. But my interest in what had happened there, and the amazing contributions made by the thousands of people who worked there, contrasted starkly with the state of the site as it was at the time.
In 2008 I found out that Bletchley Park was, according to CEO Simon Greenish, "teetering on a financial knife edge". I thought, frankly, that this was a disgrace, and set out to do something about it. Campaigning to save Bletchley Park took over my life for the next three years. There was hardly a waking moment when I wasn't either taking action to raise awareness or thinking about how to get more people on board with the campaign. Looking back now, it seems like an obsession. At the time it just felt like an amazing whirlwind of energy and excitement; I was on a roller coaster ride. I'm very lucky that my family and friends supported me during that ride and even came along with me for parts of it.
I'm often asked what the major turning points were in the campaign. It's hard to pick just one, but if I had to I would say that fox me the biggest turning point was working out how to use Twitter, and then using it to help build a massive community of love, support and goodwill towards Bletchley Park. Without it, I don't think we would have been nearly as successful as we were.
For years, whenever I mentioned Twitter and how it was a real catalyst for the campaign, I would get the same response: "I don't care what you had for breakfast!" For some reason, rather than embrace this new exciting medium, most people seemed to have decided that it was all about being vain and telling everyone the most mundane details of your life.
Not many people in the UK were using Twitter in 2008, but those who did were part of an exciting crowd of early adopters who I now feel very privileged to call friends. Many of these people became key influencers in the campaign. They are the ones that made all the difference with their enthusiasm, expertise, energy and, crucially, their response to a rallying call: we must save Bletchley Park.
Thankfully, Bletchley Park is now safe. I visited again in June 2014 to see the opening of the new visitor centre by the Duchess of Cambridge, whose grandmother and great aunt had worked there during the war. It was truly wonderful to see the newly restored huts and visitor centre, and to see the press there, jostling for position from behind cordons. At that time, Bletchley Park was on the front pages of national and international papers; just a few years earlier I had struggled to get any journalists interested enough to write a story about it at all.
This book is a personal story of how I started a campaign to save Bletchley Park, and of how hundreds, if not thousands, of people joined me to help save a site of fundamental international importance. This was a place where thousands of people worked around the clock for years on end, with no thanks at a11, in the strictest secrecy. Many of the veterans of Bletchley Park never told anyone at all what they had done and most of them received no reward. But what they did, and how they did it, ensured that we can enjoy the freedom we have today. We cannot thank them all now - most of them unfortunately are no longer with us. But we can preserve and cherish the place where they carried out their amazing work and ensure that our children, grandchildren and all future generations have the opportunity to get a glimpse of history, see what it was like, and hear the stories: of decoding messages straight from Hitler, of schoolgirls, away from home for the first time, arriving to work at Bletchley; of now famous codebreakers and inventors like Alan Turing, Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers; of nicking the vicar's bicycle to go to a dance or sunbathing topless on the roof at Woburn Abbey. There are so many stories, so many of which were erased.
So let's treasure Bletchley Park and the people who worked there, and let's put those stories back into our history. Let's celebrate what we do have. Those stories are part of our heritage and should be taught to children in the UK and across the world. We owe it to the people whose work saved 22 million lives.
London, September 2015
When the last members of staff left the Bletchley Park estate in 1945, they probably didn't give much thought as to what would happen to it. The war was over and the work that they had been doing was so secret that they undoubtedly believed that no one would ever know what had gone on behind those gates. Seven decades later, we now know a great deal about the extraordinary code breaking work that was done at Bletchley Park. However, what isn't so well known is what happened after those gates shut - both immediately after the war and in the 70 years since. This book tells the story of Bletchley Park's wartime activities plus, for the first time, the lesser known but equally fascinating story of how BP, as it was known to those who worked there, was saved for the nation. But before we begin, let's look briefly at what happened between 1945 and 1991, when one story ends and the other begins.
