Monday, October 5, 2015

Bletchley Park versus British bureaucracy

In the course of WWII both the Allies and the Axis powers were able to gain information of great value from reading their enemies secret communications. In Britain the codebreakers of Bletchley Park solved several enemy systems with the most important ones being the German Enigma and Tunny cipher machines and the Italian C-38m

Although books and films usually like to focus on Alan Turing, there were also other people who made vital contributions towards the solution of the German Enigma device. The mathematician Gordon Welchman worked on German Army and Airforce traffic and became head of Hut 6. Welchman came up with the idea of the diagonal board, a modification of the bombes that made them much more efficient in their operation.
Welchman became assistant director of mechanization at Bletchley Park in 1943, in 1948 immigrated to the US and from 1962 worked as an analyst of the MITRE Corporation.

An amusing incident is described in Welchman’s book The Hut Six Story, pages 190-192. It concerns the problems caused by the Army bureaucracy and the fact that despite their work at Bletchley the codebreakers were liable to be called into military service!
The passage reads:

In my own case exemption from military service involved a curious sequence of events. At the beginning of the war, when I became a temporary civil servant in a branch of the British Foreign Office I was thirty-three years old. In due course my age group was called and I received a notice telling me to report to a unit of the Royal Artillery somewhere in the north of England. I took the notice to the Foreign Office administrative people. They assured me that would handle the matter, and that I was to do nothing. A little later I received a polite letter from the Colonel of my artillery unit, saying that there was no doubt a good reason for my nonappearance, but would I please report at once. I took this letter also to the administrative office. Again I was told that the Foreign Office would handle the matter. The next development was a phone call to my mother-in-law, from her brother, Ned, who as chance would have it was Chief Constable of Buckinghamshire, the county in which I was living. He had a warrant for my arrest. This raised an intriguing point. Bletchley Park was enclosed by a high fence and was under military guard. Its cafeteria was open night and day, and sleeping accommodation was available. Suppose I had kept on living and working there and never emerged? I suspect the police might have had some difficulty in arresting me. As it turned out, however, I did not need to resort to any such dramatic delaying action. The Foreign Office and Army Administrators finally resolved the matter. One problem remained. Army regulations included no means of simply letting go of a man who had been called up but had not enlisted. The regular discharge procedure applied only to those who had gone through the enlistment process. It developed that, in order to sever my relationship with the Gunners, I would first have to enlist. I had to report at a Royal Artillery establishment, and it was arranged that I should go to the nearest one, which was a few miles south of Bletchley Park. I was given a gasoline allowance and drove my own car. The "establishment" turned out to be a small office presided over by a sergeant. The sergeant had received detailed instructions, and after filling a few forms, he shook me by the hand, congratulated me on being a Gunner, and said that he would arrange for me to be discharged some other day. When I explained that my office did not want me to take time off for a second trip, he said that he could not discharge me at once because a medical examination was needed and the doctor would be at lunch. I had to get back to Bletchley as soon as possible, so I discovered where the doctor lived, dashed round and just caught him before he went to lunch. A few minutes later I had whatever medical certificates were necessary for my discharge, only to find that the sergeant had gone to lunch. I found him in the nearest pub and persuaded him to come back to his office. After filling out a few more forms, he told me that I was now a civilian again. My length of military service was almost exactly twenty minutes. Then, having arranged my discharge, the sergeant gave me a few appropriate papers, one of which I treasured for many years. It urged me to join the Home Guard, where my experience in the Army would be extremely valuable.

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