Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Geese that Laid the Golden Egg...

In August 1938, Captain Ridley's shooting party arrived at a country mansion in Buckinghamshire, England. The group, accompanied by one of the best chefs at the Savoy Hotel, appeared to have come for a weekend of hunting and good food. In reality, the group were members of MI6 (The secret foreign intelligence agency) and the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), who were interested in purchasing a country house that could be used in case London was bombed and their staff needed to be evacuated. The house was duly acquired, though after the Munich Crisis the following month it was instead fitted out with communications equipment and numerous huts were built around the grounds. The country house was Bletchley Park, and in August 1939, 180 GC&CS personnel moved to the site to begin work as codebreakers.
The mansion at Bletchley Park
The mansion was located near the town of Milton Keynes, about halfway between Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Cryptologists were selected both by personal ties, and from the nearby Universities: professors; mathematicians; linguists; those who were meticulous; crossword-lovers; chess champions. Most importantly, the 'chosen ones' were trustworthy and hard-working. Most worked in eight hour shifts, rotating through the day and night-time shifts, for six days of the week. Up to 80% of the workers were women, and the staff were either billeted at local homes, or lived camp-style in the huts, subject to relatively strict military-like conditions. 
Typists (with bad wigs) working hard
Bletchley Park (BP) was the main decryption station in the UK, and teams worked on cracking encrypted cyphers and codes used by the Axis countries in their communications. The main reason BP was so successful was that genius minds managed to mechanise the decryption process, which meant the ability to keep pace with the rapidly changing encryption process. During WW2, BP cryptologists were able to 'crack' the famous Enigma machine, decrypt German Luftwaffe hand cyphers, and develop the world's first computer that could solve German teleciphers. When the war finished, over 9,000 people were working at BP, and three thousand more had spent time there during the previous six years. The actions of these hardworking cryptologists had a sigificant impact on Allied operations, and may have helped bring an early end to the war.

The mansion and grounds then spent the next 50 years in the hands of British Telecom, before parts of the site were sold off in the early 1990s. The remainder of the site, with the exception of the homestead, gradually fell into rack and ruin, though work over the past few years has helped to preserve this important estate. It is hoped that future donations will continue to enable the Bletchley Park Trust to further restore the site. (In case you're a wealthy reader of the blog, here is an online donation form at the Bletchley Park website, so you can donate your millions!)
The mansion ballroom
Last month, we finally got to visit Bletchley Park. We were thrilled (well I was, anyway) to discover that a 'Forties Festival' was also on that weekend.... 

We arrived just as everyone had finished setting up, so it was nice and quiet, and we were able to roam around without having to fight through crowds. There was a section for re-enactment groups, a hall with vintage concert artists, a tearooms, and a large selection of stalls selling vintage goods. It was VERY EXCITING. 

The American camp on the re-enactment alley
A vintage hairdresser, second-hand stalls, and the concert tent in the distance
(I am to the left of the picture, in the blue top with a trilby on. Adam soon came to drag me away so I couldn't spend any of his hard-earned money!)

Re-enactment groups look like such fun - collectors amass, over time, a personal collection of WW2 items and then go to various fairs, rallies, and festivals and show off their equipment. They are also occasionally asked to re-enact famous battles from the war. 

Men from the Home Guard
(Men who were unsuitable for service were required to defend the home country in case of invasion. 
They were trained in various para-military techniques)
This Home Guard re-enactor is demonstrating the type of gun commonly carried by troops from Australia and New Zealand. It was very heavy, but he told me that the Aussies were known to charge the enemy, holding the gun low and firing from the hip as they went. 
Do you recognise this uniform? 
There were only two representatives from this camp.

During the War, there were food shortages as food had to be sent abroad to troops, plus ships transporting food by sea were frequently bombed by German submarines. The Government launched a propaganda campaign to turn all available green space into vegetable gardens, and to encourage people to keep chickens and other animals. Many women joined the Land Army and went to work on farms, assisting famers in their valuable work of feeding the nation. (Look up Land Army or Dig for Victory to see some lovely propaganda posters)

I would have fallen victim to this sniper, as I didn't notice him until I was a foot away.

Churchill even made an appearance!

These are uniforms from troops who were in North Africa. 
Many antipodeans fought on this dusty stage, including my Grandfather, who drove a water tanker that accompanied the ambulance.

After lunch, we had an explosives demonstration with the Resistance Archive. A secret corps of men were chosen as Auxiliary Units, which came under the authority of the Home Guard. The men were given extensive training in guerrilla warfare- occasionally by Spanish resistance fighters - in hand-to-hand fighting, use of Molotov cocktails, assassination, and general sabotage techniques. The Auxiliary Units were to spring into action once Germany invaded Britain, and defend her shores by whatever means necessary. 

The Resistance Archive team showed us some of the explosives used by the Auxiliary Units, and demonstrated them to us - I assume the explosives were at a much lower charge, but the 'BOOM's reverberating around Bletchley Park were fantastically loud.

