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

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - LIFE & LEISURE -

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

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