The Secrets of Station X: Britain’s Hidden Weapon

The mansion at Bletchley Park was home to Station X, a top-secret facility where an army of code breakers worked during WWII.
The mansion at Bletchley Park was home to Station X, a top-secret facility where an army of code breakers worked during WWII

Station X was by far the best-kept secret of World War II and it was one of England’s best weapons against the onslaught of Nazi military power. The secret intelligence headquarters, codenamed “Station X” was like something out of a James Bond or some other espionage movie, but with more detail, intrigue and intelligence. Some secrets would be kept for more than 30 years, while others would be kept forever.

During the entire course of the war, it never slipped that an army of code breakers was fighting a secret war in a moderate country manor north of London called Bletchley Park. In fact, the work of Station X was so hidden that Winston Churchill himself ordered all of its paperwork destroyed. The site was not declassified for more than 30 years. At Bletchley Park, secrets were not just deciphered but kept, as well.

This secret intelligence headquarters was the savior of thousands of soldiers. Here at the Government Code and Cipher School, more than 12,000 mathematicians, cryptoanalysts, linguists, engineers and clerks worked around the clock to decipher Nazi codes being delivered between Germany and its armies in Europe and Africa, as well as U-boats and other naval forces attacking allied convoys in the North Atlantic.

Today the site is open to the public, maintained by a charitable trust, and coordinated by a knowledgeable team of guides, staff and volunteers. The park is less than an hour from London’s Euston Station by train, and makes for a splendid day out, for both young and old visitors.

Guided tours are not always the best use of a visitor’s time, but those given at Bletchley Park are a drastic exception. The tours (a little more than an hour) are a terrific introduction to the extensive site, which include not only the Mansion (1883) but also a sizeable collection of original 1940s huts and concrete block buildings; the inner workings of the code breaking teams.

The Abwehr G-312 Enigma was a far more complex four-rotor Enigma machine used to transpose German naval transmissions into a nearly unreadable cipher and then back again.

In an astounding turn of events, some of the original “Wrens” ? female clerks recruited to work in transcribing and recording the German coded messages ? have returned to Bletchley Park to work as guides and share their memories with visitors.

One of the visitors on our tour even included a British chap who served as a motorcycle courier in 1942, rocketing across the British countryside to deliver messages from the “Y” Service ? a chain of wireless listening stations to the intelligence services at Bletchley Park. While the historians at the site work diligently in recording interviews with former staff members, they have had several Wrens come to visit who would not wish to discuss their work with strangers even to this very day!

One tends to think of code breakers as strictly the stuff of spy novels, but in fact, the diversity of personnel at Bletchley Park was staggering. The key asset for which military leads recruited for Station X was “lateral thinking.”

Another hidden gem of the tour is a stop at the Polish memorial. The British are rightfully famous for breaking German codes including “Enigma,” and “Shark,” as popularized in the novel Enigma by Robert Harris and the accompanying film starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott.

However, it is little known that an early version of the Enigma cipher was originally broken by the Poles in 1932. In fact, it was a meeting in July of 1939, between the Polish and British cryptoanalysts, which led to the first break into Enigma in 1940.

In addition to the original artifacts of life at Bletchley Park, several items come into the 2001 movie by director Michael Apted. While Bletchley itself was unsuitable for filming, several items were featured in the movie, including a large collection of period automobiles, both full-scale and model reconstructions of a WWII German U-Boat, and fascinating true-to-life reconstructions of “The Bombe,” a complex electro-mechanical device designed by Alan Turing.

In addition there is a ramshackle computer museum that shows off a quaint collection of former state-of-the art computers. “H Block” holds two captivating examples of early code-breaking apparatus. The first is a redeveloped model of Alan Turing’s “Bombe,” a clattering, banging windfall for the code-breaking process. A German Enigma machine, with three rotors and a byzantine series of electrical settings, was vastly too complicated to break using manual methods. Extrapolating, a concept proposed by his Polish counterparts, Turing designed the machine, which used numeric cylinders to propose solutions to the Enigma puzzle.

“In Hut 11 the Bombes never stopped working,” recalled Wren Morag Beattie, for the museum, “And if, on a very good day, all the main codes had been broken, there was always a backlog of unbroken codes from previous days.”

