Bletchley Park's past secures UK's future in cyber security

William Hague
Image caption William Hague said Britain must remain a 'world leader' in cyber security

The veil of secrecy surrounding its work meant that ministerial visits were a rarity to Bletchley Park during World War II.

Winston Churchill made one famous rousing appearance to congratulate the men and women who worked there for their help in breaking German and Japanese codes.

The prime minister used to refer to Bletchley Park as the goose that laid the golden eggs for the way in which it produced a daily stream of intelligence that helped guide his decision making.

By some estimates, the work at the Park helped shorten the war by as much as two years.

On Thursday, Bletchley hosted Foreign Secretary William Hague - the man in charge of Britain's modern day intelligence agencies - including GCHQ, the successor to Bletchley.

Crumbling structures

He cited Churchill, who after one visit to the Park, said that he had been struck by the age of many of the codebreakers.

"I knew you were all mad but I didn't realise you were quite so young," the wartime prime minister said.

William Hague said his visit was in part about recognising the past, but also launching a new apprenticeship scheme designed to make sure that young people have the skills to become codebreakers of the future and that the legacy of Bletchley is not lost.

Even though an estimated 30,000 people worked on codebreaking or received intelligence based on it during the war, the secret of what happened at Bletchley was kept for three decades after the end of the conflict.

This was a remarkable achievement but came at a cost - making it harder for Britain to preserve the past and recognise what had been achieved.

Many of the huts where wartime codebreaking took place were allowed to rot and fall into a state of disrepair, the foreign secretary having to don a hard hat to enter into some of them.

Half a million pounds of funding from the Foreign Office has now helped the Park unlock a further grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund which will be used to renovate some of the buildings.

The foreign secretary was also given a special VIP tour which included some parts not normally open to the public - such as Station X, an MI6 radio station that operated in a cramped attic of the mansion house.

The room has been recreated to look much as it would have done at the outbreak of war.

Image caption Station X is a former MI6 radio station which operated in an attic at the mansion house at Bletchley Park

'Great challenges'

After a speech in which he paid tribute to the wartime work, he was presented with a rare four rotor German Naval Enigma machine which will now be housed in the ambassadors' waiting room at the Foreign Office for visitors to see.

Mr Hague was also shown the technology that was developed and deployed to break that machine and other devices used by Germany and Japan - notably a reconstruction of the so-called bombes and early programmable computers developed by men like Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers.

The announcement of a new apprenticeship scheme for budding young cyber-spies was an attempt to ensure that the type of skills that proved so important at Bletchley - including maths and engineering - are still nurtured today.

They remain vital for the work of GCHQ, whose director accompanied the foreign secretary, as it does battle in cyberspace.

"Today we are not at war," Mr Hague said, "but I see evidence every day of deliberate, organised attacks against intellectual property and government networks in the United Kingdom from cyber criminals or foreign actors with the potential to undermine our security and economic competitiveness.

"This is one of the great challenges of our time, and we must confront it to ensure that Britain remains a world leader in cyber security."

The message was that while the tools may have changed, the need for talented people to work together with the latest technology in order to protect national security has not diminished.

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