By Steve and Carl
For a place that was a secret, Bletchley Park has certainly become famous. It was the stately home of the top “Ultra” secret code breakers of World War II—those who read the Ultra secrets, courtesy of the mechanical marvel Enigma machine. These code breakers deciphered codes thought by the Nazis to be uncrackable. Thanks to a team that was over 75% women, Ultra industriously revealed Hitler’s plans to the Allies.
In the History, Travel and Maps Department of the Seattle Public Library, we’ve answered several questions over the years about Bletchley Park. Many come to us through the “Ask a Librarian” form on the Seattle Public Library website. Some of these questions have been about the mysterious Enigma machine or about Alan Turing, the famous code breaker. We recently received the following inquiry:
“Are there any books written about how Bletchley Circle actually operated? We know about it, but I do not know exactly how it was run and exactly what was done there. We know that they broke codes, but how? There was a machine, but how much training did a woman have to have to operate the machine?”
Bletchley Park has been the inspiration for several books and movies, some of which you can view in our catalog here. Using that list, we answer questions about how they broke the codes, the machine, and the life, training and times there. Benedict Cumberbatch will be featured playing Alan Turing in the new movie, “The Imitation Game,” coming out this Christmas. The British magazine History Today has an article out this month about updated exhibition space at the park.
So what about the term “Bletchley Circle,” as posed in the above question?
“Bletchley Circle” is the title of a spin-off British television series of the same name, featuring the later civilian lives of a group of women who worked as code breakers at Bletchley Park. During the war, the staff played the vital role of breaking the German codes. Ordinary and extraordinary men and women worked together to make the impossible happen. After the war, returning to everyday lives, they were bound by the Official Secrets Act, unable to tell anyone of their wartime work.
The series opens with a brief flashback showing several women at work in Bletchley Park, contributing their individual skills to help break German codes. Forward nine years later and one of the women, uniquely able to discern patterns in words and events, detects a pattern in a series of murders of young women. Unable to convince police about the serial murderer, she recruits several of her wartime colleagues, with each woman bringing their own set of skills. Together they try solving the mystery. Filmed with the usual British skill at casting, costume and settings, it’s a successful and intriguing mystery series.
Finally, don’t forget – keep no secrets if you have a history, travel or maps question. Ask us for help through “Ask a Librarian” anytime!