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13 November 2014

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You are in: London > History > History Features > Listening in on Churchill

Ruth Ive

Ruth Ive at the Churchill Museum

Listening in on Churchill

The first couple of times Ruth listened in, she just sat there smiling in amazement and her boss was furious... It was 1942, Britain was at war and Ruth was tasked with transcribing the top secret phone conversations between Churchill and Roosevelt.

Ruth Ive was sworn to secrecy about what she did during WWII. At the time, her mother was the only person that knew; her fiancé wouldn't discover the truth until after the war. None of her friends knew what her job was and, at the start, it seems she barely knew herself.

"I pushed open the door of a very bombed out building in St Martins Le Grand called Union House... I was met by a very fierce colonel who was not used to having female staff around him. He told me that because I had verbatim shorthand and my security record was good, I was going to censor the calls on the transatlantic radio telephone line."

"I didn't know what he was talking about it. I had absolutely no idea that this telephone line existed. I was totally unprepared for what I was going to do."

Ruth Ive

Ruth Ive at her home, 2008

More than half a century later in her West London home, Ruth Ive, now 90-years-old, is giving a full account of her remarkable story for the first time.

Dreams of the stage

Although she was born in Cricklewood, North London in 1918, Ruth actually spent most of her early years in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, enjoying a 'very happy childhood.'

At 16, her family moved to West Hampstead and, with high hopes of becoming a stage star, she attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Sadly, for Ruth, her father had very different ideas.

"My father, who was very much against me going on the stage, said 'I wasn't going to go round gallivanting round England by myself.' He wanted me to be a teacher. I was very upset and sobbed a lot."

Eventually a compromise was reached between father and daughter that would allow Ruth to attend a Commercial School - institutions that prepared its students for office life with skills such as typing, bookkeeping, commerce and English.

"When I left I had a verbatim shorthand speed, much to my amazement and certainly to my parents'. But by then it was 1939, war broke out and it was a different story after that."

The Ministry of Information

By this time, girls at 19 were being called up, so Ruth needed to find a job that would help the war effort.

It was through a family connection, a cousin who was setting up the Government's Postal and Telegraph Censorship Department, that encouraged Ruth to apply for work there.

"I realised the Censorship was interested in me because Special Branch officers had visited my referees," Ruth recalls. "As I'd never had a job before, they visited my doctor who promptly told my mother."

"That made my mother very worried. I thought it was a bit odd but I just carried on. Eventually I was called up in 1940 and I went into the Postal Censorship which was in High Holborn at Princess House."

After a while, Ruth tired of her job which mostly involved reading troops' mail to ensure that they were not revealing any secret information. She wanted something more exciting. So she applied to a department that had just been set up to deal with telephone censorship.

She was told to practice her shorthand by the head of the Postal Censorship and, without knowing the nature of her new job, she was told to report for duty at a bombed out building in St. Martin Le Grand...

Churchill & Roosevelt

Churchill & President Roosevelt

Mr Smith & Mr White

"I had to do a fortnight's training on some of the unimportant calls and then I was told that Mr Smith wanted to talk to Mr White. I wondered who on earth they were talking about but on came Mr Churchill and the President."

"Even they were very amused to be called Mr White [Churchill] and Mr Smith [Roosevelt]. I thought even the dumbest German would be able to recognise their voices! And they didn't keep it up for very long. Especially when Mr Smith asked Mr White how is the colonel? I thought which colonel? But the colonel was Mrs Churchill. The President always asked after Mrs White."

When the Americans entered the war, the General Post Office (GPO) and AT&T of America, fixed up a radio link to allow verbal communications between London and Washington. Although the line would be scrambled, it was feared that a bright German engineer would be able to break the code. So the phone calls would be censored: this was Ruth’s job, to transcribe, and if necessary, to censor the phone conversations.

Censoring the Prime Minster

There were half a dozen issues that were strictly taboo such as convoy sailings, dates, military plans and psychological factors such as mentioning loss of troops, poor morale or food shortages. Anything said along these lines would force Ruth to cut the line immediately.

