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Musings on Bletchley Park

Yesterday, for the first time, I visited Bletchley Park, the rather dreary estate north of London where the British broke the German military codes in the Second World War.  I should also mention that I am reading an absorbing book about the Battle of Britain called The Most Dangerous Enemy by Stephen Bungay.

There is no direct link between code-breaking and the famous aerial battle except one: both, it seems to me, offer perfect examples of the legendary British knack for improvisational genius, or to put it another way, the transformation of institutional incompetence into inspirational brilliance.

The code-breakers were, or at least started out as, a rag-tag collection of university boffins, ham radio operators, amateur mathematicians, chess players, aficionados of crossword puzzles – amateurs all – recruited in a hap-hazard way by employers who had little more idea of the kind of problems that needed solving than the kind of people they would need to solve them.  Somehow, largely by trial and error – based, it should be mentioned, on some pioneering code-busting work done by a group of Polish émigrés – they created a system of investigation that would lead them not just to deciphering German wartime codes but to building the world’s first digital computer.  Others had done similar work before them, and others would build on what they had done, but what Alan Turing and Company accomplished at Bletchley Park, working in a complex of drab and draughty huts that verged on the uninhabitable, was incalculable in its contribution to winning the war and as a by-product what we have come to call the Digital Age.

Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force, scarcely a decade old as an independent branch of the armed forces, was waking up to the fact that Nazi  Germany might have as a final entry in its brutal agenda the invasion of Britain.  That would first require, if nothing else, the destruction of British air defences.  This is not to say that the RAF was either as unprepared or disorganised as some historians still choose to believe in the spinning of the mythological web in which the times are enmeshed.

Testament to Britain’s preparedness in air defence if in nothing else is the fact that the Air Ministry had already ordered Hurricanes and Spitfires in large numbers before the war and would continue to order them in even greater numbers during it.  Neither were Air Marshal Basil Dowding and his deputy Air Vice Marshal Keith Park slouches when it came to formulating tactical battle plans and designing the necessary information network to make them work.  Interestingly, neither man was supposed to be in the job in which he found himself as hostilities opened.  Dowding, at 58, had been due to retire, and the Air Ministry was in no mood to prevent him, as he had proved to be an obstinate maverick with a grating, not to mention rather odd, personality.  As it happened, the decision that he should stay on was dictated by events rather than preference.  Park was only a second choice, the first one having been Arthur Harris, who moved instead to Bomber Command.

As clever and efficient as they were, neither Dowding nor Park had spent nearly as much time working on a defensive battle plan as their opposite numbers in the Luftwaffe evidently had spent on an offensive battle plan – and preparedness had not exactly been the watchword of the government over which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain presided.  As late as 1938, returning from his Munich conference with Hitler in 1938, he insisted that he had brought home ‘peace with honour’.

Churchill and others knew better, though, and when the time came to fight, he and they brought all their collective improvisational and often wayward genius to bear on the matter at hand (though not without many early and potentially fatal missteps, it must be said).

As for the pilots of RAF Fighter Command, they were a far cry from the indoctrinated automatons of popular conception – the Teutonic ‘Knights of the Air’ – who would be opposing them.  As described by one pilot, quoted by Bungay, life in the RAF was “just beer, women and Spitfires, a bunch of little John Waynes running about the place.  When you were nineteen you didn’t give a monkey’s.”  No doubt the Luftwaffe pilots enjoyed their exalted status in similar fashion, but the overriding impression is that the RAF was less a mighty military machine than a glorified flying club, fighting Germans merely an exercise to fill the time until the pubs opened.

All this inspired amateurism is, of course, as much carefully cultivated myth as irrefutable truth.  But as the reporter in John Ford’s western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, famously said: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

At Bletchley and in the story of the RAF’s defeat of the Luftwaffe, fact and legend seem to be so closely entwined as to be indistinguishable.

I recommend both Bletchley and the book.

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