The Bletchley Circle Series 2 – Farewell Codebreaker

The Bletchley Circle In anticipation of the third episode of The Bletchley Circle Series 2 I have revisited what happened in the concluding part of this two-part storyline called ‘Blood On Their Hands’. It’s good to revisit because everything in the show is about to change.

Episode 2 starts at a pace to prevent convicted Alice from the hangman’s noose. There are some emotive scenes of the ‘hanging team’ measuring Alice’s neck and carrying out a practice run.

With some impressive paper shuffling and nerves of steel investigation the team realise that John Richards was killed by the Military and Lizzie is also being set up and framed for his murder.

778A6323 Lizzie

It becomes clear that the secret military documents found at Lizzie’s flat were planted to make sure the matter would fall under military juristiction rathen than being dealt with by the police. The team’s innovative research leads them to connect a chemical spillage to Porton Down, and prove that Richards was transferred there from Bletchley.

Most Secret

Susan is becoming more and more anxious. The secrets she keeps from her husband Timothy(Mark Dexter) and the harrowing experience with Crowley the year before are taking their toll. She doesn’t want to be involved but Jean pleads with her to help.

It turns out the military hospital where the men who were injured in the chemical spillage is the same hospital Timothy stayed in for his war injuries. What happened to these men a good enough reason for the murder?

But why?

Millie, Jean, Susan, Lucy

Millie, Jean, Susan, Lucy

Reluctantly Susan gains access and after a bit of sneaking about Susan is caught by the military police but not before she comes across a badly injured soldier who tells her the truth behind the chemical experiments at Porton Down and how he and others were used as lab rats.

Timothy is brought in. He looks at his wife questioningly. She’s not the woman he’s married. The secrets are coming between them. Exhausted, Susan is left with no option but to tell Timothy of her work at Bletchley Park. In doing so she breaks The Official Secrets Act but saves her marriage. Susan and Timothy’s relief is tangible.

For Susan the danger is over but for the other three as they track down Professor Masters (Paul Ritter), a name that has popped up as the connection between Richards and Porton Down – they think he can help.

Things don’t go quite to plan. One of our Bletchley Circle ladies is shot!

Is it too late for them, and can they save Alice after all?

I’ve given a lot of spoilers. If you’ve seen the episode you know the end but for those who have yet to see it, I’ll leave the end as a surprise. I will just say that it’s the end of the show for one of the four Bletchley Circle women. It’s sad but there are always new beginnings and can only help the show grow and evolve.

Confession:  I have a problem with one element of the storyline. It’s that there isn’t enough detail to explain the pre-war back story and connection between Alice, Richards and Lizzie. It felt a bit secondary, yet was crucial to the whole plot. I would have like this to have been covered in greater detail.

So what has episode 3 got in store. A new member of The Bletchley Circle? Perhaps.

A new mystery to solve? Definitely

Bletchley Park have posted some fabulous photographs of the war-time set at Bletchley Park. Click here to view them

Also, Check out this fabulous slideshow of The Bletchley Circle Series 2 images on MK Web’s news website.

Don’t forget to check out the Bletchley Park Podcast and the interviews of cast and production members. In the episode below you can hear Bletchley Park staff members talk about their part as extras on the show and the story of  Bletchley Park veteran, Audrey Wind. Remember you can pre-order the DVD (out at the beginning of Feb). I’ve just spotted that you can buy both series together see The Bletchley Circle – Series 1 And 2 [DVD].

My Mum worked for MI6 at Bletchley Park

Courtesy Nigel Nelson

Iris May Phillips reproduced courtesy of Nigel Nelson

Families of the Code and Cypher School veterans end their visits at Bletchley Park with a better idea of the World War 2 codebreaking operation that shaped the lives of their relatives. Suddenly a picture appears from the tales of the veterans’ hard relentless work in hastily built wooden huts, lasting friendships forged in concrete buildings filled with noisy bombe machines, and let’s not forget the occasional eccentric. The tales told of that time have a clear anchor and there is suddenly an ‘ah-ha’ moment of understanding when families can share in a secret life.

Nigel Nelson, reproduced with his permission

Nigel Nelson, reproduced with his permission

For Nigel Nelson, the Sunday People’s political editor, a visit to Bletchley Park left him with the distinct feeling that he did not know his enigmatic mother as well as he thought.

Iris May Phillips told her son that she worked in a boring job for the Foreign Office and was seconded to Bletchley Park in about 1943.

What Nigel Nelson found out at Bletchley was that young Iris worked for the Secret Intelligence Service – MI6.

“The news hit me as if James Bond had just thrown a martini in my face, “ he wrote in his article for the Mirror on 9 November 2013 titled ‘I knew my mum worked at Bletchley Park but not that she was in MI6’.

‘I was both shaken and stirred to be confronted with a truth my long-dead mother spent her life concealing from me.’

Since writing that article Nigel’s efforts to track down more information about his mother has led him to the formidable blast proof walls of MI6’s policy on releasing data about past employees. Despite the lack of official data, he has  pieced together memories of his mother and the guarded details she did share with him and written a recent article titled ‘I visited a tourist attraction and ended up finding out my mother was a World War 2 spy’.

The article hints at Iris’s work in Hut 4 at Bletchley Park plotting the location of predatory U-Boats in the Atlantic and her role in post war Germany tracking down scientists to recruit, witnessing the horrors of the concentration camps and the echoes of justice in Nuremberg.

What exactly was she recruited to do. What was she doing for MI6 before her transfer to Bletchley Park? I hope their are photograph albums, old letters that can be revisited for clues.

For a man who has spent his journalistic career revealing secrets rather than guard them Nigel has, quite literally, found the biggest secret story of his life.

 “The mother I will remember is no longer the one I thought I knew.” Nigel Nelson

The story of Iris’s war is a tantalising mystery suited for the women of the Bletchley Circle. It appears that there won’t be any further official information from direct channels anytime soon but I can’t help think of all the National Archives and its miles of shelves stuffed with the documents of other services and departments who have connections with wartime MI6. Their documents are not classified and there may just be something in a transfer paper, a finance document, a wartime memoir.

It can work. It is the exact approach taken by Professor Aldrich when piecing together his 600 page book on GCHQ without any access to official post war documents.

So there is a chance that there is more of this story alluringly hidden between the papers of a musty brown manilla file. It makes my research obsessive fingers tingle at the possibility. Like Susan from The Bletchley Circle it’s time to share the secrets with the family.

We just need Jean, who always looks after her own, to dig through files, think outside the box and find the way in to the papers that will breathe life this fascinating story.

My thanks to Nigel for letting me share his story.

Nigel Nelson is Sunday People political columnist and Fleet Street’s longest serving national newspaper political editor. You can follow him on Twitter @NigelNelson.

The Bletchley Circle Review Series 2 Episode 1

The Bletchley Circle Series 2A smoke filled room, lines of wooden tables stacked with trays of documents and lit by the yellow light of table lamps. A woman in civilan clothes concentrates on a machine in a wooden box. It is the Enigma and this is the Machine Room, Bletchley Park, 1943.

A blonde woman in a WRNS uniform (Women’s Royal Naval Service) stands by the Bombe Machine, the green, yellow and red wheels turn working to try to find the daily settings for the Enigma machine. There is a sparkle in the young woman’s eyes. Job up. 

The typewriter like letter keys of the Enigma are tapped, lighting the letters of the lampboard. Two men hover nearby, frowning in frustration. “If the Germans have changed their machines we may as well all give up and go home,” says John Richards. Jean stands by, watching.

The blonde woman in the uniform, Alice walks over, “They haven’t changed the machine,” she says, “they’ve changed the code.”

The Bletchley Circle Series 2, a new four part drama produced by World Productions for ITV has officially started [insert squeals of excitement here].

Like the first series, the opening scene is full of atmosphere and drama, evoking an colourful snapshot of how Bletchley Park could have looked in World War 2.

“Getting to film at Bletchley was magical. It feels a bit like hallowed ground. A very special experience as I had to do some work on an original machine and filmed a scene outside, in between the huts in moonlight.

“If you squint you could be back there in the war. Especially with the extras milling around in their costumes. I’m sure in many ways nothing has changed. It was very inspiring for playing the character of Alice.”  Hattie Morahan

Millie, Jean, Susan, Lucy

Millie, Jean, Susan, Lucy Copyright

The night scene with Bletchley Park Mansion lit by moonlight is one of my favourites but all too soon the night closes on the war years and the show jumps forward ten years to 1953  (one year on from the haunting events from Series 1).

Mansion Through the Lense Copyright

Mansion Through the Lense Copyright

Stern, practical Jean is reading a newspaper article about Alice Merren’s forthcoming trial for murder of her former Bletchley Park colleague, John Richards (Paul McGann). Alice was one of Jean’s girls. Jean knows she will never turn her back on one of her girls so she reunites the circle to help one of their own.

“Jean is a straightforward, down-to-earth, pragmatic, practical person. She is very much a woman of her time. Someone like her would probably find it hard to adapt to modern society, as we know it now.  She’s very old fashioned with old fashioned values. But she’s incredibly kind, compassionate and smart.

Jean is the catalyst this time in bringing them all together again. When she learns of Alice’s case her gut instinct is that there’s something not quite right about it. So the only way to investigate further is to get the gang back together.” Julie Graham

Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) is reluctant to get involved after her near death experience with the Crowley, the serial killer. She is no longer the driving force of the circle, she’s jumpy, scared of putting her family into danger. In fact, it’s Susan’s response to the events in the first series that tempted Anna Maxwell Martin back into the role.

“One of the reasons I liked this story so much and returned to it is because sometimes with a series it’s easy to conveniently forget a journey a character has gone on a year before.  They decided to reflect the truth of how someone would feel a number of months after something bizarre, awful and extreme like that happening in their lives. So I really loved that aspect of the script and that Susan is genuinely having difficulty coping and getting over and recovering from it – in a life and marriage of secrecy. I found that really interesting.” Anna Maxwell Martin

Lucy (Sophie Rundle) has experienced enormous growth with the support of her friends. Free of her abusive husband she is now embracing a new start as an independent woman with a clerical job at Scotland Yard.

“Scotland Yard is very lucky to have Lucy, knowing what we know about her past at Bletchley Park. But obviously she’s keeping that all totally under wraps. In their eyes she’s simply a secretary. These women had to really play down their amazing abilities, their strengths and minds. They had to pretend they hadn’t done anything special in the war and that means Lucy has to downplay her intelligence. She is upholding the Official Secrets Act.”  Sophie Rundle

Sophie Rundle (Lucy)  Copyright

Sophie Rundle (Lucy) Copyright

Millie (Rachel Stirling) is still a sassy, thoroughly modern woman and an excellent linguist she has found work as a German translator, but trouble is never too far away from this street wise beauty.

“When we meet Millie again she is doing government translating work with the Germans. Pretty quickly after the war you had to re-assess who was and wasn’t the enemy and re-align. And Millie has always been a shade of grey rather than black or white. So she has to shift her perspective and stop thinking of the Germans as the enemy.” Rachel Stirling

What could be so secret that would make Alice face the hangman’s noose willingly? And who is Lizzie Lancaster?
Faye Marsay (Lizzie) Copyright

Faye Marsay (Lizzie)

The true depth of the danger dawns on the circle as they investigate the mystery.

“What the hell have you got us into?” 

I am sure you’ll agree that this is a fabulous start to the second series of hugely popular The Bletchley Circle. Viewing statistics show that a whopping 4.5 millions viewers tuned in on Monday evening to share another mystery with Millie, Jean, Susan and Lucy.

Listen to the cast and production staff talk about their time filming The Bletchley Circle Series 2 on the Bletchley Park Podcast during interviews recorded at the official Press Screening with three of the stars of the series, Rachael Stirling, Julie Graham & Hattie Morahan. Executive Producer, Jake Lushington & series Writer & Creator, Guy Burt also shared their thoughts on the series.
If like me you will devour the series over and over again, you can get it on pre-order (release date 3 February 2014 in UK)

Click on the image or click here to buy The Bletchley Circle Series 2 [DVD] and if you want to read about the life of a real Bletchley Park Codebreaker, don’t forget to buy your copy of my book Dear Codebreaker. The ebook is at a low, low price while The Bletchley Circle Series 2 is airing.

Dear Codebreaker - The letters of Margaret RockYou will hear Rachel Stirling talk about Margaret briefly in her interview at the press screening. Margaret is the epitome of an enigmatic codebreaker.

Photographs reproduced with the kind permission of Bletchley Park. Read more about the show on Bletchley Park’s website by clicking here

The Bletchley Circle Series 2 is filming

The Bletchley Circle Series 2 Great News! The Bletchley Circle Series 2 is filming.

ITV have confirmed that have commissioned the second series of the popular mini-series about 4 World War 2 codebreakers from Bletchley Park.

ITV has commissioned four new episodes of code-breaking thriller The Bletchley Circle starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle and Julie Graham.

Based on the lives of four extraordinary and brilliant women who worked at top-secret Government Code & Cipher School Headquarters at  Bletchley Park during World War II, The Bletchley Circle Series 2 will feature two self-contained stories each played out across 2 x 60 minute episodes written by series creator Guy Burt.

the Bletchley Circle 1
Set a year on from the first series in 1953, the ladies are reunited for their second case in the first two-part story when former Bletchley Park colleague, Alice Merren (Hattie Morahan) is accused of murder.   Jean (Julie Graham) methodically sets to work examining the evidence and is intent on helping Alice after a distinguished scientist is discovered shot through the heart in the study of his home with Alice, gun in hand, standing over him.

The evidence is stacked against her, but Jean’s instincts tell her differently and she goes to visit Alice in Holloway Prison. Alice is quietly resigned to the fact she will hang.  But why has she offered no defence and why does she refuse to talk? Jean calls on the ladies to reunite, but will they share her faith in Alice’s innocence?

Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) is still shaken by the trauma of last year’s events and fears for the safety of her young family.

Millie (Rachael Stirling) has secured a highly regarded position translating for German businessman – the old enemy.

Now working for Scotland Yard as a secretary, Lucy’s (Sophie Rundle) ability to process and recall data (eidetic memory) is vital if the ladies are to investigate Alice’s case.

Will the women overcome their fears and risk their burgeoning careers to save Alice’s life as the days to the hanging countdown? And what danger will they face as they uncover not only Alice’s secret, but also a much darker one at the heart of the British Army?

In the second of the two-part stories Millie’s black market dealings with charming rogue Jasper lands her in jeopardy when she becomes caught up in the murky world of people trafficking, bringing her face to face with hard-bitten Marta, a Maltese businesswoman whose family isn’t to be crossed.

Millie (from Series 1)

Millie (from Series 1)

Abducted by Marta’s henchmen, Millie is shocked by what she discovers.  But with her own life under threat can Millie escape and help the imprisoned young women, whose misery her “innocent” side-business has helped fund. And will the rest of the Circle forgive and help her?

The Bletchley Circle will be produced by Trevor Hopkins (Kidnap and Ransom, The Prisoner) and executive produced by Jake Lushington (The Devil’s Whore, Mysterious Creatures) for World Productions.  Jamie Payne (The Hour, Dr. Who) is lead director who will shoot the first two-part story. Sarah Harding (Compulsion, Torn) will direct the second.

Guy Burt will write the scripts and filming will take place at Bletchley Park and in Greater London.

Series 1 filming with an Enigma machine in shot at Bletchley Park

Series 1 filming with an Enigma machine in shot at Bletchley Park

“The Bletchley Circle is a wonderful addition to our drama slate last year and we’re delighted that it’s returning to ITV with two new and exciting stories,” said Steve November, ITV’s Director of Drama Commissioning .

The first series of three episodes launched on ITV with an average audience of 5.6m and a 23% share of the available audience making it the best performing new drama series in the UK from a share perspective throughout 2012. The first series was also recently screened in the US to rave reviews.  Broadcast by PBS, The Bletchley Circle was given a prestigious Sunday night scheduling slot.
Executive Producer, Jake Lushington for World Productions added:

“World is thrilled that after the fantastic audience and critical response last year The Bletchley Circle has been re-commissioned by ITV with more hours and two exciting new stories for our former Bletchley code-breakers. In this series as well as unlocking the sinister forces at work in 1950’s Britain, Susan, Millie, Jean and Lucy are attempting forge their own place and identity as women in that era. The combination of these heroic women’s personal stories and a compelling period thriller has already marked itself out as a winning combination both in the UK and internationally, with its recent US Premiere garnering rave reviews from the American press.”

Series 1 appeared on the UK screens in September 2012 and has just finished airing on PBS in the US. Given it’s popularity I am sure The Bletchley Circle Series 2 will be aired closer together.

Did you enjoy The Bletchley Circle Series 1? Let me know if you’re looking forward to series 2.

The Bletchley Circle Series 2?

The Bletchley Circle Series 2I heard a little murmur on Twitter the other night. A murmur that suggests that there could be, wait for it….

The Bletchley Circle Series 2

I have been unable to find out more at this stage. I look at the website of the production company, World Productions, but there a no hints there about a possible second series. I might just drop them a line and ask..

I will see if I can find out more and keep you posted.

I enjoyed The Bletchley Circle series. You can read my review of Series 1 by clicking here.

The prospect of a second series made me think of potential story lines, well, a broad outline at best.

I would like to see a longer Bletchley Park in World War 2 flashback. So, perhaps the show starts in 1952 and the Circle women have a crime to solve that leads them back to Bletchley Park and the flashback reveals that something that happened in World War 2 is key to solving the crime.

Come on, more flashback, more Bletchley Park please!

Millie, Jean, Susan, Lucy

Millie, Jean, Susan, Lucy


What would you like to see happen in The Bletchley Circle Series 2? Leave a comment – I’d love to hear your ideas.

If you would like to know more about Bletchley Park Research and keep up to date with news about articles, books and new research, then please subscribe to the Bletchley Park Research newsletter and Download a free WW2 codebreaker’s letter.

Kerry Howard Profile

The Bletchley Circle Review – SOE

The second and last episodes of The Bletchley Circle introduced another secret war-time organisation, the Special Operations Executive, or more commonly called SOE.

In The Bletchley Circle story Jean spent time working with SOE before working at Bletchley Park and knew just how to extract information from a former colleague to drive their murder hunt further.

I found the second episode gripping. The story twisted away from the obvious and introduced another layer to the mind of the killer. It also cleared up why the four women would consider pursuing the killer by themselves. The killer had carefully chosen a scapegoat and Susan, Millie, Jean and Lucy had followed his carefully laid clues and led the police to the wrong man. Too late Susan realised her error but the police simply patted her on the back; but the police were happy, they had their killer.

The women examine the character of the killer. He knew what he was doing. He had traits of someone recruited into developing propaganda material during the war. Jean knew all to well, this work carried out by the SOE.

I only know only the basics about SOE, which you will find described below. It has inspired me to read more about it, especially as our contributors, John Gallehawk, is in the process about writing about an SOE training centre. I have included some of the books I have purchased, borrowed from my local library or added to my reading list. Perhaps there is something for you there too.

What was SOE?

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) secretly created in July 1940 by Winston Churchill ‘to set Europe ablaze.’ Created from three separate organisations, which the Government set up after Germany annexed Austria (the Anschluss) in March 1938:

  • The Foreign Office created an organisation known as Department EH (after Electra House, its headquarters), or CS after it’s head, newspaper magnate Sir Campbell Stuart to look into the effects of propaganda in warfare.
  • Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) formed Section D (Devices Section), under Major Lawrence Grand, to investigate the use of sabotage, propaganda and train those to undertake such work.
  • The War Office set up GS(R) (General Staff Research) headed by Major J. C. Holland with the remit of researching guerrilla warfare and later renamed MI R (Military Intelligence Research)  in early 1939.

From 1940 these organisations initially became the three organisational branches of the Special Operations Executive (SOE):

  • SO1 (Propaganda) – the pre-war beginnings of this department was known as CS after its head, Sir Campbell Stuart, or EH – Electra House, the building where the department was based. The arguments between MInistry of Information and the Foreign Office saw to it that SO1 was transferred to the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) in 1941 and controlled by the Foreign Office.
  • SO2 (Active Operations – sub-divided geographically), which became the sole survivor of the three SO organisations and became what we now know as SOE. It covered all aspects of recruiting, training and deploying personnel into enemy, and sometimes, neutral territories.
  • SO3 (Planning) – also suffered in the reorganisation and was soon merged into SO2 after it ‘proceeded to strangle itself in festoons of paperwork‘.

SOE’s broad remit often led to confusion and inter-departmental bickering with the War Office, the Foreign Office and Secret Intelligence Service about its responsibilities and priorities. SOE was viewed as an annoyance and interference. It’s more direct approach to operations seen as distasteful and counter-productive to the more discreet tactics employed by other Government departments.

Despite this lack of popularity, which meant that many cheered when it shut it down in early 1946, the SOE ‘has enriched the nation’s stock of heroic legends, many of them true.’ These stories of bravery and daring continue to inspire and amaze us 70 years later.

If you want to learn more about the SOE there are many good books that cover the organisation as a whole, biographies of key agents, scientific secrets and the stories of the men and women who served, as told through their obituaries in The Times.

As a starting point, I recommend reading any of the books like SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive 1940 – 1946by Michael R.D. Foot, who, after the war, was appointed the official historian of SOE in France and had privilege access to material that did not become publicly available for many years.

His book SOE is a solid introduction to the hard, unbiased facts of the SOE. A solid grounding in fact keeps you grounded when reading other exciting sensationalist accounts of SOE and the exploits of the agents.

There is a paragraph in the author’s notes that I really like:

Historians, like sergeant-majors, like to arrange people and things in order, to assign everyone a particular job at a set time. SOE like other bodies for waging war, was not so neatly organised in fact. It was on the contrary unusually complex, and its complexities have not been made any more easy to unravel by the dense fog of secrecy in which it lived. In that fog a few fragments of it have still to be hidden, and wisps of fog still keep getting in the way of the seeker after past truth.” Michael Foot – author’s note in SOE: An Outline History of the Special Operations Executive 1940-1946.


SOE and The Resistance: As told in The Times Obituaries describes the extraordinary contribution to the allied war effort made by the Special Operations Executive, from its formation in 1940 to the end of the war. Understand how resistance was encouraged among the populations of Europe and the Far East to encourage sabotage of industry and communications critical to the Axis cause, as recorded in The Times obituaries for the heroic men and women who served with the SOE in enemy-held territory.



SOE: The Scientific Secrets

This book explores the mysterious world of the tools SOE used for their missions of subversion and sabotage. Written by two scientists, one of whom served in the SOE and one who helped with clearing up after it was disbanded in 1946; their insider knowledge presents a clear account of the way SOE’s inventors worked. From high explosive technology to chemical and biological devices; from the techniques of air supply to incendiarism; from camouflage to underwater warfare; and from radio communications to weaponry, “SOE: The Scientific Secrets” is a revelation about the tools that allowed the murky world of spying and spies to operate during wartime.


There are many excellent books about SOE and those who served. Click on the books to take you to more information on the Amazon website. I have definitely added A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE to my reading this. It looks fascinating.

If you read any of the books, let me know what you think. It would be great to hear your views. Also, if you’d like to know more about Bletchley Park Research, keep up to date with new articles, books and contributors, then please Subscribe to our newsletter.


The Bletchley Circle Review – Did the writers get it right?

The Bletchley Circle Review asks the question – Did the writers get it right? Was the show factually correct?

There are many well written articles reviewing The Bletchley Circle in its entirety. Overall, it seems to have been well received and the numbers don’t lie. Approximately 4.5 million views tuned it to watch Susan, Lucy, Millie and Jean.

So I am going to pick up from my earlier post The Bletchley Circle Review – Fact in Historical Fiction,  where I discuss whether the fiction has a duty to accurately portray the fact. Click here to read that post. Today, I am going to look at the first section of the programme to help the reader relate to it to the real Bletchley Park.

I  also say that I can watch a programme from a purely entertainment perspective without worrying about the facts; which I did enthusiastically…

And then I watched the beginning again…

The styling was wonderful. The set, the fashion and in particular, the wartime work at Bletchley Park. The use of the spinning, colourful wheels of the Bombe machine, internal mechanisms of the Enigma cipher machine make the title sequence stand out. I also liked how images of  these machines and the simple pages of a knitted pattern seemed to represent the war and domestic lives that followed.

The styling of the working environment of the characters was also massively successfully. It created a picture that appealed to how I would like the inside of a Hut to appear during World War 2.

It was so successful at creating that picture in my head that I was instantly reminded of this photograph.

Crown Copyright. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Director of GCHQ

The Bletchley Park Trust  also recognise that creating a snapshot of the past is a key element to the museum experience and that the visual experience has a lasting effect on the visitor. That’s why part of the forthcoming restoration of Hut 3 and Hut 6 will focus on ‘authenticity’.

At the annual Veteran’s Reunion on Sunday 2 September 2012 the new CEO Iain Standen reported that each hut will be sympathetically restored to its original design, from fixtures and fittings down to the oppressive blast walls that kept out the light and made the Huts a dark and unpleasant environment to work. So if you enjoyed seeing Bletchley Park in The Bletchley Cirlce, you will enjoy visiting Bletchley Park as it is restored to former glory.

You may also have noticed that in the Bletchley Circle codebreaking scene that there are only women. It is true that civilian and Service women made up most of the work force. At its peak in January 1945 there were 6769 women working at Bletchley Park and its outstations compared to the 2225 men. There were only a handful of real women ‘codebreakers’, so much of the codebreaking work was carried out by men. This meant that there would not have been four women codebreakers working so closely together.

However, the term codebreaker is often used as a general term to cover the operation from interception through to passing the information to commanders, and of course, this process was dominated by women.  I will have more to say about Women Codebreakers in a later post.

I did notice something about the Hut. First, I am not so sure about the casual use by WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval) of the two Enigma machine on display in their distinctive wooden boxes. When legendary codebreaker, Dillwyn Knox broke the first Enigma key in January 1940, his work place in the Cottage was secured and cut off from the rest of the park to keep his work secret. Enigma was ‘need to know’ only.

Secondly, Susan spots something within the random letters typed in blocks of four letters typed on a sheet of paper. She dashes outside to speak to Millie, who is smoking. Millie is casually leaning against a brick wall on the left of the screen. In the shadows on the right side of the shot is a plaque marked ‘Hut 4’.

Hut 4 was built in 1939 and was used from 1940 by ‘Naval Section‘ for processing the decrypted naval message that came from Hut 8. From Hut 4 the messages were translated, analysed and sent to Naval Intelligence in the Admiralty, London. Messages were not decrypted in Hut 4.

Naval Section moved to Block A in 1942 and from the time The Bletchley Circle is set, the physical building of Hut 4 was used for other sections such as Military Section, Intelligence Exchange and W/T (Wireless Transmission) co-ordination.  However, when sections moved the kept their original Hut number, therefore its seems to me that Hut 4 would not have dealt with Army messages, In fact, in October 1943 Hut 4, Naval Section was successfully hunting down the U-Boat threat in the Atlantic.

Returning to the Hut, Susan and Millie are conferring with Lucy. Stern supervisor Jean queries why they aren’t working and we learn that Susan has spotted ‘a code within the cipher‘. My colleague at work told me she didn’t really understand the difference so I though I’d give an explanation here. My more knowledgeable readers may raise an eyebrow or two at the simplistic explanation.

Susan has identified ‘Dietrich’ within the enciphered message. Deitrich is the code, which in this case is a word substituted for another word, ‘deploy’. This coded word is within a message which has been enciphered using a process of substituting each individual letter within the message for another random letter. In simple terms, this is what the Enigma cipher machine did with much success. So, Susan has identified that the German army are sending battle orders within a enciphered message and deploying the commands with the use of code word ‘Deitrich’.

‘Ultra’ is the cover name given to all special intelligence sent using high-grade (high security) codes and ciphers, such as Enigma.

Back to The Bletchley Circle we now know what the German Army are up to and the girls have single-handedly helped the Allies neutralise the threat.  It is true that such breaks helped the Allied campaign and some say that the work of Bletchley Park help shorten the war by at least two years.

Overall, I think the presentation of Bletchley Park was perfectly acceptable and done with great style. I really enjoyed the brief but atmospheric introduction to the characters in their World War 2 work at Bletchley Park. I also like that it has created a wonderful and unique backstory for the characters to solve the crime in post-war Britain. I look forward to watching their personal stories of growth as well as the dramatic storyline that is promised for episode 2.

Millie (from Series 1)

Millie (from Series 1)


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The Bletchley Circle Review – Fact in Historical Fiction

There are mixed views about the use of Bletchley Park Codebreakers in ITV’s drama The Bletchley Circle, which starts on Thursday 6th September at 9pm.

I was at the annual veteran’s reunion at Bletchley Park yesterday (2 Sep 2012) and The Bletchley Circle came up in conversation more than a few times. It seems that there are some who are worried that the drama could distort the true story of women codebreakers, and the work of Bletchley Park during World War 2.

To be honest, I don’t have the same concerns. I always have a clear understanding that artistic licence can impact on the representation of fact in the programme I am watching. It doesn’t ruin the programme for me, unless it is so outrageous that I don’t waste my time watching. I personally discovered Bletchley Park through fiction. This was the book Enigma by Robert Harris.

Robert Harris’ amazing novel Enigma, creates an intriguing picture of what it was like to be at Bletchley Park and introduces the reader the complexities of breaking the Enigma code but ultimately, it is a fictional story. The book contains a short disclaimer at the front of the novel:

This novel is set against the background of an actual historical event. The German naval signals quoted in the text are all authentic. The characters are entirely fictional.”

I devoured the book then went on the hunt for the true story. I am testament to the power that fiction has on influencing our historical interests. I also understand that a storyteller must create a balance of fact and fiction as not to change history in the mind of a viewer or reader. Philippa Gregory, the successful novelist most famous for her novel The Other Boleyn Girl,  never reads historical fiction:

I find that it can too easily become fact in my mind. I only read historical fact.”

The technique she uses is to work as a historian to gather the facts, then as a novelist create a fictional conversation between two points within the true history, and continuing the process until there is a gripping mix of a historical truth and fictional drama. The Other Boleyn Girl later became a TV drama and a movie.

Philomena Liggons, author of a Footprints – Secret Lives at Bletchley Park, believes that authors do have a duty to accurately portray fact in historical fiction. Philomena is a fiction and non-fiction writer. She is also a Bletchley Park guide and has an in-depth knowledge of how it was used during the war. She has been able to combine fact and fiction to create a story that both educates and entertains her readers.

Footprints is her first published novel and ‘tells a moving story of the lives and time of codebreakers in WW2 as seen through the eyes of about two WRENS based at Bletchley Park‘.

I firmly believe that historical fiction has a duty to portray historical fact.  By dove-tailing fact and fiction it gives a writer the abilities to reach a wider audience and bring history to life. Telling the story of historical events through the daily lives of fictitious characters offers the reader the satisfaction of learning about those historical facts whilst, hopefully enjoying a novel at the same time. As in a novel the reader can lose themselves in the period, identify with the characters and use their imaginations to create pictures in their own minds.

For the writer, the opportunities to provide historical fact and report events within a novel are much greater. They can simply tell the story of the event, they can combine research from interviews or memories and channel them through one character; they can drop a single fact into conversation; they can create a reaction in one of their characters and, whilst writing, they too can lose themselves in those corridors of time. They do however have a responsibility to be able to substantiate their research whilst in some way slightly distancing fact from fiction without spoiling the story for the reader.

To my mind, historical fiction provides the thread on which facts can be pegged.  It should answer questions; it should educate and should, most certainly be a pleasure to read.”

Fictionalised accounts of history have always courted controversy. In 2011 a mini-series about J.F. Kennedy caused a heated debate,  in particular about the interpretation of Kennedy’s life and death. The programme had an unpopular viewpoint that presented Kennedy in a different way to the usual portrayal of him as the ‘American Hero’.

At the time Gareth McLean, writer for the Radio Times was quoted as saying:

Audiences aren’t stupid. I think it’s a little bit patronising to assume that the audience takes everything at face value. They can make up their own minds and if they wan to find out more then they can do a bit of research around the subject.”

The BBC, where the programme was aired in the UK, held a similar view. Sue Deeks, the head of BBC programme acquisition stated:

All historical fiction has a primary duty to engage with a compelling narrative whilst not distorting historical truth. The very best historical drama will inspire the audience to investigate the fact behind the fiction.”

So it appears that where fact in historical fiction is concerned, the general consensus is balance. Fact and fiction can work in harmony, and the audience is given intellectual credit  to appreciate that some artistic licence is required to drive a story forward or fill in unknown gaps in our knowledge.

The Bletchley  Circle producers have also been keen to stress that the codebreakers in The Bletchley Circle are purely fictional and are not based on the real women who worked at Bletchley Park. Jake Lussington, producer explains that the characters are inspired by the women codebreakers and the show’s characters, Susan, Lucy, Millie & Jean have ‘attributes are ones those women did possess.’

What’s your opinion on the portrayal of fact in historical fiction or your view the portrayal of women codebreakers in The Bletchley Circle? Leave a comment or get in touch.

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The Bletchley Circle Review – 1943 codebreakers

(c) World Productions/ITV

It’s 1943 at Bletchley Park, the covert code-breaking operation nestled in the quiet Buckinghamshire countryside. Four women code-breaker are conferring. Susan is showing her colleagues the pattern she has seen in the reams of German data – has she spotted a code? She takes it straight to the top, as her colleagues wait anxiously to hear some news. Susan returns – she is right and the British troops now know where the next German battle is going to take place.

This is the starting point of ITV’s much anticipated crime drama, The Bletchley Circle. The 1943 code-breaking scene creates a unique and fascinating back story for the main characters in the drama (as shown left to right on the picture):

Millie (Rachael Stirling) – aristocratic, streetwise and glamorous, Millie has specialist map reading skills.

Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) – conventional, cold with an extraordinary ability to see mathematical patterns.

Lucy (Sophie Rundle) – the youngest member of the circle, Lucy is young, naive and has an exceptional photographic memory.

Jean (Julie Graham) – the eldest of the four, she is a methodical and stern organiser who is in charge of the group at Bletchley.

This first scene provides us with the skills and characteristics that the women later rely on to solve a murder in 1952, where the main focus of the drama is based. It also alludes to a theme relevant for the era; how do the women adapt from their independence and sense of purpose during the war to their less dramatic, more traditional lives in post war Britain?

In the episode summary, ITV doesn’t reveal exactly where the women worked as code-breakers at Bletchley Park, other than they are ‘inside one of the machine huts’.  I wonder if the show will use the opportunity to add real fact about a chosen Hut and the type of work undertaken there? Equally the writers may prefer to keep the scene as a generalisation, thereby the factual waters are not muddied with the dramatic fictional setting?

In the TV Times article by Susan Selwood, she states ‘The makers are keen to stress that the characters are not based on real women who worked at Bletchley but are inspired by them.’ It will be interesting to see if the same is true for the actual facts of working in one of the Huts. For instance, both Hut 6 and Hut 8 had machine rooms.

Hut 6 was the centre of operations to break the Enigma cyphers used by the German Army and Air Force. It was possibly the busiest hut of all, dealing as it did with two sections of the German military machine.

Hut 8 was allocated to the team, led by Alan Turing and chess grand master Hugh O’Donell Alexander, that attacked the Naval Enigma keys used by the German U-boat and surface fleets. It was to this team that an Enigma code book, captured from U-boat 110 in May 1941, was duly delivered, helping greatly in the breaking of the Naval Enigma. The naval codebreakers provided vital day-to-day intelligence in the desperate battles between the Allied convoys and the U-boats determined to cut Britain’s lifeline across the Atlantic.

Codebreaking in Huts 6 and 8 was organised into the following sections:

  • Registration Room – traffic analysis
  • Intercept Control Room – liaison with intercept stations
  • Machine Room – finding cribs, generating menus, and finding the keys
  • Decoding Room – decyphering the messages
Quoted from Bletchley Park Museum website page about Huts 6 & 8

Cribs were effectively calculated guesses about the most likely plain text of a message. For instance, common phrases, like ‘nothing to report’, or subject matter like weather reports or information from  identical messages sent to the two different naval cipher machines used by the German Navy warning of mines at sea, gave code-breakers a useful starting point from which to break the cipher. These would be the sort of patterns Susan would have been looking for as she analysed her message at the start of the episode.

All too soon we leave the war and move forward nine years to May 1952, where Susan finds another pattern in a string of London murders. Her first attempt at decoding the patterns fail but she soon convinces her Bletchley colleagues to join the hunt for the killer and save the fifth victim.

Although the drama is only briefly based at Bletchley Park during the war, I think the idea is a unique starting point for a crime drama that has a strong basis to drive the story forward and gives the characters real depth.

I will be watching The Bletchley Circle with much enthusiasm. I can appreciate it for the fictional enjoyment and appreciate that it will highlight the work of women code-breakers during World War 2, of which there were very few.

In later posts I will review each episode of The Bletchley Circle, discuss the real women code-breakers, and also consider whether historical fiction has a duty to accurately represent the facts.

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How to get the Secret Intelligence Service to talk

I’ve been trying to solve this enigma – How to get the Secret Intelligence Service to talk. Clearly simply writing to it with a request for information is not the answer as I’ve already tried that. Twice.

You may not be surprised to find that they have not granted me access to information about Captain Ridley’s World War 2 employment with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), which is more commonly known as MI6. I wasn’t particularly surprised but I have to say, I was disappointed not to have my letters acknowledged or a formal decline to provide the information on the grounds of national security (which I secretly think would have been exciting in itself).

When you think of the Secret Intelligence Service, you probably think about James Bond’s MI6, high-octane action, dashing agents and lovely Bond Girls. According to the historian of the first ever official history of the Service, Professor Keith Jeffery, the start of the Service was a much more understated affair. After his first day the newly appointed Chief, Mansfield Cumming, wrote in his diary,

‘Went to the office and remained all day, but saw no one, nor was there anything to do there.’ 

Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming

The Secret Intelligence Service was created in 1909 as the Foreign Section of a new Secret Service Bureau. Captain Mansfield Cumming was offered the post as Chief of the Service on 10 August 1909 by Admiral Alexander Bethell (Director of Naval Intelligence) and continued to drive the service forward through political insecurities and inter-departmental reshuffling until he was succeeded by Admiral Hugh Sinclair in 1923. Admiral Sinclair, as head of the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Code & Cypher School, set up the now famous codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park during World War 2.

Professor Jeffery’s extensively researched book:MI6:The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 makes for fascinating reading. I have a hard copy of this hefty book and the e-book, as I easier to read on my Kindle. The paperback shown here is also easier to handle.

