A cracking day out

Samantha Mayling visits a newly opened hut in Bletchley Park, where pioneering codebreakers cracked the Enigma code during the Second World War

I grew up in Cheltenham – home of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), dubbed by the media ‘the UK’s spy headquarters’ or ‘listening post’.

It was surrounded in secrecy when I was there in 70s but it started to become more open in the 80s – and now it has a website with a welcome message from the director.

Its forerunner, the Government Code and Cypher School was housed at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

Like GCHQ, it used to be top-secret, but now 200,000 people visit the site near Milton Keynes to explore how the staff cracked the enemy codes and hastened the end of the war.

The story of the codebreakers has also been immortalised in film, with movies such as Enigma, starring Kate Winslet, and The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.

Hut 11A

I visited on the day that a new attraction opened, called Hut 11A: The Bombe Breakthrough.

This permanent exhibition tells the story of the ‘Bombe’ machines which broke Enigma in the hut that housed them.

It shows how Alan Turing and his team devised a machine to crack encrypted German messages.

I got a vivid sense of the enormity of the challenge posed by the Enigma machines, which changed settings every day, with 159 quintillion possible combinations every 24 hours.

Visitors can also read the different theories about how the ‘Bombe’ got its name: it was either from the ticking sound it made, or as a tribute to the Polish bomba, an earlier machine developed by Polish codebreakers.

Bomba is an exclamation for something really good or a round scoop of ice cream.

Next door, Hut 11 houses an atmospheric exhibition about the women who worked in the “Hell-Hole”.

I felt for the Wrens who operated the electronic Bombe machines and their multiple drums – it was largely boring work, in dark, smoky rooms.

Victorian mansion

There’s plenty more to see at Bletchley Park and it’s well worth a full day trip to explore all the huts, and the Victorian mansion, all of which evocatively recreate the atmosphere, furniture and equipment of the Second World War.

You can imagine the staff have just nipped out for a cigarette to escape the pressures of codebreaking in total secrecy.

My day began in the Visitor Centre, which looks at the beginnings of the Government Code and Cypher School and codebreaking in the First World War.

I followed the suggested route on the visitor maps, and also used one of the free multimedia headsets to listen to stories about each hut and the mansion.

There’s even an exhibition devoted to the role of played by homing pigeons which were trained at Bletchley.

There are places to eat at the Visitor Centre and next to the mansion, and plenty of toilets and ramps for wheelchairs, so it suits visitors of all ages – including my teenager, who enjoyed the hands-on activities and the chance to try on some Second World War hats.

As our day came to an end, it seemed fitting that one of the final exhibits we saw talked about how the work of Bletchley Park continues today at GCHQ.

Group rates
Peak: Mar-Oct £14.50
Off-peak: Nov-Feb £12.50
Children (12-17): £9 (£8.50 off-peak)
Under 12s: Free