After three decades shrouded in secrecy, there now appear to be few stories untold about Bletchley Park, the code-breaking centre in Buckinghamshire whose work is thought to have shortened the Second World War by up to three years. Historians have had huge fun with a cast of 12,000, ranging from mathematicians to Egyptologists. Dillwyn Knox, a Cambridge classical papyrus expert, used to work in his pyjamas, while Alan Turing, the pioneer of the computer age, liked to take his cat on walks. When Churchill, an avid supporter, visited, he said to the head of MI6, “When I told you to leave no stone unturned recruiting for this place, I didn’t expect you to take me literally.” Much, too, has been written about the impact of the Bletchley alumni after the war. Michael Smith, author of The Secrets of Station X, points out that they included the chief prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials, the music directors of Sadler’s Wells and the BBC, the founder of Amnesty International, and John Cairncross, the traitor.
But what of the Bletchley women? Outnumbering the men by four to one, they included Wrens, Waafs, linguists, a handful of codebreakers and a smattering of dutiful debutantes recruited by telegram. What did they do next? An ITV murder mystery starting this week, The Bletchley Circle, imagines how four of them might have dusted off their wartime intelligence skills in 1951 to try to stop a serial killer.
The post-war reality, however, was a little less dramatic. Sinclair McKay’s recent book, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, details how most women returned to traditional family roles. Those who didn’t sometimes found themselves bored or thwarted – ITV’s drama in fact gives us just such a character, the frustrated librarian Jean (Julie Graham) who once was handling top secret documents. Of one real-life ex-Bletchley lady, McKay writes, “After the relative comfort and even romanticism of Bletchley Park, this new prospect of dull work for low wages began to gnaw at her.”
That was not, of course, the case for everyone. The same woman later got a job at the BBC World Service after her interviewer, Churchill’s interpreter at Yalta, guessed that she had been at Bletchley. Jean Campbell-Harris, later Baroness Trumpington, enjoyed a successful political career. Ruth Bourne, now a sprightly 86, relates how she swapped her job at Bletchley as an operator of the bombe [the device used to help decipher encrypted signals from Germany’s Enigma machine] for running a launderette in north London. “The launderette was slightly more interesting,” she tells me. “If watching the bombe, there was no one to talk to. In the launderette, you met all the customers.”
Some Bletchley workers stayed in touch – although not, it would seem, for amateur sleuthing purposes – but famously never talked about it. John Herivel, responsible for one of the first Enigma breakthroughs, had to remain quiet while his dying father attacked him for “doing nothing during the war”.
“You got so used to not talking to anyone,” says Mrs Bourne, who recalls her mother pressing her for more information. “Oh yes, I thought,” she says, laughing. “It will be all around Birmingham in five minutes.”
Iain Brown, whose mother Irene Young wrote a memoir in 1990, recalls how she even had to keep her billet landladies in the dark, preferring to endure the innuendo that she’d been out partying with American airmen, not working night shifts at the Park. The secret finally emerged in a book published in 1974. “It was a bit of a non event in a way,” says Mrs Bourne. When she gave the book to her husband, an RAF officer, explaining that it described what she had done during the war, he replied, “That’s interesting, dear, what’s for tea?” Anna Maxwell Martin’s patronising husband in The Bletchley Circle has been endowed with a similar lack of interest in his spouse.
Today the museum at Bletchley attracts more than 150,000 visitors a year. Last year Mrs Bourne, who volunteers at Bletchley, met the Queen, when she came to unveil a long-overdue memorial. “Who would have thought all this would happen when I was a…