Since the restrictions have been lifted I
have been so thrilled to think that I was
there – I didn’t dare think about it
before that in case I said something I
shouldn’t have! I never even told my
husband what I was doing at B.P. Now I
watch anything connected with it on
television and listen to anything on
Station X (Bletchley Park) was known to
outstations as the ‘Nut House.’ii.
When its owner died in 1937 Bletchley Park, set in the Buckinghamshire countryside about 50 miles north-west of London, was an unremarkable Victorian country house. Situated at the end of a drive and surrounded by lawns that sloped gently to an ornamental lake, it had been largely rebuilt after 1883 when it had been bought by the financier Sir Herbert Leon. Its redbrick fagade boasted neither symmetry nor beauty: it was an eclectic assemblage of gables, crenellations, chimney-stacks and bay windows perhaps a suitably eccentric setting for the role it was destined soon to play. Tucked behind it were the usual outbuildings: stables, garages, laundry and dairy facilities, and servants’ living quarters. Of no historic or architectural importance, it was bought by a local builder for demolition and redevelopment.
Within a year, however, the house had changed hands again. Its new occupant appeared to be a naval or military gentleman, and he was accompanied by a group described as ‘Captain Ridley’s shooting party’. This term suggested a group of sporting upper-class men in pursuit of local wildlife, yet no gunshots were heard from the grounds. Instead, in the years that followed there would be the sounds of almost constant construction. The mysterious gentlemen were to remain in occupation for almost ten years, their numbers swelled by over 10,000 more men and women, both military and civilian, and it would be several more decades before local people discovered what they had been doing there.
The house had indeed been bought, for £7,500, by a naval gentleman, though he was not in fact Captain Ridley (who was a real naval officer) but an admiral. Sir Hugh Sinclair was the head of both MI6 and the Government Code and Cipher School. Both had their headquarters in London, and with war looming Sinclair was concerned to find a home for them that would be out of the way of German bombers and Axis spies. He had naturally expected the government to provide the funds for this purchase. In the event, every department he had approached, from the War Office to the Foreign Office, had refused on the grounds that his purposes and organizations came within the jurisdiction of some other body. He therefore paid for Bletchley Park himself. It was to acquire the cloak-anddagger name ‘Station X’. This was not whimsy; the ‘X’ was in fact the Roman numeral 10, and referred to the fact that nine other sites had also been acquired by MI6 for its wartime needs.
The ‘shooting party’ arrived in the year that Hitler annexed Austria and seized the Sudetenland. They were the small advance guard of an army that would arrive in increasing numbers from the following summer. They had a vital mission with regard to the inevitable, imminent European war. Their job would be to break the secret codes of the enemy, read its transmissions and pass on its plans to the Allied governments and military commanders. This was a massive and daunting task. It required the mobilization of many of the finest minds to be found in Britain and among its allies, so that as well as creating an effective physical environment for their work, there had to be a search the length and breadth of the country for