Imagine venturing just a short distance from London to a sleepy country town that once was the top-secret, bustling center of the World War II codebreakers. A visit to Bletchley Park allows you to do just that. At Bletchley Park, you will immerse yourself in the world of codes and cryptography.
You can easily spend a day exploring the tree-shaded mansion and the complex of outbuildings set on rolling lawns. Here you’ll learn just how vital the work of Bletchley Park was in saving lives. The curtain of secrecy is now pulled back, and anyone can walk in the steps of the men and women who worked here uncovering intelligence, letter by letter. Here are a few of the reasons to visit this heritage attraction.
1. Stand Where History Was Changed
You are on the grounds of a history-changing place. Some visitors say you can feel the spirit of lifesaving work here. Historians estimate that the work of Bletchley Park codebreakers shortened the war by about two years, sparing the lives of countless soldiers and civilians.
Start your tour at the mansion. This is where it all began. This once-decrepit old house was commandeered at the start of the war as a center for intercepting Nazi messages. At first, only about 150 people worked in the house. Eventually, Bletchley Park grew with the addition of huts. By the war’s end, Bletchley Park employed almost 10,000 people who labored in three shifts round the clock.
Decoded messages involved both information about German war strategy and communications between German officers. Active throughout the war, Bletchley Park provided intelligence that affected Allied operations from 1939 to 1945.
One poignant example of the contribution of Bletchley Park is shown in The Imitation Game, a movie about Bletchley Park’s part in D-Day. Adequate planning for the invasion of France was crucial to its success. Because of the ability of the codebreakers to read German messages, the Allies knew exactly how many Germans were in France and where they were on the eve of D-Day. As this intelligence came in, the Allies knew to add more divisions to Operation Overlord to match the expected resistance.
Bletchley Park also intercepted messages between Hitler and his commanders. The outcome of the invasion was not at all assured in the early hours of June 6, 1944, but its ultimate success was undoubtedly boosted by the codebreakers working night and day back in England.
2. Experience The Birthplace Of The Modern Computer
How were the codebreakers able to read enigmatic German messages and translate them year after year? There was no way to do this by hand, so scientists at Bletchley Park invented machines to do so, and industrialized computers were born. You can see both the amazing machines used during the war here. They have been recreated, as all of them were destroyed at the end of the war, but you can watch them in action. One is called a “bombe,” and it runs in Hut 11A.
The bombe, developed by Alan Turing, was used to decode messages sent by Enigma machines. The Germans changed Enigma settings every day, and with a possible 60 septillion (!) combinations, help was needed. Nine bombes ran at Bletchley Park by 1942. Incredibly, the Germans continued to believe that their Enigma codes were unbreakable.
Check the daily schedule for the times of bombe demonstrations. You will not want to miss this very noisy experience.
The other “computer” at Bletchley Park is known as the Colossus and is in the National Museum of Computing in Block H. The Colossus helped decode messages of the Nazi commanders. As the Colossus springs into action, you will feel the heat from the valves and smell the electronic parts working.
Bletchley Park Huts 3 and 6 are restored to resemble their wartime design. Marvel at how stark and utilitarian these rooms were. Staff spent countless hours doing work that must have seemed tedious. Yet it was crucial to the war effort.
The Path of a Message exhibition shows that once the messages were decoded, they also needed to be analyzed. Then the intelligence had to be sent to the proper military facility. This made me realize the extent of brain power the people at Bletchley Park displayed.
3. Get Acquainted With The Brilliant Codebreakers
At first, codebreakers were recruited from nearby Oxford and Cambridge. Alan Turing, who would invent the bombe, is the most well-known of these individuals. The museum in Block B houses a display on his life and work. It was recently announced that Turing will be featured on Britain’s 50-pound note as a computing genius and World War II hero.
As more and more people were needed at Bletchley Park, military and civil service personnel worked together. At the end of the war, women accounted for 3 out of 4 staff members. A small group of American military personnel also served here. Bletchley Park’s website notes that this “was the first time many of the UK staff had met an American, but the visitors fitted in very well.”
I was surprised to learn from my visit that scientists from Poland played a notable role in Bletchley Park’s codebreaking, too. As early as 1932, three Poles figured out the Enigma problem. They fled to France when war broke out, but one of them, Henryk Zygalski, made his way to England and aided Turing in inventing the bombe. A memorial commemorating the Poles was unveiled at a ceremony in 2011. You can stop and pay respects here on your Bletchley Park visit.
4. Movie Set Fun
Bletchley Park is the setting of the movie The Imitation Game, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Some of the scenes were filmed on site. The mansion was restored to its 1940s style for the movie. You can see the beautiful wood bar that’s featured, for example. I had seen the movie before my visit, but I especially enjoyed watching it again after I went home since I’d been on set at Bletchley Park.
5. Look To The Future
Bletchley Park presents history informed by human values. Your visit will show you the results of each of the codebreakers doing a small part for the whole. They displayed discipline, technological skills, and loyalty to their countries. The secrets unearthed at Bletchley Park remained unknown for decades. The ruins of the buildings here were restored by a trust that recognized their value. My tour guide told of wartime workers who came back to see Bletchley Park decades later and still would not talk about what went on there.
Those who now operate this historical treasure say that the technology developed and used at Bletchley Park during World War II, along with the values of the people who were part of it, can inform our view of technology in this century. A visit here gives you much to think about in considering the future.
Bletchley Park is open daily and can be reached from London by train in about an hour and a half. It’s a five-minute walk from the train station. If you can, plan to spend a day (or at least a morning or afternoon). You can eat a hearty lunch in the Hut 4 cafe, a former Naval intelligence center. Ice cream and snacks are also available. And plenty of activities for children make Bletchley Park an enjoyable family activity, too.
Beyond Bletchley Park, these are the best places to visit in England (besides London). If you want more on historically informed travels, read about what I learned from visiting the D-Day beaches in Normandy, France, too.