York Cold War Bunker; Observers Underground

On a cold drizzly Sunday afternoon in York, when we’d exhausted all the coffee shops, and seen all the ‘must see’ tourist attractions we decided to check out an English Heritage site, just outside York. It definitely should have been higher on our priority list!!

Hidden away, surrounded by blocks of flats lies the entrance to the York Cold War Bunker,  only visitable by guided tour. As luck had it the next tour was in 5 minutes. Our tour guide, Anna, was clearly incredibly passionate about the Cold War, and her enthusiasm was infectious! We were the only two people on the tour, and she gave us plenty of scope and opportunity to ask questions as we went round.

This Cold War Bunker was the operational HQ for the Yorkshire division of the Royal  Observer Corps (ROC), a civilian branch of the RAF. Originally formed during WWII to identify enemy planes, the group was stood down at the end of the war, before being reformed during the Cold War to take readings of any nuclear bombs that fell. From the base they could take readings of radiation levels, try and identify where the bomb fell, and what size it was.

1st step on the tour was to watch a short video highlighting some of the history of the Cold War, and the provisions the British Government had in the eventuality the war went nuclear. Having visited a couple of Cold War bunkers in Berlin earlier this year, the difference was stark. The German Government made civilian bunkers, and promised the people they all had a place to go. In fact their bunkers could only hold about 1% of the population, and some took a week to be prepared and made operational. The British Government had a different idea. They showed people how to make their own bunkers at home, to stock with them with food, paint windows white and reinforce them with sandbags. With the ever increasing strength of nuclear bombs being developed these ‘bunkers’ or safe rooms would have been just as futile.

The York Cold War bunker could keep 60 people alive for up to 30 days. Over the course of the 30 days all the inhabitants would work in 3 groups of 20 on an 8 hour rota. 20 people would be working in the operations rooms, 20 people would be in the canteen relaxing, and 20 people would be sleeping in the dorms on a delightful ‘hot bed’ system. When 30 days was over they would all have to leave the bunker and go into what was left of the world above them.

20161113_151811.jpgThankfully the bunker was never needed during the war, although the ROS often ran 48 hour training weekends. So many volunteers couldn’t stand the sleeping conditions even for this fraction of time, and went without sleep, instead of braving the bunk-beds. The photo left shows some of the personal effects of an ROS member on one of the thin beds. No reminders of home, family or friends were permitted in the bunker, as the government feared it would cause psychological damage, not knowing whether friends or family were alive.

20161113_150942.jpgThose posted in the operations room would have a busy 8 hours ahead. They had to collate all the data gathered from other ROC groups around Yorkshire, and combine it with their own data. The equipment pictured right was used by all branches of the ROC. The long cylindrical piece of equipment hanging from the ceiling was a form of gieger counter which would measure radiation levels below ground.

The white cylindrical box was installed on the roof of the bunker, and was used to identify the location of the bomb. Holes had been drilled into the metal container, which housed photosensitive paper.

When a bomb dropped, the initial brilliant flash of light 20161113_150851.jpgwould be registered by a dark dot forming on the gridded paper. The data from all the boxes across Yorkshire would be collated, and using a technique similar to triangulation, the location could be estimated using a map (pictured below). In order to collect the paper from the box , a member of the corps would have to venture outside the safety of the bunker. To ‘protect’ him from the deadly radiation the Government issued a cotton boiler suit, more as a psychological protection than a physical one.

20161113_151736.jpgAs the war progressed more sophisticated technology was developed in computing. A.W.D.R.E.Y. (right) essentially did the same job as the volunteers in terms of locating a bomb’s epicentre. She did have a couple of flaws, including thinking every episode of lightening, or firework was a nuclear bomb. For this reason volunteers continued to perform manual analysis of the data.

20161113_151027.jpg

Volunteers would collect information from other branches. Sitting in rows like this they would write all incoming data onto the screens, which could be flipped around, so those working below could analyse the information.

20161113_151058.jpgThose working in the room below would work to collate information and locations of bombs over a wider area. Working on huge maps of the North of the UK they would also communicate their findings to other branches and the government.

Cold War bunkers can be either bomb proof, or blast proof. Bomb proof shelters can withstand bombs falling directly onto them, or in the area closely surrounding them. Blast proof shelters can only withstand ‘near-misses’. Having been designed in 1955, before the mass up-scaling of nuclear bomb strength, the York bunker could only survive a ‘near-miss’ 8 miles away, from a small bomb. If anything fell closer the shelter would have been flattened, or incinerated.

