Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Even their pigeons were double agents

Bletchley Manor
If you’ve seen the movie “the Imitation Game” you will know about Bletchley Park. 

Nearly 10,000 people were working at Bletchley park at the end of WWII. They worked in three shifts of eight hours around the clock. 3,000 per shift, how did they keep that a secret? As far as the rest of the country knew, Bletchley was a hunting lodge, not a government site whose sole mission was to find out what their enemies in WWII were doing. The previous owners were trying to sell the property but the real estate market hadn’t really recovered since the great depression. Then the Government stepped in and did a compulsory acquisition. The Australian Airforce did the same thing to my great grandfather; you don’t actually have a choice about selling or what they pay you, and you don't get it back when they've finished with it either!

Everyone had to ride bicycles as there was petrol rationing
Bletchley Park is about an hour north of London, it was chosen as it is near a train line that ran between Oxford and Cambridge. This was important because of the calibre of people they wanted to recruit to work in the Government Code and Cypher School – named Station X as it was the 10th site. So it wasn't the only place like this.

the motorcyclists brought the messages to Bletchley Park
The people who worked there really didn’t know what they were doing, they were only given enough information to do the job they were required to do, then it would be passed onto another department. Some were linguists who needed to interpret the foreign languages. Others were mathematicians who were needed for decoding cyphers. No-one discussed with anyone else what their job was, you could only tell someone what hut you worked in. Personnel had to sign a confidentiality agreement when they started there so that they couldn’t discuss what they did with anyone. When they left, they signed another one that stated they couldn’t discuss anything for a further thirty years.

Video on the walls reinacted similar conversations that may have occurred
Winston Churchill was so proud of their work, he had tears in his eyes when he visited. He wanted to know every message they deciphered, but as there could be as many as 20,000 per day, they only gave him a short selection.

An old Enigma without the plugs
Some staff kept track of enemy personnel, so that if they heard of someone being somewhere that was unusual that could alert them to some other goings on. They needed smart people that could think laterally.

The staff, who were mostly women, were billeted with local families or they stayed at an Abbey close by.

Pigeons were dropped by plane over enemy territory for double agents to send back information, they would then fly back to Bletchley park. The Germans trained peregrine falcons to attack the British birds, in response the pigeons would free fall when attacked to get away from the falcons. The pigeons went on many missions often sustaining injuries and going back again. The British captured some German pigeons which allowed them to see how the Germans tagged them and did their messages. So they sent their own pigeons to Germany who would then nest with the locals, the Germans would send them to England to get intelligence but the birds would come back to Bletchley. It was probably a bit more involved than that, but you get the idea. They were double agents!

A guide shows a computerised demonstration on how the Enigma machine worked
Poland sits in between Germany and Russia, so it was in their best interest to keep tabs on their neighbours and had been intercepting their information for some time before WWII. They would go to the British and say they had interesting information for them and the British would tell them to go away. When the war broke out, England started to listen to them. The Pols already had a head start on German intelligence; the British may have never cracked Enigma without their initial help.

Interactive touch screens taught us how to decipher codes
The radio towers were moved from Bletchley out about five miles. It is easy to locate radio waves and they didn’t want Bletchley to become a target. Motorcyclists brought information from those towers and other places in all kinds of weather. They had no idea what they carried, but they knew it was important. They were never to be denied petrol, even when it was scarce.

there were a number of "huts" that were the offices
The work they did at Bletchley was so complex that I can’t even begin to explain anything well in detail. We spent two hours there on the first day before we had to go to London. We went back by train a week later and spent another five hours and we still didn’t cover everything. Our ticket is valid for a year, but we will not be back within a year to be able to go again. If you go there, I would recommend two full days; staying the night somewhere close. Make sure you do one of the walking tours with the volunteers as they are really interesting.

One of the Bombe machines
After the war, Bletchley and places like it, fell into disrepair. Many of the huts have now been restored and furnished as they would have been. There are projected video recordings onto the walls in some of the rooms giving you an insight into conversations that possibly went on. There are large interactive touch pads to explain the decoding cyphers and many other things, including of course Alan Turing's bombe - there were in fact 200 dotted around the country. It is believed that the bombe shortened the war by two years. It is a magnificent place. When out in the garden, you will hear the sounds of a motorcycle go by or a train. In the offices you can hear typing, it makes you feel like you are right there. It was an excellent museum. They are planning on doing even more when they get more funds.

This is what the pigeons were transported in
The pigeons were dropped by parachute behind enemy lines, people working for the Resistance would then attached messages to their legs, the birds would then fly home to Bletchley or wherever their home base was.


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