The women of Bletchley Park tell their story

Ann Mitchell at her Edinburgh home. Picture: Jane Barlow

Ann Mitchell at her Edinburgh home. Picture: Jane Barlow

1
Have your say

OF THE thousands of women who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, only a few now survive to tell their extraordinary stories in service of their country

Carefully preserved in a thick photo album that rests on the coffee table of Ann Mitchell’s Edinburgh home, are her school reports. In the spring of 1937, as war clouds gather over Europe, her German teacher writes in beautiful copperplate: “She works hard and often with good results in compositions: her translation from German will improve with practice.” The teacher doesn’t know how true that prediction will be. Next to maths is written: “Quick to grasp new ideas”. An aptitude that was also to come in handy.

Bletchley Park - Women at work in Hut 6. Picture: Contributed

Bletchley Park - Women at work in Hut 6. Picture: Contributed

Maths was Ann’s talent, but little did she imagine that her skills would take her right to the heart of what Churchill described as “the secret weapon that won the war,” to Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire, headquarters of the government’s code-breaking operation and birthplace of the modern computer.

While others fought the Second World War in North Africa, Burma and Europe, it was on the foggy plains of England at the Government Code and Cypher School that another army of women – boffins, blue stockings, linguists and former factory girls – cracked the German code to save countless lives and shorten the war by at least two years.

Mitchell is one of two Scots among the 15 women who talk about their wartime experiences in The Bletchley Girls: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss: The Women of Bletchley Park Tell Their Story, published this week. Written by broadcaster and historian Tessa Dunlop, who has presented Coast and Radio 4’s Crossing Continents, it aims to bring the unsung heroines of Bletchley into the limelight and give them a share of the credit that so often goes to their male counterparts. Watch The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and you could be forgiven for thinking that Bletchley amounted to a few Boys’ Own blokes in a hut, aided by a feisty Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. The women are almost invisible save for a couple of Wrens carrying clipboards. We know they were all keeping mum, but a few more speaking parts here and there wouldn’t have hurt.

Dunlop was determined not to write yet another book on Bletchley Park that focused on the well-known male code-breakers such as Turing and Gordon Welchman. Since the centre was predominantly staffed by women, she wanted to track down some of the 75 per cent of the 8,000 plus workers who were female, the teenagers and young women who worked on every stage of the process: logging, copying, decoding, translating, indexing and analysing the messages sent by Germany and its allies.

Lady Jean Fforde in her home in Arran. Picture: Robert Perry

Lady Jean Fforde in her home in Arran. Picture: Robert Perry

“I wanted to write the women’s story, and also cover their lives before and after. Who were they, where did they come from and where are they now?” says Dunlop.

“The worker ants were women and it was a lottery whether they had interesting work or not. A lot of it was factory work, where that involved a piece of paper and a pencil. But for many it was a seminal experience. It was their first time away from home, first time earning a wage, albeit a pittance. It wasn’t as bad as working in a munitions factory or cutting wood like the land girls. You had a comfy berth, and even though they didn’t know what they were doing, or what the people in the next door room were doing the women knew it was important.

“Sworn to secrecy, they never talked about it at the time, but now for many of them to revisit it, is a fillip in old age. The Bletchley girls feel validated by being able to talk about it, to relive something that’s celebrated and acknowledged.”

The 1941 National Service Act meant British women had to work for the war effort and 7.5 million did, the highest proportion of any country’s population. With the capture of the German Enigma encryption machine, the race was on to crack the code and Churchill himself prioritised recruitment to Bletchley. Wrens, Waafs, linguists, maths graduates, a handful of code-breakers, debutantes and those who had correctly completed the Telegraph crossword of 13 January, 1942, were all signed up.

Keira Knightley, left and Benedict Cumberbatch appear in a scene from The Imitation Game. Picture: AP

Keira Knightley, left and Benedict Cumberbatch appear in a scene from The Imitation Game. Picture: AP

Their job was to crack the intercepted coded signal messages. It was in Hut 8 that Turing worked on breaking German naval ciphers, with the help of the bombe, an electromechanical machine he created to find the settings for the Enigma code machine. The next stage was for the code to be typed in to the Typex machines and plain text printed out, which was then translated. From 1941 their work began saving lives in Greece, North Africa and at sea in particular.

“Not only did breaking the code shorten the war, it also made our war machine more precise,” says Dunlop. “There was less waste and fewer casualties. The Germans had five different centres doing code breaking and that lacked the cohesion of Bletchley where the Foreign Office and the three military services worked together,” she says.

Ann Mitchell, who is now over 90 and lives in Edinburgh’s Inverleith, was an exception to the female worker-ant rule at Bletchley. In the book-lined sitting room of her comfortable home, where a 65th wedding anniversary card from the Queen takes pride of place, she talks about her job in Hut 6. There women with degrees in law, maths and economics, converted the guesses from cryptanalysts in the next room into menus, or diagrams, for the bombe machine to crack that day’s German army and air force messages. Every night at midnight the encryption changed and the brain-crunching work started again. It was time-pressured, adrenalised and she loved it.

