The code name for Bletchley Park, near Cambridge, the Second World War intelligence and cryptanalysis base. The name was not deliberately mysterious or secretive, it was, quite simply, the tenth of the MI6 codenamed bases.

Originally, it had been the home of Herbert Samuel Leon, a rich City finacier. He'd bought 300 acres of land in Buckinghamshire and developed sixty or so of them into his country estate. The house itself is a strange mixture of architectural styles, and is rather jumbled in design. When the Leons died, the Park was bought by a property developer called Captain Hubert Faulkner, who intended to flatten the buildings and sell the land for housing.

But the government intervened. Bletchley Park is some fifty miles northwest of London, and, at the time, was at a key intersection of roads, railway lines, and teleprinter services. In 1938, the Government Code and Cypher School, which was based in London, needed to move to a safer space to continue its intelligence work. Bletchley Park was in an ideal location, and so Station X was born and placed under the command of Alastair Denniston.

The first team of codebreakers, mostly academics, arrived at Station X in the summer of 1939, under the guise of Captain Ridley's Shooting Party.

Initially, the whole operation ran from within the nineteenth century mansion, with desks and teleprinters crowding every room, and corridor of the main house and the stables. But, as the numbers grew and grew, extra space had to be found. In October 1939 the first of the famous wooden huts were built to house the overspill. By 1941 it was necessary to add brick buildings to hold the overflow from those.

It was in Huts 3,6,4 and 8 that the Enigma decryption teams worked. They were only ever known by their numbers, for security reasons. Descriptive names could have leaked out far too easily. The huts worked in pairs. In Hut 6 were the teams of codebreakers focused on the Army and Air Force cyphers. They were supported by Hut 3 who converted the decyphered messages into intelligence reports. The German Navy messages were worked on in Hut 8, with Hut 4 handling the intelligence work. (The raw material came from the Y stations across Britain and abroad, who listened into enemy radio messages, and send the intercepts to Bletchley to be decoded and analysed.

Nobody was billeted in the Park itself. All the Station X workers lodged with local families, in pubs and in hotels in every village for twenty miles. They worked around the clock in three shifts, with buses shuttling them back and forth between their lodgings, though many travelled by bicycle. Alan Turing was renowned for cycling in his gas mask, not for fear of chemical attacks, but because he suffered terribly from hayfever.

As many as 12,000 people were stationed at Bletchley, but by March 1946 all of them were gone. When they left, the took away, or destroyed every last trace of their codebreaking exploits. It's almost unthinkable that the secrecy was preserved, all through the Second World War, and for so long after. But the place remained shrouded in mystery. Even after the bulk of the story had come out, and been turned into documentaries, and trashy novels, many of the Station X workers stuck with their customary silence.

It was only after they died that I discovered that my Great Uncle and Aunt had both worked there for years. And the old lady in the hospital bed next to me, a couple of years ago, had been there too. She wouldn't tell me what she did, despite my intense curiosity, although she was terribly amused by how the vacuum tubes that kept being found in the ground had confused people for so many years. She always then managed to steer the conversation back to the importance of organic gardening.

Winston Churchill described the immense secrecy of the success of the cryptanalysisas "the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled".

Written for History 102 at the University of Waterloo. Node your homework, they said...

Station X: Decoding Nazi Secrets was written by Micheal Smith and was based on the BBC documentary of the same name. The author, a former member of Britain’s Intelligence Corps, is now a senior journalist for the Daily Telegraph where he writes on espionage. The book deals with the code breaking efforts of Bletchley Park, known during the war as “Station X”. From the outbreak of war in 1939 to the close of war in Europe, the book tells us of the role of Bletchley Park, and the drastic effect the information it revealed had on Allied operations. While it is difficult to predict events that have never happened, it is said that without Station X, the war for Europe would have ended three long years later, in 1948.

The book opens with the humble beginning of Bletchley Park and its odd collection of code breakers and linguists. This was the start of a new era of code breaking, where mathematical analysis and statistics played a far more prevalent role than the code breaking of old, working alone with pencil and paper. The first indication that mathematics was the new backbone of code breaking was in the work of several Polish mathematicians beginning in 1932. Through laborious analysis of Enigma messages, the cipher system of the Germans, they managed to completely construct an Enigma machine from scratch, using only intercepted messages and key settings for the machine stolen by a German double agent. Their contribution to the efforts of Station X was invaluable.

Armed with this knowledge of the Enigma machines, some of the brightest minds in the world went to work on critical German ciphers. From beginnings of crude hole-punched sheets used to analyze letter frequency, the code breakers quickly became a hub of leading edge technology and thought. With the extensive funding given to them by Churchill after several early decodes proved invaluable to the war effort, they soon began to construct devices whose effect would be felt to this day. Starting with the “bombes”, machines designed to try many different key settings faster than any man could, they then progressed to the aptly named Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer.

