Williams 68 in Oxford June 2017 – Kathy Sharp (Tom Ray)

Code-breaking at Bletchley Park and at the Macdonald Randolph Hotel

As I descended the steps of our tour bus, I found it odd to have such an innocuous entryway into this most important campus of code-breaking operations. Perhaps this is a method to make one aware of the secretive nature of these operations, and how the simplicity of the buildings on the campus contrasts to the complexity and gravity of the tasks within and the nature of its concealment.

A few hours at Bletchley Park barely scratched the surface, as Tom and I never got further than Block B—the mechanized code-breaking factory and the only building we actually entered. Intrigued by the design of the Enigma and the Bombe as to how they performed, we were unable to move beyond demonstrations and explanations of these machines until we both understand how the code was broken.

Our articulate docent stood before us, dressed in a coded tie, clearly explaining the process in minute steps, perhaps similar to how the cryptanalysts might have labored to translate the data into meaningful words. He also encouraged us to view the Lorenz cipher machine, which we did. Now out of time, we were unable to venture through the remainder of the park, but would happily return if given the chance.

After this experience I found the Macdonald Randolph Hotel aided my understanding of the Enigma. Locating our room #76 in the bowels of the building involved a circuitous path to and from the front desk.

While there weren’t billions of combinations of hallways and no nightly reset of the corridors, there was a convoluted series of turns, 17 to be exact, with a hard 180 degree right similar to the method the coded numbers traveled through in the three-rotor Enigma. The addition of changes in altitude in the form of various 23 steps plus the 36 steps of the main staircase added further complexity to the scramble.

The thought of leaving a trail of crumbs as a guide along the route came to mind, but our supply of crumbs might run out before the last turn. In fact, after dinner on our first night, with little experience in deciphering the location of our room and aided by some wine, we got confused in the twisty halls and forgot for a moment whether we were coming or going.

I highly recommend this brain teasing tour of Bletchley Park, if only to reset one’s mind to the challenges of war and how a country came together to decipher from the German military life-saving text using combinations of brilliant minds, both men and women. You must go and figure it out.

© 2017 by Kathy Sharp

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