- Contributed by
- Sgt Carol West
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 March 2004
My years at Bletchley Park - Station X
In 1941 I joined the WAAF and was trained at Cranwell as a teleprinter
operator. In December 1941 I was posted to Broadway, near St James's Park: the plaque at the front door read "Registration of Aliens" but it was, of course, Secret Service HQ- my first connection with Bletchley Park.
Our unit consisted of a few WAAF Officers and me, the only other rank,
there to operate the single teleprinter and to type the decoded messages
on top quality paper. These were put into folders with Winston Churchill's name on them and taken directly to him. I did not know at the time that some came from Bletchley Park and would be the golden eggs from what he called 'The goose that lays the golden eggs'. I remember taking messages to a room, full of pipe smoking senior Naval Officers, and having to step over gold-braided service greatcoats and hats "hung-up" on the floor.
Here I was, still living at home on the edge of the City of London, being bombed nightly (I had been present at the fire-bombing of the City) and typing in an office in the West End, which I had joined up to get away from. I applied for a transfer to an RAF airfield, but what I got was Bletchley Park. I realize, now, that having learned something of the secret work, I would never get away entirely and I remained there until the end of the war.
Six of us arrived there in January 1942, all teleprinter operators. A Cable and Wireless man, who later received a commission and appeared in uniform, was in charge of us. Some of the messages I had received at Broadway would have come from him: he had asked for assistance to cope with increasing work, although it was nothing to what it became. The one teleprinter was under the staircase in the mansion, and on night duty, when things were slack, we would catch some sleep there on cardboard boxes. Working 2 to a shift we gave 24-hour coverage 7 days a week.
Being so few we were treated like civilians and eating in the same mess as the code breakers, some of whose pictures were in the copies of the Tatler, which were lying about. We were first billeted in Woburn Abbey, and later with families. We were chauffeured to the Mansion by F.A.N.Ys, sometimes sharing the car with Wrens, although the secrecy was such neither of us knew what the others did at work.
It was all very civilised until the work expanded; hundreds more were posted in and the service organisation and discipline introduced. More huts were built, 30 - 40 teleprinters back-to-back to a hut, with a moving belt above to take out the enormous volume of work coming in. We worked in huts 3,4 and 6; the noise was deafening and the amount of paper spewed out unbelievable. My memory is of working underground but the huts probably had blacked-out windows and we worked in artificial light. We certainly had sun lamp treatment to combat this.
We were unaware at the time that hundreds of listening posts, here and abroad, were intercepting coded enemy communications and this was the source of the enormous amount of signals we were receiving night and day. They came through on the moving belts to be passed on to the decoders: in blocks of 5 letters or, less often, figures, which we understood, were 'Navy.’ Others on teleprinter tapes, we sent on to other destinations, which we knew only by their call signs. The Japanese signals when they came in later were not in fives, but in enormously long blocks.
In 1943 they built a brick building to house modern US machines and a few of us were sent to Calne to learn Morse code. On these new machines we read the signals in printed Morse and typed straight from this into letters at full typing speed, to go by teleprinter tape to New York, and no doubt from there to the CIA at Langley. Transmissions to New York would usually go via radio waves, but sun spot activity, at the time, was often particularly bad, and they would go by landline.
I suppose the boredom was the worst as there was very social life. Bletchley Park civilians from time to time put on plays and I still have a photograph of the full cast on stage when I was in “Saloon Bar". One of the WAAFs was Kate Karno (a famous Music Hall family name) who put on musicals, drilling us like a professional stage director. The Glenn Miller Band was stationed at a US Army camp near Bedford and a few of us were invited to the dances they gave. The US army, of course, had much better and more plentiful food than we. Those invited to the dances would take ‘doggie bags’ along to fill up, to take back to share with the others living in the same hut.
I recall the secrecy. I was picked up by the RAF Police at a railway
station for some minor offence (no cap on probably) and was met by total
disbelief, when I told them I was not allowed to say where Station X, which was on my leave pass was located. I was marched in to an officer; I still refused, and only after he had made a phone call did he reluctantly let me go. They changed Station X to RAF Church Green later.
Another example of secrecy came later in the war. I was not aware until
recently that there were Americans at Station X. We were 'sending' to the US Navy (under Selfridges) and, when things were slack at night, used to "chat". One of them told me they had been told by an officer (misled by our London phone number) to make a date to find out where, in London, we were. Certainly one lot of Americans were keeping things secret from another.
I remember the sudden crashing silence when the deafening noise ceased, and we first realised the Japanese War was over. Only then did I get to the real RAF camp, with real airplanes and airmen, I had asked for in l94l. I have been married to one of those airmen for over 50 years.
I am now named on the Roll of Honour and have a free pass to the Park.
Caroline Shearer (formerly Sgt Carol West)
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.