Bletchley is portrayed as the end all and be all of cryptography, which is one of the few problems with the book. Station X was inarguably an incredible source of code breaking expertise, but a former member of the British Intelligence Corps may not be the greatest source of unbiased information on British code cracking. This has little effect on the book however, as Bletchley was nearly as pervasive as Smith reports in cracking Enigma. The potential bias problem of Smith’s background is also offset by the credibility gained by his authoring of the book. We receive a personal account of the code breaking efforts through many first-hand quotes, and the many eccentric characters of Bletchley are illustrated quite well. From Dilly Knox, who had a tendency to forget what he was doing and stuff his pipe with sandwich fragments instead of tobacco, to the code breakers hired during a recruiting drive that used a speed crossword contest as an entrance exam, all are illustrated equally well. They show us what led to Churchill saying “I know I told you to leave no stone unturned to get staff, but I didn’t expect you to take me literally.”

This human element is the strongest part of the book, as without it the book has a tendency to run into rather dreary dictation of a war told many times before; only this time with a code breaking slant. The author’s argument that Bletchley cut three years off the war seems a bit of haphazard analysis, as it is incredibly hard to put a numerical value on events that have never occurred. It seems almost an afterthought, as the argument appears only on the flaps of the book and the last two pages. When Smith sticks to tales of genius mathematicians working from scraps of near-random letters and the construction of the first computers in the world, the book is at its strongest. Discussions of petty politics and funding struggles detract from the overall experience and merely slow the book down rather than add to it. This is oddly appropriate however, in a story about minds who knew little about the actual decrypts and would often only decode the first twenty letters of a critical intercept to make sure the key was correct, then pass it along to others. They cared little for war and even less for politics, choosing rather to work among mounds of paper and vacuum tubes.

Station X : Decoding Nazi Secrets is ultimately a satisfying read however. What minor imperfections it has, it more than makes up for them with a satisfying read of almost pulp-fiction-like intellectual triumph. Despite minor flaws, it is an absorbing story. Sit down, don’t overanalyze, and enjoy a tale of men at the bleeding edge of thought.

Every year or so I come across a TV show like Station X. By that I mean something that is unique, that I identify with, that I find better than anything else, and that will be cancelled pretty quickly because of bad ratings. Arrested Development was one of these shows, and has spent it's three seasons in a continual free fall of near-cancellation. Critics spoke up and continually encouraged people to check out the "best show nobody watches" as it has frequently been referred to. I now believe Arrested Development will survive for a few more seasons. This can't be the case for Station X, and there are many reasons why.

For one thing, Station X is a non-humour cartoon. I notice my satellite provider catalogues all cartoons as Children-oriented, despite many rated at least PG. This isn't a commonly-held belief anymore, cartoons can definitely be for teens or adults rather than for preschoolers. They can be serious, well-done, and straight to the point. Station X is about six young roommates who share a loft. It is animated with obvious comic book influences, judging by the angles and multiple frames that I didn't even notice until I had paid attention to the art. They work well with the unique presentation of the series, which addresses a certain teen issue in each episode.

Each show begins with one of the main characters having an experience that really makes them think. They go to each of their friends asking for an opinion, and receive varied answers that the viewers were likely thinking themselves. The best thing about the show is that each of the six people are film students, musicians, artists, or full-time net surfers. When talking about whatever topic is at hand, they reference popular culture, foreign films, animated shorts, and obscure underground music. A regular half-hour episode will feature maybe 4 or 5 clips from media you either definitely have or definitely have not heard of. For example, in the episode entitled "Sex", Davis decides to become celibate for an undetermined amount of time. One of her friends references a skit from the popular Canadian comedy sketch show Kids in the Hall, in which a man is trying to avoid having sex with his wife. Another episode, "Violence", includes a clip from the documentary Scared Straight, in which prisoners intimidate young offenders into becoming respectable citizens.

Each character puts a different spin on things because each one has their own style. Davis is smart and likes music, especially older jazzy stuff. Jesse is the web genius, who knows the ins and outs of the internet. He's the one who would be following the latest memes and viral videos. Knob is dressed in a skull T-shirt and mullet, and is a total rocker. Most often he references music videos or musicians in general. Kandi is a young, pretty girl who doesn't seem to have a special interest, but in the episode "Chance", we learn she has been planning on making a short film for a few years and is simply in need of money. Slate is an enthusiastic, fast-talking movie buff. He knows all sorts of films, especially festival flicks, and can tie three different movies into any conversation in less than ten seconds. Seven is quite philosophical and thinks things through before sharing her thoughts, which most often have something to do with emotions or gut feelings. Most of the time, the group follows what each other is talking about, but that's not always the case, which is usually when a clip is shown to elaborate.

I'm not an expert, but I felt the voice acting on this show comes close to the most authentic depiction of teenage mingling in the animated corner of television. Being a minor animation/film enthusiast, I feel oddly involved when something obscure is mentioned and I recognize it. This show couldn't possibly reach a large audience, I'm sure of that, and it disappoints me that such a great show may miss its mark. I feel this is the best time for Station X, and so if it doesn't succeed now, I guess it just isn't relevant enough. Prove me wrong, viewers, I beg of you.

Episode List:


11:00 pm on Saturday and Sunday, Teletoon

I can't believe this. As I write this, it is 11:31 on Sunday, and I've missed the very show I was praising. Good thing it's repeating at 2:00.

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