- Contributed by
- Sgt Carol West
- People in story:
- Caroline Shearer
- Location of story:
- Bletchley Park
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 November 2003
Teleprinter operator and the ‘Registration of Aliens’
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 myself, the only other rank. We were there to operate the single teleprinter and to type the decoded messages onto 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. I had joined to get away from this. I applied for a transfer to an RAF airfield, but what I got was Bletchley Park. I now realize that, having learned something of the secret work, I would never get away entirely, and I remained at Bletchley 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 two to a shift, we gave 24-hour coverage, seven days a week.
Being so few we were treated like civilians and ate 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 FANYs, sometimes sharing the car with Wrens, although the secrecy was such that neither of us knew what the others did at work.
The operation expands
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, with 30 to 40 teleprinters working back-to-back in each hut. A moving belt above took out the enormous volume of work coming in.
We worked in huts 3, 4 and 6; the noise was deafening and an unbelievable amount of paper was spewed out. 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 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 five letters or less often. We understood these figures were 'Navy.’ We sent others on teleprinter tapes to other destinations, which we knew only by their call signs. The later Japanese signals were not in fives, but in enormously long blocks.
Morse code introduced
In 1943 they built a brick building to house modern US machines and a few of us were sent to Calne [in Wiltshire] to learn Morse code. Off these new machines we read the signals in printed Morse and typed at full speed, straight from this into letters, which went 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 hardest aspect of my time at Bletchley as there was very little social life. Bletchley Park civilians from time to time put on plays, and I still have a photograph from when I performed in “Saloon Bar", showing the full cast on stage. 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, which they would take back to share with the others living in the same hut.
The atmosphere of secrecy
I recall the secrecy. I was picked up by the RAF Police at a railway station for some minor offence (not wearing a cap, 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 that they had been asked by an officer (misled by our London phone number) to find out where we were in London and make a date. So some Americans were keeping things secret from other Americans.
War with Japan over
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 posted to the real RAF camp, with real airplanes and airmen, a posting I had requested in l94l.
I have been married to one of those airmen for over 50 years, and am now named on the Roll of Honour and have a free pass to the Park.
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