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Colossus--The Secret Genius of Tommy Flowers


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   The dispatch rider saluted the staff sergeant, threw the satchel over his shoulder, and bolted out of the reception to a row of BSA M20 motorcycles. He straddled the next workhorse in line, pulled his goggles down from his helmet, and gave it a sturdy jump-start. Off he sped, down a narrow road stretching north across the countryside. He knew every second mattered.

   The whistle blew its high-pitched farewell and the train jerked forward as it pulled away from Euston Station. Tommy’s heart rate accelerated in synchrony with the revving up of the engine. What am I in for? He pushed his spectacles further up his pointy nose, not to bring the scenery into clearer view but out of habit, a nervous tick. All he knew was that he was wanted up at Bletchley Park on this day at 9 am. It did not say by whom, for how long, or for what purpose, just that he should disembark at the fifth station on the Northwestern Line and report to the RTO, the Railway Traffic Officer, in the vestibule with said paper in hand. He did know that if he overshot the mark he would end up in Milton Keynes, but that was it. He had an hour from London to speculate the rest.

   That is why the window seat was wasted on him. Even in February, the English countryside charmed with the first signs of spring, but the budding trees on rolling green hills, the white snowdrops and yellow daffodils quickly blurred to grey, then disappeared altogether before Tommy’s glazed-over eyes as he retreated into his head. For Tommy, there was nothing out the window that could calm his nerves. The swaying of the train and the rhythmic chugging of the engine should have lulled him to some much-needed sleep, but his mind had far too much to muse. He shifted in his seat.

   First and foremost, he had to keep track of the number of stops or face consequences as unknown as his orders but undoubtedly more grim, a blood-curdling prospect that would keep the most weary soul awake. The removal of signposts, milestones, and railway station names was a tactical move done as part of the anti-invasion preparations underway. It was hoped the lack of whereabouts would disorient the incoming Germans, but it also proved effective against Britons now and then as well, and Tommy knew he did not want to be one of them, not today, not at any cost. If he got lost in his head, he trusted the jolt of the train would bring him to his senses long enough to make the tally. Otherwise, his head cluttered with typical wartime concerns for his family, the conundrums awaiting him back at work, and suppositions about what was to come.

   When he left Euston Station, he swore it must be related to electrical engineering because that was all he knew and did. Maybe they have a wire loose, he chuckled to himself. By Station 2 he hoped it had something to do with his side pursuit of thermionic valves (vacuum tubes), that maybe this would be the big endorsement his work needed. Now that would be well-worth this anxious trip, he nodded to himself. By Station 3 he indulged in a more far-flung flight of fancy for his sheer amusement about the possibility of being recruited as a top-level communications agent ordered to shut down the entire German network thereby altering the course of the war in our favour, but he knew that was the stuff best left on the pages of a Graham Greene novel for safety’s sake. Eileen, Kenneth, and John needed him back home and besides, the sauerkraut would wreak havoc on my stomach, he quipped to himself, but it failed to yield a grin. By Station 4 he resigned himself to a far less glamourous possibility that was more suited to his quiet life. They probably need some switches, he sighed. After the jolt, he knew he had to get his head back on for the end was next. Once the train pulled into Station 5 his pulse raced and his thoughts came full circle. What am I in for?

   He scrambled past the knees of the passengers in the compartment, elbowed his way through the throngs of bodies standing in the corridor, circled the clump of suitcases with their owners perched on top in the exit, side-stepped down the carriage steps, and leapt off into the unknown full of apprehension. I think this is the fifth stop, but there was no point asking any of the crowd that got off with him because they all got on at different stations. The train blew its haunting ‘That’s it, you’re on your own now’ and pulled away from the blank station to disappear around the bend leaving him utterly abandoned in a most uncertain place. Whether or not it was the right station remained to be seen, but one thing was for certain now as he stood alone on the quay. He was committed.

   “Keep calm and carry on,” was the government order of the day, so Tommy got on with it, albeit without the calm bit but Churchill wouldn’t have blamed him. His shoes echoed along the concrete in an earnest tempo as he headed to the station house for the verdict. Along the way, he couldn’t help but notice the foreboding eight-foot chain fence looming on the other side of the tracks topped with a roll of barbed wire that would slice any climbing hunk of meat to ribbons. Is the fence there to keep people out or in? It was for the best that he did not know the other side of the fence was his destination, or the jaunt ahead would have felt like a heavy trudge of the condemned.

