We’ll Meet Again……………..rang out in the unlikely setting of the Bar in Jurys Inn Hotel in Milton Keynes as the Swingtime Sweethearts, led members of Headingley Rotary down Memory Lane on our trip to Duxford and Bletchley Park. Now modern Milton Keynes no doubt has its charms (did you notice that there were no pavements along those unending tree-lined boulevards?), but those of us on our trip to Duxford and Bletchley Park were far more interested in the affairs of an earlier generation when war was waged on Britain’s doorstep. The Swingtime Sweethearts, a female duo suitably attired in WRAF uniforms, are dedicated to keeping the wartime melodies alive and with their wonderfully evocative singing they brilliantly linked together our two days of site-seeing.
On our first day we travelled south in great comfort to the Imperial War Museum’s site at the former Duxford Aerodrome in Rotarian Geoff’s hand-picked coach. It was undoubtedly the finest coach in Yorkshire, its longer (6-wheel) wheelbase allowing great leg room! The Duxford Museum is accommodated in a number of former aircraft hangers, plus a couple of specially constructed buildings housing British military and civilian aircraft in one, and American military aircraft in the other. We marvelled at the 3D jigsaw that must have been required to fit them altogether, some suspended from the ceiling and others arranged on the ground.
The aircraft illustrated the whole history of powered flight, from the flimsy looking bi-planes of the Great War, to the formidable Vulcan and Canberra bombers of the post- World War 2 war period. In the American hanger the massive Flying Fortresses and B52 bombers sent a shiver down our spine, emphasised by the mysterious-looking Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft with its super-streamlined form and spooky mat paintwork.
After an early start – (no, a very early start for a President’s Saturday morning!) – we travelled the short distance to Bletchley Park, the famous home of the World War 2 Code-breakers. The site is so well-known these days that it seems incredible that for 30 years no-one spoke of it, its technology destroyed or hidden away, and most of the buildings left to fall into decay. Today, thanks to the rescue work of the Bletchley Hall Trust and the recent award of a £10,000,000 grant from the National Lottery the place is being restored to what it looked like in the 1940’s.
The Hall itself was the flamboyant creation of a wealthy industrialist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and during the time of the Code-breakers, housed the ‘Boffins’ – a collection of extremely intelligent mathematicians, largely drawn from Cambridge, and celebrated by photographs and biographies around the walls of the former music room which was put at our disposal. Outside, in the grounds first a collection of wooden huts, and then a series of bomb-proof ‘blocks’, eventually housed around 10,000 staff engaged in the deciphering and translating of thousands of enemy messages all around the clock.
We were enormously fortunate in having assigned to us as a guide Ruth Bourne, who as an 18-year old actually worked one of the so-called ‘Bombes’ which deciphered the coded messages which were collected from across the Theatre of War. She had a memory as clear as could be imagined and brought to life for us what it was like to work on a ‘hush-hush’ project, about which she could not speak not only during the War, but for a generation afterwards. On being asked what she said about her former employment when she came to get another job after the war, she replied ‘it was either a shorthand typist or a cleaner – I brushed up on my shorthand at the Christian Science Reading Rooms in Leeds!’ To our great interest she actually unlocked the cover of one of the captured ‘Enigma’ machines and allowed us a close inspection of what looked like an ordinary typewriter – but with two keyboards and three ‘rotors’ which encoded the messages before they were sent. And, as our 86 year old guide said…….’if we were not too tired we could go on to………..’
There was sufficient interest about various other aspects of the Second World War to occupy us for the whole day – from displays about the role of homing-pigeons to the story of the capture of an enigma machine from a captured German submarine, never mind the totally unforgettable collection of Churchilliana accommodated in packed-brimful display cases!
All in all we had a richly memorable two days, which reminded us of both the privations of total war and the valour and ingenuity of those whose task it was to wage it – and to win it.