Obituary: Enid Bruce, wren and cipher officer

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Born: 24 June, 1919 in Newcastle Upon Tyne.Died: 2 October, 2014 in Morpeth. Aged 95.

Enid Bruce was a cipher officer who worked on one of the fastest troopships in the Royal Navy.

The converted liner Queen Elizabeth plied the Atlantic for much of the Second World War transporting injured American troops to New York and returning with vital armament supplies and food for Britain.

The liner’s size and sturdy build ensured it could not only cope with the most challenging weather conditions but its ability to travel at speed meant it could outstrip even the fastest German U-boats. That meant no large support convoys were necessary. The U-boats that patrolled the Atlantic caused havoc for the Merchant Navy and although they posed a constant threat to the Queen Elizabeth, the ship made numerous crossings without attack.

The security on the liner had been strict from the day she left the Clyde in March 1940. Those arrangements were increased and the cipher room was to be provided with the most up-to-date radio equipment in Southampton after the liner left the Clyde. But it was decided that the work could not be carried out in Britain as spies might have informed the Germans and the Queen Elizabeth would be a prime target for the Luftwaffe.

The ship sailed from the Clyde to an anchorage just off Gourock and zig-zagged its way across the Atlantic. Further refitting was carried out and she was then converted into a troopship in Singapore in late 1940. The luxury liner was fitted with anti-aircraft guns and her hull was repainted black. The Queen Elizabeth principally sailed from Greenock to New York transporting over 750,000 troops and sailing 500,000 miles. Winston Churchill stated that the Queen Elizabeth and its sister ship the Queen Mary had, “shortened the war by at least a year”.

Bruce held a most trusted and responsible post on the liner.

Bruce held a most trusted and responsible post on the liner. As cipher officer she had to decode all the highly secret messages that came in from the Admiralty regarding enemy shipping and sea conditions. Of equal importance was her role in the event of a surprise attack by a torpedo.

Bruce carried orders to the effect that if the ship was struck she had to make her way to the bridge and, despite the chaos and amidst the distress signals, she had to open the captain’s safe and destroy all the codebooks with the secret sailing instructions and information.

The books were all lined with lead – so they would instantly sink when thrown into the ocean. By throwing them overboard Bruce would prevent such sensitive information falling into the hands of the enemy.

Enid Lilian Brown was born in Newcastle upon Tyne – both her parents came from Berwick-upon-Tweed and when war was declared Bruce was working as a dental nurse in Newcastle. She joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (the Wrens) and trained in Newcastle, Greenwich, and Greenock. Her duties with the Wrens included work in America but she was also often stationed in Glasgow where she stayed with a friend, Kathleen Bruce, whose father edited the Glasgow Herald.

She also met Kathleen’s brother Charlie, who was serving with distinction with the Chindits in Burma – winning the Military Cross and bar. The citation for his MC demonstrated the measure of her future husband. It read: “During the whole period his courage, cheerfulness and unfailing sense of humour was a remarkable source of inspiration.” Within two days he proposed to her by telegram as she was already en route back to New York. She accepted, by wire, and was granted compassionate leave to return to the UK to get married. Bruce cabled her mother: “Getting married. Stop. Do things for me. Stop. See you soon. Love, Enid.” She was flown back in a seaplane – the only other passenger was the violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

She and Charlie were married in Newcastle and honeymooned in war-damaged London before he returned to Burma.

He suffered severe head injuries in Burma on a canoe trip down a river. By sheer coincidence, a prominent neurosurgeon was passing through Rangoon and his life was saved.

After the war he worked in a bakery business and she concentrated on bringing up her family, to whom she was devoted. He died in 1994 and Enid Bruce is survived by their son and daughter, two grandchildren and a great grandson.