Listening in on the code breakers

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Gerard Kelly hears how history was made under the streets of London during World War II

Great men and women do not always make history in the greatest of places. Archimedes had to make do with a bath, Robert the Bruce with a cave, and Field Marshal Montgomery with a caravan. Winston Churchill got the Cabinet War Rooms, a subterranean cubby-hole, hollowed out under a forgettable block of Whitehall.

From the earliest days of World War II, this cramped annexe was the nerve-centre of Britain's fight against the Axis coalition. Because the place was mothballed soon after the end of hostilities, most of the rooms are exactly as Churchill, or rather Attlee, left them. Banks of unwieldy telephones that were once connected to Fighter Command or Washington, line the desks. Floor-to-ceiling maps plot Russian advances and Atlantic convoys, and a very narrow bed in a very drab bedroom shows how even important people such as Churchill were forced to slum it during the Blitz.

In fact nothing seems to have been thrown away. A noticeboard boasting every key used in the bunker would not have looked out of place in one of those small-town American museums that proudly display The First Lawnmower West of the Mississippi.

Now the curators have added an updated, hand-held audio system which leads visitors through the complex, room by room, to the background clatter of telephones, typewriters and sirens. It also gives you the option of listening to the memories of the officers, typists and civil servants who worked there. Children can even listen to the reminiscences of youngsters who lived through the Blitz or were evacuated.

Telling the tale of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park presents similar problems: great story, lousy props. The mathematical wizards who cracked the ciphers of the German military and their Enigma encoding machines probably shortened the war by around two years. But explaining the huge effort devoted to unearthing the secrets of what looks like an extremely complicated typewriter could shorten the attention span of modern schoolchildren just as drastically.

To crack any youthful resistance, the Imperial War Museum has devised a small exhibition that uses the example of Bletchley Park as a general introduction to the history of codes and code-breaking. Visitors are asked to solve simple codes, send Morse signals to each other, use a telephone scrambler and, with the aid of touch-screens, pinpoint the location of a U-boat in the Atlantic and save an Allied convoy from attack. Unsurprisingly, children love it.

Tellingly, on the day I visited the Cabinet War Rooms, there were few children to be seen. Britain's war may have been directed from here, but it takes a lot to inject life into a series of beige corridors, even with imaginative audio help. How can they compete with the sheer historical presence of something such as HMS Belfast, for instance, even though it was merely a pawn in the game played by the underground chessmasters of Whitehall?

New Acoustiguide audio tour of the Cabinet War Rooms, Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London SW1. Open daily. Admission: adults Pounds 4.40, children Pounds 2.20. Enigma and the Codebreakers, the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1. Until April 26. Open daily. Admission: adults Pounds 4.70, children Pounds 2.35

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