A remarkable lady: Patricia Barry – Codebreaker In WWII

On 21st August 1921, Hilda Patricia Rawlinson was born in Walthamstow, a suburb in the east end of London, to Percy and Hilda Rawlinson. Her father was a cabinet maker and her mother undertook French Polishing for him.

She grew up in a loving family and Patricia, as she became known as she detested the name Hilda, was a very intelligent young lady. She won a scholarship to a grammar school in London but unfortunately due to the Great Depression, her parents could not afford to send her to this prestigious school.

After leaving school Patricia worked as a waitress in a tea house, complete with a severe black uniform covered by a snowy white apron. With her intelligence, this type of work was sure to pall quickly and Patricia went to night school to study secretarial skills. She excelled at her studies and became an expert typist and an expert stenographer who could record shorthand at the speed at which people could speak.

When World War II broke out she worked for the British government and she was then invited to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. This organisation (FANY) was a cover for the female operatives of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Patricia had been recruited as a decoder within this organisation when she came to their attention through her boyfriend at the time.

He was a Polish national undergoing specialist training.  She was trained in decoding at Bletchley Park, the home of the WWII code breakers, and after basic training, she was sent to Chicheley Hall where she was taken under the wing of Leo Marks.

Marks wrote the book Between Silk and Cyanide, and detailed the impressive and unsung work of the FANY decoders. On arriving at Chicheley Hall, the young ladies were taken to a damp, cold basement and locked in with no explanation. What they were not told was that the basement had been bugged and their conversation, racy and ripe, was recorded.

Marks wrote in his book, “To realise that it was their own voices they were listening to, it became clear that we had a most promising intake [with] their free-flowing language, scatological humour and picturesque imagery.”  The intention of this exercise was to show the young ladies how dangerous it was to discuss their work outside of the office. Marks final piece of advice to the girls was, “Good luck and good coding and remember you’re the only hope that agent’s got.”

Patricia and her colleagues were part of an extremely elite unit known as ‘The Indecipherables’. Their task was to take garbled messages received from SOE agents across Nazi-occupied Europe and attempt to decode them.

These messages received from agents operating under extreme duress were garbled because of simple errors or the agent had lost the code sheet or simply this was an attempt by the SS to infiltrate the SOE organisation.

They had to rely on their intelligence to decipher and recognize the patterns of the codes in front of them. A favoured method was to use a substitution square, a relatively simple methodology whereby a square was printed onto a silk cloth with symbols taking the place of letters of the alphabet.

The ladies had to determine what letters of the alphabet were hidden by the symbols, determine if the agent had simply made a mistake or if he or she had been captured by the Gestapo and was being coerced into sending the message in the hopes of luring others into their traps. None of this was easy work and as Mr Marks had told them, they were the last hope for many of these agents and the work carried out by these ladies was of inestimable importance.

The silk squares also gave rise to the title of Mr Mark’s book as agents carried the squares along with a cyanide capsule, hence the name for the book.

Patricia worked in the French Section of the unit and was based in Baker Street in London. Needless to say with the work done by the ladies along with Baker Street being made famous by Sherlock Holmes, the unit quickly became known as the Baker Street Irregulars, after the boys in the Holmes novels.

In 1944, with the successful D-Day landings and the retaking of France by the Allied forces, the amount of work for the FANY ladies was reducing so some of them were sent to the Far East. Patricia was one of the ladies sent and on board ship, Patricia met her future husband.

According to her daughter, Ailsa Barry of Ottawa, “My mother was a stunner, tall and willowy with striking green eyes, and an RAF [Royal Air Force] officer tried to chat her up on the ship and she told him to buzz off. That officer was my father, and he persisted.”

Patricia was based in Colombo, in modern-day Sri Lanka, and was responsible for decoding messages from agents across Asia. Her boyfriend, Frank Barry, was an intelligence officer responsible for pilot debriefing and interpreting aerial photographs, and was stationed in Calcutta. They took every opportunity to meet and they regularly hitched rides in RAF planes to meet during coinciding periods of leave.

Not only was Patricia an expert code breaker but she was also friendly and outgoing. Ailsa Barry remembers being told that “My mother was a great dancer, and she put on reviews with the other FANYs. One of them was for Lord Mountbatten.” It is likely that these shows were great favourites amongst the troops stationed nearby.

Frank and Patricia were married in India in 1945 and on returning to England Frank went to art school. When he qualified they moved to the Isle of Wight where he taught. Having both lived exciting lives, this staid life was soon wearing them down and they started looking around for somewhere else to live and in 1963, they packed up their family and moved to Montreal in Canada.

Frank started teaching art under the auspices of the Montreal Protestant School Board and Patricia became the assistant to the headmaster at Lower Canada College (LCC), a private boys’ school in Montreal.

After a long and successful working career, these two admirable souls retired to Port Credit, Ontario where they both kept themselves busy with many community projects. Frank Barry died in 2013 at the age of 100 and Patricia recently passed away at the age of 94.

Patricia Barry was a remarkable woman who made a huge contribution to the war effort. She may not have carried a gun nor stormed a beach but her contribution to the security of the messages between agents of the SOE and their handlers in London cannot be underestimated.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE