Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Lost World of Bletchley Park and Woolton Vegetable Pie

On August 15th, 1939 something began to happen at an odd, Victorian-Gothic-Tudor-Dutch-Baroque mishmash of a house in Buckinghamshire called Bletchley Park. It had been owned for many years by the Leon family but was quietly absorbed by the government as WWII broke out.

What happened next was astonishing. Thousands of people, some of them geniuses in math, science, engineering, languages, classics, cryptology, chess and even Papyrology along with legions of bright young women all descended on a sleepy little town to work for Ultra (named for the highest security clearance, known as the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS)). What they did there shortened WWII by at least 2 years. Winston Churchill believed "It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war." Ultra broke the German code.

The Book, The Lost World of Bletchley Park: An illustrated History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by Sinclair McKay was absolutely riveting (McKay also wrote the very successful The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There). I found myself reading late into the night, unable to put it down.  I didn't know anything about most of the main players in the story –– they need to be honored by us all.

Commander Alistair Deniston  had been instrumental in setting up Room 40, the British cryptoanalysis department in WWI responsible for successfully decoding German messages received by the interception service known as ‘Y’ Service. He came onboard to set up Bletchley Park.

Alfred Dillwyn Knox, “Dilly” as he was known, was another early player in the game beginning in Room 40  and later a prime mover at Bletchley Park. He was notorious for getting his best ideas in the bath and would soak for hours running problems.

Knox fortuitously bought an Enigma machine in Vienna in 1925, immediately recognizing its value as a tool for spycraft (it was originally used in business for stock coding not for espionage –– you can read about the way the machine worked HERE). He kept his hand in the spy business between the World Wars and with Denniston,was called upon to meet with Polish cryptographers in 1939 when WWII was heating up. The Polish team had made the first breakthrough in decrypting the German Enigma machine’s code but didn’t have the facilities to proceed further when the Germans added another level of complexity to the machine.

 It was under Knox's watchful eye that all the Bletchley players were brought together to tackle the impossible problem. Sadly, he died of cancer in 1943 before victory was achieved but he died knowing his ISK (Intelligence Services Knox) had saved thousands of lives and decrypted 140,800 messages.

Filled with photographs, the book details setting up the facility and then tells the many stories of the participants in the endeavor, especially the unknown stories of some of the women who, until recently, were faceless heroes (the oaths taken to the Official Secrets Act were only recently allowed to be violated so that their story could be told ­­–– many men and women died with even their loved ones thinking they were war slackers when nothing could have been further from the truth).

It's about time people knew of the contributions that were made. Women made up the lion’s share of the workers at Bletchley. They worked around the clock putting in code that came from thousands of encrypted messages searching for patterns and finessing the perpetually breaking  Bombe tapes and then the slightly more stable Colossus tape. The Colossus was the first computer prototype, capable of running thousands of points of information at once (and constantly requiring maintenance to keep them running). These machines helped to break both the Enigma code and the even more complex Lorenz cypher written on SZ machines.

Max Newman

Tommy Flowers

The Colossus machine was developed by mathematician Max Newman and built by engineer Tommy Flowers (Alan Turing also had a hand in it). Ironically, because of the Official Secrets Act, engineering genius Flowers couldn’t get a loan to build a computer from the Bank of England after the war. The bank didn’t think it would work –– he couldn’t tell them he’d already built quite a few of them.

a replica of a bombe –the originals were destroyed

The bombes were originally designed by the Polish but perfected by Alan Turing  who was actually the first member of the Bletchley team that everyone knew about –– for rather sad reasons.

Alan Turing

After the war, he was brought up on an indecency charge after reporting a small burglary. He admitted to being gay and was convicted of gross indecency. All of his security clearances were revoked. It was a shameful that a man that had done so much for his country could be treated so poorly (his conviction has yet to be overturned - as of Christmas Eve 2013, Alan Turing has been pardoned by the Queen, hip hip hooray!). None of his work could be revealed because of the Secret’s Act. There’s a powerful play and film about him called Breaking the Code with Derek Jacoby in the title role (Turing died at 41 of a suspected suicide –– supposedly he ate an apple laced with cyanide). The Apple Company was thought to have alluded to this when they created their logo but Steve Jobs denied it saying to Stephen Fry, “God, we wish it were.” Time Magazine included Turing in their list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, saying "The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine."

For all of their work, the codes would never have been broken with out a few slip-ups by the Germans.