Following this excitement, we visited an exhibit on Homing Pigeons. Yes! They were of extreme importance to the war, and were seen as one of the only reliable ways to transport messages. There were about 250,000 pigeons in use during WW2, and birds of prey were killed off around coastlines to ensure the pigeons could safely deliver their messages. All RAF bombers and reconnaissance aircraft carried pigeons, and pigeons were dropped in crates to French Resistance operatives. After the war, over 30 pigeons won medals for their valuable service. You can read about these heroic pigeons at the website of The Royal Pigeon Racing Association...


We finished our day at Bletchley Park with a plotting demonstration, an homage to September 15, the worst day of the Battle of Britain.

In part two of this post, I will tell you more about the codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, but for now I shall leave you with some more pictures of our day at the Forties Festival:
Vintage tearooms
A perfectly vintage picnic
Look at that fox!
Cricket on the mansion lawn

Monday, June 3, 2013

Return to Greenwich

The weekend after we returned from Turkey was a bank holiday. On the Monday, we met friends Luuk and Amy at Greenwich, as they were in London for the weekend (their usual base is in France), and offered to be their tour guides for the day. First we showed them around the Naval College, and we finally got to see inside the Painted Hall.

The Naval College stands on the site of the former Palace of Placentia, more commonly known as Greenwich Palace. Built in 1447, the Palace was the birthplace of Henry VIII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, among others. It fell into ruin during the English Civil War, and in 1660 Charles II ordered the architect John Webb to remodel parts of it, while the remainder was demolished.

Also the site of the barricade scenes in the most recent adaptation of Les Miserables
In 1694, the Greenwich Hospital was built on the site. This was known as the Royal Hospital for Seamen, and was based on the French Les Invalides. Greenwich Hospital closed in 1869, and the buildings were turned into training grounds for the Royal Navy. During World War Two, approximately 35,000 personnel graduated from the College.

The Painted Hall was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (of St Paul's Cathedral fame) and Nicholas Hawksmoor as a dining space for veterans at the Naval Hospital. James Thornhill was commissioned to paint the interior, and he was asked to include in his designs as many references as possible to the role of the navy in the success of the British Empire. It took Thornhill 19 years to complete the work, and he was paid only £3 per square yard for the ceiling, and just £1 per square yard for the walls. According to legend, Thornhill was upset at the pittance he was paid, and painted himself at the bottom right corner of the following wall, with one hand held out behind his back, waiting for money to be put into it:

Even though he did not get paid handsomely, Thornhill was made a Knight for his efforts. 

In 1806, the body of Horatio Nelson was brought to lie in state in the Painted Hall (after which it was buried at St Paul's Cathedral). Over the next 100 years, the Hall was used as an Art Gallery. It was once again used as a dining hall by students at the Naval College during World War Two. 

We also visited the chapel, which was also designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It was badly affected by fire in 1779 and was redecorated in the Greek revival style. It was restored in 1950, and we were really impressed by it. The roof decorations are especially amazing. 

Following that, we showed Amy and Luuk (and children) the Naval Museum - which is well worth a visit if you're in London - before moving on to explore the Cutty Sark. 

Louis and Luuk trying out the new kids' exhibition at the Naval Museum

The Cutty Sark is a clipper that was built for a British shipping company in order to take part in the tea race. Clippers were well-known for their speed, which would be an important advantage in the competitive race to bring tea from China to London.When constructed, the Cutty Sark was one of the fastest clippers on the water. Unfortunately for the future of clippers, the opening of the Suez Canal meant that trade soon turned to using steamships.  

In the late 1870s, the Cutty Sark was used to take tea and castor oil to Australia. It was soon realised that the ship would be of more use to the wool trade, so from 1883-1895, the Cutty Sark regularly travelled to Australia as a wool ship. On her first journey, the Cutty Sark was 25 days faster than her closest rival, and at her quickest, she could make the journey from Britain to Australia in 77 days. For ten years she remained the fastest wool ship on the sea.

In 1895, the Cutty Sark was sold to a Portugese firm for £2,100. She spent the next thirty years carrying goods across the world. After that, she was purchased by a Briton who restored the ship and opened her to the public. After his death,  the ship spent some time as a training boat for naval cadets, then in 1954, she was towed to dry docks at Greenwich, and the Duke of Edinburgh became a patron for her restoration. It was open to the public until the late 1990s, when a programme of extensive conservation work was begun. In 2007, disaster struck when the ship caught alight. The large fire, fortunately, did not do as much damage as feared as much of the mast and planking had been removed for the conservation work. 

Finally, the £35million restoration was finished, and the ship was reopened to the public in April 2012. She now sits in a dry dock, suspended three metres above the ground, and encased in glass. There was some controversy about the design, as it is quite an 'interesting' look. What do you think?
(Adam would like to point out that his company, Buro Happold, was involved in the restoration work.)

The Captain's Quarters
The masthead gallery
The Cutty Sark from beneath
After finishing with the Cutty Sark, we walked through Greenwich Park and up to the Royal Observatory. It was a fabulous day and the locals were also making the most of the great weather.

View north towards Canary Wharf, the financial centre of London
Finally, we had tea in Greenwich then sat beside the river, enjoying the warmth and the sunset and eating English toffees. Bliss! Just what an English bank holiday should be, if you ask me!
Looking west down the River Thames