In the fall of 1938, an eclectic ensemble of 150 men and women arrived at Bletchley Park, a country manor house in Milton Keynes, England, for a gathering now known as “Captain Ridley’s shooting party.” Ostensibly convened for a weekend of frivolity—a cover accentuated by the hiring of a top chef from a posh London hotel—the individuals were actually members of MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS). Assigned to launch Great Britain’s codebreaking efforts, the group transmitted its first piece of intelligence within hours of arrival.
Today, only one known photograph of this monumental meeting survives. It’s fairly nondescript, simply capturing a cadre of men in suits lingering on the front lawn of the estate, but as Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, historians at Bletchley Park recently realized the snapshot played a prominent role in a 1938 Christmas card sent to codebreakers by Lady Evelyn Sinclair, sister of Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, the chief of M16.
Like the image plastered on its front, the card itself is mundane. Written on blue stationery emblazoned with the Sinclairs’ home address, the holiday greeting succinctly states, “Wishing you a very happy Christmas & New Year, Evelyn Sinclair.”
To those not in the know, the card would have had little meaning. But to Joan Wingfield, a GC&CS expert on Italian naval codes, the note must have been—in the words of Wingfield’s daughter Judie Hodsdon, who brought the lost card to historians’ attention—“rather special,” offering a subtle nod to the codebreaking team’s then unheralded work.
As Hodsdon remarks in a Bletchley Park press release, “My mother didn’t keep many things, but she kept this.”
Researchers have been aware of the photograph’s existence since 2009, when a separate copy (detached from the blue Christmas card) preserved by Claude Henderson, Hodsdon’s great uncle and a fellow GC&CS member, emerged in an old family photo album. Safely stored alongside snapshots taken by Henderson in August 1939 and January 1940, the image is one of the few personal photographs documenting operations at Bletchley Park.
After questioning why the autumnal photo was placed adjacent to snow-filled January shots, estate staff decided to research further, eventually drawing the connection between Sinclair’s card and the “shooting party” photo.
“The picture used in the Christmas card is not captioned, and no reference is made to it in the greeting,” David Kenyon, a research historian at the estate, explains in the release. Instead, he tells the Guardian’s Brown, the Christmas message was “very much sent with a wink” to those who knew the context. “It is the way the British intelligence services have always worked,” Kenyon says. “Whether it’s speaking or writing, they’ve always been indirect so if you know what’s going on you’ll understand. If you don’t, nothing has been given away.”
According to a separate Guardian article written by Brown, the gathering, which took place in September of 1938, was not just a friendly rehearsal, but the activation of a key covert operation then focused on breaking Italian naval codes. At the time, war seemed imminent, but as the Bletchley Park website notes, by October 9, tensions had eased enough for the codebreakers to return to their main London offices.
When World War II actually broke out the following year, the team was able to draw on lessons learned from this previous three-week deployment. As Kenyon says in a September Bletchley Park statement, insights on “shortages of staff, space and telecommunications gave the Codebreakers a huge advantage come 1939.”
By the end of the war, Bletchley’s staff had skyrocketed from 150 men and women to nearly 10,000 individuals (up to 75 percent of whom were women). Alan Turing’s work on the German Enigma code later made him the best-known Bletchley codebreaker, but the top-secret initiative only succeeded due to the efforts of its diverse staff, who, according to Christopher Grey of History Extra, completed tasks ranging from operating and maintaining codebreaking machines to indexing decrypted messages and even running a barber’s shop.
By some estimates, the contributions of Bletchley Park’s codebreakers may have shortened the war by two years. Although details on the operation have trickled out over the decades as wartime documents become declassified, the new Christmas card discovery suggests that Bletchley still holds its fair share of secrets.