Computer expert, Tony Sale wrote an article about one of the most important slip-ups, one that helped to break the Lorenz code. The article was summarized in Wikipedia,

“On 30 August 1941, a message of some 4,000 characters was transmitted from Athens to Vienna. However, the message was not received correctly at the other end, so (after the recipient sent an unencoded request for retransmission, which let the codebreakers know what was happening) the message was retransmitted with the same key settings (HQIBPEXEZMUG); a forbidden practice. Moreover, the second time the operator made a number of small alterations to the message, such as using abbreviations, making the second message somewhat shorter. “From these two related ciphertexts, known to cryptanalysts as a depth, the veteran cryptanalyst Brigadier John Tiltman in the Research Section teased out the two plaintexts and hence the keystream. Then, after three months of the Research Section failing to diagnose the machine from the almost 4,000 characters of key, the task was handed to mathematician Bill Tutte. He applied a technique that he had been taught in his cryptographic training, of writing out the key by hand and looking for repetitions. Tutte did this with the original teleprinter 5-bit Baudot codes, which led him to his initial breakthrough of recognising a 41 character repetition. Over the following two months up to January 1942, Tutte and colleagues worked out the complete logical structure of the cipher machine. This remarkable piece of reverse engineering was later described as "one of the greatest intellectual feats of World War II"

The code was broken because of mistakes but also because of a particularly heroic dive into sinking German sub U-559 by Tony Fasson and Colin Grazier in 1942. The men knowingly risked their lives to rescue the German codebooks. The ship sunk with them still in it when, in a mad act of heroism, they went back in for the code machine. “These books in essence, gave them an express route into unlocking the four-letter indicators, and thence each day’s Enigma setting….Within just one hour of their first decrypts flowing through, intercepts of U-boat signals were sent through to the Admiralty, enabling them to instantly pinpoint the positions of fifteen U-boats.”

Dorothy Hyson with George Formby

Of the women at Bletchley Hall, a few are now known. One was a famous movie actress named Dorothy Hyson. Jane Fawcett went on to become a well-known architectural historian (she called Bletchley “a dump”). Mavis Batey wrote a book about the experience Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigmas and was known as one of “Dilly’s Fillies”. There was also Jean Valentine who still lectures at the site (you can see here HERE) plus many famous "debs" of the day like Osla Henniker-Major, Sarah Baring, Jean Campbell-Harris and soon novelist, Rosamunde Pilcher. Many went on to live quiet lives as mothers and homemakers who had a secret exciting past.  Many felt life after their service was a let-down.

Bletchley's really a rich source of material for the page or the stage.  In addition to Breaking the Code, there was a great drama, The Bletchley Circle on PBS last year that gave you a hint of the before and after lives of the women who worked there as well as a 2000 film, Enigma with Kate Winslet playing one of the women who worked on the project who gets involved in a suspense-filled plot.

Aside from the extraordinary stories of brilliant deductions, breakthroughs and brain-breaking work that happened at Bletchley, there’s also the story of the way they lived in the complex.

Although the girls eventually came from all social levels, the first on site were debutantes, "Preceding the Wrens at Bletchley had been an influx of debutantes.  In the earliest days of Bletchley Park, it was initially felt by some at the Foreign Office that women would be better off kept out of it altogether, on the grounds that ladies were  notoriously bad at keeping secrets.  This stance, which seems hilariously patronising now, was modified a little to allow for rather smart girls, many with titles, to be recruited for the more grindingly routine (yet absolutely vital) work of card indexing.  The girls were hooked in via the Establishment social network and came, as one veteran said, from the better sort'  of families." Of their many virtues (like the charming tradition of always wearing pearls), many could speak a few languages thanks to schooling overseas and grand tours. They worked tirelessly to translate the messages.

The workforce was housed in mostly very crude ‘huts’ on the premises, dormitory-style.  Some lucky workers were housed by local families (sometimes with  amusing results) in everything from tiny cottages to regal estates –– Woburn Abbey  was a particular favorite. Work was grueling yet people’s memories of Bletchley are, for the most part, positive and fond. People knew they were doing the most important work of their lives saving their nation. Many remembered it as the high point of their lives.

There were plays and dances to relieve tensions as well as outdoor activities like bike riding and games.  There were even sun rooms to provide vitamin D for the night workers. Not to say there weren’t complaints. Food, because of rationing and almost always dire institutional cooking practices, was a source of many jokes and complaints (hours on a steam tray could make anything inedible).