20161113_155238.jpgIn the wake of recent political events (damn you Trump) the likelihood of a hot war seems to be ever increasing. Unfortunately this bunker would provide very little protection in the event of a nuclear bomb falling on Britain. The increasing payload of modern nuclear bombs makes survival chance much smaller, and if the bunker wasn’t flattened the vital equipment needed to sustain life has probably been decommissioned now. The air-conditioning unit contains materials now banned by the EU, batteries no longer work, and air filtration systems have never been tested. If the government does find itself in a situation where nuclear bunkers become necessary, chances are they’ll just make new ones. That seems to be the 21st century way!

When English Heritage decided to save York Cold War Bunker, they found it in a state of disrepair. The sewage outflow pump had been turned off, and so was no longer pushing water out. Without the positive pressure, water started flowing back in, leaving the bunker flooded, and the task of restoring it that much harder.

Just over a decade ago the bunker opened its doors to the public. Over the past ten years many members of the ROC stationed there have returned and shared their memories of the bunker. Many found love there, some found new extra-marital love there, and one volunteer even went into labour!

The bunker is open by guided tour to the public every weekend, and can be visited during the week for schools or groups. Entry is free for English Heritage members and costs £7.00/£6.30 for adults or £4.20 for children. The price includes an hour long tour, and there are 6 tours a day.

This was one of the best English Heritage sites I’ve visited so far, and I’d highly recommend it! Our tour guide, Anna, brought the whole place to life and was clearly incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about both the bunker and the Cold War, she really made the trip! Thank you Anna!!

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Decoding the Bombe ~ Bletchley Park

At 9am on a crisp Saturday morning, QMUL History Society met outside Mile End Station to begin our 1st trip of the year to the home of modern computing security.

Bletchley Park, most well-known for its involvement in the Second World War, was developed to its present state by Sir Herbert Samuel Leon who bought the site in 1883. Later bought by Admiral Henry Sinclair, the head of MI6 in 1938, it became the designated home for code-breakers, in the case of war being declared.

Following the release of 2014 film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly, the work of mathematician Alan Turing has been thrust into the spotlight. Turing is most revered for his work in inventing the Bombe, a decoding machine, designed to break the Enigma code in WWII. The Enigma machine, designed by German Arthur Scheribus, provided German officials with triple level encryption for their messages, and they never doubted its security.

The Enigma machine worked by initially swapping two letters, before feeding the letter through to 3 spinning wheels, which would change the letter 3 times. The letter then traveled backwards through the 3 drums, before revealing the letter on a lit keyboard. The catch? Each machine used 3 drums at a time (of a possible 5) set to 1 of 26 positions each. When a letter was fed through, the 1st drum would rotate 1/26 of a rotation; when this drum had completed 1 revolution the next drum would turn 1/26 of a turn and so on. In this way, the set up of the machine changed with every letter typed.

The flaw in the Enigma machine, which the code-breakers at BP exploited, was that Enigma could never code a letter as itself. That is to say A could be coded as B-Z, but never A. This allowed codebreakers, before the Bombe was invented, to estimate codes, whilst looking for frequently used phrases such as ‘wettervorhersage’ meaning weather forecast.

20161022_120659.jpg

Using this knowledge Alan Turing designed his Bombe, which was later modified by Gordon Welchman to vastly improve its efficiency.

Today, Bletchley Park is no longer a hub of military intelligence, having moved to GCHQ and NSA once the war was over. The work at Bletchley remained classified long after the war had ended. The Germans never found out their enigma code had been broken; Only the British and Americans were privy to this information, so when Russia looted their way through Eastern Europe and found a large quantity of Enigma Machines, they didn’t think twice about using them during the Cold War.

When Gordon Welchman was brought in by the NSA during the Cold War to crack Russian codes, he found the work surprisingly similar to his work at Bletchley. Luckily, even after Bletchley had been stripped of any clues to its existence in 1945, several Bombes had been kept, by GCHQ and the NSA, giving the USA a key advantage.

Bletchley Park today highlights and celebrates the works of the code-breakers who worked tirelessly throughout the war, with little to no recognition, to thwart the Germans in a battle of wits.

Initially you’re given a brief introduction to the history of Bletchley and code-breaking before you’re given an audio guide and allowed to explore the grounds at your own pace.

The beautiful, famous manor house (above) shows visitors the scale of the operations at Bletchley before they were upscaled. The initiator of the increase in workforce, Gordon Welchman, is celebrated here too, his work so frequently overshadowed by Turing.

Various huts are open to the public. Hut 9 contains information about the redevelopment of Bletchley, having been left in a state of disrepair when it closed in 1945. This hut explores the archaeological techniques used to understand it’s original appearance, and allow developers to recreate this as accurately as possible.

The other huts take visitors through the various stages of code-breaking,  with interactive activities in various rooms giving people of all ages the chance to try their hand at cracking the Enigma code. All the huts have been restored to their original condition, and some contain audio-visual effects to recreate conditions just over 70 years ago.

