Britain Royal Code Breakers
Matt Dunham  /  AP
Britain's Prince Charles, left, visited the Bletchley Park National Codes Centre on Thursday in support of efforts to preserve it.
updated 7/24/2008 3:30:32 PM ET 2008-07-24T19:30:32

Cramped into makeshift wooden huts on the grounds of a swank Victorian mansion, Britain's sharpest mathematical minds waged a secret war against Nazi Germany — cracking Adolf Hitler's supposedly unbreakable codes.

Winston Churchill said their work likely shortened the war. But supporters said Thursday that the cluster of shelters at Bletchley Park, which housed code-cracking machines, listening posts and radio antennae, are falling into severe despair.

"The worst-affected buildings look as if they are about to fall down, with paint flaking off and one — which was probably the most important hut — covered in plastic sheeting at one end," said Francis Richards, chairman of Bletchley Park's trustees. "But, we hope with funding, we can restore them."

Richards, a former head of Britain's eavesdropping spy agency, said the site is currently home to a small museum funded only through private donations, not by the British government. Supporters of the center say most buildings will be beyond repair within three years without new investment.

Thousands signs petition
More than 6,000 people have signed a petition to Prime Minister Gordon Brown urging him to turn the site into a publicly-funded cryptology museum.

"You are the keepers of one of the greatest British success stories," Prince Charles told supporters Thursday, as he toured the site to give his backing to attempts to preserve the center.

Workers there had "ensured that this country finally emerged victorious," from World War II, he told former code-breakers and campaigners who hope to restore the site.

Scientists who worked at Bletchley included Alan Turing, the mathematician later credited with developing some of world's first computers.

Britain moved its Government Code and Cypher School to Bletchley Park in 1939 and at its height, the center housed around 550 people. By 1945 they had deciphered 63 million characters of secret German messages.

The team cracked the code to Germany's Enigma encryption machine and other ciphers used by the Nazi high command. Code-breakers were able to reveal precise details about the movements of Germany's U-boat fleets, handing victory on the seas to the Allies.

Churchill famously said the workers — at the time pledged to secrecy — were the "geese that laid the golden egg and never cackled."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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