The secret weapons at the Park
Author Michael Smith has written a book shining a muchdeserved spotlight on Britain’s secret weapon against Nazi Germany – the women of Bletchley Park
THE codebreakers of Bletchley Park are renowned for having cut as much as two years off the length of the war saving countless lives.
The success of the recent film about the work done at Bletchley Park, The Imitation Game, has reinforced the idea of a secretive organisation staffed by a small number of brilliant men like Alan Turing who broke the German Enigma codes.
The only woman in the film was Keira Knightley playing Turing’s fiancée Joan Clarke, a role that has ironically led to an Oscar nomination for ‘best actress in a supporting role’.
But the reality was far different to the film. There were more than ten thousand codebreakers at Bletchley Park, two thirds of whom were women.
And while many of them did play ‘a supporting role’, they worked in every section. Several of the top codebreakers at Bletchley Park, including Joan Clarke, were women.
The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories describes who they were, where they came from, what they did both at work and at play while they were at Bletchley and what became of them after the war.
The ‘Other Stories’ are important. The women who worked at Bletchley Park weren’t just Debs, they came from across the social divides that dominated Britain at that time.
Early on many of the young women recruited to Bletchley were ‘Debs’, deemed with the snobbery common at the time to be reliable, young women who could be trusted not to give away the secret that Bletchley was breaking the German codes.
But very soon, the success of Bletchley Park meant they had to recruit large numbers of other women many of whom had struggled to get a good education for themselves.
Marigold Freeman-Attwood, from Haddenham in Buckinghamshire, had fought tooth and nail to force her parents to let her go to Oxford where she read English Literature.
She joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Wrens, and was sent to Bletchley Park where she worked on Colossus, the world’s first digital electronic computer.
‘I was billeted at Woburn Abbey. It was rather grand but icy cold. I slept in a little hut.
“We called them cabins because we had to speak Navy talk all the time. So we didn’t eat in a dining room we ate in a galley.’
They were bussed backwards and forwards to Bletchley for each shift and had to feed the German messages through the Colossus computer on paper tape.
The decoded messages told allied commanders precisely what Hitler was telling his generals ahead of the D-Day invasion so they knew precisely what the Germans would do.
But the existence of the world’s first electronic computer at Bletchley was so secret that it was never revealed until decades later.
Marigold went back to Bletchley for the first time when a team led by Tony Sale was rebuilding Colossus.
‘They asked me all about it and said: “We can’t work out what this little cavity was for. Do you know?” I said: “Oh that’s where we kept our make-up.”’
Michael Smith is the author of The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories published by Aurum
Marigold Freeman-Attwood at Bletchley Park with the Colossus and right, as a WREN