The Secrets of Bletchley Park
When I came up with the idea for IN FARLEIGH FIELD, my thriller set in the second world war among the British aristocracy, I knew that it would have to do with spying and secrets and what people knew but couldn’t tell. So I started by reading everything I could about M.I.5, the British spy agency, and about Bletchley Park, the code breaking center that nobody even knew about until a few years ago.
I found that when Bletchley was set up they recruited mathematicians from Cambridge, people who were whizzes at crossword puzzles and DEBS. That was a shock to me. I knew that some debutantes had worked there, but I was amazed to find that they had actually been sought out. The thinking behind this was that upper class girls were brought up to do the right thing. They wouldn’t get drunk and spill the beans. They wouldn’t have hysterics. They would do their duty and soldier on in deplorable conditions. And amazingly they did.
Of course I had to go and see for myself. At first glance Bletchley Park must have looked like the sort of setting they were used to: a sprawling Victorian house with attached conservatory, extensive grounds with a lake with swans on it. How delightful! But then the new arrivals would have noticed the rows of long, ugly make-shift huts on one side of the property. Those were where the actual work was done: where the German Enigma code was broken, where daily messages from Germany were intercepted and decoded. The huts were about as unappealing as any building I have been in; fiberboard walls, bare floor boards, freezing cold in winter and heated only by the occasional smoking oil stove, and hot in summer. And yet Alan Turing invented the computer in such a hut! Thousands of British lives were saves when news of a U Boat attack was decoded. It literally was the hub of the British war effort.
And yet nobody outside of Bletchley knew about it. Everyone who worked there had to sign the official secrets act, forbidding them to say anything about their work. And that act remained in place until the mid 1990s. And so families never knew what heroic work their sons, daughters, wives were carrying out. They were looked down on as not being part of the armed forces, as only doing “office drudgery”. How sad that many parents were dead before the restriction of the act was lifted and their son or daughter could never tell them what a big part they had played.
Actually the debs didn’t get to play a big part on the whole. The decoding was normally reserved for the men. The girls did the back up work—filing, transcribing, although those with language skills (and many had been to finishing school in Switzerland or Germany) were given translating assignments.
I find myself in admiration of these girls—taken from a life of privilege, of having a maid to dress them, their meals served in great dining rooms, their entertainment going out hunting or up to London for balls, and suddenly they find themselves billeted in a grim room next to the railway line, eating bread and dripping and boiled vegetables, working long shifts and not able to say a word about it when they were occasionally allowed home on leave. There was recreation at Bletchley. The organizers knew that the young people might well crack under the strain so there were concerts and dances, tennis and various games on the lawn, a cinema in the nearby town and long bicycle rides on days off. And there were plenty of romances. After all they were all young people, thrown together in a tense and unreal situation. However, as one of my characters points out, “I think he’s more interested in equations than in my legs.”
And recently I was delighted to find that The Duchess of Cambridge’s grandmother had been one of those girls working at Bletchley during the war. Duchess Kate’s family had only recently found out about it because she too had kept her silence faithfully. I hope my book gives families a taste of what their loved ones went through, the strain of code breaking and being able to tell no one.
Such a fascinating time to write about, and to research. Bletchley is about an hour by train from London and you can easily spend a whole day there with interactive exhibits and recreations of the working conditions in the various huts.