“Worked like the devil all day. Good fun,” reads Mitchell’s diary entry for 29 December, 1943, written in tiny, blue-ink spider writing.

“I always loved doing sums, crosswords, problem solving, and wanted to study maths,” she tells me, an ambition realised when she was one of only five women accepted into Oxford to study maths in her year. When she graduated, aged 20, she started as a “temporary assistant in the Foreign Office” at Bletchley Park, on a salary of £150 per annum in June 1943.

“I was terribly pleased when I got the job. I didn’t want to go into the armed forces and do drilling and wear a saggy uniform,” says the twinkly-eyed nonagenarian who as a curly-haired, dimple-cheeked girl used to nip along to the Park Hotel for a gin and French between shifts. “The war had infiltrated my entire life. Made it more exciting I suppose,” she tells Dunlop.

“The work was very satisfying. We would get strings of code, just letters, morse from the listening station, then next door they decided what it possibly said. We had to make diagrams to link the pairs of letters together. What was enormously helpful was a date or one at 6:30am saying ‘nothing to report’. You could begin to work it out and that gave us what we called the crib for that day,” she says.

“So a would be s, or o would be s, and so on, millions of possibilities, because the Enigma machine had three wheels, each of which had three wheels. We didn’t know where the material came from and didn’t see the messages translated back into English.”

Even though she worked at the heart of the code breaking nexus in Hut 6, Mitchell never heard of Enigma while she was at Bletchley. Even now she’s not sure she saw a bombe machine. “I think I did. It was an enormous thing.”

“The work was compartmentalised and some didn’t know they were working on code breaking,” says Dunlop. “They didn’t ask questions. They just did it. Even after the war there was Stalin controlling half of Europe and you don’t want people to know we had the ability to break codes,” she says.

“Why would you give away your secret weapon and flaunt it on the world stage,” says Dunlop. “The women themselves didn’t tell the secret. In the 1970s journalists and historians wrote about it.”

Ann Mitchell’s diary rarely mentions the war and afterwards, Ann told anyone who asked, including her husband Angus, that she had worked in the Foreign Office. No wonder: to talk about the confidential work at Bletchley was to break the Official Secrets Act, and punishable by death. Bletchley girls didn’t blab.

“I used to say I did office work if anyone asked. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone. We thought the Official Secrets Act lasted until death. When the first book came out, I remember saying ‘no-one can write about Bletchley, it’s secret’. People could keep secrets then. Now they couldn’t do that,” she says.

She’s right. In an internet age when every sneeze, musing and personal detail is shared on Twitter and Facebook, the idea of 8,000 people keeping a secret down the decades is unthinkable.

“Then, we were ‘Be Like Dad, Keep Mum’ so we did,” says Mitchell. “Now people are impressed by what we did. I think my family are proud of it.”

After Bletchley, Ann married the newly-demobbed Angus Mitchell in 1948 and the couple settled in Edinburgh where they raised four children. Ann returned to university in the 1970s to study social policy and become a major figure in academic research on divorce and family break up with her book, Children in the Middle. Along with Angus, who was also a war hero and won a Military Cross and a Dutch Order of Orange, she has an interest in genealogy and the pair volunteered for Birth Link reuniting families.

“The kind of mind that looks for a crib at Bletchley Park is the kind of mind that looks for a father or mother and will keep looking. Putting families back together and solving mysteries, there’s a link,” says the grandmother of six.

Does she think films like The Imitation Game do justice to the facts?

“I was lucky, I had a very interesting job”

“We can’t get about much so we have to wait for the DVD to judge it,” says Angus. “Some people say it’s splendid, others that it’s a travesty, and some who know say it has enormous silly mistakes,” adds Ann. “We’ll see.

“I was lucky, I had a very interesting job but some people found it boring,” she says.

One of those who admits to finding it boring is Lady Jean Fforde, aged 93, who went to Bletchley Park in 1941 and started work in Hut 8, alongside Turing and Joan Clarke. But as her fascinating memoir, Castles to Catastrophes, attests, working at Bletchley Park was rather a dull chapter in an otherwise colourful life.

“I had no idea how boring it was going to be. It was excessively boring,” says Lady Jean, whose refreshing honesty gives an insight into the crushing tedium experienced by the thousands of women on the conveyor belt of decoding, a human computer whose efforts saved thousands of lives. Such was the impact of their work that history has quite rightly seen their role as crucial, but it was by no means as glamorous as subsequent books and films have made it appear.

The daughter of the 6th Duke of Montrose, Lady Jean Fforde was brought up in Brodick Castle on Arran in the summer and Buchanan Castle at Drymen in the winter, with cousins Prince Rainier of Monaco and his sister Antoinette for playmates. It was an idyllic, privileged childhood.