The book covers the beginnings of the Service to 1949, the ‘watershed’ of the Service and its ‘move to Cold War targets and techniques’, whereby data from that time remains too sensitive to release into the public domain. Professor Jeffery considers that it is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime achievement (and privilege)’ for him to write the history of a Service that remained unacknowledged by the British Government until it was given a formal legal basis in the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

The modern remit of the Secret Intelligence Service is as an intelligence organisation ‘tasked by the British Government to collect intelligence world-wide in support of its security, defence, foreign and economic policies’. It is ‘primarily responsible for gathering intelligence outside of the UK…’ This differs from The Security Service (MI5) which is responsible for ‘protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, at home and overseas, against major threats to government security.’

The Secret Intelligence Service, like other security agencies, is exempt from the legal requirement under the Public Records Act of 1958, which requires government authorities to transfer records to The National Archives. The reason is obvious – there cannot be a situation where the release of documents shows how and who carries out important work designed to protect our nation.

Despite this exemption MI5 and GCHQ have placed some of the records in the National Archives and our understanding of the history of intelligence services is richer for it. Even the Secret Intelligence Service recognises the importance that publicly held records have in preserving our past. Consequently it has released Special Operation Executive (SOE) papers into the public domain. These have proved popular with researchers searching for interesting stories within their family history and writers exploring the dramatic exploits of our agents who were dropped into enemy territories during World War 2. With this exception the service continues with an unwavering policy of non disclosure about the identities of former staff or agents.

End of story?

Well, not quite. Something I read in Professor Jeffery’s book gave me a glimmer of hope that I may get the information I need. Maybe, just maybe I could get access to information about Captain Ridley by basing my request on the Secret Service’s own policy of disclosure which was set out for Professor Jeffery’s book.

That glimmer of hope I just mentioned is nestled as a neat, provocative disclaimer written in small letters at the beginning of the weighty tome…

‘SIS does not disclose the names of agents or of living members of staff and only in exceptional circumstances agrees to waive the anonymity of deceased staff. Exceptionally and in recognition of the Service’s aim in publishing the history it has been agreed that there is an overriding justification for making public, within the constraints of what the law permits, some information which ordinarily would be protected.
However, SIS’s policy has not restricted the occasional official release of some Service material – we have previously authorised a limited release of SIS information for other biographies of important intelligence figures.’ quoted from MI6 The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909 – 1949 by Professor Keith Jeffery

A set of principles for the disclosure of information for the book was devised, of which part is shown below but the complete version can be found at the official website for SIS. Click here to view.

‘1) The publication of MI6: A History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 is an important milestone for SIS. By giving Professor Keith Jeffery unrestricted access to our archive for the period, we have enabled him to explain the history of the Service’s origins, activities and role in government. Our aim has been to improve public understanding of how and why we act in support of the United Kingdom’s vital interests and carry out our statutory functions.

2) Fulfilling this aim has required SIS to allow Keith Jeffery to disclose in the History information hitherto kept secret. In so doing we have been careful neither to compromise national security, nor undermine the Government’s policy of neither confirming nor denying matters of intelligence interest (NCND). This policy and the protection of national security have been the foundation for the Service’s consideration of what information could or could not be disclosed in the History.

3) The matters which exceptionally are disclosed in the History may be categorised as follows:

SIS staff

4) SIS will neither confirm nor deny the names of serving or former officers during their lifetimes, with the exception of C, whose name is announced publicly on appointment. The strong presumption is that this policy continues to apply after the death of an officer or former officer.

5) SIS has allowed Keith Jeffery to include in the History the names of a number of officers, who were members of the Service between 1909-1949 where:

  • SIS judges that individual officers serving between 1909-1949 filled roles of sufficient seniority and thus would usually have been known as SIS officers to a range of British or foreign officials outside the intelligence community, or
  • The name of an individual officer serving between 1909 and 1949 has already appeared in an official or approved history or been released to an official archive.’

There it is in print – the Secret Intelligence Service had released information in the past for other biographies. Captain Ridley fits the criteria for disclosure in that his name is in the public domain, he is identified in most books about Bletchley Park as a member of Secret Intelligence Service personnel. He is also recorded in primary sources that are official government documents from World War 2 that are held in the National Archives. Also, Captain Ridley’s role within the Service appears to be mostly administrative. Surely releasing information about him is unlikely to breach the ongoing operational or political sensibilities? The benefit of releasing information would only add to a greater understanding of those early days at Bletchley Park.

Surely? I felt confident that my request would be viewed favourably. So I wrote to this notoriously tight-lipped source. You have to write, there is no email address listed. I waited and waited. No response. So I wrote again – perhaps it didn’t arrive. Maybe I needed to address my letter to the archives. Still no response!  If I had a reply, I would know where I stood.

A fellow researcher surmised that I should have been more specific about the information I wanted. Provide a list of questions that gave a clear basis for providing the information. Good suggestion and after reviewing the letters I had sent, I accept they are a bit sweeping. If you have any suggestions or tips then get in touch, I’d like to hear them.

So here I am, no closer to answering the question of How to get the Secret Intelligence Service to talk. I don’t think I am asking for the world, but perhaps an unwanted precedent will be set if the Secret Intelligence Service releases information to me. The last thing it wants, or needs, when there are more important things demanding its resources, is a torrent of requests for information from people like me.

Shall I leave it here and accept that part of the career of the man whose name is now synonymous with the first occupation of Bletchley Park in 1938 will remain its own sort of enigma.

You know what I may just try again.



If you would like to listen to a BBC programme about MI6, click here.

You can learn more about more about the previous Chiefs of the Secret Intelligence Service on the SIS website here.

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