The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Brilliant young Bombe machine operator who supported codebreaking at Bletchley Park
MARGARET BETTS, who has died aged 99, was a Wren and, as a teenager, was one of the last “Bombe” operators of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) during the Second World War.
GC&CS had many cognomens: to the wits it was the Golf, Cheese and Chess Society, to others in wartime it was the mysterious “Station X”, in 21st-century shorthand it is “Bletchley Park” (named after its principal location), but to the thousands of members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service – the Wrens – who served there it was the stone frigate, HMS Pembroke V or simply “PV”.
About 8,000, or 75 per cent, of the workforce at GC&CS were women, who operated cryptographic and communications machinery, translated enemy signals and undertook many other duties: most were Wrens.
They generally worked in three eighthour shifts around the clock, and, operating the large analogue decoding machines Colossus and Bombe – used for breaking enemy coded signal traffic – they were the beating heart of GC&CS.
“Vera” (Elvira) Laughton Mathews, the Director, Women’s Royal Naval Service, from its re-formation in 1939 until 1946, a Catholic and a feminist, was determined that her girls should have proper work and not merely replace men in menial shore jobs. She actively schemed that, even if far from the sea, Wrens should be recruited to contribute directly to the war effort at GC&CS.
Originally there were just two machines in a hut at Bletchley, but as the number of machines grew steadily, new ones were dispersed to outstations to reduce the risks from German bombing. A few Bombes were left at Bletchley Park for demonstration and training purposes only.
Then, when it was reckoned that the introduction of a fourth rotor to the German navy’s Enigma cipher machine would need more than 70 new Bombes, Vera Laughton Mathews enthusiastically cooperated in recruiting an additional 700 Wrens, even if she was not allowed to visit GC&CS, nor know precisely what her girls’ duties were.
Margaret Betts (née Booth) volunteered for the Wrens in early 1943. “They had the best uniform,” she said: she was issued with it after two weeks’ initial training at Mill Hill in North London.
Wrens were selected on the basis, apparently, that they were 5½ft tall, had matriculated in maths, were mechanically minded and, preferably, had large hands so as to operate the machines.
So, in January 1944, Margaret Betts and half a dozen women from her entry of Wrens were sent to Eastcote on the Piccadilly Line. Further training, some at Bletchley Park, was on the job.
The work was noisy and hot, pervaded by the smell of oil, and required the Wrens to be on their feet for most of each eight-hour shift.
It was, Margaret Betts insisted, humdrum work: “We were operating machines night and day… you just had to stand by the machines, you had to concentrate when you were programming it and make sure it was set up correctly, and the rest of the time you were there watching it, waiting for it to come up with something.”
From June 1944 to mid-1945, Margaret Betts carried out similar work at another outstation, Gayhurst Manor.
She always maintained that she was a small cog in a giant machine. “Please don’t come away with the idea that we’re all Alan Turings, because we were not,” she said. “We were there operating the machines, we were obeying orders, we were applying logic to do what we were told to do, and we were doing so efficiently and intelligently, but we didn’t design the machines for decoding. We were the service staff who were operating them.”
In May 1945 she celebrated VE Day in London, returning to Bletchley Park itself until VJ Day in August, where she worked in the naval section, NS II, on Japanese codes.
Born Margaret Booth in Ipswich on December 27 1923, she was one of three children of Daniel and Dorothy Booth: all three siblings won scholarships and Margaret was educated at Ipswich High School.
When war broke out her father joined the air ministry, while her brothers Patrick and John joined the Army. The 19-year-old Margaret Booth became a clerk in the
Inland Revenue, but after her newly married brother Pat was lost when the troopship Abosso was torpedoed in October 1942, she determined to play her part in the war.
Postwar, in 1947 she married Sergeant Antony Sneezum, a prisoner of war who had survived forced labour for the Japanese on the Burma railway. His family had founded Sneezum the jewellers in Ipswich during the late 19th century, but after marriage they took Antony’s mother’s maiden name, Betts.
For three decades she never talked about her war, and it was only after books and documentaries started to appear in the late 1970s that she told her family: “You know, I was one of those.”
Her husband Antony died in 1994. In her seventies, Margaret Betts learnt Italian well enough to play Scrabble in that language but, later, gave up on Sudoku puzzles because they were too easy. She was also a talented chef who introduced moussaka and risotto to the family diet long before such dishes became commonplace.
She is survived by four children: a son predeceased her in 2021.
Margaret Betts, born December 27 1923, died August 26 2023