WWII’s Female Code-breakers in Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park, how it looked before and at present; the women that worked in the WWII intelligence hub as code-breakers.
Bletchley Park, how it looked before and at present; the women that worked in the WWII intelligence hub as code-breakers.

Bletchley Park used to be Britain’s kept secret once, most especially in the raging years of World War II. For over 30 years, the activities in this decryption hub stayed hidden; only these recent years has the veil of secrecy been lifted.

And along with the lifting came the fact that WOMEN made up the majority of the working force when it came to the code-breaking movement.

The Story

“This is Norway checker,” a voice reverberated through the scrambler. “I have a good stop for you in Stavanger.”

The outside world hearing this message would not get its meaning but for 18-year-old Ruth Bourne working inside World War II’s code-breaking command, the seemingly innocent message contained an important piece of intelligence which she needed to pass on to her superiors for them to assess if it was part of the decryption puzzle.

Ruth worked together with thousands of women in Bletchley Park. Their jobs were to break down coded German signals sent from one Nazi general to another, getting vital information that would eventually be very useful for the Allies. Every room in that sizable mansion was named after a country overthrown by the Nazis with each machine named after one of that country’s town.

In Bletchley Park ran a simple but very efficient checking system which played a vital role in the Allies’ victory over Hitler’s reign.

The Art of Confidentiality

Margaret Bullen, as a young lady worked as a machine wire operator during WWII. She began working with the Colossus Machine in 1943.
Margaret Bullen, as a young lady worked as a machine wire operator during WWII. She began working with the Colossus Machine in 1943.

The state’s Bletchley recruits were far from being experienced code breakers; most of them were juvenile military neophytes, young crossword experts who could do The Daily Telegraph’s puzzle in twelve minutes or less and 18-year-old ladies taken from their quaint home towns.

“It was the middle of the war when I received a call saying I was to go into war work to support Britain’s efforts from home,” Margaret Bullen, 88, recalled. She worked as a machine operator during the Second World War and served from 1942 until the hostilities ended.

“A letter from the Foreign Office then arrived saying I had an interview — but I had no idea what it was for, and two weeks later, I was told I’d be off to Bletchley,” she added.

Becky Webb, 90, who joined the war efforts in 1941 at 18, also recalled similar experience as Margaret. She said:

“Before starting work we were told to sign the Official Secrets Act, which was a rather frightening experience for someone as young and naive as I was. I had no idea how I’d comply with it!”

However, compliance was not a choice; it was a must with the nature of their work. The three young women – Webb, Bullen and Bourne – were among the hundred others who became relentless guardians of the country’s clandestine history of decoding which stayed hidden for many decades.

As a matter of fact, the veil of secrecy that surrounded Bletchley Park was only lifted thirty years ago when ex-RAF officer, who later became a supervisor for ULTRA, Frederick W. Winterbotham published his tell-all book The Ultra Secret.

The said book, published in 1974, exposed the means in which Ultra intelligence was used to tap the communication happening behind the enemy lines and disperse the important information learned to the Allied forces.

Even though Winterbotham was implicated of amplifying and glorifying himself in his book, without it, the truth behind UK’s code-breaking operation would have remained in the dark until the last of the code-breakers passed on.

“It sounds strange that we knew so little about what was going on, but that was how it was,” Bullen reflected.

She then recounted:

“I was sent to live with a couple who were ordered to take me in because of the war. They never once asked me what I was doing there–nobody did–not even the local village workers who’d serve us coffee at the café on our lunch break, in spite of the fact a group of 18-year-olds had suddenly arrived in this little hamlet,” she explains.

“I only heard the name Colossus–the machine I was working on–some three decades after the war ended, and it wasn’t until I later visited Bletchley Park that I said: ‘this is where I worked, this is what I did!'”

The secretive decryption community may had been shocked with the revelations found in Winterbotham’s book but the knowledge about the whereabouts of Bletchley Park during WWII flowed in little by little and in infrequent occasions, the bulk of facts revealed only in the early 2000s.

“I’m delighted that we can discuss our time there now that everything has come out, and I give talks on the subject whenever I’m asked. I’ve given 97 to date!” Webb enthusiastically gushed.

Unknown and Silent War Champions

If WWII soldiers got their military decorations in exchange for the bravery they demonstrated throughout the war, the female code-breakers of Bletchley received no recognition for their war contributions – the secrecy surrounding their war works prevented the public from knowing their heroism until too late.

Yes, the veil had been lifted and the decryption operation became public knowledge but most of the workers’ parents had already passed away when this happened.

Bourne, who at 18 was recruited by the British Navy to work on one of Bletchley park’s expansions in Eastcote which were on the outskirts of London, was one of the women ho never got to tell her loved ones about what she did for WWII.

“You led two lives there. One life was in A Block, where you ate in the canteen, and talked about boyfriends, and getting trains to London, and where to find black nylon stockings,” she recalled.

B Block was where we worked, surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and two naval marines guarding the place. If you could make your voice heard over the noise of 12 Turing Bombe machines, that was the only time you would speak about work — but you never would. I never knew what any of my coworkers were doing, and vice versa, and my parents never knew a thing of it,” she added.

After Germany’s Third Reich fell and the war ended in 1945, many of the women working in Bletchley Park returned home; others were asked to stay and function within the military.

Bourne was tasked as a wire destroyer – she broke the cables that had been carefully connected during the war’s intelligence operations. On the other hand, Webb was assigned in Pentagon to paraphrase translated Japanese messages to be transmitted to officials.

“Upon leaving Bletchley, we really had no skills whatsoever apart from how to keep a secret!” Bourne gushed.

That secret would have died with Bletchley park which, 23 years ago, was planned to be torn down for a supermarket and housing project.

Bletchley Preservation

But the said project were not able to push through. May 1991 marked the turn of events for Bletchley Park – a small committee within the locality gathered together some war veterans at the park to bid their final farewell to the historic edifice.

But after hearing the wonderful stories retold by the female code-breakers, engineers and the members of WREN (Women’s Royal Naval Service) who all worked in Bletchley throughout WWII, they became determined to convert the area into a heritage site.

In 1992, The Bletchley Park Trust was formed. Regular reunions and exhibits held in the estate’s grounds started allowing former Bletchley workers and residents to share their personal experiences’ stories that were on the face of being lost from world history.

It might have been Winterbotham’s book which first revealed the secret lives of WWII code-breakers into the world; nevertheless, it clearly is not the last.

Earlier this year, a TV drama entitled The Bletchley Circle became popular in the UK and the US earlier this year proving that the once behind-the-veil lives of the decryption community have really steeped into the current popular culture.

And with a second series on the way as well as the exhibits done by the Trust which attracts visitors from around the globe, the worldwide interest on what was once the cryptic Bletchley Park is not showing signs of dying down.

It can be said that the the art of confidentiality that almost erased Bletchley Park from the map and eventually from the world’s history has truly come to pass.

CNN reports 

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE