Saturday, 26 July 2008

Fighting against the odds

Over the past seventy years, Bletchley Park has beaten the odds on a number of occasions. The most obvious odds to overcome were the chances of cracking the Enigma code that began emanating from Germany in the late 1930s. Boffins were bundled into vans, linguists rounded up and all manner of experts approached to work on the problem. But the entire enterprise was nearly stillborn before it had even got underway. Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair had to defeat the insurmountable object that was the British Civil Service. Securing the funds for buying Bletchley Park took so long, Sir Hugh ended up spending £7500 of his own money on the building (c. £1.2m by today’s earnings)

With the site secured, they finally had some luck cracking Enigma. They rapidly discovered the Poles had already done it. Keen to find out what all the muttering was about in Germany, the Poles had broken the wheel-settings and found a way to mechanise the process, creating a giant calculator known as a bombe. Code-breaking activity in Poland was somewhat curtailed in 1939 and the methods and the machine were imported to Bletchley where they were honed, duplicated and industrialised. By the end of the war over 200 bombes whirred away at Bletchley and five other stations.

By 1941, the codebreakers had another problem put in their path. Not another fiendish code – they could handle those - but their own government were causing difficulties. Bletchley Park lacked man-power, and woman-power, and no amount of protesting to the War Office seemed to make any difference to their resources. So a letter was taken to Churchill, delivered to Downing Street in person by Stuart Milner-Barry. He was deputy head of Hut 6, where some of the greatest feats in mathematics, logic and codebreaking of all time were performed. These calculations undoubtedly shortened the war by several months and saved thousands of lives. In fact, you still see Hut 6 now, boarded up, rotting with the paint peeling off. Churchill interceded, funds were found and men moved.

Then a new curious code was picked up in through the airwaves. It was believed to be Hitler’s own secret cipher and no-one had a clue where to begin. It seemed hopelessly complex. Which it was. But a 24-year-old chemist from Trinity College, Cambridge, called Bill Tutte got to work where many before him had failed. With some educated guesswork and some ferocious intelligence, he worked out the secret Lorenz cipher was generated by a machine with two sets of five rotors. On one set of five, the rotors had 41, 31, 29, 26 and 23 settings respectively. On the other, 43, 47, 51, 53 and 59. This astonishing discovery – borne out when a Lorenz cipher machine was captured some time later - did not suddenly render the message legible. It just gave told the codebreakers that the odds of cracking the code itself were infinitesimal. But, as one would expect, with patient brilliance, the codebreakers found a way through. And soon enough, a computer, Colossus, was designed to automate the calculations.

But once again it was the government and authorities, not the numbers, that were the ultimate frustration. Tommy Flowers invented a valve-based computer that was deemed far too expensive to fund, and so he put his hand into his own pocket and partly funded the project himself. The machine was built, the Lorenz cipher cracked and Hitler’s own personal messages were intercepted. Armed with this weapon, the allies could make decisions surrounding D-Day with confidence since they sometimes knew the mind of the Fuhrer before Goering, Kesselring and Rommel.

After the war, the site continued to be used for various government training roles – teachers, post office workers and members of GCHQ. By 1991, however, the site had fallen into disuse and was about to be torn down and replaced with a housing development. It would have been bulldozed but for the efforts of the Bletchley Archaeological and Historical Society. They tracked down former codebreakers so that they could at least say farewell to the place before the diggers moved in. Over 400 attended. One final stay of execution for the site was granted. Bletchley Park Trust was formed the following year, shortly after Milton Keynes Borough Council declared most of the Park a conservation area. In 1993 it was open to the public.

Fifteen years on, the site is barely scraping by. Despite receiving no government assistance, it stands as a national monument to mathematical brilliance, even when the country has never been prepared to pay for it. Only a recent change in Lottery Funding rules has allowed an application for money. Even if the bid is successful, the money may take a year to arrive and not even be sufficient when it does. But one can’t help feeling that given it’s seventy year track record in beating enormous odds, the Bletchley bosses would be better off buying a Lottery ticket.