Even worse than Enigma were messages encoded by “Tunny,” a semi-automatic, multi-rotor machine which produced a code that was not only more difficult to break than Enigma but worse; no one had ever seen one of the machines. After a number of first attempts, the answer was finally produced by Tommy Flowers, who designed an electronic machine using valves to decode the messages.

Tony Sale, the leading computer engineer on Bletchley Park’s project to rebuild the Colossus codebreaking machine, shows off a coded tape that Colossus uses to read ciphered messages.

The machine, Colossus I, was the world’s first programmable electronic computer , and Bletchley quite suitably bills itself, “where the modern world began.”

Today, in a bristling hot room at the south end of H Block, Colossus has been recreated through the intense dedication of Dr. Tony Sale, a former consultant to London’s Science Museum. Sale became convinced in the early 1990s that the machine could be reverse engineered using a combination of original WWII-era valves, reconstructed equipment , and modern know-how.

His biggest challenge? All of the original machines, as well as their blueprints and schematics, had been destroyed at the end of the war.

Using descriptions of the machine published by Dr. Flowers in the 1980s and CAD drawings based on rare 1944 photographs, Dr. Sale has managed over the past decade to nearly complete the working model of Colossus I, complete with the ability to read the Tunny code.

However, Sale did have to go to an original source for a very specific problem.

“Modern computers all have to be cooled in air conditioned rooms but H Block still gets incredibly hot,” explains Sale. “So I went to ask some of the Wrens how they handled the heat during the war, they told me, ‘Open the window, dummy.’ and so that’s why all the windows come open now.”

It must have been difficult not only for the Wrens but for all of the thousands of workers at Bletchley. Not only was their work kept secret from the rest of the world, but no one was allowed to discuss their work even with personnel from other huts. Every last member of the Bletchley Park community was required to sign the Official Secrets Act, right down to the Quartermaster’s 14-year-old daughter, who also required a pass to leave the park every day to go to school.

To this day, those who kept the secrets of Bletchley Park are reticent to reveal their stories. However, their work is confidently considered by experts to be essential to the Allied effort.

“The 12,000 people who worked at Station X did not win the war, but they certainly shortened it, saving countless lives on both sides of the conflict and their legacy lives with us today with the computer technology that dominates our lives,” says Michael Smith, the defense correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph.

The full account of Bletchley Park is a fascinating story of intrigue, deception and the dire machinations of Britain’s intelligence services. In addition to German intercepts, Bletchley’s cryptoanalysts also read Japan’s war plans.

One of the most distressing messages broken by the station related the details of Germany’s massacre of Jews, an event for which Churchill personally assigned a staff member to collect evidence from the broken messages.

Surely no Wren ever realized that their work on Enigma was disguised to the Germans as having come from an MI6 spy inside Germany. The richest site on the campus is surely A Block, where the keepers of Station X have displayed one of the more rare artifacts, the “Abwehr G-312” Enigma machine. Unlike the simpler Enigmas bought for use by the German army, those used by the U-boats of German wolf packs in the North Atlantic used four rotors.

One of the biggest “cribs,” or shortcuts, to breaking Enigma, was gained in May of 1941, when an Enigma code book was stolen by a British soldier and delivered to Bletchley Park. That code book is on display, along with the Enigma machine and many other artifacts, in Bletchley’s A-Block today.

In a strange plot twist straight out of a novel, the Abwehr Enigma was stolen from the museum on April Fool’s Day of 2000 and only restored after an international police investigation involving Interpol, London’s metropolitan police, and Mick Jagger (not the rock star but a producer on the film Enigma), whom the robbers thought would make a good buyer.

Station X is a story of thousands of citizen soldiers fighting against nearly impossible odds to solve some of the war’s most difficult challenges. The conditions, as evidenced by the remaining huts, offices and outbuildings, were austere and the work often dull and repetitious. No one doubts the importance of the work of Bletchley’s spies and cryptoanalysts, chess masters and crossword puzzlers, clerks and Wrens. They were the pride of Churchill’s Britain, who called them, “the geese that laid the golden eggs…but never cackled.”

If You Go

Bletchley Park is a short walk from Bletchley Railway Station in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, about an hour north of London’s Euston Station. The park is open every day throughout the year except for December 24 through January 2. Admission is £10 (US$ 18) for adults, £8 (US$ 14) for children and a family ticket is available for £25 (US$ 45).

Bletchley Park Trust