George Steiner once hailed the British code breaking effort at Bletchley Park as ‘the single greatest achievement of Britain during 1939–45, perhaps during this century as a whole’.
The claim will doubtless strike many as ridiculous. Surely, however precise the information about the enemy which Bletchley provided, it would have been useless without the courage of the sailors, soldiers and airmen who had to act upon it? True; nevertheless, I still think Steiner’s dramatic assertion is justified. While all the major combatants in the second world war had navies, armies and airforces often as good as, if not superior, to ours, none had anything to compare with our achievements in intelligence. Bletchley was Britain’s singular contribution, not just to victory, but to the development of the modern world.
I met my first pair of Bletchley Park veterans by accident over dinner with a friend’s parents in 1980, when I was twenty-three. Typically, they were the daughter of an earl, and a grammar school boy from Keighley, who had gone on to become a famous historian. By the end of the war, he had helped compile a set of records of the Luftwaffe, so voluminous they had to be housed in an aircraft hangar, and which eventually proved to be more detailed than those held by Goering’s Air Ministry in Berlin. She had operated a Type-X decryption machine – a simple clerical job – but the nature of her work meant that, at nineteen, she held in her head the greatest British secret of the war: a fact of which she was acutely conscious, she said, every time she ventured out in public.
I listened, enraptured, to their stories, and fifteen years later wrote a novel, Enigma, which tried to convey something of the atmosphere of this haunting place, which had cut across the traditional barriers of sex and class. I had the good fortune to conduct my research at a time when some of the key players were still alive and able to answer questions: Sir Stuart Milner-Barry, former junior chess champion of Great Britain, and subsequently head of Bletchley’s Hut 6; Sir Harry Hinsley, expert in signals traffic analysis, who later became the official historian of British intelligence in the second world war; and perhaps the most memorable of them all – Joan Murray, one of Bletchley’s few women codebreakers, who had worked on the U-boat ciphers in Hut 8, had been briefly engaged to Alan Turing, and who was now living, widowed and solitary, in a small house in north Oxford.
All these three are now dead; and the sad truth is that within the next decade virtually everyone who played a significant role in Bletchley will have gone, too. Hence the need for this book, which skilfully draws together the voices of the past. The wartime code breakers not only produced the most astonishing cornucopia of intelligence in the history of warfare (at its peak, Bletchley was decrypting 10,000 enemy signals per day); they not only pioneered the development of the computer, and so helped give birth to the information age, they also represented the triumph of a peculiarly British blend of genius, discretion, amateurism and eccentricity, which seems to be vanishing with them.
Whenever I think of Bletchley, I think of shiftchanges at midnight and chilly wooden huts, of glowing orange valves and clanking electromagnetic machinery; I think of Alan Turing cycling to work in his gas mask during the hayfever season, and of sunlit games of rounders in front of that hideous Victorian mansion; I think of chess-players, crossword-puzzle addicts, Egyptologists, numismatists, philologists, lexicographers, musicologists – in short, of that particular kind of quiet, self-absorbed, recondite intellect, which is often overlooked or even mildly despised in the modern world, but which, for a few years, came together in a suburban park in the dreary midlands of England, and helped save western civilisation.