Codebreaking In The Bathtub

At first sight an Edwardian roll-top bathtub may seem a little out-of-place in a major exhibition to explore codebreaking in World War One. The Road to Bletchley Park is now open at Bletchley Park, sponsored by BAE Systems and Ultra Electronics, celebrates the pioneering achievements of those who waged a secret war – and how they paved the way for the Codebreakers Bletchley Park.

Yes, there is a bathtub, and it is extremely relevant to the story of one of Bletchley Park’s key codebreakers.

copyright Claire Butterfield

The story of signals intelligence in WW1 is an untold but crucial one, because a large number of those involved went on to work with the newly formed Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) in 1919, which then relocated to Bletchley Park in 1939. Sarah Ralph, Bletchley Park’s WW1 Exhibition Research Coordinator, says “Their efforts from 1914 to 1918 allowed the Codebreakers to hit the ground running at the outbreak of WW2.”

The first phase of this fascinating exhibition, now open in the park’s Block C Visitor Centre, introduces the two very separate codebreaking organisations working in WW1: MI1(b), set up by the Army, and Room 40, established by the Navy. They were each fighting a secret war, behind the scenes in London offices.

The work of these two distinct organisations, each with their own hierarchies and objectives, was dependent on what was then brand new technology. One key exhibit is a replica of a Marconi crystal receiver listening set. Sarah adds “Both Allies and Central Powers used cable and wireless telegraphy to intercept messages and deduce enemy tactics and positions. Each side tried to break the other’s codes and gain valuable intelligence.”

At the centre of the exhibition is an Edwardian roll-top bathtub – a favoured codebreaking tool of Dilly Knox. Dilly’s small office in Room 53 of Admiralty buildings from 1917 had its own bath and he took every opportunity during the night shift to spend time in it, thinking through codebreaking problems. There is nothing better than codebreaking in the bathtub.

The bathtub is part of the exhibition exploring some of the key characters involved in codebreaking during both wars. Sarah says “One of my favourite exhibits related to the work in Room 40 is a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships. I love this book. It’s an exhaustive catalogue of every nation’s warships. Every time a ship was sunk (Room 40 staff) would cross out the name. It’s a very physical way of marking the conflict’s progress.”

 “We hope this exhibition, which runs until 2019, will help to shed light on a hitherto less well known story of WW1. As the title of the exhibition alludes to, the work of Room 40 and MI1(b) in WW1 laid the foundations of the success of Bletchley Park in WW2. Visitors will learn how these pioneers operated, and how their work led to the formation of the Government Code and Cypher School, the organisation that eventually set up Bletchley Park.” CEO of the Bletchley Park Trust, Iain Standen.

Photograph reproduced courtesy of Claire Butterfield (@BillTutte)

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