After the war ended, BP was effectively shut down. The specialist equipment that had been designed to assist the codebreakers was either destroyed or removed, staff were reassigned and, in order to protect secrecy, almost all paperwork and records of BP activity were destroyed. Once that was done, Bletchley Park settled into a long period of disuse and neglect of which very little has been written.
We do know that, fox a short while after the fall of Berlin, BP was used by the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (AMGOT), which means that Germany was, at one time, "ruled" from Bletchley Park. Meanwhile, GCHQ, the government's intelligence service, continued to occupy part of the site until 1946 when they moved to Eastcote in Middlesex. During their short post-war tenure, the site was patrolled by security guards, but things had become very lax; local people frequently cut through the estate as a shortcut to Bletchley Park train station rather than walk the extra mile around the outside. When GCHQ left, they knocked down radar installations and all of the radio towers.
In the years that followed, several organisations moved onto the site and used some of the many buildings. In 1948, a teacher training college, run by a fearsome woman called Dora Cohen (who, if the tales told are true, ran the place with an iron fist) was set up in the Mansion House, and the General Post Office (what became British Telecom) set up a training school also in the Mansion and in G and H Blocks. The Civil Aviation Technical College was based on the site too until 1993, teaching future air traffic controllers, as were several radio clubs and amateur radio stations. But by 1996, all that remained on the estate was the Diplomatic Wireless Service Social Club which was based in Hut 4.
Between 1957 and 1958, some of the iconic huts were demolished and local people used the remains, stacked behind the Mansion, as firewood. Then, in 1965, vandals got onto the estate and smashed many windows which encouraged further degradation of the buildings, especially of the remaining wooden huts once the damp got inside. No one fought to save them because no one knew of their historical importance. BP trustee Sam Crooks first moved to the Milton Keynes area in 1970 and, in 1973, had occasion to speak to the College of Education based on the estate. He recalls that there was no reference to the history of the site then; in fact he wouldn't discover that anything interesting or unusual had happened there until the publication of Squadron Leader F W Winterbotham's book, The Ultra Secret, in 1974.
The Winterbotham book caused a sensation. Although some of the content subsequently turned out to be inaccurate, based, as it was, on a little knowledge supported by second-hand anecdotes, it nevertheless put the long-held secrets of Bletchley Park unto the public domain for the first time. Local people began to talk about their wartime reminiscences of what went on in the Park, as did many of the people who had worked there. However, many veterans remained reluctant to break their vow of silence. Meanwhile, Dora Cohen's teacher training college moved off the estate in 1975 and a new college was installed, run by less formidable staff. Its open door policy soon led to it becoming the local centre of intellectual activity and it was here, among a group of amateur historians and archaeology enthusiasts, that many discussions took place regarding Winterbotham's revelations. It was from these humble beginnings that the campaign to save the Park would emerge.
At this time, the estate was roughly half-owned by PACE (Property Advisors to the Civil Estate) - the government's land agency - and by British Telecom. Neither agency did anything with it until there was a fire in 1983. Permission was then given for a property developer to demolish the damaged buildings, including the old Elmers School that had been subsumed into BP's wartime work (as a Japanese code breaking school), and to build a small housing estate - the first part of the BP estate to go. It was when the developers suggested plans for a large housing estate utilising the remainder of the site that people started to realise that Bletchley Park - and all of its history - was in genuine danger of being lost. It was one of several such development plans put forward during the coming years; on more than one occasion BP came very close to being reduced to nothing more than a commemorative plaque marking the spot where it had once stood.