At the beginning of Bletchley, a chef from the Ritz was drafted to cook for the brain-trust. They ate in an elegant dining room with waitress service. As the operation grew, a cafeteria was built with American-style self-service. A classless hierarchy developed , “ It came to symbolize another important aspect of life at the Park and that was the apparent lack of fixed hierarchy. Bletchley veterans who had been among the younger codebreakers recalled how, after a grueling all-night shift, one could go for breakfast and find oneself sitting next to a colonel on one side, and an American major on the other, with no sense that lower ranks had to take themselves elsewhere. All mingled as equals; and faced the equally daunting prospect of Woolton pies (a rationing invention which involved dispensing with the meat element and adding in a great many root vegetables), tarts that tasted of ‘cardboard’ and the very occasional meal where a salad came inadvertently garnished with some dead insects. The cafeteria staff were also very sharp and strict about portions control.”

Aside from the particularly toxic image of “liver swimming in water”, Woolton pie was the food star of the book. Nothing symbolized wartime rationing like a Woolton pie.

I think we forget about how bad things were for Britain. Rationing didn’t end till 1954.

The King and Queen lived by the same rationing rules and so did Bletchley.

I read, “At the start of World War II (1939), the United Kingdom imported 20 million long tons of food per year (70%), including more than 50% of its meat, 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 70% of cereals and fats.” This astonishing fact led to incredible rationing and a whole new way of eating and growing one's own food.

The Carrot Museum said that the Woolton Pie was, “Introduced in May 1941, it continued to raise a hollow laugh throughout the war. In fact, Woolton Pie was far from being a laughing matter. Lord Woolton, Britain's wartime Minister of Food, charmed and cajoled the public into eating not only Woolton Pie but a 'National loaf…."

"Apparently neither the pie or the [vegetable] loaf were liked, but by the end of the War, the country was fitter and healthier than it ever had been.”

Here is the original recipe for the pie, published in the London Times:

The dish is fairly easy to make. I found a few recipes for low-fat potato whole wheat crust – one with grated potatoes and the other with mashed –– I went with mashed but you can do the straight whole wheat if you would –– I was curious about the potato crust.  It turned out to be delicious but not the texture I'm used to in a crust.  It would be even better with a bit more butter (but then what isn't?).

I don’t like Marmite but you can use it.  If you want to go vegetarian, stick with the Marmite and use water or vegetable stock. All in all, a very tasty dish that is inexpensive and good for you.  It kept the Bletchley staff well-fed and able to work their hearts out for the war effort.

From the Saga site I read that Woolton pie was, “Invented by Savoy maître-chef François Latry (1919-1942), and named after the Minister for Food, Lord Woolton. It was offered on Savoy Restaurant menus, and was intended to be a dish created by a Savoy chef, which ordinary housewives could recreate in their own homes in spite of the rationing restrictions. This recipe has been translated from an original Savoy Restaurant kitchen copy”

Woolton pie from the Savoy Restaurant Kitchen (with some changes) 


• 1 lb potatoes – King Edward [I used 1/2 lb of purple potatoes]
• 2 lbs carrots [I used 1/2 pound and added 10 oz of rutabaga and 8 oz cauliflower]
• ½ lb mushrooms
• 1 small leek
• 2oz margarine or chicken fat [I used 2T duck fat and 2 T butter
• 2 spring onions
[I added 2 T oatmeal and 2 1/2 c chicken stock –– you should put in as much stock as suits your dish]
• Salt, pepper, nutmeg, chopped parsley (I added the parsley as I served)

• Bunch of herbs made of 1 small bay leaf, 1 small sprig of thyme, parsley and celery


Peel the potatoes and carrots, cut them into slices of the thickness of a penny. Wash them well and dry in a tea-cloth. Fry them separately in a frying pan with a little chicken fat.  Just brown them, they will cook in the crust.

Do the same for the mushrooms [sliced], adding the finely chopped onions and [sliced] leek. Mix them together and season with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg and roughly chopped fresh parsley.

Fill a pie-dish with this mixture, placing the bundle of herbs in the middle. Moisten with a little giblet stock or water. Allow to cool.[* I tossed in the oatmeal from the official recipe.] Cover with a pastry crust made from half beef-suet or chicken fat and half margarine. [*I used the potato crust recipe.] Bake in (a moderate) oven for 1½ hours. [* I baked it for an hour –– 400º for 10 minutes and 375º for 50 minutes.  I put foil around the fluted crust to keep it from burning since it has little fat to protect it].

