Bletchley Park

The Mansion at Bletchley Park. Though this is the most photogenic building (and oft-used when Bletchley Park is discussed), not much actual code-breaking work went on there.

Also, the weather was rainy and miserable when I was there, giving a far more accurate representation of what it's normally like than the sunny pictures you'll see elsewhere on the Web (it is Britain, after all).

A Tour of Bletchley Park: Codebreaking that helped win WWII, and the birthplace of the modern computer

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

The Enigma

As soon as you enter the grounds (and pay your £15 entrance fee), you're thrown right into it. Here you can see the infamous Enigma cipher machine.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Enigma close-up

It's a box of many, many wires and gears. While seemingly low-tech these days, it was remarkably cutting edge for its day.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Enigma Rotor

This is one of the rotors from an Enigma, with its inner wires exposed.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

The grounds

One you're out of the ticket building (which, next to the main entrance, is actually a little bit away from the Mansion), you begin a cleverly-designed guided tour. You're given a heavily-protected iPod touch, which has a video explanation for each area, plus additional videos, interviews, and photos which add to the experience. It worked really well.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

The lake

Though a high-pressure environment, everyone at Bletchley during WWII was encouraged to relax as much as possible. Boating in the summer, ice skating in the winter, and so on.

I am unaware if these are special cipher ducks.

Cipherducks should be a movie.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

IEEE Award

The IEEE giving a well-deserved award. This was at the entrance to the Mansion.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

The Library

One of the lovely rooms inside the Mansion. Before the huts were built to accommodate the ever-growing staff, this room housed German and Italian Navy code/cipher breakers. Later it was home to a typing pool.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Ballroom

After the huts were built, this room was reclaimed and turned into something of a quiet relaxation room, and occational movie theater.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Projection

I thought this was a neat touch. The ballroom you saw in the previous slide was an addition long before the war. Here you can see one of the original exterior windows. A movie projector was set up roughly where I'm standing, and projected through a hole where the window was, to be viewed in the ballroom.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Packard

This is one of the original Packard Sixes that was converted for use as Special Communication Units, including wireless receivers and transmitters, batteries, and a charger.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Mansion, rear view

The back of the Mansion. There used to be a wireless receiver at the top of the tower (center, distant), but they realized this would make the building conspicuous, so they removed it early on in the war.

I tried to decode what special significance the truck's lettering held, but failed.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

The cottages

One of the original buildings where some of the early code breaking was done. Alan Turing worked here before moving to the huts.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Polish Memorial

A memorial to the Polish mathematicians who figured out how the military Enigma machine worked...without having ever seen one.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

The Huts

Here you can see Huts 1, 6, and 3 (in the distance). Hut 6 handled the decoding German Army and Air Force codes and ciphers. Hut 3 translated and analyzed the decoded transmissions.

Also note the cool design of the sign, one of many on the grounds.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Hut 11

This unassuming building housed the original Bombe machines, Turing's electro-mechanical computers that helped decipher the Enigma ciphers.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Bombe mock-ups

As soon as the war ended, the Bombe machines were disassembled into their constituent parts and wires. Nothing that would leave any trace of what they were for.

Though decades later, a rebuild project was started...and completed.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Heat, noise, and oil

These were big, loud, smelly machines, that needed constant maintence and adjusting. All the work was done by "Wrens," or the Women's Royal Naval Service.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Hands-on

In a great addition, the mock-up Bombes have puzzles so you can try your hand at a highly simplfied setup procedure.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Inside the huts

From Hut 11 you get to walk through Huts 3 and 6. They've set the rooms up to appear roughly as they did during WWII, including blackout shades that do wonders for ambiance, and do make photography a challenge.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Live! Sort of...

The museum did an excellent job maintaining a WWII atmosphere. In most rooms, actors voices are heard, reading period letters and diaries.

Then there's the clever use of video projection, seen here. Actors in period clothes, adding a bit of life to the scenes.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Spot the projector

Not wanting to ruin the mood with some anachronistic 21st century A/V gear, the projectors in most rooms are hidden, often in otherwise normal-looking filing cabinets.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Original

Except here, in the Watch room, where there's an entirely original Panasonic LCD projector. Amazing how ahead of the times they were at Bletchley Park.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Quiet halls

Though there were many people visiting while I was there, it was still hard to imagine how much louder, and busier, these halls would have been at the peak of the war.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Manual computer

Though the Bombe machines (and their successors) helped a tremendous amount, much of the code/cipher breaking was still done by people, with pencils and paper. Here you can see one of the crossword-puzzle-lookalikes that many used.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Block A

As the codebreaking effort expanded, the Bletchley Park team realized they needed something more permanent and substantial than cheap wooden huts.

This is Block A, where Alan Turing set up shop to tackle the Naval Enigma (which was harder to crack than the Army or Air Force, which BP had been reading for years).

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Museum within a museum

Block B showcases not just code breaking, but what life was like in Britain during the war, plus displays about spies and the different machines used to encrypt and decrypt messages.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Lorenz SZ40

For example, here's a Lorenz SZ40 cipher attachment, a bulkier but a seemingly more secure way to send messages.

The geniuses at Bletchley reverse-engineered how the Lorenz worked without seeing one, thanks in part to carelessness by the Nazis.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Alan Turing

A cool statue of the legendary Alan Turing. If you don't know who he is, his story is fascinating (and tragic).

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Bombe!

A working Bombe, thanks to meticulous and decade-plus effort by John Harper and his team.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Spinning wheels

Each group of three (stacked vertically) functions as it's own Enigma machine. The top rotor spins rapidly, and at each full rotation, the rotor below clicks one letter over, when that one finishes its rotation, the one below it clicks over one letter. This goes through every permutation of the starting position of the encoding Enigma possible, in about 12.5 minutes.

This is only part of the whole process of reading enciphered transmissions, but the Bombes sped up the process significantly.

Check out this Bombe in action.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Inside

Looks like a big computer, doesn't it?

In fact, the Bombes were only a few short steps removed (figuratively, and later literally) from the first electronic computer, the Colossus.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

More wires?

Remember the mock-up from Hut 11? Yeah, I wasn't kidding when I said it was simplified.

Check out the back of this Bombe in action.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Demo

Every hour or so, there's a wonderful and in-depth demonstration on how the Bombe works.

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:

Memorial

Since it would be decades before anyone who worked at Bletchley Park could talk about it, the British Government built a memorial to their service, estimated to have taken more than two years off the length of the war.

Check out more, and get info about taking  a visit yourself, at the Bletchley Park website. It's just a hour outside London by train, and well worth the visit.

A Tour of Bletchley Park: Codebreaking that helped win WWII, and the birthplace of the modern computer

Updated:
Photo by: Geoffrey Morrison / Caption by:
Hot Galleries

CNET's Holiday Gift Guide

Tablets that put your TV to shame

Binge-watch your favorite episodes on these portable screens.

Hot Products