Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Women of Bletchley Park

Last Friday, I visited Bletchley Park, home of the WWII code-cracking team, now a somewhat tattered, yet still inspiring remnant of the glory days of Churchill's England.

On this visit, I was fortunate to encounter several excellent guides, including Tony Sale, former MI5 engineer, and the man behind the reconstruction of Colossus - the computer built to break Lorenz, the code used by Hitler and his generals.

Between witnessing a live demonstration of the world's first computer (which, unbelievably, still uses some of the original valves from the WWII period), touring the huts where Turing and his peers worked, and viewing a simply incredibly array of artifacts, including several Enigma machines and replicas of the famous Turing Bombes, I enjoyed a terrific few hours.

However, during the course of the visit, I came across one fact that had somehow eluded me while reading several of the books that have Bletchley Park at their core: the pivotal role of women at Bletchley Park during the war.

According to the displayed HR logs, photos graphs, and anecdotal stories, more than 75% of personnel at Bletchley were female, including virtually all of the radio station operators, Bombe operators, motorcycle dispatch riders, analysts, and many of the code-breakers.

In the hut made famous by Alan Turing - Hut 8 - an excellent video is on display featuring Mavis Batey (nee Lever), one of Dilly Knox's "girls". Ms. Batey, who is now in her eighties, came up with one of the critical breakthroughs of the war -an inspired analysis that resulted in victory over elite Italian naval forces during the Battle of Matapan.

In the room next to it are several stories involving female leaders of resistance groups that Hollywood producers need to immediately check out. I had not heard of several of these women but was awed by their toughness - and sacrifice.

The one down point of the day occurred as my guide showed me the remains of the hut that housed the world's first computer - hut F. The only thing remaining is a concrete slab - the hut itself was knocked down by a housing developer in the early '80s. The rebuilt Colossus II is now housed in a hut a hundred yards from where the original stood.

It is estimated by some experts that the code-breaking carried out at Bletchley shortened the war by two years, and sparing Berlin from an atom bomb. Whether or not that is true, what is clear upon visiting Bletchley Park is that this group of scientists, like those at Los Alamos, moved forward computing at an unprecedented pace, in the years from 1938 to 1945.

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