Obituary: Peter Wescombe

Home of Britain's WWII codebreakers, Bletchley Park, would have been flattened if not for Peter Wescombe. Picture: PA
Home of Britain's WWII codebreakers, Bletchley Park, would have been flattened if not for Peter Wescombe. Picture: PA
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BORN: 4 January, 1932 in Kent. Died: 25 November, 2014 in Buckinghamshire, aged 82.

In 1992 there were plans to bulldoze the entire Bletchley Park estate and build 300 houses and a shopping mall. Had it not been for the tenacity of Peter Wescombe, one of the historic sites of the Second World War would have been lost.

Wescombe’s bold action ensured that Bletchley Park and the famous huts in which the German codes were broken, were preserved as a museum. He fought like a tiger to stop the developers moving in and was one of the principal driving forces in setting up the Bletchley Park Trust, which preserves the site. Historians now consider the code-breakers played a vital part in the Allies’ victory in 1945.

In 1991 the plans for the development were made public and the 55 acres valued at £3m. Wescombe was amazed that the development could proceed on the nod. He and a retired GP – both lived in the village – set to rally local opinion. In 1992 they got the Milton Keynes Council to declare the site a conservation area, although its future lay in the balance for five years.

Wescombe had cunningly reversed the planning permission on account of the historic trees throughout the parkland. From the outset there were problems but Wescombe and the doctor were determined.

Wescombe organised a reunion of the Bletchley Park codebreakers and recalled: “We asked BT, who owned the Park, if we could hold a farewell reunion on the site for the wartime code-breaking staff simply to say ‘thank you’ for their magnificent achievements”. With a keen eye on the main chance Wescombe also invited the media.

But it was a trial to even get BT on their side – the company had been instrumental in creating many of the code-breaking machines (notably Colossus) at their offices in Dollis Hill. With typical doggedness Wescombe rang the bell at Bletchley to suggest the party to the administrator Doreen Sawyer. She roundly told him he was on government property and escorted him to the gate. Undeterred, he found a gap in the fence and strode into her office saying: “Now, as I was saying”.

The party was held on 19 October, 1991 and was a huge success and gained wide coverage in the media – especially as the code-breakers were able to talk publicly of their heroic deeds for the first time. From there Wescombe spearheaded the campaign to raise funds – it got larger by the month as all the huts had to be refurbished and the roof of the house was in a terrible state. In the end they raised £8m and the restoration was only completed last year.

Wescombe greeted the final refurbishment saying: “I now often look in disbelief and remember the old, sad wartime huts now gleaming in their fresh paint: visitors and schoolchildren listening to the BP story. After 23 years, we actually made it.”

Wescombe was a trustee and his enthusiasm remained unbounded. He organised guided tours, gave lectures around the world and was an adviser for the 2001 film Enigma which starred Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet. Part of the film was shot at the Tigh Beg Croft near Oban.

Still in his teens, Peter John Wescombe joined the Shaftesbury Homes’ training ship Arethusa, ending up as leading boy. In 1949 Wescombe joined the Royal Navy and served in the Middle East, conducting a correspondence course with a student nurse, Rowena Bayles. They met in London in 1953 and married.

In 1960 Wescombe joined the Diplomatic Wireless Service which handled communications with all Britain’s missions abroad – many of which he visited in the 30 years of his service. While on these overseas visits Wescombe and his wife became keen archaeologists and learned to appreciate the preservation of such sites. In his last years in the Civil Service Wescombe was in charge of all diplomatic communications between Whitehall and the embassy in Moscow – the last years of the Cold War. He retired in 1992 and he was thus able to concentrate his energies on the Bletchley Park Trust.

It was undoubtedly his campaigning zeal that preserved Bletchley Park as a major heritage site. Wescombe realised its importance and its significance and has been justified by the thousands who visit every year. As if to underline that importance, Benedict Cumberbatch (who played Alan Turing) has commented, after filming scenes from the hit movie The Imitation Game there, that “it was hugely important Bletchley Park is kept alive and accessible. To work where these people breathed, lived, loved, worked, struggled, kept secrets, were quietly, stoically heroic, was overwhelming.”

Wescombe is survived by his wife and their two daughters and two sons.