The Secret Life of Doreen
Signing the official secrets act in her teens, 99-year old Doreen Gibbs has a habit of not talking about herself too much.
Happily living in her apartment at Amelia Court in Worthing, Doreen today keeps herself busy chatting over coffee in the garden or in the homeowners’ lounge when the weather isn’t being so kind (socially distanced at the moment!), and lunching at the onsite bistro with her neighbours.
But back in 1942, her life was somewhat different. Following finishing-school in Switzerland where she studied French and German, 19-year old Doreen was called up to join the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in the Japanese Naval Section.
She says: “It’s known as the best kept secret of the war, and it really was. No one knew what was going on there, even the cleaners just assumed we were office girls.
“I made two lovely friends who joined on the same day as me. From then on, we were friends for life. We would socialise, holiday, take leave together but not once did we talk about what we were doing. We all had that mutual understanding.
“I remember a man who would treat us to lunch individually but only ever once. We later found out he was trying to catch us out. As far as I know, everyone passed the test!”
At the time, Doreen didn't quite realise how significant her role at Bletchley Park would be in the war. As it was such as enigmatic set-up, she never did know what was going on around her and knew not to ask questions to find out.
“It was always very quiet, silent even. We had our own bits of paper with our code on it which would be passed in a tube to the next room, and you didn’t know who would then pick it up from there.”
She’s since learnt much more about it, along with the Second World War altogether, from reading books later in life.
“Often when I read books or watch TV programmes now and see the Bletchley ladies with their ‘page boy’ style hair, I think I was a part of that and wonder if that could be me.”
Doreen was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park until the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.
Following the war, she went to work for her father, a silversmith, eventually taking over the business on behalf of her brother who sadly passed away during the war. She managed to successfully build the factory in Sheffield and showrooms in London into a luxury firm, despite facing challenges of being a woman and a boss at the time.
Outside of work, she had a young family with her late-husband who was a pilot during the war. As well as road tripping to Europe for family holidays, she found time to play golf, a hobby she grew fond of during her time at Bletchley Park.
“My mother was a big golfer - she was even crowned Essex Champion one year - and growing up I never thought I would like it. But when I was at Bletchley Park, I would play on their 9-hole green – and have been a fan ever since! After the war, I joined Wimbledon Park Golf Club and played in matches for many years. Being the boss had its advantages and meant I could take off days whenever I fancied.”
In July, Doreen celebrated her 99th birthday at Amelia Court, surrounded by her family and homeowners who joined her for a socially distanced party in the landscaped gardens.