June 30, 2009

Finest Hour 114, Spring 2002

Page 23


A Tribute to the Perseverance and Dedication of Rita and Jack Darrah

In “History Lives at Ditchley and Bletchley” (FH 85) we outlined the Second World War role of the top secret code-breaking establishment at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, and its inestimable value to Winston Churchill in securing victory. “Bletchley Park Blooms with Churchilliana” (FH 91) described the superb Darrah-Harwood collection of Winston Churchill memorabilia which had been installed in two rooms of the Bletchley Park Mansion in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

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In the years since, thousands of visitors have stopped at Bletchley (it is now open every weekend and by special arrangement during the week) to view the ever-growing assemblage of exhibitions, displays and reenactments illustrating the rich and diverse history of the site and its involvement in military intelligence, electronics and computing, cryptography and code breaking, telecommunications, radar and air traffic control. The vast majority of those visitors have been enthralled by Jack and Rita Darrah’s magnificent exhibition of Churchill memorabilia, and the sad recent loss of Rita (FH 113:8) reminds us that an update is in order.

The various attractions at Bletchley Park are largely run by an enthusiastic band of volunteers, but to secure the long-term future and continued development of all the historic exhibitions the Bletchley Park Trust is aiming to achieve fully funded charitable status and to create a permanent living memorial to all those fine achievements. The Mansion will generate a significant income when converted to a Conference Centre and so, to make way, Jack and Rita moved their Churchilliana exhibition into a large refurbished room in “A” Block‹ an operation involving, according to Jack, much “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” The bonus is that there is now more space in which to display the collection to even greater effect.

“A” Block was the first “permanent” building to be erected at Station “X” – the earlier wartime overflow from the Mansion had been accommodated in a collection of wooden army huts – and was heavily constructed in 1941 of concrete reinforced with more than 200 bracing steel girders. The fear of a gas attack by the Luftwaffe was still very real at the time and the building was provided with hermetically sealing doors, a much reduced window area and heavy, airtight window blinds. The original use of the room now occupied by the Churchilliana exhibit was to house large wall charts of the Atlantic, on which the positions and movements of German U-boats were plotted as the intercepted signals traffic was decrypted and analysed. After the end of the war “A” Block was taken over by the Civil Aviation Authority for use as its training school, which kept it in an excellent state of repair until the CAA vacated the site in 1991.

Winston Churchill himself visited the code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park on 6 September 1941. Sixty years later, on 23 September 2001, an impressive turnout of younger Churchills descended upon the Park to open the relocated Churchilliana exhibition. Three great-grandchildren of Sir Winston and progeny of his grandson Winston were in attendance: Randolph, Marina and Jack, with Randolph’s two small daughters, attracting much attention centre stage, as great-great-granddaughters of Sir Winston and the fifth generation.

Randolph revealed that he was born on 22 January 1965, just two days before Sir Winston died, and that his grandfather (also called Randolph, in the family tradition of using Winston and Randolph alternately) wrote to Clementine telling her the news: “In the midst of death we are in life.” Jack Darrah had asked Randolph to provide a photograph of himself, preferably in his naval uniform, to be added to the burgeoning gallery of distinguished visitors to the exhibition; but Randolph explained that his naval career had been short, modest and sufficiently long ago that his uniform no longer fitted him! Instead he presented Jack with a 120-year-old photograph of his great-grandfather, aged seven, in a sailor’s suit.

Presiding over the re-opening ceremony was Sir Christopher Chataway, Chairman of the Bletchley Park Trust, best remembered by many present as having represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games in 1952 and 1956 and for holding the world 5,000 metres record in 1954. A Member of Parliament from 1958 to 1974, Sir Christopher recalled that his “finest hour” had probably occurred in 1955 when he was a very young and callow MP and Sir Winston came and sat next to him on a House of Commons smoking room sofa: “I had to keep pinching myself,” he said, “to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and it really was my great hero, the Sir Winston Churchill, sitting beside me.”

Christian and Danielle Pol-Roger donated a case of Winston Churchill cuvée Champagne to ensure that the toasts were drunk in an appropriate fashion and, at the last minute, decided to come over from France themselves to see the exhibition. Christine Large, chief executive officer of the Bletchley Park Trust, welcomed the visitors – well over 100 invited guests were substantially augmented by members of the public. ICS UK was represented by former chairman and trustee David Boler and by membership secretary Eric Bingham.

A fascinating moment occurred during the showing of a short film of Winston Churchill’s wartime exploits. Little Zoe Churchill, seated on her mother’s lap, viewed the jerky, grainy, black and white pictures and asked in a stage whisper, “Mummy, which one of those men is my great-great-grandfather?” “Shush,” Catherine replied, “he’s the one in the white suit.” I wonder what thoughts those evocative images had conjured up in that little girl’s mind?

Churchill’s Geese

In commemoration of the opening of the new Churchill Room, Bletchley Park Post Office has created its own little piece of art and history in the form of a postal cover. A key feature is the specially commissioned portrait of Churchill by local artist Danny Rogers. A set of 1974 Churchill Centenary stamps has been added to each cover and cancelled on the day with Bletchley Park Post Office’s unique date stamp. Only 1000 of these hand finished covers were issued.

This new Churchill portrait is on a background representing the Atlantic Ocean and the Stars and Stripes of the United States. The latter symbolises Churchill’s American heritage and the strong bonds that exist between the USA and the UK. The shadowy “geese” at his shoulder are looking westward towards their vital task. The “golden egg” is their achievement in cracking the “unbreakable” U-boat Enigma code. On 28 September the Enigma film based on Bletchley Park’s race to crack the code and save a vital convoy from destruction was released.

The cover is available, inclusive of post, direct from Bletchley Park Post Office at £9.95 ($15 US) or £17.95 ($30 US) for a specially mounted version that includes copies of the artist’s working sketches. Contact the Post Office for more information through their website (www.bletchleycovers.com) or at The Mansion, Bletchley Park Milton Keynes, MK3 6EB, United Kingdom. The proceeds from sales of the cover will now be donated to New York disaster fund charities on behalf of Bletchley Park Trust and its volunteers.

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