   Once inside the station, he spied the RTO booth on the right. The closer he got, the more uninviting it became. The black clad officer on duty had the scowl of a henchman that made anyone who approached second-guess the necessity of their inquiry, but Tommy had no recourse. That was his order. He reached inside his breast pocket for the official brown envelope to prove it at the counter. He always thought it best to approach any surly creature with a pleasant disposition in the slightest hope that it might soften their reception.

   “Good morning. Lovely day isn’t it,” Tommy said. The officer only made an ever so slight dip of the head. Tommy made the extra effort to remove the letter from the envelope himself in front of the officer before handing it to him as a further courtesy, but the officer remained unaffected.

   The officer read the letter and handed it back without a single pleasantry. “Left. Follow the path over the bridge and along the fence to the driveway.”

   Tommy froze. That’s it? Left of what? How long? How far? What sort of path? The dreadful fence that I just saw? Driveway leading to what? Tommy’s head spun with curiosities, but when he opened his mouth to speak, the officer cut him off, “Off you go.”

   “Right. Good day.” Tommy could see any further conversation would be futile, so he made an about-face and walked out of the station with the officer’s glaring eyes on his back every step of the way. At least he knew he was in the right place.

   Everyone else filed out of the station to the right. Left? Really?  He saw a narrow, wooded path off to the side that looked like an ominous one-way portal that people go in but don’t come out. Who or what lurked in those woods? All he had was daylight on his side. The rest was up to chance. Carry on. He knew he had to, or the officer would come calling in beastly form.

   Into the woods he went with fingers crossed. Do Bletchley know what they’re asking? The towering trees quickly closed in on him with horrific flashbacks of getting lost in the woods, alone, at the age of seven on a family day out in the country. His head kept scanning right to left with the odd look over his shoulder for the slightest sign of another presence. His ears perked up like a fox on the hunt, or was this fox the hunted? Crack! What was that? Probably just a bird or a fallen branch, he kept telling himself. Otherwise, it was dead quiet, the kind that makes you sweat and quiver. Fortunately, not far along the path was the iron bridge. It did not lead to greener pastures, only more woods on the other side of his new sardonic friend the fence. Great. I’m being led to salvation by the barbed devil incarnate. Then, as if on divine cue, a squirrel scampered about without purpose just off the path ahead as if he was just on his usual morning run, and that put Tommy somewhat at ease. Animals sense danger long before humans do and this one had no apparent worries or seemingly sinister intentions. I don’t think he’s German. That little bit of levity was enough to carry Tommy to the finish line, the coveted driveway. This time he didn’t cry tears of joy. His grown-up lungs only heaved with relief. I live to tell the tale.

   Almost not for long. He made the right up the laneway toward the RAF sentry post. From out of nowhere the buzz of a small engine rushed up behind him. When he turned around to see what it was, he nearly got his block knocked off. Bloody hell! The driver of the mad machine was none other than the dispatch rider from the coast. What he lacked in safety, he more than made up for in time. He was brilliant at what he did, just not by Tommy’s estimates. The dispatch rider flashed his papers to the guard and sped ahead before Tommy could thank him for taking a year off his life. Tommy arrived at the sentry gate rattled.

   “Papers!” barked the sentry.

   “Yes, of course. Here we are.” Tommy handed him the envelope.

   “Identification!”

   “Sorry. I’m a bit thrown off,” Tommy said still gasping. Tommy reached back into his coat for his brown identity card. The sentry did not offer an ounce of sympathy, only daggers.

   “Wait here.” The sentry stepped inside the box to make a call. A second sentry appeared out of thin air.

   “Oh, hello,” Tommy said.

   The second sentry answered with an icy stare. He positioned himself in front of Tommy like a roadblock, deliberately placing his hand on his rifle. Tommy nodded to say message understood. He dutifully stood on the spot under the menacing eye of the watchman while he waited for his next directive. No point trying to be conversational with a Rottweiler. Fortunately, it was not long before the uncomfortable silence was broken by the conversation inside the box.

   “Flowers.” Then the sentry laughed, a reaction Tommy found most disconcerting. The sentry continued, “Not those, a man! Maybe next time, luv.” Then he reappeared. He handed back Tommy’s papers. “Main house.”

 

 

           

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