History Lives at Ditchley and Bletchley

History Lives at
Ditchley and Bletchley
by Douglas J. Hall
FH85, Winter 1994-95
 Churchill's England


Two historic properties which played key (but very different) roles in the Churchill saga are now open for the first time to visitors.

"I'll be back, high moon or no high moon!"

IN THE early part of World War II it was considered that the Prime Minister's official country residence at Chequers was too conspicuous at full moon and might be a prestigious target for the Luftwaffe. The long, broad, straight gravel drive at Chequers made a prominent landmark in strong moonlight, pointing almost like a directional sign to the house. Churchill, whilst not wishing to evade the dangers being experienced by the population at large, accepted the extreme vulnerability of Chequers and told Attlee that "whilst he did not object to chance, he felt it would be a mistake to be the victim of design."

Ronald Tree, MP offered the Prime Minister the use of his house at Ditchley Park, near Oxford, which was then closely surrounded by a park of mature trees and much less conspicuous from the air, even had the Luftwaffe known Churchill was there. Churchill knew the house (and the quality of its cellar) since he and Clementine had been guests in 1937, when Ronald Tree was one of the small group of MPs who had shared his concern about the German menace.

Churchill first went to Ditchley in lieu of Chequers on 9 November 1940, accompanied by Clementine and his daughter Mary. Ronald Tree and his wife Nancy were American by birth but had Anglo-American citizenship. Ronald, who had edited Forum Magazine in New York (1922-26), had been MP for the Harborough division of Leicestershire since 1933 and, having been personal private secretary to Sir John Reith and Alfred Duff Cooper, was then PPS to Churchill's protege, Brendan Bracken. He had acquired Ditchley Park in 1933 after the death of the 17th Viscount Dillon.

Ditchley had been the home of the Dillon and Lee families for over 300 years and when Ronald Tree bought it he described it as presenting "an unforgettable picture of magnificence and accumulated junk." By 1940 the junk had been cleared and the magnificence restored. For Churchill's first visit special telephone lines, with a scrambling system, were installed. Accommodation was provided for the Prime Minister's advisory staff and secretariat as well as billets for a full company of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry who would guard the house. To Ronald Tree's relief, when Churchill left on the following Monday he said that he had been very satisfied and would be back the following weekend, "high moon or no high moon"!

Churchill had, in fact, just left Downing Street for Ditchley Park the following weekend when he opened a top secret message which had been handed to him as he was getting into the car, and told the driver to turn back. An Enigma decrypt indicated the prospect of a massive raid on London that night. Churchill said that he was not going to spend the night "peacefully in the country while the metropolis was under heavy attack." In the event three hundred German bombers that night attacked Coventry, thirty miles from Ditchley.

Churchill did, however, return to Ditchley at regular intervals over the next two years. The last weekend occasion was on 26 September 1942 when he was again accompanied by Clementine and Mary. It happened to be Ronald Tree's birthday, the United States had now entered the war and Churchill was in high good spirits: all ingredients of a good party which, by Ronald Tree's account, it apparently was.

Churchill's last visit to Ditchley, for lunch, was in March 1943. The drive at Chequers had now been turfed over, the defences were more sophisticated and the risk was considered minimal with the attentions of the Luftwaffe now more directed to the Russian front.

Ditchley Park is now owned by the Ditchley Foundation, an Anglo-American educational trust which seeks to further transatlantic understanding through a programme of conferences and seminars. The Chairman of American Ditchley is former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. The house is open to the public but only by prior appointment with the Bursar, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, OX7 4ER.

The Churchill connection was until recently modestly discreet and low-key, consisting only of a very small notice recording that this was where Churchill met President Roosevelt's emissary, Harry Hopkins, to work out the Lend-Lease Agreement. However in June, 1994, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd unveiled a fine bronze bust of Churchill by a distinguished sculptress, which now stands in a prominent position and more adequately commemorates the role of Ditchley Park during a critical phase of World War II. 

A visit to Ditchley Park is a must to combine with a visit to nearby Blenheim Palace. I urge readers (and maybe ICS?) to try to fix a convenient date with the Bursar.

"They laid the Golden Eggs and never cackled"

IN 1883 a wealthy stockbroker and close friend of Lloyd George, Sir Herbert Leon, purchased a small house standing in the 55 acre Bletchley Park. Over the next forty years Leon was to greatly extend the house so that by the time of his death in 1926 it had become a huge mansion, much of which is still standing today. Something of a hotch-potch of architectural styles, the mansion had many grand and opulent rooms with large, ornate fireplaces, lavishly decorated ceilings and a wealth of carved wood panelings.

When Leon's widow, Lady Fanny, died in 1937, Bletchley Park was acquired by a local consortium of property developers who prepared plans to demolish the mansion and build an estate of houses. However, site clearance had only affected part of the stable block when agents for the Government Property Agency arrived. They were looking for a quiet country location for the Government Code & Cypher School. "GC & CS" was in fact an euphemism for a secret intelligence section of the Military Intelligence service, M16, responsible to the Foreign Office. The Government initially took a three month's lease on Bletchley Park and, when the lease expired, acquired the property by compulsory purchase. GC & CS was established at Bletchley Park by the summer of 1938. It was presided over by a gentleman referred to only as "C" - and not.publicly identified until well after the war was over as Major General Sir Stewart Menzies (1890-1968).

