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What is Bletchley Park? - A Handy History Guide with Children's Author Rhian Tracey

Bletchley Park in 2017. Image courtesy DeFacto.

In World War 2, information was everything. If the Allies knew what the Nazis were up to - where their armies were, how many troops they had in the field, etc - without the Nazis knowing that the Allies knew what they were up to, then that would be an enormous military advantage. This is why the Nazis went to such efforts to hide said information about troops in fields using secret communications, like the Enigma cypher. These cyphers scrambled communications, putting them in a secret code. This should have prevented the allies from accessing them and using the information they contained to aid in the war effort. The Enigma cypher was meant to be unbreakable.

Author of I, Spy, Rhian Tracey

At least, that was the idea. The thing is, no one told the brainy boffins at the stately home Bletchley Park that, because during the war they combined their potent cerebral powers and cracked the Enigma code.

So, what was Bletchley Park? Who worked there? How did they crack the code? We wanted the answers to all these questions and more, which is why we set out to interview Rhian Tracey, the author of the fantastic new Bletchley Park adventure story, 'I, Spy.'

Hi Rhian, could you tell our readers about your fantastic new book, ‘I, Spy’?

My protagonist, Robyn has grown up in Bletchley Park, where her father works as a driver. When she's not at school, there's nothing she likes more than helping her dad in the garages. Then the war begins and everything at Bletchley changes. Robyn is assigned to help with the carrier pigeons that take messages to the Allies. But first, she must sign the Official Secrets Act and is ordered not to leave the grounds of the park. While Bletchley is buzzing with people recruited for the war effort and all eyes are on the skies, Robyn becomes convinced that there's something sinister going on within Bletchley Park itself. Together with her friends Mary and Ned, Robyn resolves to uncover the enemy in their midst.

Sounds awesome! Where did the inspiration come from to set a fictional mystery story around Bletchley Park?

My great-aunt, Audrey worked at Bletchley as a code breaker but kept the secret for most of her life. When we found out what she’d done there we were fascinated and extremely proud. While visiting Bletchley with my daughter on a school trip, I filled at least one notebook with ideas. It’s such an inspiring place to visit. It all started in the garages when I was looking at the dispatch riders' uniform and messenger bag, and then the bicycle shed. I had such a strong image of a young girl whizzing about the place on her bicycle.

One of the many huts built to accommodate the team at Bletchley Park.

We’d like to learn a little more about Bletchley Park from you, first off, what was Bletchley Park and when was it doing its thing?

Bletchley Park began as a family home but was bought with the purpose of turning it into the Government Code and Cypher School. It then became the home of the code breakers. The original mansion wasn’t big enough to house the growing staff, so huts were built to accommodate them, as well as every spare room in Bletchley rented to house them.

Bletchley was in a constant battle to build more facilities, to hire more staff, to train people, knowing that if anyone found out what they were up to, the whole operation could go up in flames.

Who worked there and what did they do?

Plenty of famous people worked at Bletchley, Alan Turing being the most well-known. To start with the staff numbers were in their hundreds, by the end of the war there were 10,000 people working there. Interestingly 75% of them were women, including my great-aunt, Audrey. The work there ranged from forces operations to code breaking, catering and transport, and general admin and grounds keeping. Essentially, everyone who worked there formed part of a chain that allowed countless messages to be decrypted and decoded.

In 1943, Du Boisson and Elsie Booker operate a Colossus Mark 2 codebreaking computer.

How successful was Bletchley Park in the war effort?

Many historians believe that the work carried out at Bletchley, shortened the war by 2-4 years, saving, potentially, millions of lives.

Why was Bletchley Park so successful?

Because they never gave up, despite the odds of breaking the unbreakable machine – the Enigma, they persevered and succeeded. Ordinary, and extraordinary, men and women, from all social classes, worked together, side by side, in secrecy, for the greater good. The legacy of what they achieved might never have been shared with the world. And they all signed up for that, quite literally, signing the Official Secrets Act, which, if broken could have resulted in life imprisonment, or worse. It’s a remarkable place full of the stories of remarkable people, to whom we owe so much.

Why do modern audiences find Bletchley Park so fascinating?

We live in a noisy world with a 24x7 news cycle available at our fingertips and the notion of keeping something a secret for 5 minutes, let alone the rest of our lives, is an alien concept. The way in which the museum has been restored and designed allows visitors to step back in time; it really does feel like the people who worked there have just left the room for a moment. Bletchley Park was one of the most secret places during the war and who doesn’t love uncovering a secret and stepping beyond the roped-off area, to discover hidden historical gems? I know I do.

A huge thank you to Rhian for answering all our questions so brilliantly!

To check out the enthralling adventure that is 'I, Spy', please click on the link right here.


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