Geek's Guide to Britain For staff at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, there’s an air of Fight Club about the place. The first rule about GCHQ is you don’t talk about GCHQ.
It’s a well observed tradition, even though there are road signs and a bus route directing you to this highly secret establishment, the nerve centre of Britain's communications surveillance operations.
GCHQ Benhall … does a doughnut keep better secrets? Source: Bing Maps/Digital Globe
The design of the doughnut-shaped building at Benhall has attracted a fair share of attention since its completion in late 2003. Indeed, if you take a look at the site from Google Earth, you might wonder if it inspired Steve Jobs’ plans for a new circular Apple building – a company that also likes to keep secrets.
Benhall is now the primary home of GCHQ and the majority of the service’s 5,300 employees are based here. The organisation’s own website describes itself as “one of the three UK Intelligence Agencies and forms a crucial part of the UK’s National Intelligence and Security machinery”. The other two are the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
In years gone by, GCHQ in Cheltenham was spread over two sites a few miles apart: Oakley and Benhall. The Oakley site has largely given way to a housing development although some buildings remain with the barbed wire fence rather menacingly separating it from a kids’ play area on the new estate. While undoubtedly unintentional, this incongruousness does appear strangely Soviet – it’s perhaps fitting given Cold War concerns became GCHQ’s raison d’être in the 1950s.
GCHQ Oakley ... recreation and razor wire live side by side these days
I was born into a GCHQ family as my parents met there. As I write, it now occurs to me that if GCHQ didn't exist, neither would I. Spooky. I lived in a GCHQ house, too – purpose built to accommodate the growing workforce – and I could see Benhall's satellite dishes from my bedroom window.
I worked there too, and before I tread further along this telecommunications taboo tightrope I should mention to our colonial cousins that what we have here is the equivalent of America’s National Security Agency (NSA). For me, this association came in handy when applying for a US visa to visit a GCHQ colleague working for that ultra-hush-hush outfit. Mentioning those three initials at the US Embassy had my passport visa stamp in seconds.
Incidentally, I did ask the GCHQ press office if there was any chance of a tour of the building or even some publicity pictures of the interior. Admittedly, there was a bit of wishful thinking behind the former – there were employee family tours when the building was complete – but the answer was no. The polite response to the latter request was that pictures would be considered on condition the article could be viewed before publication. That's against our editorial policy, but chances are they've done that already.
Official Secrets Act warning
and that's just the car park
I decided to take some photos myself, which are no more intrusive than those found on Google Streetview. It was only later that I spotted a "no photographs" sign, but as I was some distance away, I didn’t notice it at first. I doubt I'd notice if I’m now being followed or having my communications tampered with as a result, but it would seem like a waste of time and of public money.
If you do go on a tour of ‘Nam, taking pics aplenty up to the wire wouldn’t be a very good idea. The security staff, many of which are ex-servicemen, take a dim view of this sort of thing.
As part of my research for this piece, I dug up Peter Freeman’s 34-page booklet titled How GCHQ came to Cheltenham, which lays out a longer story than I’d anticipated. Freeman details the early years and the decision-making process that saw this sleepy Cotswold town – that for 75 years up to 1945 had a static population of 50,000 – undergo significant changes when GCHQ became operational. The population swelled by 20 per cent in the 1950s with a housing programme in place to support Cheltenham’s new cottage industry: intelligence gathering.
Freeman remarks that the Ministry of Health’s initial views were that “Cheltenham did not want civil servants and already had plenty of local employment”. The Ministry of Works leaned on the Ministry of Health and consequently the town now breeds civil servants.
Early GCHQ history by staffer Peter Freeman
I was reading an exclusive edition of Freeman’s work which features various handwritten corrections and additional detail courtesy of my mother, and she would know being on the 1950s-era Foreign Office recruitment team based above the Ministry of Food bureau in Clarence Street, Cheltenham (rationing was still in operation in post-war Britain). Their task was to find the right stuff to staff Oakley and Benhall.
Yet how GCHQ came to Cheltenham owes more to what the Americans left behind after World War II than any strategic importance to the spa town's location. The Oakley and Benhall sites were purchased by the Ministry of Works in 1939 and building works began for the purpose of housing government departments if an evacuation from London's Whitehall became necessary. During the Blitz, some ministries had to move fast and ended up arriving before work on the temporary office blocks was complete. Each site had six of these utilitarian, single storey, 12-spur buildings that, in total, clocked up over 400,000sq ft of office space.
With the Blitz over, various departments returned to London, and the Americans, now involved in the war, found themselves at these two sites running a major HQ. The US SOS (Services of Support) dealt with logistics for the European Theatre of Operations, US Army (ETOUSA), and the buildings were used as offices for this communications hub. According to Freeman, the Americans arrived in secret and those coming from London had exclusive trains laid on to keep their movements under wraps. The railway staff at Paddington weren’t so clued up though, and slapped up signs on the platform saying “US Forces To Cheltenham”. As the Yanks dug in at ‘Nam, they consequently installed a substantial network of landlines which remained after the war.
US Forces in covert UK transportation ops … lucky they kept this quiet
The clincher was when Cheltenham was visited by a staffer from GCHQ - then based at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes - who knew of the site at Benhall, which was where the Ministry of Pensions had taken residence prior to an eventual move to Blackpool. Posing as an Admiralty official on a pensions fact-finding mission, he was granted a tour of the site and wrote up a favourable report of the place. Although there would be numerous inter-departmental and financial wrangles to follow, GCHQ eventually made its home in Cheltenham in the early 1950s.