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Dunkirk to D-Day – learning lessons from the past
by Mark Smith

We opened an office in Bletchley Park recently. It’s quite a special place which helped to shorten the Second World War and saved countless lives as a consequence of its top-secret work. Famous alumni included Tommy Flowers and Alan Turing, the latter more famous than the former, though it was the genius of Tommy that delivered the world’s first programmable computer – code named Colossus.

Last week I was invited to the 75th Anniversary of the use of Colossus to crack the German High Command coded communication in the run up to D-Day.

I’m not often moved – but in the audience were four elderly women who were all that was left of the people who actually worked on Colossus. All were former Wrens (derived from ‘Women's Royal Naval Service’), three of whom worked in the famous huts, but one of whom was a so-called ‘wire-man’ who actually helped support the hardware on which the codes were broken. When politely asked by the organisers if she was referred to as a ‘wire-woman’ the grand old lady (Margaret Bullen) replied in a telling way ‘no I was just referred to as, ‘what’s that woman doing’.  It would be nice to think the world has changed since then, though the statistics suggest otherwise with the appalling number of women vs men working as engineers in the UK (10%) and US (12.7%). However, that is not what I want to write about today – that rant can keep…

What was most interesting were three things:

  1. Colossus invented computing. It’s that simple. Tommy Flowers and the other band of brothers (see rant that can keep above) did something extraordinary; they accelerated code breaking to the extent that it was possible to intercept, decrypt, re-crypt and transmit coded communications back to the allies in near real time;

  2. After the war was over, they destroyed the plans for the computer, kept only two of the machines (which Government Communications Headquarters used during the Cold War) and dismantled the rest. It was only in 1993 that an extraordinary man called Tony Sale and a team of volunteers not only saved Bletchley Park from demolition (!) but also used what knowledge was left to rebuild a Colossus that can be seen working at the Bletchley Park museum today;

  3. That code breaking was such an interdisciplinary adventure.

It was the third that I found so fascinating. It was interesting to see the way men and women worked so closely together, but it was also fascinating to see how, even at the point of origin of the programmable computer, the team needed to make it all work was so varied. The wire-men were proto DevOps, the valves and switches were operated by proto software engineers, and the database (a paper roll with holes in it that processed up to 2000 characters per second) was monitored by mathematicians working with linguists to work out which messages were likely to be the best to crack (they could only achieve a lowish sample of all traffic) and what the arcane German military sentences actually meant.

So right from the get-go computers were a tool into which many disciplines were brought together to solve a very complex problem.

I think that’s why being at Bletchley Park matters so much to ContactEngine – we inherit our trade from those extraordinary early pioneers, and yet the challenge of taking massive amounts of communication data in word form, processing it and continuing the conversation, is exactly where we are 75 years later.

So, to the brilliant women and men of Bletchley Park, I thank you for everything you did to make our world a safer place. You were simply remarkable, and in many ways we would not be here today if it wasn’t for your amazing work all those years ago.

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