In 1987, the aforementioned Sam Crooks became council leader for the Milton Keynes area, of which Bletchley is a part, and he began asking questions about how BP might be saved from the developers; since the publication of Winterbotham's book, a great deal more had been learned about the site's wartime role and he became convinced that Bletchley Park was simply too important to be bulldozed. What was needed was some kind of conservation order. However, obtaining anything like that was going to be an uphill struggle. In those days the Milton Keynes Development Corporation - now defunct - was very keen to capitalise on such a valuable piece of real estate. As Peter Wescombe, one of BP's foremost historians, explains: "You've got ░░ acres of ground here, right by the railway station. People could get out of bed, brush their teeth and be straight on a train to London, without any need for parking. They would have their own supermarket and petrol station. It was a very valuable site indeed. With planning permission, it was worth an estimated £???? at the time." To make matters worse, Crooks had the site independently assayed by a heritage expert who expressed the view that it wasn't worth developing the site. By the late 1980s, the Park was being used less and less by its owners and, in 1987, it was finally decommissioned as a military establishment. With no one taking an active interest in preserving the estate, it was, quite literally, falling to pieces. Whoever did take on the task would face huge bills. Selling to a rich property developer was by far the easiest option for the owners.
In 1991, when BP was yet again under real threat of being demolished and turned over to housing, the Bletchley Archaeological and Historical Society - one of the intellectual groups that had been meeting on the site since the mid 1970s - formed a small committee with the aim of organising a farewell party to mark what appeared to be the inevitable demise of the site. The idea had come from Peter Wescombe who was friends with Peter Jarvis, a local GP and a member of the society. Wescombe recalls: "We invited ourselves to tea at the Jarvises. I said, `Look Peter, what are we going to do about the Park? The council's decided it's a dead duck, how are we going to stop it happening?' I then suggested a big farewell party with all the WWII codebreakers at the Park. I could get their names. We requested a meeting with the Bletchley Archaeological and Historical Society because if we personally invited the wartime BP staff they'd say, `Who on earth are Peter Wescombe and Peter Jarvis?' But if you say the chairman of the Archaeological Society invites you, that has some clout." The committee agreed to write the invitation letters on the Peters' behalf However, getting permission to hold such a party on the estate proved to be more problematic. On his first attempt, Wescombe didn't bother to make an appointment and walked, unchallenged, straight through the front gate and into the estate administrator's office.* He was then told, in no uncertain terms, that he was on private property and was escorted off the grounds. Undaunted, however, he found a hole in the fence and snuck back to the administrator's office to carry on the conversation. It wasn't difficult; at this time the estate boasted a tiny skeleton staff of only nine people. His cheeky perseverance paid off and it was agreed that that the party could be held in Block E on the 21st of October - 50 years to the day from when Sir Winston Churchill had made a historic and very secret wartime visit to BP to congratulate the staff.
The Society put out feelers to locate and invite as many living veterans and their families to come along and say goodbye to BP Over 250 people turned up on the day, most of whom had had no contact with each other since the end of hostilities. Chatting amongst themselves and with the party's organisers, many were finally able to talk about their top secret work for the first time in five decades. So powerful and extraordinary were those stories that the committee decided, there and then, that the story of Bletchley Park couldn't just end with demolition. They asked the veterans for a show of hands of all those who would support an attempt to save BP The vote was pretty much unanimous.$ At that moment, the party organisers decided that they would do all that they could to save BP for the nation. The Bletchley Park Trust was born.
One of the Trust's earliest prime movers was the late engineer Tony Sale who pushed, and pushed hard, for the site to become a national museum. He also began the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding some of the extraordinary machines that had been developed at the Park during the war. He had no plans, some boxes of parts - many more were missing - and no budget, but he soldiered on. Meanwhile Peter Jarvis and Peter Wescombe persuaded British telecom (BT) to allow the Trust to use part of the site. They even managed to persuade them to pay for some maintenance and utility bills. Two other big players at this time were local councillor and one-time mayor of Milton Keynes, Roger Bristow, and local MP Brian White. Remembering Sam Crooks' talk of preservation orders, they identified a number of important trees on the site - sequoias, maples and oaks among them - that dated from the 1880s and obtained a tree preservation order for them all. "At the time, the trees at Bletchley Park accounted for 2 per cent of all the mature trees in the city," explain Bristow "We knew there would be some important specimens among them, and there were. For instance, we had a cherry tree that a Japanese expert got very excited about. He was even more excited when I told him we had two of them." The preservation orders made the site a very difficult prospect for developers; the roots of the various trees were all interlocking which made any attempt to install roads or other infrastructure - such as electricity, water and gas mains, etc. - almost impossible without killing some of them. It was a notable victory for the campaign.
Money was still a problem however. Or, more accurately, a complete lack of money. But the campaigners refused to give up. Roger Bristow even put his own money - including a substantial injury award he'd received - into saving Bletchley Park. He did so knowing that he'd never see a return on it, but, had he not done so, it's doubtful the site would have avoided development. By this time, BT owned the site in its entirety. When the Trust approached them about a sale price, Wescombe recalls that, `BT said we could have the site for about three million quid. Between us we had about £3.50."
The Bletchley Park site opened to visitors in 1993. To begin with, it was a very humble affair and it was open for just one weekend every fortnight. At this time, the Trust was operating from a single office with a single primitive computer and around ten people vying for space to work. There was no electricity across most of the estate and so old hand-cranked field telephones were used for communication. GCHQ kindly loaned the fledgling museum some exhibits, including Enigma machines, and the London Science Museum donated its old display cases when they installed new ones. One of the BP volunteers, a man called Clive Wallace, was part of a group that had amassed a collection of old military vehicles which they left on the BP site to help attract visitors, and it was one of these vehicles - a 1941 articulated lorry - that was used to collect the display cases. A few years later the Tower of London made a similar offer, and these too were collected in the vintage lorry. The Motor Vehicle Group was responsible for leading many expeditions to collect such things for the new museum. A small army of volunteers and passionate supporters of the estate gave freely of their time and energy in all weathers. Some even stood at the gate offering £2 raffle tickets to anyone they met; anything to raise much-needed cash.
1994 was a landmark year. Firstly, the museum was formally inaugurated by HRH The Duke of Kent, as Chief Patron. Then Chris Smith, the finance director for Milton Keynes council, was asked to bring his expertise to the Trust. Despite royal patronage and a now steady stream of visitors, the park was still not raising anywhere near the amount it needed. Things were still so bad that, at Smith's first trustees' meeting, the finance report was a printout from a cashpoint. Smith substantially improved financial management and developed several income generating streams, including the setting up of a shop and small cafe. Charity nights were organised and, in 1996, The Andrews Sisters showed their support by giving a fundraising concert (with their daughters as backing singers). Smith even organised a licence to have weddings conducted on site, and he and his wife Lindsey became the first couple to be married there. By 1998 the Trust had built a £25k operating surplus and a reserve of £59k. Consequently, the Trust was able to strike a deal with the landowners in 1999, obtaining a 250 year leasehold of the core historic areas of the Park with an option to purchase it for a nominal sum 25 years later.
For the next decade, the Trust worked hard to raise funds and develop the site. There were disagreements and some infighting between strong-minded individuals; some wanted to preserve the park as a living museum, in as original a form as possible, while others wanted to develop it into a more lucrative business venture, like a conference and conventions centre. But still the renovation work went on, mostly carried out by keen enthusiasts for no pay. Some, like Tony Sale who was working on rebuilding the Colossus computer, even used some of their own money. He was boundlessly enthusiastic about the rebuild and gave talks and lectures about the earliest days of programmable computing which kept public interest high in what they were trying to achieve at BP.
In 2002, the Trust's new leader, Christine Large began talks to negotiate a controversial but necessary sale of land to raise funds. It was not a popular decision; the Motor Vehicle Group left the Park when told that their area - the transport depot and H Block land - was being sold. And there was one moment of high drama around this time when one of the estate's Enigma machines went missing. To this day, no one knows if it was a genuine thief or someone disgruntled by the sale of the land. The good news, however, is that the machine was safely returned to Jeremy Paxman and the BBC Newsnight show.
