7 things you didn’t know about Bletchley Park and Alan Turing

The Buckinghamshire estate of Bletchley Park was Britain's primary decryption establishment during the Second World War. Home of the Government Code and Cipher School (GC & CS) – the forerunner of today’s GCHQ – operations at Bletchley are said to have shortened the Second World War by as many as two or three years. But how much do you know about the history of Bletchley Park and its most famous codebreaker, Alan Turing? Here, we bring you the facts…

A photograph of Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing (1912–54). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
1

Bletchley was an early GCHQ

Bletchley Park was the wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School (GC & CS). Formed after the First World War from the codebreaking facilities at the Admiralty and the War Office, by 1939 GC & CS was part of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), itself within the Foreign Office.

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2

Bletchley was female-friendly

Bletchley drew together a wide mixture of civilian and service personnel in what was effectively a ‘green field’ organisation. It moved from being simply a codebreaking operation to a more integrated signals intelligence entity, linking interception, cryptanalysis, translation, intelligence analysis and intelligence dissemination. This worked on a factory-like basis to produce a continuous flow of useable intelligence.

At its height in 1944, Bletchley Park employed close to 10,000 people, up to three-quarters of whom were women, performing a wide array of tasks.

Staff hard at work at Bletchley Park. The people who worked here did so under conditions of utmost secrecy, and with little idea of how their work slotted into the grand scheme of things. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

3

Bletchley was top-secret

Christopher Grey, professor of organisational behaviour at Warwick University, says: “What had been created was no less than an intelligence ‘factory’ which sucked in thousands of people working in conditions of complete secrecy. Everyone employed at Bletchley Park was told that they must never reveal anything of their work. Many had no idea what they were working on – they merely knew that they had to complete their one little part of the process.”

4

Bletchley shortened the war

It is sometimes said that the operation at Bletchley shortened the Second World War by two or three years, “and it is certainly easy to see how reading so many of the operational and strategic signals of the enemy was invaluable to the Allies”, says Christopher Grey.

Adolf Hitler is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg, 1933. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
5

Bletchley’s most famous codebreaker is Alan Turing

Born in 1912, Turing studied mathematics at King’s College and afterwards he completed his PhD at Princeton in the US. His thesis was ‘Systems of logic based on ordinals’. Turing’s most important theoretical work ‘On computable numbers’ was written in 1936. This essentially founded modern computer science.

Turing arrived at Bletchley in 1939 and soon became the head of the Naval Enigma Team. He played a vital role in breaking German codes during the Second World War, working with a team of colleagues including Dilly Knox, who had broken an Italian naval enigma cipher as early as 1937. In 1945, Turing was awarded an OBE for his wartime services. But, Christopher Grey stresses, “it certainly wasn’t the case that Turing alone cracked Enigma, any more than there was a single Enigma to be cracked”.

6

The ‘father of modern computing’

Turing gave the earliest known lecture to mention computer intelligence in 1947. He is considered the ‘father of modern computing’. Turing’s article ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’, led to what is now known as the Turing Test. This test examines a machine’s ability to demonstrate intelligent behaviour equivalent to or indistinguishable from a human.

Turing’s article ‘The chemical basis of morphogenesis’, published in 1952, anticipated the field now known as artificial life.

Alan M Turing and colleagues working on the Ferranti Mark I Computer, 1951.

7

‘Gross indecency’

On 31 March 1952 at a court in Knutsford, Cheshire, Turing was charged with being “party to the commission of an act of gross indecency” – in effect, he was charged with being homosexual, says Joel Greenberg. He pleaded guilty. Instead of imprisonment he opted for hormone ‘treatment’ – oestrogen injections that made him put on weight and enlarged his breasts.

On the morning of 8 June 1954, Turing was found dead in bed by his housekeeper. The coroner’s verdict found that he had taken his own life; there were reports that a partly eaten apple by his bed contained traces of cyanide.

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With special thanks to experts from Bletchley Park, who contributed facts about Alan Turing ahead of the release of the 2014 film The Imitation Game