Our Open Enigma goes to the Minnesota Speech State competition.
Thank You Mary Pat!
Here is her speech, reprinted with permission:
A Code Worth Breaking
Everyone has their secrets, but in the spring of 1974, Mrs. Ruth Bourne proved just how extensive these secrets can be. She gave the book The Bletchley Park Circle to her husband, he then replied, “That’s interesting, dear, what’s for tea?” And despite Mrs. Bourne’s husband’s causal response, the work that Mrs. Bourne along with thousands of other British completed in a top- secret war effort that remained under wraps long after the end of the war, was anything but
ordinary. These women worked at Bletchley Park, which housed the British code breaking operations during World War II. At its peak approximately 10,000 civilians, 8,000 of whom were women tackled the complex task of deciphering and analyzing the intelligence derived
from enemy radio signals Not only did the workers of Bletchley Park contribute to intelligence efforts that aided the allied nations, but also the techniques developed at Bletchley Park played a major role in the Cold War and in many cases still remain relevant. So let’s start by breaking the code of the history of Bletchley Park and the amazing story of how this huge and important operation impacted World War II. Then we will decipher the women who were not only essential to the intelligence efforts at Bletchley Park but who were able to keep their work secret for decades after the war ended. And finally we will reveal some of the interesting encryptions of how the work that started at Bletchley Park that lived beyond WWII.
Nazi military intelligence developed what became known as enigma, a code that no one understood, produced by a machine that no one had ever seen and with a range of possible inscriptions that were utterly unimaginable. Enigma used rotors to scramble messages into
unintelligible cypher text. While researching this topic, I came across Marc Tessier and James Sanderson of S and T Geotronics in Georgia that are currently making exact replicas of the enigma machine (in order to promote education, cryptology and gaming.) I was dismayed to (realize) discover that these working scale models $1000 dollars, I then emailed the company. And they graciously agreed to loan me an enigma machine for the next two weeks free of charge. I had to promise my parents this morning that I wouldn’t drop it. So in addition to seeing a picture of the enigma, we’re able to see the actual size of this machine (actually looked like in WWII.)
Finding the Key settings for each network – which were reset at midnight every day –was the chall enge faced by the Code breakers. The standard 3 rotors Enigma was capable of being set to approximately 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations—and no I didn’t sutter, that’s 18 zeros. What’s important about the enigma machine is that as you can see it was
portable, meaning the Nazi military could use it from any location of the battlefield.
According to the book, The Bletchley Park Code Breakers, Before WWII, militaries used fixed lines to deliver messages, but at the start of WWII they began usi ng radio technology to spread messages faster. Thanks to Britain’s exceptional radio engineers their receivers could pick up messages from farther away. Thankfully, the Germans were unaware of this new development in reception. With this advance in retriev ing of encoding messages, a hidden army, mostly made up of young civilian women, engaged in a shadowing struggle for Nazi military intelligence. But how did this English Estate become the site of one of the most important intelligence efforts of
WWII? According to the book, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There, the estate was conveniently located within easy walking distance of Bletchley railway station. In addition, this station was on the line between the cities of Oxford and Cambridge. The universities in these two cities provided the mathematicians and scientists needed to break this complicated code.
The intelligence efforts at BP quickly out grew the space of the main estate house; in Gwendoline Page’s memoir, We Kept the Secret, she explains that messages sent by the German forces in Morse code were intercepted by radio and they were dispersed at Ble tchley to specific ‘Huts’, depending on where the messages had come from. And as we can see from this complicated map, the number of facilities on the BP estate were quite extensive. It was in Huts 3,6,4 and 8 that the highly effective Enigma decrypt teams worked. The huts operated in pairs and, for security reasons, were known only by their numbers. For example, the code breakers concentrating on the Army and Air Force cyphers were based in Hut 6, supported by a team in the neighboring Hut 3 who turned the deciphered messages into intelligence reports. Hut 8 decoded messages from the German Navy, with Hut 4 the associated naval intelligence hut.
Now that we’ve deciphered the history of Bletchley Park, let’s break the code on the women who were essential to the intelligence efforts that took place there. The experience at Bletchley Park can best be described as unique. And according to The Bletchley Park Code
breakers, women out numbered men 3 to 1 at BP but unlike the civilian world of the 1940s they were not placed in support roles. The women made significant contribution to the code breaking.
But who are these women that are credited with shortening WWII by two to four years? 90- year- old Becky Webb, who joined the war effort at age 18 in 1941. While some decoders were trained in mathematics and approached cryptography from a technical angle, she reports using a ‘psychological approach Webb recalled that “the Germans tested the day’s setting by using their girlfriends names or dirty words…It was a great shame when they were stopped, as we enjoyed the dirty words.”
Mavis Lever Batey, age all of 19 was one of the BP cryptologists that cracked the Italian Enigma coding system. She recalls that one of the questions that were asked of new recruits in training was taken from Alice in Wonderland: Which way does the clock go round? If you were stupid enough to answer ‘clockwise’ you would be told —- not if you are the clock. This response summed up the work the new recruits would do at BP —— they would all have to be prepared to
think in a different way.
But life at Bletchley wasn’t all decoding, there was down time too when this large number of people needed something to do while they were not at work. The recreational life at BP was busy and exciting. The park’s Recreational club included a library, drama club, music
and choral societies, bridge groups, fencing competitions and Scottish dancing clubs. And yes, there was romance. One interesting twist is that these couples were not allowed to share confiden tial information with one another. Having signed the Official Secrets Act, the workers at BP kept their vow of silence until they were given clearance thirty years after the war. But for many of the young women at Bletchley, the removal of the clandestine veil came too late, with
the majority of workers’ parents and in some cases spouses having passed away before their decryption effort became public knowledge.
Now that we’ve covered the history of Bletchley Park and talked about the women who worked there, let’s investigate encryptions that tell us about BP’s legacy.
One important achievement was the development of Colossus. This was the world’s first electronic digital computer that was at all programmable. In fact, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of when Colossus successfully broke the Italian Enigma for the first time.
Colossus was designed by the engineer Tommy Flowers to solve a problem posed by mathematician Max Newman at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.
This computer was huge about the size of this room —- weighing 5 tons. According to a journal article in The Annals of the History of Computing, Colossus is the real source of the computer technologies that we use today.
The first Colossus was assembled in Hut 9 but eventually there were 10 colossi built on site with an estimated 550 Bletchley Park team members needed to operate them. But like all of the other break through developments of Bletchley Park, colossus was keep secret for 30 years.
Even though the machines were destroyed at the end of the war, a replica was erected at Bletchley Park in the mid 1990s and This replica is now on display —- in Hut 9 of course— for public view by the 250,000 people who visit the museum annually.
And as WWII gave way to the Cold War, it was vital that Britain’s former ally, the USSR, should learn nothing of Bletchley Park’s wartime achievements because the developments helped the US in their war effort.
But the lasting mark of Bletchley Park can be traced to the path it paved for women in not only in academia, but also in the work force in general. Up until this point, women were more often than not placed in support roles in the work force, but Bletchley carved a different path for women. The accomplishments that women at Bletchley Park completed showed the world that women had far more to offer to the work world than they had been credited for. After the war, many of the code breakers went on to take important positions in academia, business and politics.
So today, we have looked at the history of Bletchley, the people that have worked there, and its legacy. And while Mrs. Bourne’s husband was upset about his afternoon tea interpreted, it’s important for him —and us— to remember that it not been for his wife’s work along with the work of thousand of other British women, the outcome of the war would have been very different—and indeed that’s a code worth breaking.