- Contributed by
- Joy Ettridge
- People in story:
- Joy Higgins, Hugh Russell
- Location of story:
- Bletchley Park
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 June 2005
In 1942 I went to work at Bletchley Park, - Bletchley Park, BP, Station X, Ultra, Enigma - they were names which meant nothing to the world at large then, or for thirty years to come. National security and the Official Secrets Act saw to that.
In wartime no hint of what went on within the perimeter fence of Bletchley Park escaped to the world outside, and strict internal security meant there was virtually no contact between different ‘sections’, even between different rooms within a ‘section’, except at the highest level. That secrecy was maintained until the 1970s - and, indeed, some of my former colleagues still prefer to remain silent about the specific work which they once did, even amongst themselves.
It was in the 70s, however, that the rigid censorship began to be lifted, the Public Record Office moved to Kew, and more and more information began to be released.
It wasn’t until there had been radio programmes and TV documentaries that public interest and popular imagination were aroused’
Today, people seem to be knowledgeable about Enigma, even, sometimes, respectful that one was involved with it. They ask me technical questions about the breaking of codes, and I dredge in my memory for the techniques we used. They find it difficult to understand that the restrictions of the Official Secrets Act and years of self-imposed amnesia have made recollection difficult.
In fact, a formidable labour force was built up at Bletchley during the war. Of course there was the small, permanent staff of GCCS – the board at the entrance gate called BP the Government Code and Cipher School. (Post-war this department of the Foreign Office became GCHQ.) As war threatened this was augmented by cryptographers and intelligence experts who had served in WW1. At the same time likely people were recruited: mathematicians, language experts, etc. many by personal knowledge and contacts. People remembered old colleagues from school and university who might have the necessary expertise for the work at Bletchley; they in turn could recommend others.
Eventually the personnel for Bletchley Park was assembled – by the end of the war it numbered many thousands, There were men and women from all the fighting services, seconded to Bletchley because they had particular skills. Most of the men had already seen active service. They were greatly outnumbered by the civilians, who were mainly women. They came - service and civilian – from many walks of life. Authors – I remember Charles Morgan and Angus Wilson, diplomats, bankers, journalists, University professors, teachers.
People have fascinating stories to tell of their recruitment and their subsequent first arrival at BP. My husband, Hugh, whom I first met at the Park, received, literally out of the blue, a letter telling him to go to Bletchley station and ring a certain number.A car was sent to fetch him for interview. He was an Oxford M.A., had lived and studied in Germany and was fluent in the language. He had also just obtained his Yachtmaster’s certificate and had hoped that these qualifications would fit him to take part in secret landings on the coast of occupied Europe. Someone must have thought of another use for those qualifications: he found himself in Naval intelligence at Bletchley Park. Recently I’ve learned from other people that they were recruited in the same cloak-and-dagger way, via the summons to Bletchley station.
My own recruitment was much less dramatic. I grew up near Bletchley, in Newport Pagnell, where my father was headmaster of the Boys’ school. In 1942 I was nearing the end of my three years as an undergraduate at Cambridge. I would be 21 in January 1942, and was due to register for National Service now that women were conscripted as well as men. I was happy about that. There had been many times during my student days when it had seemed unimportant and incongruous to be living in an ivory tower, immersed in old texts and linguistics (I was reading English language and literature!) whilst so many earth-shattering events were happening elsewhere. Many of us felt like that, and it took much persistence from the authorities to persuade us to finish our studies.
I’d tried, all along , to do what I could as well as getting on with my studies. I’d started the war by helping with the ‘evacuees’, the poor, bewildered children transported en masse from London to the hoped-for safety of the countryside; I’d helped to man the Civil Defence centre in Newport Pagnell during vacations, and done my weekly stint cooking at a services canteen in Cambridge. Now, - thank goodness! – I was going to be more involved.
When I registered for National Service I was told that I could have six months to finish my course and get my degree. If I failed my exams there would be no second chance to re-take them. As soon as the exams were over I would be conscripted. Nice ladies in smart uniforms came from the women’s services to talk to us and encourage us to join one or other. Another option was teaching, as so many male teachers had been called up, and women were desperately needed to replace them. But I had no desire to teach – growing up in a headmaster’s house I had already seen more than enough of teachers and teaching.
