Code-Breaking at Bletchley Park: A Belated Addition to Cultural Memory of the Second World War

By Dr Victoria Stewart, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature in the School of English.

‘The geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled’: this, famously, was how Winston Churchill described the men and women who worked to break Nazi Germany’s military codes during the Second World War. Their efforts, centred on Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, were wreathed in secrecy during the war and for many years afterwards. The belief that the methods and technology employed by code-breakers might need to be reused in the postwar period meant that the tight security that had been imposed during the conflict remained in place until the 1970s. Other wartime secrets, such as the work carried out in occupied Europe by the Special Operations Executive, or the daring escapes made from prisoner-of-war camps on the continent, became the focus of popular historical works, novels, and films, but those who worked at Bletchley were forbidden, even after the war, to discuss their work.  It was only in the 1980s that creative writers began to grapple concertedly with this hitherto little-known aspect of the war effort.

The groundwork was laid by historians including F. W. Winterbotham, whose book The Ultra Secret (1974) was the first history in English of code-breaking and drew in part on the author’s own experience of working at Bletchley. In 1978, the Home Secretary, David Owen, announced in a House of Commons statement that men and women who had worked at Bletchley would no longer be obliged not to speak about their work, although there were still to be restrictions on describing in detail some of the methods and machinery that had been employed. Given this trajectory of revelation, it is perhaps surprising to find references, albeit passing ones, to Bletchley Park in two Second World War-based television dramas from the 1970s, the BBC’s Colditz, broadcast in 1972-3, and Euston Television’s Danger UXB (1979). Evidently, the secret was sufficiently widely discussed by this point for the writers of these popular dramas to presume a degree of knowledge on the part of viewers, even if this was only of the most basic kind.

Alan Hodges’s biography of Alan Turing, published in 1983 and providing a detailed account of both the work undertaken at Bletchley and also of Turing’s pre- and postwar work in mathematics and early computing, provided the source material for Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, which was staged in 1987 and adapted for television in 1996. Hodges and Whitemore explore the double burden of secrecy borne by Turing, who had to conceal not only the nature of his wartime work but his homosexuality. Turing was later prosecuted and sentenced to hormone ‘treatment’ after being found to have had sexual relations with another man; had his sexual proclivities been known during the war, it is highly unlikely that he would ever have been allowed to undertake secret work, because of the danger of blackmail.

Other authors have also focused on the links between secrecy and sexuality in their depictions of code-breaking. Writing before the publication of Hodges’s biography and more or less in the dark about the detail of what went on at Bletchley, Ian McEwan focused, in his television play The Imitation Game (1981) on the efforts of a female army recruit to try to find out more about the organisation which confines her to its periphery. Her only bargaining tool in her quest for knowledge is her sexuality and this eventually leads to her downfall and arrest after an ill-starred sexual encounter with a code-breaker. McEwan was probably not aware at the time of writing that there were in fact women at Bletchley who were undertaking work that was far from menial. These included the novelist Christine Brooke-Rose, who went to work at Bletchley at the age of eighteen and reflected on her experiences there in her autobiographical novel Remake (1996). For Brooke-Rose, her time at Bletchley marked coming-of-age in all senses; she not only began to realise that cleverness, even in a woman, might be something that is valued, but also met, and later betrayed, her first husband. She notes in Remake how alienating it was not to recognise her own war experience in the many popular representations in circulation after the war, and expresses anger at having had to suppress this crucial part of her early life for so long.

Brooke-Rose plays on the double meaning of ‘intelligence’, to signify both individual aptitude and secretly gleaned information. She was recruited because of her proficiency in French and German, and after the war went on to a successful academic career, initially as a philologist and later a literary theorist, but for many women who undertook war work, and not only those who worked at Bletchley, the post-war was, by comparison a disappointment. This sense of thwarted ambition underpinned the action of The Bletchley Circle, a three part ITV drama broadcast earlier this autumn. Although the premise of four women, formerly at Bletchley together, using their analytic skills to predict the movements of, and track down, a serial killer in post-war London, didn’t always convince, this drama did manage to convey the sense that the protagonists’ aptitudes were no longer properly valued. The paradoxical feeling that wartime, with all its dangers, anxieties and potential horror, might have been the time when you were most fulfilled is one that is found in many novels and autobiographies from the late 1940s and 1950s. This sense of post-war displacement is one that can only be constructed post hoc, however, where Bletchley is concerned. To try to imagine sitting down on a Sunday afternoon to watch, not The Wooden Horse (1950) or The Great Escape (1963), but a 1950s or 1960s version of Enigma (2001), the film adapted from Robert Harris’s best-selling 1995 thriller, is a strange thought experiment. Bletchley is recognisable enough to be name-checked in the title of a mainstream TV drama, but perhaps it will never be possible to fully integrate it, retrospectively, into our cultural understanding of the Second World War.

Dr Victoria Stewart is a Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature in the School of English. She will be discussing the representation of  Second World War codebreaking in fiction, drama and television in a talk for this year’s Literary Leicester Festival, on Thursday 8 November 2.30pm, at Embrace Arts. Her talk, and this post, draw on research undertaken for The Second World War in Contemporary Fiction: Secret Histories (Edinburgh UP, 2011).

One Comment

  1. MIke
    Posted 31/10/2012 at 14:05 | Permalink

    Although Robert Harris’ mainstream novel is well-known, especially since the film, the best novel about the Enigma machine and Bletchley Park is surely Neil Stephenson’s epic, award-winning tome Cryptonomicon, published in 1999.


    Victoria Stewart Reply:

    Thanks for your comment. Stephenson’s novel is a fascinating exploration not just of code-breaking at Bletchley but of American work to crack Japanese codes. Shawn Rosenheim’s The Cryptographic Imagination (1996) is also well worth reading if you’re interested in this.


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