Visitors are also able to see the cottages inhabited by the code-breakers, although the interiors aren’t open to the public.

 

In 1995 a group of scientists and enthusiasts headed up by John Harper decided to try and rebuild the Bombe. When Bletchley was decommissioned all traces of the work that had dominated the lives of up to 3000 people for the past 6 years was burned or destroyed, so finding plans for the Bombe seemed impossible. 10 years later, after a decade of hard work, trial and error and sourcing now discontinued materials such as Bakelite they had a working Bombe. Today you can see this in action with demonstrations every half an hour.

 

Beside the rebuilt Bombe sits a beautiful graphite statue of Alan Turing, and the letter of apology from Gordon Brown for his conviction of “debauchery” when it was discovered he was a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Having chosen chemical castration over imprisonment, Turing tragically took his own life in 1954. Given that Turing’s work is said to have shortened the war by up to 2 years, saving potentially hundreds of thousands of lives, the fact it took nearly 50 years to pardon him is downright disgusting. Furthermore Parliament’s decision to overturn a bill which would pardon all those convicted of “debauchery” a few weeks ago shows just how static societies views on the LGBTQ+ community are, despite politicians constantly self-congratulating themselves on how progressive they think they are.

Today a memorial to all those who worked at Bletchley stands outside hut 2 bearing the inscription “We Also Served”. When Bletchley closed all those who worked there were sent away with strict instructions never to speak of their work, and for this reason so many achievements went uncelebrated. Since the Enigma code was declassified many of the men and women who worked there have released memoirs of their time at Bletchley. Most speak of fond memories, and many found love there.

Without the work of the Code breakers, WWII could have had a very different conclusion, with millions more innocent lives lost. It is thanks to their work that we live in the world we do today, and for that we salute them.

Admission to Bletchley Park costs between £14.00 and £17.25 for adults which includes unlimited access to the site for 1 calendar year. English Heritage members also enjoy a further discount.

 

Meeting My Idol; Mary Beard on The Public Intellectual 

It’s been an interesting week for British politics. Apparently democracy is falling apart, but has democracy ever truly been defined? In short, no.

“UKIP are not populist, they’re just wrong” states Mary Beard,  standing at the lecturn at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, no doubt preaching to the choir. Brexit provides an interesting commentary on the public intellect, from the people that brought us the “so called experts” and the phrase “you can’t trust experts”. 

Drawing from personal experiences, Mary Beard discussed the role of democracy and what it means to have a voice, from ancient times to the present day. Interestingly, she said she only found her public voice, after she was challenged publically for her appearance after hosting her first television documentary. Several horrendous death, and sexually agressive threats later Beard found she had accidentally stumbled across a public voice. 

These threats highlighted to society the huge difference in attitude to female academics in the public spotlight. Having been persuaded into television to provide a breath of fresh air from the “grey haired, middle aged, frumpy old man” that overpower the documentary world, Mary Beard found her appearance critiqued, instead of her ability to do the job at hand. Sound familiar? It’s a scenario that faces so many women, albeit on a smaller scale, nearly every day. At last, not only did Mary Beard have a voice, but the 21st century woman also did. 

The problem facing broadcasting, and broadcast politics today, is the inferred need to dumb things down. Any Questions, News Night, and other such programs feel the need to simplify everything; this was evident in the Brexit debates. Producers seem to think that the general population are idiots. This is simply not true, most are simply ignorant (as we all are),  but not unintelligent. This thesis is central to Mary Beard’s 3 rules of documentary making; no CGI, no actors running around in togas, and certainly no dumbing it down.

This problem was particularly rife during the Brexit campaign. Broadcasters decided both sides needed to be simplified, attainable by the general population as such. Unfortunately this may have (has) backfired. We voted to leave the EU, but was this a democratic vote? No, because to be honestly nobody had any idea what they were voting for. Brexit is an unbelievably complicated situation, and we were made to believe it was cut and dry. 

75 minutes later, the talk finished, and everybody started emptying out of the chapel. Mary Beard stayed behind,  taking questions from curious fans, and I finally had an opportunity to meet my idol. Anyone who has been to see a Lisa Dillon play with me, knows just how badly I fangirl. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person queueing up to speak to her, slightly trembling, voice gradually increasing in pitch! (Thankyou Ben for putting up with me 😅)

Finally, I got to ask Mary Beard a question; “What advice do you have for young, females who would love to do what you do?”

“Read, read, read, read! And Never let a man put you down.”

I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole way back to London!! 

Footnote

Today Donald Trump has been voted President of the United States of America. I’m aware I should probably talk about this, but it’s just too painful right now. Expect an article on 1933 Germany soon. (If you don’t understand the link, get your head outta the sand.)