A debutante, Lady Jean ‘came out’ in 1939 when she was presented to the king, but much as she enjoyed balls and parties, she was desperate to join the war effort. Bouts of TB in childhood shattered her dreams of joining the Wrens and her mother insisted she help with volunteering work on Arran. Things looked up, however, when 8,000 commandos arrived to train on the island. Tragically, her commando sweetheart Johnny was killed in a raid on the Lofoten islands in Norway (during which several wheels from an Enigma machine were captured, a link with her future role), so by the age of 21 Lady Jean was desperate to play an active role in what was unfolding around her. Her father had a word with Lord Mountbatten and like Ann Mitchell, she was offered a job as a “temporary assistant” with the Foreign Office.

Although Lady Jean’s job didn’t turn out to be quite so satisfying.

“If you can call it a job, ticking boxes,” she says, at her home on Arran. “I would get up every morning with dread. It went on and on, ticking, ticking.”

After a touch typing course in Glasgow bound for “a terribly secret place” she arrived in the foggy flatlands of Buckinghamshire in early 1942. For the next year she marked the letters in the German messages then perforated the same marks on “lavatory paper”.

“If three holes matched it was most likely der, die or das and you passed it through the hatch to the next room. There was one coder who put Heil Hitler at the end of his messages. That was helpful. Doing this for a year sent me nearly crazy,” she says. “Strips of lavatory paper, marking letters, punching holes, comparing papers. Hour after hour of routine drudgery.”

The job was dull, the food was “indescribable” and the few men there were “awful types”, plus “you weren’t allowed out once you got there,” says Lady Jean. But she escaped to London at the weekends where she stayed at the Dorchester and danced on the roof as the bombs rained down on London.

Lady Jean may have found it boring but she was in fact right at the heart of the Britain’s most secret organisation in Hut 8, where Turing was working on the machines that decoded the Engima messages. Contrary to the Turing as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is loathed by his colleagues, Lady Jean found him to be a “very nice man, a lovely man, who should have had public recognition.

“He was a lovely man, an accessible man,” says Lady Jean. “Sweet, handsome, shabby, nail-bitten, sometimes halting in speech and awkward in manner.”

Turing’s homosexuality, like his niceness, is another area where The Imitation Game didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, implying he was terrified of his secret coming out.

“He just wouldn’t keep quiet about it,” says Lady Jean. “He was far too honest. You couldn’t go around talking like that.”

Working beside Turing and Lady Jean was Joan Clarke, a mathematician and cryptanalyst, who also became his fiancée.

“We all wondered how it happened when they got engaged. She really loved him I think. She was a very bright woman but she was a blue stocking and had never had a boyfriend before. He tried, but it didn’t work. When she found out, she attacked me and said, ‘You knew he was a homosexual, and you didn’t tell me!’ It came as a great shock to her. But otherwise, Bletchley Park was extremely dull.”

And did Joan Clarke look like Keira Knightley?

“No, she looked like the back end of a boot (sic). But she was very clever.”

Turing was charged with acts of indecency in 1952 and chose probation, rather than imprisonment, a condition of which was to agree to hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. The sentence also saw him lose his security clearance and barred him from continuing with his cryptography. He committed suicide in 1954 and was posthumously pardoned in 2010.

After a year “ticking those wretched pieces of paper” Lady Jean managed to get a job in the billeting office persuading locals to give up their spare rooms to Bletchley workers. Few felt able to refuse the six foot tall, confident debutante but Lady Jean wanted something more adventurous and managed to get into the Motor Transport Corps. She chauffeured VIPs and delivered papers until, with the Axis powers losing the war, the messages tailed off. A relieved Lady Jean was released in 1944 to embark on an adventure in India where she worked as a Red Cross welfare officer with former Japanese PoWs. Marriage to John Fforde, head of the CID in British-run Palestine, in 1947, took her there and around the Empire, to Sierra Leone and Rhodesia, before the couple divorced in 1957.

Lady Jean had always kept mum about her time at Bletchley, right up until the 1970s when the story began to emerge after the publication of Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham’s book The Ultra Secret, among others.

“I saw someone had written a book about it and it was mentioned in the Telegraph. I said to Baroness Trumpington (her friend the Tory peer, who was also a Bletchley girl), ‘someone’s written a book!’ She said, ‘you’re allowed to now, it’s 30 years on.’ At the time we signed up we were told we would be shot as traitors if we talked.

“Eight thousand people and it never got out. We didn’t blab. We couldn’t do that today. I haven’t thought about it very much, don’t talk about it much really. There aren’t many still alive who were there to talk about it with!”

Their work shortened the war and saved countless lives

Whatever the experience for the individuals concerned, fun or dull, routine or life-changing, experts estimate that the work of the women like Ann Mitchell and Lady Jean Fforde at Bletchley Park shortened the war and saved countless lives, as well as heralding the birth of the computer age. With the 70th anniversary of VE Day this year, it’s time for the Bletchley girls to finally talk.

• The Bletchley Girls: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss: The Women of Bletchley Park Tell Their Story by Tessa Dunlop is published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardback at £20 on Thursday.

Back to the top of the page