I used this recipe for the crust from Lavender and Lovage:

Potato Wholewheat Crust

2 ozs (50g) white vegetable fat
 ( I used 1 oz duck fat and 1 oz butter
8 ozs (225g) wholemeal flour

1 Teaspoon Salt

8 ozs (225g) cooked cold mashed potato

1 tablespoon milk


Rub the fat into the flour, stir in the salt and work this mixture into the mashed potato, adding the milk a little at a time.

Knead on a floured board until the dough is smooth and fairly soft. Roll out the pastry and use according to recipe. (Use as required. This pastry is normally baked at 200 °C / 400

Or, you can make this wheatmeal crust from the Savoy:

Recipe for wheatmeal pastry (for Woolton Pie)

• Blend 8oz (22g) plain wheatmeal flour with ½ teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon baking powder.

• Rub in 2oz (50g) margarine or cooking fat or dripping, then add enough water to make a rolling consistency, although one that is slightly softer than when making pastry with white flour.

Roll out and use as in the individual recipe.

Or, try this recipe from Lavender and Lovage :

Woolton pie from the Official Recipe

1lb (450g) diced potatoes

1lb (450g) cauliflower 

1lb (450g) diced carrots

1lb (450g) diced swede

3 spring onions

1 teaspoon vegetable extract

1 tablespoon oatmeal – I used 2 tablespoons

A little chopped parsley

Cook everything together with just enough water to cover, stirring often to prevent it sticking to the pan. Let the mixture cool. Spoon into a pie dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley.
 Cover with a crust of potatoes or wholemeal pastry. 
Bake in a moderate oven until golden brown.
 Serve hot with gravy*.

*Brown Gravy can be made with onion carmelized in butter or lard or the fat from pan drippings. Then add flour, the browned pan drippings and stock. Add a dash of Worcester if you would like. During the war it was often made with onion, water and flour as meat drippings were in short supply.

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La Table De Nana said...

We watched the TV series..So on Netflix I think..Your pie is so pretty!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

So fascinating - love the architectural historian calling the house a dump -haha.
I think this pie sounds delicious and just the type of thing I love -very wintry too. I might try it this weekend!
Received the lost houses book in the mail last night, will enjoy it this weekend!!!

pam said...

I'm going to have to see if I can find this on Netflix!

Lorraine Not Quite Nigella said...

What a fascinating post! I find cryptography so interesting and what a clever idea to get all of these brilliant people together! With such amazing results too that change history. I got chills!

Marjie said...

Did you see the Bletchley Circle series on Masterpiece? That was my introduction to Bletchley.

As for rationing, I learned how long it went on for Britain in another show I watched, the name of which escapes me now, about a woman in New York who writes to a bookseller in London for a book he has. Anthony Hopkins was in it, as the British bookseller, of course. She sent him and his shop Christmas gifts of food such as hams, shipped from Denmark. I was appalled at how long their rationing went on!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...


I am off to work in a few minutes, but I caught your post and your comment over at my blog. First of all, I agree with you wholeheartedly, that if the world would just connect more with the miracle of nature's bounty and listen to it and indeed share, I bet the outcome of our behavior would be different....or i wonder? Thank you for your insightful comments that always take me to another level of my thinking!

Your post is luscious as ever, including all the behind-the-scenes happenings to show how and why such meals exist. There is a story and reason for everything, and your delightful and accurately presented history are an added ingredient to your melange of delights.

I am making MENDIANTS for Christmas then I'm going to California to spend it with my Mexican-American family..we are making TAMALES like we used to when we were children.

Have a lovely day dear friend. Anita

Rhodesia said...

You have filled in several bits to Bletchley that I did not know here,an excellent post.

I am quite tempted to try this pie when I get home as I would have most of the ingredients from the garden. Have a great weekend Diane

lindaraxa said...

My dear, again you outdid yourself. I must get that book. I knew a bit about Bletchley but not half as much as you have enriched us with. Coincidentally I am looking for something to read and I have just found it. You are a real trooper for trying out that recipe!

Anonymous said...

Interesting little fact: my husband once treated a patient who was a mathematician who was part of that group. She was very old (it was last year), but still extremely sharp. Despite it being ages ago, she is under strict secrecy.
*kisses* H

Unknown said...

What an immense read, post more often please! 
Is there any further reading you would recommend on this?

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