Bletchley Park was known as Station "X" and the accommodation provided in the mansion and its existing outbuildings was rapidly expanded by the erection of an unlovely collection of wooden army huts, concrete and other "temporary" buildings required for the growing team of scientists and cryptographers being assembled at Bletchley. This was the team that were to break the "unbreakable" Enigma coded signals used by the Germans. The information so gained was of absolutely vital importance to the British and (later) American authorities in the strategic planning of the war.

It was equally vital that the Germans not discover that their signals were being intercepted and success- fully decrypted. To maintain that secrecy, Churchill ordered that those receiving the information should be kept to an absolute minimum and he appointed Group Captain Fred Winterbotham as his personal liaison officer at Bletchley Park. Winterbotham's brief was to select daily the more important messages which had been deciphered and send them to M16 headquarters at Broadway, only five minutes from Downing Street. There a further scrutiny would be made and interpretations added before they were locked in a distinctive box and taken by special messenger to 10 Downing Street. Churchill alone had the key to the box.

It is perhaps remarkable that the secrecy of the operations at Bletchley Park was so well maintained for the duration of the war. Postwar research established that the Germans had no inkling that their signals traffic was being successfully decoded. Almost 9,000 personnel were employed at Bletchley Park by 1944. They were a very disparate crowd of often eccentric or self-important academics, whose personal ambitions, jealousies and tantrums frequently led to quarrelling and intriguing among themselves. The primitive and crowded nature of much of the accommodation did not help. Sir Stewart Menzies's biographer describes how discontent amongst the staff grew to serious proportions in the late summer of 1941.

Churchill was made aware of the problem and paid a visit to Bletchley Park on 6 September 1941, his only recorded personal visit to Station "X" although Menzies, Jones and Winterbotham were frequently called to Downing Street.

Churchill was accompanied by his secretary, John Martin. So well had the secret been maintained that Martin had no idea of either the source or the content of those mysterious daily boxes. Churchill was later to refer to the Bletchley staff as, "My geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled." In his messages to Roosevelt he quoted his source as "Boniface" - a spurious identity for a non-existent British spy.

During Churchill's visit he enquired about recreational facilities for the staff and was told there were none. He is reported to have ordered that a site then being prepared for an extension to the car park should instead be made into tennis courts. Tennis courts it became: they remain to this day and are believed to be the only tennis courts in the UK built by Prime Ministerial decree.

Bletchley's role in breaking the German, Italian and Japanese signals codes is held by many historians to have been the paramount factor in the Allied victory of 1945. Some have argued that the valuable intelligence garnered by the Ultra team probably shortened the war by at least two years, saving thousands of lives on both sides. But code-breaking was not Bletchley's only success.

In seeking the means to unpick the codes the Government had assembled probably the largest and most talented team of scientists ever to work together on a single project. It has been suggested that Bletchley was selected to be Station 'X" because of its location exactly half-way between Oxford and Cambridge. The highly technical nature of the work led to the development of "Colossus," the world's first programmable electronic computer. By the end of the war ten Colossus computers were operating, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Each was up to sixteen feet long, twelve feet wide and eight feet high, with up to 2500 valves. A modem micro-chip the size of a matchbox is capable of performing the tasks for which Colossus was developed fifty years ago!

After the war, Bletchley Park remained in government ownership and was used initially by the Post Office telecommunications division, the Civil Aviation Authority, and finally, British Telecom.

Meantime the small town of Bletchley had become absorbed into the postwar new town of Milton Keynes and the local authority, mindful of British Telecom's gradual rundown of activities and declared intention of ultimately vacating Bletchley Park, drew up a redevelopment plan which envisaged building over 200 houses and a business park. The Bletchley Park Trust was formed with the objective of preserving the site as a National Heritage. Most of Bletchley Park has now been declared a conservation area and work has started on an ambitious plan to develop a series of self-financing museums covering the wartime role of the site, the history of computers and the development of radar and telecommunications.

The first basic exhibition is already in place and open to the public on alternate weekends. An exhibition of Churchill memorabilia was added in time for the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. The Trust has opened a shop selling books and souvenirs and a working museum of vintage military vehicles is now permanently housed in the park. Hut 4 - originally used for naval code-breaking and where the German Enigma code book captured from U-boat 110 in May 1941 was analysed, leading to Allied success in the Battle of the Atlantic - is now the well-used and comfortably furnished bar of the Bletchley Park Club.

The Bletchley Park Trust, with its small but energetic and resourceful team of mostly volunteers, has already made a significant achievement in rescuing this historically important site from extinction. Not too many museums in the UK, certainly not on this scale, are self-financing. It is to be hoped that this is one will succeed. For further reading on the fascinating story of Bletchley Park I recommend: Most Secret War by R.V. Jones (Hamish Hamilton, 1978); The Secret Servant: The Life of Churchill's Spymaster by A Cave Brown (Michael Joseph, 1988); The Ultra Spy by F.W. Winterbotham (Macmillan, 1989); Britain's Best Kept Secret: Ultra's Base at Bletchley Park by Ted Enever (Alan Sutton, 1994).

To reach Ditchley, take the A34 (M) and the A34 north from Oxford past Bladon and Blenheim. Near the junction with the B4022 watch for a lefthand turning posted for Enstone.