The women who broke the Bletchley codes

Date Posted: 11/02/2015

Hundreds of tourists pass through the doors of Bletchley Park every year; but the truth of what really went on there has only recently been revealed. Carrie Martindale was there when the lid was lifted on one chapter of the venue’s top secret past.

I was in the midst of a media frenzy at Bletchley Park for the launch of a new book by its chief historical advisor.

The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories by Michael Smith, features the memories of 45 women who worked at the site during World War Two.

Michael Smith commented: “In this book I wanted to describe the war through the eyes of the women. There are only three men quoted in it, and those three men are Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and one of the women’s husbands.”

It is only recently that the staff from Bletchley has been allowed to speak about what happened at the site, after over 70 years of secrecy, and the event was also the first time that some of the ladies found out what each other did. 

Those of us in the audience at the end of January were privileged to hear from six of those ladies and I also had the opportunity to interview two of the veterans, Lady Marion Body and Jean Tocher.

Jean Tocher, from Poole in Dorset, was a Wren in the Bletchley Park Naval Section working on the ‘Allied Plot’.

This was a chart of the world, covering all four walls of one room on which a number of Wrens plotted the movement of all the allied ships and their German, Italian and Japanese opposite numbers.

What was the atmosphere like here at Bletchley Park?

Jean Tocher: “It was very busy. It was a really close feeling as we were small teams on each watch. We were all friends but as soon as the door shut on the outside, no word was spoken between us – ever – about what went on in there. We knew each other well, but we didn’t know much what everybody was doing. “

Were you aware of the importance of what you were contributing towards?

Jean: “You don’t sit there and think ‘oh, we are doing this’ but because we were on the plot, we were on the last ‘bit’. German code messages were being intercepted and sent immediately to Bletchley and eventually decoded, transcribed and sent to us.

“We needed to get the plot up-to-date very quickly so that if there was a danger from U-Boats or from German battle ships, there was a visual picture of what was going on. This was sent to the people actually doing the fighting so they could intercept or do something about it.

Were you frightened for the men on the front line?

Jean: “Oh, of course, you were, but it was exciting in a way and you were so busy that your emotions were somewhat dampened.

“Somehow the admiralty knew if one of the Wrens working on the plot had a brother, father, fiancée or husband fighting. And because we knew immediately when a ship had sunk, they arranged it so that we knew straight away when the survivors list was out.

How important do you think it is to have a site like Bletchley Park open to the general public?

Jean: “We didn’t think we were all that important, honestly, but from what people have said to me I have come to feel that perhaps it is important to keep a museum going.

“The thing I have noted most is that school age children – really quite young – seem thrilled about this and their parents and grandparents say: “Oh what about going to see Jean Tocher?”.

“I get lots of children who’ve got a project at school coming to talk to me about what I did in the war.

“There is a lot of interest from the youngsters which makes me feel that the answer to your question is that yes - it is important to have the museum here so that people can come and realise that bit of our past.”

Lady Marion Body from Berkshire worked on Japanese encoded messages.

Was the secrecy difficult?

Marion Body: “You must know that we were quite used to notices being posted up in stations saying ‘Careless talk costs lives’, so if you saw something you didn’t go and tell people.

“You didn’t talk, whatever you did. I think people were probably better at keeping secrets in those days. People do chat too much now – and there’s Twitter, too, of course.

“I think it was probably the atmosphere here too [that helped], because you were taken upstairs when you arrived and you had to sign the act [the Official Secrets act]. You would have been pretty stupid if you didn’t realise what was going on; I realised what was up as soon as I started typing.

“But I was sorry that my parents never knew; I think my father would have liked to have known. He guessed that I was doing something special I think.”

How were you recruited?

Marion: “I’d been to an extremely good secretarial college, my father insisted that I went to one of the best in the country – so I was very fortunate, because he was determined that I was going to get an interesting job as I grew up.

“I volunteered for the Wrens, and [at first] there was a terrible silence and nothing happened but then I got called to the Foreign Office and then within a fortnight I was given a ticket to come down to Bletchley.”

Did you feel cut off from your family and friends?

Marion: “I’d been away from my parents a lot, my father had been serving in India so I was quite used to that sort of thing, boarding school and so on – so no.

“But because of the shift system, as one of them said, it was sometimes difficult to take part in any of the activities.

If you were billeted nearby then yes you probably had transport, or even a bicycle, but if you were 20 miles away, as I was in Bedford, it was much more difficult. I did a bit of socialising, but it was all very difficult.

“And if you hadn’t got in from the evening shift until 1am in the morning, you honestly didn’t feel like coming in the next day and watching a play here.”

How important do you think it is that places like Bletchley Park still exist to educate the public?

Marion: “I think young people ought to know what went on during the war – not just here but all sorts of things; how it was in everyday life.

“When I first heard about Bletchley I didn’t quite believe it, so I got in the car one day and I drove up here on one miserable November day - and it was open to the public. I came into this room [the library] and there was a little lecture being given here about what had gone on.

“Someone asked: ‘By any chance, is there anyone here who worked here at the time?’ And I of course said: ‘Yes, I did.’ Of course, the whole room looked at me, and they couldn’t believe it.

“I walked round talking to people and they were fascinated, and that was when I realised that it was a very good thing that people should be involved like that.”

Bletchley Park runs guided tours for groups throughout the year.

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