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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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From School Girl to Code Breaker

by Wildern School

Contributed by 
Wildern School
People in story: 
Irene Joan Russell (nee Humby)
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 August 2004

I was a pupil at Southampton Grammar School for Girls when war was thought to be imminent and on the 2nd September 1939 we were marched down Hill Lane at 6 a.m. to catch a train to Bournemouth for a trial evacuation and I still have the label which was pinned on me! This was to be for one night only. However, that was not to be. I heard the declaration of war at 11 a.m. on the 3rd September at the Christchurch Royal Yacht Club whence I was taken by the couple with whom I was billeted. This meant no returning to Southampton. We attended Bournemouth Girls Grammar School for half a day only and studied for our School Certificate. During one of those exams there was an air raid warning. We were marched down to the basement and not allowed to talk!

We occasionally cycled home to Southampton for the weekend — once to be there for one of the worst air raids. We lived in Shirley and on one occasion watched a dog fight over the Sports Centre between Spitfires and Messerschmitts.

After the exams I took a secretarial course and eventually returned to Southampton for good in May 1941. I took a job in a Solicitor’s Office. At 17, I was called up to spend one night a month at the city Fire Station to plot incendiary bombs.

In June 1943, when I was 18, I received my calling-up papers but my boss managed to secure a deferment. However, after a few months, I received more calling-up papers to train as a ship’s electrician! My father was horrified at the thought and said no daughter of his was going to be subjected to the language in Southampton Docks. He wrote accordingly, as a result of which I was told to apply for one of the women’s services, stating my qualifications and hobbies. I applied to the W.R.N.S. I had done very well in French and German in my exams and my hobbies included reading, crosswords and sport and as a result I was accepted.

I was sent to Mill Hill for one week for injections and then on to Bletchley Park, the home of the enigma machine. We lived in Woburn Abbey. There was only one sailor there and he looked after the boilers! I was sworn in under the Official Secrets Act. The Intelligence Corps were billeted in the rear of Woburn. I worked in the Bombe Bay where we loaded certain codes on the machines and they were set off in the hope of coming up with a “job”. Each department at Bletchley was unaware of what the other sections were doing in order to keep up the secrecy. Every so often we were told of a code that was broken to keep up morale.

Winston Churchill came to the Park occasionally and had his own office there. He called us his “goose that laid the golden egg but never cackled”!

We had dances now and then in the Park and at Woburn, when we entertained Americans from their nearby Army Air Force base. On one occasion when we were invited to a dance at the base we danced to Glen Miller and his band in the flesh the night before he disappeared.

We also entertained some of our badly burned airmen at Woburn who were receiving plastic surgery. They must have suffered dreadfully, and we were told to look straight at them and show no embarrassment.

On VE day we had an enormous bonfire at Woburn Abbey and planes from the nearby base flew to and fro continuously. There was still a lot of clearing up to do in the Park. I was eventually discharged in December 1945. I have been back to the Park on two occasions since and receive a monthly news letter.

I met my future husband at a tennis club New Year party in 1945, he having just been discharged after having escaped from Dunkirk and having spent almost six years in the Desert War.

The war seemed to go on for ever.

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Childhood and Evacuation Category
Special Operations and Intelligence Category
Hampshire Category
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