The proposed sale also proved to be an issue fox Tony Sale and his colleagues. By 2004, they had finished the rebuild of Colossus. The computer had recently been officially switched on by the Duke of Kent in the presence of Tommy Flowers, its original designer, and many wartime veterans. When told that the huge machine would have to be moved from H Block as the buildings were likely to be part of the land sale, the team began looking at various venues for relocation but none were appropriate. Therefore Tony and his colleagues set about forming a separate charity. In March 2005, The Codes and Ciphers Heritage Trust, which now trades as The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC), was formed. The land sale went ahead but H Block itself could remain on site if the TNMOC leased it from the Bletchley Park Trust. It meant that Colossus could stay in its rightful home in H Block, a building originally erected in 1944 to house six Colossus machines.
But despite any resentment, the sale of land generated much-needed cash. It meant that the estate shrunk to something like 21 acres, but this became a more manageable size; more than 70 buildings still needed renovation work. The iconic code breaking huts were damp and derelict, the Mansion had major leaks in its roof and issues with asbestos, and the annual heating bills alone were costing the estate half a million.
But even the land sale didn't guarantee the preservation of the site. When Christine Large left, Simon Greenish took over. He joined BP on a Monday and, at his first board meeting, the first question asked was, "Are we still open for the rest of the week?" Greenish began letting out buildings to companies and organising conferencing events. Gradually, the Trust built up the name of Bletchley Park and got visitor numbers increasing. Tim Reynolds became a leading light at this time, helping to create a successful Innovation Centre on site. The centre provided, and still provides, much needed revenue whilst ensuring that Bletchley Park's reputation as a centre of innovation is maintained. Greenish was forced to make some unpopular but necessary changes including cutting wages, losing some paid staff, encouraging more conferencing, organising professional catering and paying for good marketing, but it paid off and income improved. All of which meant that, now that finances were stable, if precarious, the real work of renovating the buildings could begin; Tim Reynolds had already renovated two, but many more needed attention. Plus there was a great deal more work to be done to ensure that Bletchley Park was saved.
It was, more or less, at this point that Dr Sue Black entered the story. But I won't steal her thunder - the remainder of this book is the story of what happened next.
During WWII the staff of Bletchley Park managed to overcome difficulties that we today, with all of our computers and instant access to knowledge, would still find problematic. Much of what was achieved there is now public knowledge thanks to various documentaries and dramatisations (although, thanks to dramatic licence, the accuracy of some dramas has to be taken with a pinch of salt). We will tell that story in this book too. Throughout Sue's narrative you'll find accompanying text that will explain the historical significance of some of the people, projects and places she mentions. Every effort has been made to make the historical account as accurate as possible; unfortunately, what went on at BP was so shrouded in secrecy that almost no documentation exists and we axe reliant on the memories of people who were there at the time. Much of the content is culled from interviews with surviving veterans.
An army of inspiring, wonderful people has spent the past 25 years working hard to save Bletchley Park for us and for the generations to come; the list of enthusiasts, experts, volunteers, fenders, donors and visitors is simply too long to include them all here, and some of them, sadly, are no longer with us. In this 70th anniversary year of the end of World War II, all we can do is thank them and dedicate this introduction to them for performing such a selfless, noble service for the benefit of us all.
I now hand you over to Dr Sue Black who will take up the story of how Bletchley Park was saved.
1) Not all of the veterans were quite so enthusiastic. Peter Wescombe recalls hearing one veteran codebreaker telling a TV reporter that BP was finished and should be knocked down. This is an understandable reaction; many of the staff had quite unhappy lives during their time at Bletchley Park. "Broken marriages, unhappy love affairs, their husbands being killed in the war. One of the saddest things, they used to say, was young ladies sitting sniffing into their hankies down by the lake because their boyfriend or husband had been killed," explains Wescombe. "You can quite understand why some didn't want it back - it brought back some very unhappy memories."
2) I have skimmed through the post-war history of the park here for the sake of brevity. There is easily enough to fill another book. And there might well be such a book sometime in the near future.