Bletchley Park lipspeaking tour: breaking the code

Today I went on a fascinating lipspeaking tour of Bletchley Park with my wife and friend Andrew, organised by the National Association of Deafened People (NADP). It was an amazing insight into the secret lives of the thousands of code-breakers working at Bletchley Park during World War 2.

The tour was given by a volunteer from Bletchley Park, assisted by two brilliant lipspeakers, Sara and Lynne, who belong to the Association of Lipspeakers. While Lynne used lipspeaking to interpret what the guide was saying, Sara used a mixture of lipspeaking and sign language. I found it easier to follow Sara as I find lipreading really difficult to follow, so I found Sara’s additional signing in combination with her lipspeaking really helpful. I read a very interesting blog on ‘Limping Chicken’ yesterday about lipreading written by Ian Noon where he describes the energy involved in lipreading and being attentive all day long. He compares processing and constructing meaning out of half-heard words and sentences, making guesses and figuring out context to doing jigsaws, Suduku and Scrabble all at the same time. I thought that his analogy was really relevant to the hugely important work that the code-breakers did during the War years at Bletchley Park, although clearly the work that they did was incredibly complex and took brilliant minds to be able to break the codes that the Axis powers thought were impenetrable.

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The guide told us that there were an incredible 10,000 people working at Bletchley Park during the war years and they were code-breaking on an industrial scale day and night. They intercepted, decrypted and relayed the meaning of thousands of encrypted messages sent by the Germans, Japanese, Russians and Italians back to the Allied Forces. According to historians, their work shortened the Second World War by two years, thus saving many lives. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. referred to the code-breakers as the “geese that laid the Golden Egg that never cackled”.

The thousands of people who were brought in to work at Bletchley Park were a mixture of brilliant mathematicians, scientists, linguists, debutantes, Egyptologists and cryptographers, all working under the Official Secrets Act. They also employed people who were good at complex jigsaw puzzles and Suduko. Many of them were brought in without knowing where they were going and what work they would be doing. The guide told an interesting story about a 21-year old girl, who applied to a job at a government department. She was interviewed by a Major at a nearby church. He placed a revolver on the desk between them, which completely intimidated her, and he told her that she would have to sign the Official Secrets Act and that if she divulged anything about the work at Bletchley Park to anyone at all, even family members, he would personally shoot her. Because of the 30-year rule of the Official Secrets Act, it wasn’t until 1974 that ex-Bletchley Park staff were able to reveal anything about their wartime work there. Many took their secrets to their graves.

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One of the most important and famous activities that the codebreakers did during the Second World War at Bletchley Park was breaking German Enigma codes. The German military used Enigma cypher machines to keep their communications secret and impenetrable to the enemy. The Enigma machines would scramble plain text messages into incoherent cyphertext. They used a series of rotating wheels and they could create billions of combinations of code to scramble the message. However, with the help of Polish mathematicians, who had managed to acquire an Enigma machine prior to World War 2, the brilliant British code-breakers Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, devised a machine called the Bombe, which managed to break the Enigma cyphers and gave the Allies a major advantage in the War, saving many lives. On Winston Churchill’s instruction, all the Bombe machines were destroyed after the War, so that the one you can see today at Bletchley Park is a reconstruction.

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After the talk, we went into one of the code-breakers’ original huts, which are currently being restored. There was an exhibition there, which told the fascinating story of Ian Fleming, the famous author of the James Bond spy thrillers, who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and was involved in secret espionage. He worked as a Personal Assistant to Rear-Admiral John Henry Godfrey, who set up the ‘Special Branch’ intelligence there and who is widely believed to be the inspiration behind ‘M’ in the James Bond stories. While working there, Ian Fleming had access to top-secret intelligence documents and codes and he went on important espionage missions such as ‘Mission Goldeneye’ on Gibraltar, which he later named his home in Jamaica after. The Ian Fleming connection is fascinating and well worth a visit to Bletchley Park to find out more about it.

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We all had a brilliant day in the gorgeous sunny weather today at Bletchley Park. I hadn’t realised the huge significance of the code-breaking work that they did there until today, or the scale of the operations involving thousands of people, including brilliant geniuses such as Dilly Knox, Alan Turing, William Tuttle and Tommy Flowers, who worked on the Bombe computer, which could crack any Enigma code. Also, the first ever electronic digital computer in the world, called Colossus, was developed at Bletchley Park by British code-breakers during WW2.

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This was the first lipspeaking tour that I have been on. I am hoping to go on more in the future. I’ve studied lipreading for over a year now at the City Lit. I really enjoy it, but I find it very difficult. To be honest, I don’t think I’m a very good lipreader as I find it a really difficult puzzle to crack. It makes it easier to solve if someone signs a little too, or uses some hand gestures, i.e. directional signs. My lipreading tutor at the City Lit has told me that lipreading is classified as a leisure pursuit, like pottery, for example. When I lost my hearing three years ago, I found that learning to lipread was a real life-saver for me. It wasn’t just learning to lipread, but I also found that being around like-minded deaf and hard of hearing people and learning deaf awareness and new communication tactics were all really important to me, all tactics I use on a daily basis. I feel like with all these new acquired skills, lipreading is slowly becoming less of an enigma.

 

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3 thoughts on “Bletchley Park lipspeaking tour: breaking the code

  1. Jane Atkinson June 30, 2013 / 2:28 pm

    A truly wonderful blog , thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving others the insight into Belchey Park

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