I was toying with the idea of joining the WAAF doing photographic interpretation (commission promised) –I rather fancied myself in that pale blue uniform – when the idea of Bletchley Park came up. A family friend had met a young man, a Cambridge graduate, working at Bletchley Park, some seven or eight miles away. She understood it was something to do with the government. Maybe there could be a job for me there, once I was a graduate, too.
So I wrote to Bletchley Park, and was summoned for interview during the Easter vacation. I remembered the house from years before when old Lady Leon lived there. She was the widow of Sir Herbert, business man and Liberal MP, and after she died in 1937 the house and its contents had been sold. (I remember a spectacular auction sale, lasting many days, where my mother bought books and porcelain and glass, some of which I still use today.) We understood that The Park had been sold, but no-one seemed to know who had bought it.
Now The Park was surrounded by a high perimeter fence, with a military guard at the entrance gates. I was to report to a small hut outside these gates, and it was here that I was interviewed by Frank Birch (a ‘re-called’ WW1 expert, and Don at King’s, who at Christmas would appear as Widow Twankey in London pantomime) and Harold Fletcher, who had been a distinguished Cambridge mathematician. Unorthodox as ever, the former was wearing a pea-green shirt and a Breton beret. Mr.Fletcher sported an old Marlburian tie, which was more reassuring.
They asked me a lot of seemingly irrelevant questions. I stumbled badly through an Italian unseen. They enquired whether I expected to get a First, and I crossed my fingers and said I hoped so. They said they couldn’t tell me what the work involved because of its secret nature, but they thought I was a suitable candidate, and soon afterwards a letter arrived at home inviting me to work at Bletchley Park as a Technical Assistant, once I came down from Cambridge.
And so, on the Monday after I finally left Cambridge, I presented myself again at BP –but this time I had authority to go through the gates and past the guard. I signed the Official Secrets Act, was issued with a pass, shown where the cafetaria was. I was told that my pay would be £3.15s. (£3.75) per week, plus a ‘war bonus’ of ten shillings (50p). I would be expected to work a 3-week shift system, one week 9am to 4pm., next week 4pm to midnight, finally midnight to 9am. Transport would be provided.
Nice ladies in the office told me that I could be found a billet in the area, for which I would have to pay one guinea (£1.1s, in old money) per week, but, of course, I explained that I could live at home, and every week I religiously paid my mother the statuary one guinea for my board and lodging.
Finally, I was pointed in the direction of Hut 6, one of many wooden huts in the surrounding parkland, where the charming Mr.Fletcher allocated me to Registration Room 2. The two Registration Rooms, 1 and 2, were the usual starting places for new recruits, most of whom, in July 1942, were newly qualified graduates, mainly from Oxbridge, though there were some from other universities in England and Scotland, notably, I remember, from Aberdeen. It was a good place to start as it began to give a general picture of what happened in Hut 6, and an overall idea of the work of Bletchley Park as a whole.
People did go to immense lengths to explain things to us, always within the strict bounds of security. The questions of my interview made sense now. Certainly they needed the trained minds and the discipline of the graduate; but they also needed an attention to detail, a sense of order – and much enthusiasm.
We learned that there were wireless stations around England and Scotland where the radio messages sent by the enemy Army and Air Force were intercepted, and that these messages were then sent on – initially by motor-bike courier, later by teleprinter – to Hut 6, where they would be sorted and meticulously listed in the Registration Rooms. Afterwards these messages would be passed on to another room, where, hopefully, they would be decoded. Then, when the contents had been turned from 5-letter enciphered groups into German, the text would be passed on to the Intelligence people in Hut 3 for them to work on.
Of course, it wasn’t all as easy as that. Some ciphers were, indeed, broken regularly. Meticulous research plus inspiration on the part of the ‘backroom boys’, the elite of Hut 6, had discovered sometimes repeat patterns, sometimes a particular idiosyncrasy which could provide a ‘crib’ for deciphering. This was the ideal. In theory, the messages sent by Enigma were un-breakable; it was the human element which was fallible, and successes came from that. But it meant weeks, even months of patient work to have any success in breaking further codes, and some, indeed, remained unbreakable.
