Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Bletchley Park’s contribution to WW2 'over-rated'?

The above title is a direct quote from a BBC article and it certainly is a nice piece of click-bait by whomever wrote it (kudos) as it was bound to raise the hackles of many of the BBC's core viewership. 

While professional historians seem to relish 'reformist' history as lazy way of making their pet projects sound more interesting than they actually are to the general public - by deliberately offering contrary and controversial hypothesises that fly in the face of perceived and established (or should that be 'establishment') history - they completely forget that as a culture 'we' tend to build our interpretation of history on how we prefer to believe it took place. Apologies for that very long sentence.

The 'Bletchley Park Problem' is one of those issues.

We think we all know the story, of how a group of nerds - er, sorry, mathematicians - were brought together to crack one of World War Two's greatest secrets and in doing so making one of the greatest contributions to the Allied victory. At least that's how the 2014 film 'The Imitation Game', staring Benedict Cumberbatch and Skeletor (Keira Knightley), tells the story...

My wife and I recently watched this movie as it seemed to combine both our interests in one of those 'for couples' narratives, as she is a science teacher and I like war movies! But it wasn't long into the story before my 'spidey senses' were jangling at some of the claims about the importance of the work were being pronounced by the ever tenable Mr. Cumberbatch. I mean how could Sherlock Holmes not be telling us the exact facts about, well, anything!

The crux of the problem for me was the premise that knowing the enemy's secret plans by cracking their most important code was - in effect - 'game over' and was THE event which precipitated the winning of the war.

MR. Cumberbatch's character - he was playing the tortured Alan Turin - was almost dismissive of the part played by the soldiers, sailors and airmen (and women) who put their lives on the line in direct physical combat! In an attitude which was so reminiscent of Sheldon from 'Big Bang Theory' the implication was that it was intellect that won WW2 and not the martial toil of the 'ordinary man' (or women)!

This irked me (as indeed the character Sheldon does).

Fast forward to this morning's online BBC News and this article caught my eye...

"Bletchley is not the war winner that a lot of Brits think it is," the author, Professor John Ferris of the University of Calgary, told the BBC.

Link to the BBC article: Bletchley Park’s contribution to WW2 'over-rated' By Gordon Corera

It seems that the idea that intellect is the infallible superior to 'animistic' endeavour - to put it in turn of phrase that both Sheldon and Spock would expound - is NOT the full story.

The article is definitely worth a read as it seeks to re-calibrate the strongly held notion that Britain's Intelligence (with a big 'I') was instrumental in the Allies winning the war, an idea that makes a good plot for a weird romantic movie between two weird actors doesn't quite add up in reality.

What annoyed me was how the idea that a 'bunch of boffins in a wooden hut' single-handedly brought down the Third Reich under valued and underplayed the role played by the combined arms of the Allied military forces on the beaches of Normandy, the jungles of Asia, the Steppes of Russia and the Islands of the Pacific (in the air, on the sea and on the ground)!

This expounding of the notion of technology over manual toil - to me - smacks of the old Audi moto 'Vorsprung Durch Technik' with all it's vaguely Nazi implications! And seems just as arrogant an idea as was the Nazi's desperate plan for it's 'super weapons' to win a war they had already lost.

OK, I may overstate the comparison slightly BUT while I totally admire the important contribution our boffins made to the war effort, no secret weapon or technology ever took a foot of actual enemy territory on it's own, they merely helped our forces job a little less risky.

Science and technology undoubtedly saved many, many lives during World War 2 - and beyond - but let's not forget that science and technology also ended many lives as well.

The spirit of British victory in WW2 was not the intellectual superiority of a minority of elite, but the way in which we overcame the threat of Nazism as a national whole. An idea we should perhaps remember as we try to overcome the current threat to our society of Corvid 19.

...I await a movie in a few years time when Mr. Cumberbatch dons a white coat and peers enigmatically down a microscope with nurse Keira Knightley moping his tortured brow! 😛


  1. A dramatic movie is of course not a documentary.

    But anyway, the actual technical contribution of Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park team is well documented and researched in the field of the history of computer science. Whether their work influenced the course of WW2 is debatable. A war is of course won by the uncountable (little and not so little) contributions of so many people. If you would make a dramatic movie about let's say, the weather service, you would also get the impression they won the war.

    I teach a course about the "History of Computer Science" for cs majors at university, and one of the things we do in that course is debunk a lot of myths surrounding Alan Turing: what is the real scope of his work? What were parallel developments, is he really the "godfather of computing", etc.

    There's a lot of literature available, but you won;t find it in the more popular books ;-)

  2. at the risk of falling for the obvious clickbait... my two penneth, written as someone who wrote on Bletchley and more importantly the Admiralties Operational Intelligence Centre and its development from Room 40 as part of my degree studies and later whilst doing defence studies courses in the RN.
    Did Bletchley single-handedly defeat the Nazi's? Of course not. No realistic appraisal suggests that. HOWEVER. It is entirely feasible that Britain may not have survived to take part in D Day without it (as with many other allied developments). It can be argued it was essential to many parts of the allied war effort. The mathematics of North Atlantic war would certainly be drastically different. Bletchley breaking the codes was essential to both gathering sigint with the aid of Y stations amongst others, and the deployment of that information effectively and in a timely manner.
    In short, without it many more allied lives would have been lost, and the war certainly taken a darker and longer path - possibly with a different outcome. The mistake is in thinking Bletchley was the only secret effort that was as important, albeit a more well know one.