Feeds

INSIDE GCHQ: Welcome to Cheltenham's cottage industry

'If this nerve centre didn't exist, neither would I' says Reg man

Remote control for virtualized desktops

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 doughnut aerial view

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 remnants

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 street sign

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.

Choosing Cheltenham

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.

How GCHQ came to Cheltenham and Bletchley Park booklets

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 await secret train to Cheltenham

US Forces in covert UK transportation ops … lucky they kept this quiet
Source: HyperWar

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.

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
Bond villains lament as Wicked Lasers withdraw death ray
Want to arm that shark? Better get in there quick
Renewable energy 'simply WON'T WORK': Top Google engineers
Windmills, solar, tidal - all a 'false hope', say Stanford PhDs
SEX BEAST SEALS may be egging each other on to ATTACK PENGUINS
Boffin: 'I think the behaviour is increasing in frequency'
Reuse the Force, Luke: SpaceX's Elon Musk reveals X-WING designs
And a floating carrier for recyclable rockets
The next big thing in medical science: POO TRANSPLANTS
Your brother's gonna die, kid, unless we can give him your, well ...
NASA launches new climate model at SC14
75 days of supercomputing later ...
Britain's HUMAN DNA-strewing Moon mission rakes in £200k
3 days, and Kickstarter moves lander 37% nearer takeoff
Simon's says quantum computing will work
Boffins blast algorithm with half a dozen qubits
prev story

Whitepapers

Why cloud backup?
Combining the latest advancements in disk-based backup with secure, integrated, cloud technologies offer organizations fast and assured recovery of their critical enterprise data.
Getting started with customer-focused identity management
Learn why identity is a fundamental requirement to digital growth, and how without it there is no way to identify and engage customers in a meaningful way.
10 threats to successful enterprise endpoint backup
10 threats to a successful backup including issues with BYOD, slow backups and ineffective security.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.