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The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park

Updated Tuesday, 26th May 2009

An unassuming building in what is now Milton Keynes played a pivotal role in the Second World War - and the development of computing.

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If you've never heard of Bletchley Park before, or its wartime history, that may be because the work carried out at there was most secret, and for a long time no-one who worked there was allowed to say anything about it (and to this day, many still don't). For throughout the Second World War, Bletchley Park was home to the Allies' code-breaking effort.

Alan Turing, famed for his role in developing the idea of universal computation, was based there; and as we learn in one of the featured interviews with engineer Tony Sale, many of the practical lessons that needed to be learned in order to build the first computers were first learned building computational engines like the Colossus.

This video, from CBS, explains more about Bletchley Park.

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Sheila MacVicar
They are now legendary, the codebreakers of England’s Bletchley Park, who eavesdropped on Germany all through World War II to D-Day and the fall of Berlin. 

Speaker1
Parachute landing in Normandy...

Sheila MacVicar
Ten thousand mathematicians, crossword puzzle enthusiasts, linguists who get credit for shortening that war by two years - mostly Brits, some Americans, what one surviving code breaker calls ‘a very odd selection of people’.

Mavis Batey
Everything was quite, quite mad really…

Sheila MacVicar
Eighty-seven-year-old Mavis Batey decoded this message.

Mavis Batey
Today’s the day, minus three…

Sheila MacVicar
Revealing the date of a planned Italian Naval attack; forewarned, the British were ready and the Italian Navy was crushed. 

Mavis Batey
It probably, you know, was the most fantastic line that anybody had ever seen before. 

Sheila MacVicar
Many successes were the result of the capture of Enigma, the German’s encoding machine.

Simon Greenish, Director: Bletchley Park
This machine has 158 million million million different options.

Sheila MacVicar
Armed with the code books captured with the machine, the people here were able to give the British/American Allies an extraordinary insight into the Nazis’ battle plans - 69 years later it’s time that is winning the battle at Bletchley Park.

Simon Greenish
This hut is where the process of codebreaking went from being a cottage industry into an industrial process.

Sheila MacVicar
The buildings where thousands messages were decoded daily are falling down.  They estimate it will take $15m to save them.  Salvage work so far has been a labour of love, like the 14 year rebuild of Colossus, a top secret computer that could break the cipher used by the German High Command and still works as fast as a laptop.  It wasn’t all about codebreaking; Mavis Batey met her husband Keith at Bletchley Park, one of many romances.  But the work was so secret that for decades, until it was declassified, even husbands and wives didn’t talk about what they did.  Work considered so important it needs to be saved before it all fades from memory. 

Sheila MacVicar, CBS News, Bletchley Park.

2’18”

 

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