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Bletchley Park reflects on the passing of HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Thu, 15 Apr 2021
Reflections on a Royal visit in 2011

All of us at Bletchley Park, like many in the UK and around the world, were saddened to hear of the passing of HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Our flags are flying at half-mast as a sign of respect.

In 2011, Her Majesty The Queen and HRH The Duke visited Bletchley Park to unveil a new memorial to all those who worked for the Government Code & Cypher School during World War Two. It was a very special event for all involved, giving formal recognition to our Veterans who had kept their work secret for so many years. These Veterans include HRH The Duchess of Cambridge’s grandmother, Valerie Glassborow, and her twin sister, Mary, who both worked at Bletchley Park from 1944-1945.

During this visit, they met with several Veterans, including Baroness Trumpington, Sir Arthur Bonsall, and Bombe Operators Jean Valentine and Ruth Bourne.

Today we wanted to share the reflections of one Veteran, Geoffrey Pidgeon, who met with the Royal party, and was asked to explain how Enigma messages were collected, and ULTRA intelligence was later shared.

“Sir Francis Richards – then Chairman of the Bletchley Park Trust – introduced me to the Royal couple. He had earlier been Director of GCHG (Government Communications HQ) 1998 – 2003 and then Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltar from 2003 – 2006.

I explained how the German Enigma wireless traffic was collected in ‘Y’ Stations run by the Services in many parts of the country. The ensuing ULTRA emanating from the code breakers in Bletchley Park was disseminated to Military Commanders in the Field in Morse – from our MI6 (Section VIII) wireless station in nearby Whaddon Village.

Knowing of the Duke’s great connection with the Royal Navy, I told him that however, all ULTRA involving naval matters simply had to be sent directly from Bletchley Park to the Admiralty in London.  Nevertheless, there was one break with that almost ‘sacred’ protocol and that concerned an ULTRA message about the Italian fleet having put to sea off Cape Matapan in Greece.

The Head of Bletchley Park was Commander Alastair Denniston at the time and a team of cryptographers under Dilly Knox had broken the Italian coded message.  Under that strict protocol, Denniston should have passed the information straight away to the Admiralty. However, he was aware that the First Sea Lord – Admiral Sir Dudley Pound had a growing reputation for delay and Denniston knew that action was needed immediately. He took the unprecedented step of informing Admiral Cunningham C in C of the Mediterranean Fleet directly! That involved our boss Richard Gambier-Parry Head of MI6 (Section VIII) and he agreed to send the message directly to Cunningham through our wireless station in Whaddon Village.

There it went out in Morse, via our station in Egypt to Admiral Cunningham commanding the Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria. It led to the Battle of Matapan that Winston Churchill proclaimed as out biggest Naval victory since Trafalgar. His Royal Highness then leant forward and told us – ‘I was only a Midshipman then!’ Prince Phillip was on the Battleship HMS Valliant during the Naval battle that ensued against the Italian fleet at Cape Matapan. He was ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ as a result of his part in the action – an unusual event for such a junior officer.”

You can read a copy of the speech The Queen made on her 2011 visit to Bletchley Park on the Royal Family website: https://www.royal.uk/queens-speech-bletchley-park-15-july-2011

HRH also met current staff at GCHQ on several occasions over recent year. GCHQ have shared their recollections of meetings with the Duke in this news story: https://www.gchq.gov.uk/news/reflections-on-passing-of-duke-of-edinburgh’