It was called the Intelligence Factory: a maze of rooms and offices in which, by the end of the war, thousands of people worked around the clock to decode and process enemy communications.
Block A of Bletchley Park, the top secret Second World War decryption center in Buckinghamshire that was the precursor to GCHQ, was restored and opened to the public for the first time on Thursday. Using testimonials from veterans, surviving documents and photographs, and interactive re-enactments, the exhibit shows the industrial scale of the operation that was critical to Allied victory.
Block A opened in late 1942, built to house the ever-increasing number of people needed to decode, analyze and process a growing mountain of wartime communications. Bosses at Bletchley Park scrambled to recruit more and more people – 75% of them were women, many in their late teens or early twenties, mostly doing tedious work and repetitive under conditions of extreme secrecy.
By the end of 1945 nearly 9,000 people were working three shifts a day at Bletchley. They were housed with local residents or housed in specially constructed huts containing rows of cots and fed from the canteen minced meat and potatoes or corned beef with prunes.
On their arrival, all had to sign a document entitled “Secret”, which enjoined them never to speak about their work with the meals, in transport or even “by the fireside”. He warns: “There is nothing to be gained by gossip except the satisfaction of a vain vanity or a vain curiosity: there is everything to lose.
For the most part, it was a far cry from the experience of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who cracked the Enigma code and whose story was told in the 2014 Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game.
“Turing was a genius, working largely in intellectual isolation,” said Thomas Cheetham, research fellow at Bletchley Park. “In fact, this place felt like a factory – busy, bustling, noisy, full of people doing small tasks. For many it was their first job – the average age was 19 – and it was pretty boring work. And they never got the big picture of what was being done at Bletchley.
The exhibit includes a recreation of the Naval Plotting Room, where the movements of ships and submarines were tracked by pins and string placed on floor-to-ceiling maps.
An original Hollerith machine that organized and processed data using 2 million individual punch cards each week – a job that today’s computer technology could do in moments – is in another room.
Pneumatic tubes, known as “spit and suck”, helped circulate vital information around Block A. Its distinctive hissing sound, along with the clank of the Hollerith and the general background noise of people working nearby , provided a constant soundtrack in the center. .
The 24/7 activity was backed by gargantuan management, with thousands of memos posted on bulletin boards. One, dated June 16, 1942, states that “it is NOT permitted to give a second serving” at mealtimes due to strict rationing. Another, issued on February 24, 1943, stated that “beer will be available daily in Hut 2 (Recreation Hut) between noon and 2 p.m., and 6 and 8 p.m.”.
Kay Pickett (née Harrison), now 96, who started working at Bletchley Park in June 1944 aged 18, said she had had no real idea of the importance work until much later in life. “Everything was so secret, and we weren’t allowed to talk about it. Now I know how important it was.
Erica Munro, exhibitions manager, said: “In the intelligence factory, there was a very strong female experience – partly because of the number and partly because of the variety of work they did. It was a pleasure to include so many female voices in the audio points of the exhibition.”
Bletchley Park’s importance to the overall Allied effort was “incalculable”, Cheetham said. “Everyone has tried to do signals intelligence. Some countries were very bad at this. The Americans were good enough, but even they didn’t achieve what the British achieved at Bletchley Park: having a central signals intelligence center that took care of everything. Britain was so far ahead.