If there’s one word to describe Bletchley Park it has to be ‘unassuming’. Rows of uninspiring ‘huts’ provide the backdrop to a Mansion at the top of the Park that has no real delusions of grandeur. Yet rewind the clock some 75 years and this was arguably the most important compound in Allied Europe. Bletchley Park was home to the code-breakers, the men and women who intercepted messages from the Axis powers and toiled to crack them in order to save as many lives as possible. We all know the name Alan Turing, some of us know the name Dilly Knox, yet these were just two men amongst 12,000 people, including some 8,000 women.
Indeed it is the women who receive the limelight in the contents in Michael Smith’s new book The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories. Smith discusses this fact with real pride, stating with aplomb that “only three men are quoted in the whole book; Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and the husband of one of the female code-breakers”. Clearly, this is a book that outlines the brilliant work of Bletchley’s women as opposed to the foibles of WWII’s men.
The panel at the day’s Press Conference featured six female veterans, each with incredibly impressive résumés. Lady Marion Brody worked on Japanese intel and recently briefed the Duchess of Cambridge on what the Duchess’ grandmother and great-aunt contributed to the war; Jean Pitt-Lewis was one of ‘Dilly’s Girls’, Betty Webb worked on German police messages and even uncovered what became the start of the Holocaust; Marigold Freeman Attwood worked on ‘Colossus’, the world’s first digital electronic computer; Margaret Mortimer also worked with the computer, and Jean Tocher was a Wren who helped work on the ‘Allied Plot’.
This brief explanation sadly cannot do the ladies justice, yet as the conference panned out it became perfectly clear that these ladies didn’t crave adulation or fame, although after their time in such a pressurized environment they were equally clearly unfazed with a few reporters and cameras.
As they spoke you began to realise the monumental sacrifice that these women have made. The intense secrecy of Bletchley meant that life became a case of “own building, own room, own job”. The webs of confidentiality that developed ensured that no one person knew the whole truth. Betty Webb deftly stated “It wasn’t until long after the war that I was able to even start to piece the whole picture together.”
For some, the whole experience put incredible amount of pressure on relationships, not just at the time, but years after. It was at this point that the ladies were gracious enough to accept my question from the floor; “after a lifetime of secrecy, is being able to talk about your experiences a relief?”
The answer, inevitably, was that keeping this information under lock and key had become second nature. Even when the government allowed veterans to discuss Bletchley publically in 1975 there was an invisible barrier for the veterans involved: “I knew I was allowed, I just didn’t want to,” reasoned Marion. Indeed, when Jean Tocher saw discussion of Bletchley on the news, she almost involuntarily found herself shouting “No! No! No!” at the screen.
Where did this intense adherence to secrecy come from? Well, a common theme is that these women were acutely self aware of the risks of idle talk; a story is relayed about how a woman who worked at Bletchley divulged details of her job to an American GI and was never seen on the compound again.
There was, of course, one Benedict Cumberbatch shaped elephant in the room throughout: had they seen the excellent film, ‘The Imitation Game’? Well, only one had, Marion Brody. Her evaluation of it was, in many ways, perfect, “Well it was overly dramatised in my view,” she stated with a disdain for nonsense symptomatic of wartime Britain.
But that represents Bletchley and its inhabitants to a tee, modest and unassuming with a dislike for hyperbole. Yet when you scratch the surface you uncover one of the most remarkable triumphs womenfolk has made to history. In a world saturated with social media and technology it seems hard to believe that there wouldn’t be one slip up, one misplaced tweet or a Facebook message. This may be facetious, but it almost underlines the incredible self-restraint that these women showed under extreme duress.
Picture Credit: Ludovic Ferre