Action this day! School pupils become WW2 code-breakers at University masterclass

Posted by mjs76 at Apr 27, 2010 04:35 PM |
The University of Leicester became a modern-day Station X this month. (And did you know that there was a direct wartime link from a Leicestershire stable to Bletchley Park?)
Action this day! School pupils become WW2 code-breakers at University masterclass

image: Wikipedia

When Winston Churchill was told that the British code-breakers at Bletchley Park (‘Station X’) did not have the resources they required, he famously issued the order “Action this day.” And there was plenty of action on the day that a group of local sixth-formers became World War II cryptographers.

Our Centre for Interdisciplinary Science organised the masterclass for Year 12 students from four local schools on 13 April. Working in groups, the students encoded messages, then cracked other messages using progressively more complex ciphers. (Technically the difference between a code and a cipher is that the former substitutes words while the latter substitutes individual letters. But the terms do tend to be rather interchangeable in actual usage…)

Starting with a simple ‘Caesar cipher’ (basic substitution), the students worked up to more complex encryption such as the Vignere cipher. With their code-breaking skills honed, they then took on the roles of cryptoanalysts in Bomber Command, searching enemy communications for information on the crew of a missing Lancaster.

It is not widely known that Leicestershire actually played a vital role in wartime code-breaking. Just a few miles from the University, in the village of Woodhouse, lies Beaumanor Park which was home to one of the ‘Station Y’ facilities. Some 1,300 wireless operators were stationed there, constantly scanning and transcribing Nazi radio transmissions, and a direct teleprinter link sent these intercepts to Station X at Bletchley.

The ‘radio huts’ clustered around 19th century Beaumanor Hall were unique among wartime Government buildings in that they were constructed to look like Victorian outbuildings. The fake cottages, fake glasshouse and fake cricket pavilion(!) have all gone but Hut K, disguised as a stable, still exists and is now an accommodation building within the Leicestershire County Council-owned Beaumanor Hall education centre.