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15 October 2014
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I was One of Churchill's Geeseicon for Recommended story

by ambervalley

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Jean Sealey (nee Darby)
Location of story: 
Bletchley Park
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 June 2004

Bletchley Park October 2002

I was born in Dunstable in 1921 and lived there with my parents and brother until I joined the A.T.S in September 1943. My father, Horace James Darby and my mother, Lilian Maud Darby (nee Sharrod), both came from large families, so there were many aunts, uncles and cousins around in various parts of London and the Home Counties.

My father was a partner in a hat factory in Luton. My mother worked in the home. When war broke out my father became a Captain in the Home Guard and my mother helped in a Canteen for Service personnel based in the town. She would often invite soldiers to our home for a meal and a hot bath, the latter being a luxury missed in their quarters. One of these service-men, a professional pianist in civilian life, treasured the odd opportunity to practise on our piano despite hands blistered and calloused from his duties in the Ordnance Corps.

My brother, a qualified surveyor, joined the Royal Engineers and I eventually went into the A.T.S.(Auxillary Territorial Service). This happened only after having begun training as a journalist on a local paper, the Harpenden Free Press, until 1939, when the proprieter who was a Major in the Territorial Army was called up and the paper was closed down. I then worked in a local office, and later as secretary to the Chief Engineer of what was then AC Spark Plug Company, where production had become fully geared to war-work. My boss was also a Home Guard Officer, in charge of the works platoon, and between him and my father I found myself acting as clerk and 'runner' for the local 'Dad's Army'.

On demobilisation from the A.T.S. I married David Sealey, who had flown Halifax bombers during the last three years of the war. My wedding dress was home-made from Nottingham lace, the coupon ration not stretching to anything more elaborate.

In 1942/3, while working as secretary to the chief engineer of AC Spark Plug Company - a factory producing items for the war, I felt I wanted to be more involved in the war by joining one of the women's forces. After a struggle with the War Office , because I was in a reserved occupation, I finally got permission to volunteer.

I was finally accepted for the A.T.S. - Auxiliary Territorial Service - now the Women's Royal Army Corps.After several tests they suggested I try for the Intelligence Corps.An interview followed in an underground bunker in Whitehall.

Getting kitted out for ATS uniform had us all both highly amused and slightly embarrassed. Extraordinarily designed heavy cotton bras, thick khaki knee-length elasticated knickers and pyjamas universally labelled "passion-killers", heavy khaki lisle stockings - all very sensible but not exactly romantic.

After initial training at a camp near Guildford, it was off to London for signals training,to learn something called the Q-code.I was then posted to Bletchley Park, which was to become for me,among much else, the higher education that I had never had, having left school at 16.

On arrival we were marched towards a set of impressive gates and a sentry box manned by a red-capped military policeman.We were then admitted to this extraordinary establishment.Having signed the Official Secrets Act which bound us never to reveal, in our lifetime, anything that we did, saw, or heard there, it now seems strange to me that much of the work at the Park is in the public domain, as the saying goes...

For the first few weeks I was billeted in a private house, in an outlying village, with a young woman whose husband was away in the army.One memory of that time was the monotony of the rationed food.My staple evening meal was mashed potato on toast!

My army pay, if I remember rightly, was two shillings and sixpence a day, (that was about 12.5 pence, less than a pound a week)of which I sent half-a-crown home to my mother.

We moved later into the Shenley Road Camp in standard army huts. We slept on iron bedsteads with 'biscuit' mattresses (Three squares of hessian filled with straw). Bathing was an ordeal: what was known as the ablutions block, unheated, consisted of baths in brieze block cubicles, very small obscured windows and tiled floors. Each bath had a black line at 5" height and we were not supposed to let the water come above the line.

Another memory of the camp is of dragging our beds out of the rear door of the hut and sleeping under the stars for a night, our oil-skin groundsheets covering us against the cool damp of the dew.

The Commandant of the camp was a Colonel in the regular army. He was a stickler for military discipline, which didn't go down at all well with the types of people working in the Park. One of his obsessions was meticulous smartness for the camp and all who lived there. He would give a man sixpence to get his hair cut if he thought it half an inch too long. When any important visitors were expected he would get orderlies to paint the kerbs with whitewash and break off tree branches to stick in any bare patch of soil to make it look like shrubbery.

The security in the Park was amazing. There was such an atmosphere of respect for secrecy that one didn't know and never attempted to find out what those in the next room were doing. You just got on with your own little task, having no inkling of where it came in the whole structure of code-breaking and recording of intelligence.

I recently returned to Bletchley Park, which is now open to the public. It seemed odd to walk unchallenged through the gates and wander around at will. The main house itself, known in the war as 'The Mansion' was open and equipped with various themed rooms. During the time I was stationed there, the house was like a sacred temple. Only the very highest ranks were allowed inside, unless it was to attend an official lecture or meeting.

I went into a small building where all the material from radio signalling work had been assembled. I asked the volunteeer manning the exhibition a few questions, mentioning the red-lined pro formas I remembered and learned that in fact I'd been working, not on the famous Enigma coded messages, but another system called the Lorenz machine. This had been intercepting wireless/teleprinter messages, which those of us in a section code-named FISH, studied to try to extract what we could. Sometimes the German operators might slip up and send part or all of a message in "clear", that is plain German uncoded. If we saw this we got very excited and rushed the relevant slip of paper to our section leader to be passed up the chain. It was also possible to get some idea of coding as many messages began and ended with routine words, such as 'Heil Hitler', and from that one could perhaps work out other words in the message.

At my level I had no contact ,in working hours, with the likes of the famous Alan Turing and other geniuses, but at meal times or in any of the many off-duty activities you never knew who you'd be sitting next to - Poles, Free French and of course the glamorous Americans.

In our spare time there were chamber concerts (professional musicians to perform), drama groups (with professional actors), bridge clubs, sport of all kinds, madrigal societies, dancing - all tastes were catered for.

I may have forgotten many details of the day-to-day work, but remember nearly all the names of those I worked with and have vivid portraits of them in my mind, both what they looked like and their characters.The demands of the work, together with the intellectual standards of some colleagues, meant that for me it was a mind-stretching experience. And the geese? Earlier in the war Churchill, on a visit to the park, had made his famous remark that its workers were "the geese who laid the golden eggs for him", giving him the ammunition to fight the enemy effectively.

So this goose learned a very great deal, not only in a number of areas of knowledge, but about people, life, relationships, and society.

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