"You wonder how they managed to carry on an intelligent conversation. But they did and this is how they did it," reveals Ruth.

"When possible, they signalled 24 hours beforehand that they wished to speak and they set out on numbered paragraphs the subject that they wished to discuss. Consequently they never mentioned the actual subject; they just referred to the number of the paragraph and went on from there."

In March 1945, a V2 rocket hit Smithfield Market, central London, killing 150 people. Later that day Winston Churchill spoke on the phone to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who was in Canada. Churchill started, 'Anthony, this morning...' Ruth Ive immediately cut him off because she knew that he was about to break the terrible news. It was the only time that she censored Winston Churchill.

"Absolutely magnetic and full of confidence"

Ruth Ive on Churchill

KBO

Although she never met Winston Churchill in person, by listening to his telephone conversations over a period of time, Ruth Ive did get to know him.

"He was absolutely magnetic and full of confidence. He knew that now America was in we were going to win the war. He was enthusiastic, positive and confident. He really had the most incredible eye for detail and if he didn't get the information he needed, no matter what time of day it was he would phone them up and ask them what the hell? He was incredible."

"One time Churchill ended his conversation with something that sounded like KBO to me. So I wrote down K, B and O. Then I wrote KAYBEO. And the colonel came up to me afterwards and said, 'Don't you know what KBO means?' I said, No sir.

"It means Keep Buggering On!"

The Blitz

Outside of her secret listening post, the Blitz was raging and life was becoming very difficult in London.

London blitz

The Blitz in London

"We all got to work regardless; it was a matter of honour. I well remember trampling down Oxford Street one morning with the shop front of John Lewis on the pavement. But by the evening it had all been cleaned up and they had stuck up some notices – 'We Are Open As Usual For Business.'

"We took the bombing very much in our stride. But it was very, very frightening. The wizz of bombs coming down near to you was a dreadful experience. I don't think anyone who lived through it will ever forget it."

The job had taken over Ruth's life. Her long and irregular hours meant that she didn't have time for a social life. Often she would finish her transcriptions at midnight and it would be a case of getting home on the Tube, making her way past the crowds of people who had gathered underground for shelter from the bombs.

Having an inside track on the progress of the war, far from giving her comfort, in fact gave her greater cause for worry. She knew what a terrible struggle it was: the shortage of arms, the catastrophic defeat at Dunkirk and the chronic shortage of food.

Peace and the Sack

"I had been on duty for about 18 hours and I took the last call which was a very ordinary Ministry call at 10.30 on the morning. Then, peace was declared at 11 o'clock."

"All I wanted to do was go to home and have an ordinary night's sleep. But then a friend of mine phoned up and said he was back on leave and said let's go down Trafalgar Square. So I remember I turned round and went down to Trafalgar Square and we marched down with all the other Londoners down Pall Mall."

Ruth Ive & Randolph Churchill

Ruth Ive & Randolph Churchill

Ruth's fiancé Ronald had returned from service and they got married in 1946, but back then the Civil Service didn't employ married women so she was promptly sacked.

After raising her two sons, Ruth started work again, this time as a journalist. However, she has never been able, until now, to tell her own story because of the Official Secrets Act. The existence of the transatlantic radio phone line wasn't even confirmed until 1995 when Churchill's private papers were finally declassified.

So, at the age of 90, and after doing her own research and writing it herself on an old Amstrad (she has since upgraded to using an Apple Mac) Ruth Ive has become a published author and reveals her full story at long last.

"It wasn't until 2005 that I really unravelled the whole story. Of course, the Germans did break our codes and they did listen. They listened to 3000 calls in three years. And they expected a very high level of intelligence from these calls but to their great disappointment the intelligence value was very small."

"So, I suppose we did our job."

'Woman Who Censored Churchill : 60 years of secrecy' by Ruth Ive, published by The History Press, is out now

last updated: 01/09/2008 at 12:26
created: 01/09/2008

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