Monday 3 June 2013

Heritage Spotlight - Bletchley Park

The work done by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park during World War II is well known. So well known, in fact, that it overshadows the work of the other code-breakers who worked there. Which is why I direct you to the website of the Bletchley Park Museum.

Turing wasn’t the only gay man at Bletchley Park. Here are three more gay code-breakers.

Noel Currer-Briggs (1919-2004)
Noel was a respected genealogist who, late in his career, turned to research into the families of the Holy Grail legend and owners of the Turin Shroud. He arrived at Bletchley Park from the Filed Ambulance Corps in late 1941. His skills in languages (he was studying for a degree in Modern Languages at Cambridge University when he was called up for war service) made him ideal to work on German ciphers. Noel worked on the Enigma ciphers briefly and then on the Nazi naval Playfair ciphers used in the lead-up to an invasion of Sicily in 1943. It was this work which helped the Allies to counter Nazi movements. For this Noel received an honour for his work he refused to consider his work of any great significance – “I was never sure why!” he once said. He left Bletchley Park with the rank of Major. After becoming a gentleman farmer he turned to genealogy and wrote many family history books and was a consultant on Debrett’s Peerage. Like many gay men of his era he married. With his wife Barbara he ran an opera festival, and he was secretary of the Three Choirs Festival. Eventually Noel left his wife after accepting his sexuality. He made a couple of television and radio appearances in the days before genealogy was really popular, usually broadcasting on royal or peerage matters. Had he lived another couple of years he would surely have entered the spotlight in the furore surrounding “The Da Vinci Code”. With his popular eccentric personality and extensive knowledge of medieval Holy Grail legend and genealogy he would have become a star.

Bentley Bridgewater (1911-1996)
This Canadian-born son of an English barrister became one of the UK’s leading museum administrators. Bentley first joined the British Museum in 1937 and was it’s Secretary from 1948. In between these years he was seconded to the Foreign Office and sent as a cryptographer to Bletchley Park in 1942. Whilst at Bletchley he was the partner of Angus Wilson (below). They had both worked at the British Museum in different departments. At Bletchley they both worked in Hut 4, the Naval Section which included the Enigma work. Bentley didn’t work on the Enigma himself but on the RHV ciphers used by Nazi ice-breakers and u-boats who didn’t carry Enigma machines. During this period Angus Wilson went through a series of emotional problems, most often violent, and Bentley was the rock on which Angus could cling to. The Wrens often called them “The Heavenly Twins”. After the war Bentley returned to the British Museum and retired in 1973.

Sir Angus Wilson (1913-1991)
The most well-known of this Bletchley trio, Angus became a successful writer and was knighted in 1980 for services to literature. It had been suggested he become a cryptographer by a colleague in the British Museum cataloguing department who had already gone there. It was Angus’s adequate skills in Italian that placed him in the Naval Section working on Italian ciphers. He later went on to work on Japanese naval ciphers (he was an expert on Japanese call-signs) and the Nazi intelligence service codes. He ended his Bletchley Park career as a Communications Intelligence Officer. Gradually, the stress of the war took its toll on Angus and his increasingly alarming tantrums at Bletchley led to him being given psychiatric therapy. After the war Angus returned to his job at the British Museum, where he began writing short stories. As more of his stories became published he became a full-time writer and left the museum in 1955. His writing career took off and he became a popular raconteur and regular television chat show guest.

There are many Bletchley Park code-breakers – some still living – who are hardly known outside Bletchley circles. This small selection is my tribute to them all.

Bletchley Park

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