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Bletchley's biggest secret was colossal loss to Britain

September 27, 2001

Know-how from wartime codebreaking machine could have given us computer lead

 

THE INTELLIGENCE SERVICES have been thrown into the spotlight by the appalling events of late, an uncomfortable position for them to find themselves. For if we are at war, as declared by George Bush, among the frontline troops in this form of conflict will be intelligence officers and agents.

 

So it is ironic that Stella Rimmington, the former head of the security services, published her memoirs this month and the film Enigma, a thriller set in Bletchley Park, the centre of Allied codebreaking during the Second World War and the birthplace of modern electronic surveillance, is released tomorrow.

 

During most of the war, the Bletchley code-breakers were decrypting and reading most of the military instructions and reports between Hitler’s high command and its armies around Europe It is estimated that their efforts shortened the war by two years.

 

Although the central plot of the film is fictional, the underlying work of the codebreakers is remarkably accurate. A great deal of care has been taken by the producers to get it right.

 

This contrasts with the recent Hollywood film U-571, which depicts US forces rescuing an Enigma machine and codebook from a sinking U-boat in an outstanding feat of bravery. Outstanding indeed, except it was the Royal Navy that achieved the coup, with no Americans involved.

 

In fact, if there is a bias in Enigma it is probably in the other direction. Only a few Americans are shown, and they are depicted as blustering idiots. In fact, by mid-1943, when the film is set, there were an increasing number of US codebreakers and engineers making a substantial contribution to the intelligence effort.

 

As well as being the birthplace of modern electronic intelligence, Bletchley was also the birthplace of electronic computing, the defining technology of the past 50 years. The electromechanical “bombes” that were built to test possible combinations of Enigma settings were ahead of anything that the Germans could comprehend. They remained confident that their messages were secure.

 

But the remarkable technology breakthrough at Bletchley was the Colossus, an electronically switched pattern matching machine, developed by Alan Turing, Tommy Flowers and others, which was a forerunner of the modern programmable electronic computer.

 

The work at Bletchley was so important to the war effort that total secrecy was vital If the Germans had any knowledge of what was being achieved they would have immediately changed their procedures and we would have lost our crucial information flow. It is a sobering thought that, of the 12,000 people who worked at Bletchley during the war, not one of them gave away the secret. It was not until 30 years later that the story first began to be told.

 

But the absolute secrecy surrounding Bletchley and all its activities had its drawbacks. At the end of the war, under direction from Churchill, almost everything in the Park was destroyed, with only a small amount of key material being taken away to form what has since become GCHQ.

 

Among the material destroyed was the key know-how concerned with building the world’s first electronic computer.

 

When Sir Maurice Wilkes was recruited to set up the UK’s first computing laboratory at Cambridge University in 1945, the Bletchley Park knowledge was not available to him. He went to the pioneering computing research laboratory at the University of Philadelphia on a fact-finding mission, unaware that British engineers and scientists had already achieved more than the Americans, less than 30 miles from his Cambridge laboratory.

 

I once asked Sir Maurice, who had worked on radar research during the war and was security cleared to a high level, if he had been given any inkling of the Bletchley developments. He hadn’t, and was clearly frustrated at this loss of opportunity.

 

The post-war commercial world has been dominated by US computer and IT companies. It is sobering to think of what might have happened if the British authorities hadn’t destroyed the world’s first computer. Having won the war, they forgot that they had to win the peace.

 

Ian Ritchie is a trustee of the Bletchley Park Trust.

 

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