Anyhow, we, the July 1942 intake, were started off in the Registration Rooms, and then, if and when anyone showed any particular aptitude, she was moved on. I went on to do de-coding, which we did on British ‘Typex’ machines, adapted to be like the German Enigma machines. Our findings were then sent to the Bombe hut, where massive machines (the Bombes – electronical machines, an early sort of computer) processed them. How we worked is described in detail in Gordon Welchman’s book ‘The Hut 6 Story’. It was a thrill when something I had worked on came out, and the cry went up: ‘…… is up!’, and all the messages of that day for that particular code could be deciphered. But, inevitably, there was a lot of frustration, too; days, often, with no breakthrough, and I did find it a great disadvantage, personally, that I knew no German.
So I asked to be moved to the Control Room, and here I found my real niche, and I stayed there until I finally left BP. The Control Room was really the beginning of the work of Hut 6, for this was the room which directly controlled the interceptions at the various wireless stations. We told them how to set their radios, what frequencies to watch and when, to get advance information of the enemy’s plans. Our out-stations were our spies: someone called them ‘the spies of the airwaves.’
A few years after the war I went to live in Leicestershire, a mile or so from War Office ‘Y’ Group at Old Woodhouse, the army site mainly responsible for our Hut 6 interceptions, Sometimes at parties I would meet some of the high-ups, and would have loved to have told them that I had been on the other end of their direct line to the Control Room, and of my involvement there. But I was still bound by the Official Secrets Act, and couldn’t do so.
That was it. After 1945 we kept the secret of BP as we had done during the war. My husband, Hugh, had been in Naval intelligence, in Block A at BP, I had been in Hut 6 (which, in 1943 with Hut 3 was rehoused in newly built Block D) working on Army/Air Forces ciphers. Some people, without our common background at BP found it much more difficult to accept a partner’s refusal to discuss the work there. It must have been hard for them.
Sadly, Hugh died prematurely a decade before the first intimations of the work at Bletchley appeared, and so we never had a chance to talk freely about it together. But, from the documentaries and publications of the last few years, I have been able to put together a clearer picture of what he did, and the chance discovery three years ago of a scrap of a confidential letter of congratulation, hidden behind a drawer in his safe, indicated, though only in general terms, the scope and value of the work which he did to ensure the success of the landings of D Day.
We had both loved working at Bletchley Park. Nothing would ever compare with it. It had been a wonderful place to work: a classless society where brains, application and enthusiasm were the criteria. The ethos of Bletchley meant that women were treated as equals – years ahead of any ‘politically-correct’ dictates; that new schemes for tackling a job were never snubbed; it meant new ideas and not accepting old standards without question; it meant informality; it meant talking the same language with like-minded people, whether it was serious discussion or witty repartee.
Our post-war life was indeed comfortable, even privileged, but for years afterwards BP conditioned our lives. Hugh’s pre-war contemporaries had returned, be-medalled from the services, had shed their uniforms but were still full of tales of derring-do. They hadn’t much respect for civilians who had spent the war years as civil servants in the Foreign Office, not on active service. Things were not made easier by our reluctance to say anything at all. People were quick to label our evasions as rudeness, and I’m sure there were times when we were less than tolerant of questions asked and lost out sense of humour.
Hut 6, Bletchley Park seems a long time ago. I have forgotten so many technicalities, the details of deciphering and so on, but the camaraderie, the enthusiasm, the off-duty fun of dances and revues and concerts in the BP Hall; the snatched trips to London for shopping and theatre; the many parties, on shared rations and hoarded drinks – these are as clear as ever.
On a wall in my present house, between Juliet Pannett’s portrait of Churchill and the painting of the Battle of Britain by my aviation-artist husband, hangs a simply framed piece of paper. It is the Freedom of Bletchley Park, dated June 2001, awarded, it says, in recognition of the work I did there during WW2.
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