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The Bletchley Park Codebreakers

The Bletchleyettes

Almost 90 kilometres northwest of London, one can find the Victorian manor of Bletchley Park. During the Second World War, this redbrick estate housed the ‘British Government Code and Cypher School’. Here, a team of geniuses set out to penetrate the secret communications of the Axis powers. Under the auspices of Alan Turing, they succeeded twice. Firstly, in 1940, they created an electromechanical device dubbed ‘the bombe’ to decipher the Germans’ infamous Enigma-encoded messages. Secondly, when Adolf Hitler ordered their messages to become more complex, they developed ‘the Colossus’. This enormous fully-electronic computer could break even the most sophisticated messages. As a matter of fact, Colossus’ very first intercepts provided U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower with some valuable information regarding the soon-to-follow Normandy Landings in 1944. It is said that, without the efforts raised by the Bletchley Park codebreakers, the outcome of the war would have been uncertain. Possibly, it would have lasted two to four more years. Unfortunately, due to persistent secrecy shrouding their activities, recognition remains low or non-existent.

Equally concealed are the many efforts made by the approximately 8.000 female workers that, together, constituted three quarters of the total workforce. Given that many men were sent to war, it was believed that women, too, could be of value with respect to the Bletchley Park-related cryptography activities. Some women were recruited from the university, others originated from trusted family connections. When the personnel needs of Bletchley continued to grow in 1942, women were even recruited from a cryptic crossword competition published in the Daily Telegraph. Once selected, these ‘Bletchleyettes’, as they were referred to, held numerous positions. Some took up clerical duties, others operated cryptographic machinery. Some even became true code-breaking specialists, such as Mavis Batey, Jane Fawcett and Joan Clarke.

As it appears, Bletchley Park was not only the place whence the Germans were attacked most fatally - albeit with Mathematics rather than bayonets - it was equally the birthplace of the first fully-electronic and programmable special-purpose computer: the Colossus. Unfortunately, due to primarily male employees being associated with this computer, the entirety of Bletchley Park seems to be remembered as a male endeavour. In response to this imbalance, commemoration efforts have been made over the past years to bring these women together; giving them a voice. This task was complex, though: even 70 years after the war ended, the women of Bletchley Park still take serious their oath of secrecy. As a matter of fact, not rare is the occurrence that the friends and families of these women learn about their participation only by reading about it in a book or newspaper, rather than hearing it from them directly.

The Bletchley Park Codebreakers


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