The veterans of Bletchley Park decode their experiences for book launch

09 February 2015

Code-breaking equipment at Bletchley Park

The Imitation Game, starring Brit actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly, was one of the biggest blockbusters of 2014.

The film, which told the story of Alan Turing and how he helped lead a top secret mission to break the Enigma Code from the covert confines of Bletchley Park during the Second World War, has been nominated for eight gongs at this year’s Academy Awards.

For the veterans of Bletchley Park, the now famous Edwardian mansion in Buckinghamshire, the film is a lasting tribute to their endeavours all those years ago.

As is a new book, by Bletchley’s chief historical advisor, entitled The Debs of Bletchley Park. In the book, historian Michael Smith recounts the stories of 45 of the women, who were a huge part of efforts to decode the encrypted messages sent between enemy aircraft.

Their code-breaking work is estimated to have shortened the Second World War by two years and saved thousands of lives.

However, the culture of secrecy among the 10,000 code breakers and administrative staff was so enveloping - everyone who worked at Bletchley had to sign the Official Secrets Act - that they never discussed their work with their colleagues, and many never even formally met, despite working in huts within yards of each other.

The women were not even allowed to tell their families and loved ones about their wartime work and kept quiet right up until the secret of how they decoded Enigma messages was sensationally disclosed in a book by Frederick William Winterbotham, ‘The Ultra Secret’, in 1974.

Among the women whose war efforts are chronicled in the latest book by Smith are 92-year-olds Betty Webb and Mary Every. Despite both working at on encrypting Japanese messages from Bletchley back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, they only met for the first time, along with four more of their former colleagues, at the official launch of the book this month.

“It was lovely to meet her at last,” Mrs Every told members of the press who were invited to witness the launch and, what was described by Smith as an ‘unprecedented” gathering of female Bletchley veterans in one room. 

Seven female Bletchley veterans, who together have a combined age of 639, attended the launch wearing the gold and blue brooches they were finally awarded for the war efforts in 2009. Each told of the absolutely secrecy which ruled their lives, not just throughout the war years but for decades after.  

Margaret Mortimer, whose parents died before she could tell them about Bletchley, said: “Nobody knew what anyone else was doing. I was told I would not be allowed to go anywhere until the war ended, which felt like a prison sentence. I am sad my parents never knew what I did here.”

Despite the secrecy, it wasn’t all hard work and the women made sure they made the most of their free time when off duty, admitting that each weekend they would jump on a train to London and “have some fun”. Remembering, of course, not to let anything slip about their day jobs.

Jean Tocker, who worked as a Wren in the Bletchley Park Naval Section, said: “It became second nature to not talk about it. We are the survivors.”

Click here to watch a video of the Bletchley Park veterans talk about their experiences and their emotional reunion at the launch of The Debs of Bletchley Park.

Author Michael Smith is set to give a talk about his book as part of the prestigious Bletchley Park Presents lecture series on Sunday, 15th March.


Image Source: Shutterstock

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