Bletchley Park : Britain’s Best Kept Secret

Can you keep a secret? In today’s social media culture, many people can’t. Try to imagine not discussing any information about your work with fellow employees and immediate family members for thirty years.

Welcome back to my D-Day Anniversary Tour. This summer my husband and I took a Viking Cruise which included Normandy, Paris, and London. I was impressed by our time spent at Bletchley Park, located outside of London in Buckinghamshire. The estate was the home of Sir Herbert Leon until 1938. Then it became one of the most important centers of British intelligence during World War Two.

“The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”—Arnold Dahl

The British government purchased the serene fifty-five acre country estate because it afforded privacy and security. Nearby transport links to Oxford and Cambridge connected the estate to academia. Bletchley Park had its own power and water supply which guaranteed safe drinking water at all times.

No one in the surrounding community knew what was really going on at Bletchley. High chain link fences were erected around the perimeter. Neighbors thought it was a lunatic asylum. This impression was reinforced at the local pub, where brilliant and somewhat eccentric codebreakers spoke to each other in Ancient Greek. Ordinary folk who lived around the secret base were baffled by the unusual people in their midst.

Why so Secret?

The mission of Bletchley was to intercept, translate, and decrypt German communications and notify Allied troops of Nazi battle plans. Any breech of information that might get back to the Nazi’s would be disastrous. At the peak of its operation nine thousand employees worked here. All of them were asked to sign the Official Secrets Act of Britain. The penalty for careless talk could warrant imprisonment. Signs like the one posted below encouraged workers to not talk about their work. This pact of secrecy was enforced until the mid 1970’s.

A reminder to the Bletchley workers to not share information.

Of course not all nine thousand employees worked in the beautiful Bletchley mansion. Huts were erected on the property where most of the codebreaking occurred. The huts were dark and hot inside. All windows were covered with black blinds to keep staff from knowing what work was being done inside the neighboring hut. German messages were passed from one hut to another via a makeshift wooden tunnel.

After a ten year restoration project, the huts were opened to the public in 2004. No photographs existed of the buildings. All were restored by volunteers advised by veterans who worked here.

Cracking the Nazi Codes

Nazi communications were written using the Enigma. This machine looked like a typewriter except it substituted one letter for another creating an encrypted message. When an encrypted message was received by another Enigma, the operator would retype the gibberish and decode the actual message. A British mathematician at Bletchley, Alan Turing invented the Bombe, a machine that cracked the encrypted Nazi’s codes, and speeded up the process.

A replica of a Bombe machine.

Several Bombes were located in Hut 11 and were operated by members of the Women’s Royal Navy Service. (WRNS) The women worked eight hour shifts six days a week . Many of them were young, in their late teens and early twenties. The work was noisy as the rows of drums revolved. The smell of hot oil emanated from these machines. The women had little or no understanding of the importance of their work, but knew they had to keep each machine running. The Bombes of Hut 11 enabled the decrypting of three thousand German messages a day. Throughout the war and for years afterwards the women kept their contract of secrecy.

The work performed at Bletchley Park is thought to have shortened the length of the Second World War by two years. Winston Churchill thanked the (WRENS) for “laying the golden eggs without clucking.”

Our Viking Cruise through Normandy

“A great way to learn about your country is to leave it.” —Henry Rollins

Bonjour mes ami! This summer I learned how much the French people appreciate politeness. Did you know it’s considered rude to ask a direct question without first speaking a proper greeting? This is just one of the many tips I picked up from one of our Viking excursion guides. No wonder so many Americans, myself included, tend to get off on the wrong foot as tourists.

Yes, in some places, Americans are considered uncultured, rude, and self-centered. However, I discovered the people of Normandy are willing to overlook our faults. Many of them remember the D-Day Invasion of 1944. During our visit to Normandy I appreciated being greeted by scores of American flags. I saw flags displayed outside homes, on fences, or strung from rooftops across city streets. Our Viking cruise focused on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. In this post I will share how beautifully the Viking staff developed this theme through excursions and onboard lectures.

Our Excursions

My husband and I boarded our Viking longboat outside of Paris on June 4. We cruised on the meandering Seine River until we disembarked at Rouen. Then we traveled by bus to the American landing sites of Point du Hoc, Utah Beach, and Omaha Beach. Thousands of Allied ships comprised the largest amphibious invasion in history, known as “Operation Overlord.” In the wee hours of the morning on June 6, 1944 wave after wave of troops were cut down by German defenses perched high on the cliffs above Omaha beach. However, a few American soldiers managed to scale the cliffs shown below and by the end of the day an 80 mile stretch of land along the Atlantic coast had been breached by the Allies.

Two thousand American soldiers lost their lives at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Nazi gun embankments controlled the high cliffs above the water.

Today a beautiful memorial rises out of the water to symbolize the courage of the American soldiers who sacrificed their lives to liberate France. “Les Braves” was created by Anilore Banon and presented as a gift from the French people on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

“Les Braves”

The sculpture represents three elements: The Wings of Hope and the Wings of Fraternity stand on either side. The center of the work is called Rise, Freedom and inspires the world to stand strong against all forms of inhumanity.

Onboard Lectures

Our program director expanded the travel experience by inviting local guests on board to speak. While we were docked in Vernon, Monsier Castreau shared his memories of living in Vernon as a teenager. He experienced first hand the horrors of the Nazi invasion, the Nazi occupation of his community, and the eventual liberation by Americans. He remembers feeling hungry because the Nazi army ate most of what food was available. Monsier Castreau expressed his heartfelt appreciation for America. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience, many of whom were the sons and daughters of American soldiers who fought in France during the war.

I was honored to meet Monsier Castreau, who experienced life under the Nazi occupation of France.

Further upstream, at La Roche Guyon, we heard a presentation by Magali Clemencon, author and lecturer. Magali’s grandfather was a member of the French Resistance. Magali has interviewed and documented the testimony of 24 survivors of the Montluc prison, where the Nazi’s housed anyone deemed “undesirable,” like members of the Resistance, Jews, and Gypsies.

Author Magali Clemencon

Magali made a comment I will never forget. “It takes forty years for anyone who has experienced a deeply tragic event to be able to talk about it.” She shared that many survivors of World War II were unable to talk about their experiences with their children. For some, they could only speak about their past a few years prior to their death. Those who committed heroic deeds all say the same thing, “I only did what anyone in my position would do.”

I hate to imagine what the world might look like today if it were not for ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These special guests made history come alive to me. Through the eyes of strangers I came to know America in a different light and I gained a better understanding of my country’s contribution to freedom.This 4th of July take a few moments to reflect upon the freedoms we enjoy and the sacrifices of those who made it possible.

Utah Beach

In closing, I wish to thank Lionel Auber, our Viking Program Director who coordinated all excursions and onboard activities.

Many thanks to Lionel Auber for a memorable travel experience.

Our Free Day in Paris

“Repetition doesn’t create memories, new experiences do.” —Brian Chesky

Herb and I turned the faded pages of an old photo album with pictures from our trip to Europe in 1979. I pointed to a picture taken in Paris. “Look at us. We were just kids then. It’s hard to believe we backpacked through Europe for six weeks. We were brave.”

Herb nodded. “Let’s visit some of these places when we go to France next month. Most of our time is scheduled with Viking excursions but I’m sure we can arrange to have one free day.”

Earlier this year we booked a Viking River Cruise to visit the D-Day landing sites on the beaches of Normandy. This would be our first trip abroad in forty years and I was unsure of what to pack.

“I’m wearing the same sweater and jeans in most of these pictures,” I laughed. “I must have thrown them away when we came home. All of my clothes had to fit in one backpack. Now I’m having a hard time limiting myself to one suitcase.”

We talked about how different everything was in 1979. Forty years ago we didn’t have cell phones, navigation systems, or digital cameras. We used film to take photos. As newly weds, our tight budget constrained us. Whether or not to buy another roll of film was a big decision.

We pulled out our map of Paris and made a list of three places we wanted to revisit. I couldn’t wait to go. Everything fell into place and we selected June 5 as our special day to travel in our personal time machine to the year 1979.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame, 1979
Notre Dame, June 5, 2019

From this angle the iconic belfry towers look almost as they did in 1979. The church is under a huge reconstruction project as a result of the terrible fire in April. The entire area nearby the church was closed. The rainy weather added to the despair of the scene. For the latest on the reconstruction effort click here.

Luxembourg Gardens

Luxembourg Gardens 2019

On September 17, 1979 we celebrated our second wedding anniversary by getting dressed up and asking a bystander to take our picture. Herb must have carried his tie in his backpack. We didn’t see much of the gardens this year since we were in a hurry to meet our shuttle back to the Seine River to meet our Viking longboat. After snapping the shot on the right, we darted away to our third stop.

Hotel Gay-Lusac

We stayed here in 1979 because of the hotel’s proximity to Luxembourg Gardens. Here I am wearing my “uniform” and carrying my backpack. I used to cover my head with a scarf on bad hair days. Today the street is under construction and not nearly as romantic as I imagined.

My opening quote says it all. Repetition doesn’t create memories. It’s impossible to relive the past. You can’t recreate the magic because nothing is the same. Memories are better appreciated when they are kept in photo albums.

Stay tuned for future posts about the experiences we enjoyed and new memories we made in Europe this year.