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16 October 2014
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Life At Station X

Ex-WRN Gill MacDermott reveals her secret life as a code breaker at Bletchley Park during WWII.

Gill MacDermott
 

Article by Bob Crookes

It was not until the mid 1970s that the reason for the wartime secret activity in Bletchley Park became known to the public. It was one of the war’s best kept secrets and that alone is an enormous compliment to the some twelve thousand people, service and civilian alike, who worked there between 1941 and 1945.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park Today

Most of us are now familiar with those activities through films such as ‘Enigma’ and the many radio and television documentaries that have been broadcast but perhaps few people are aware that a large proportion of that estimated 12,000 staff were Wrens, members of the Women's Royal Naval Service, and there is little doubt we owe them a great debt for the work they did.

It became almost an exclusively Royal Navy posting for servicewomen and the Wrens worked there with great distinction at Bletchley and other outposts of the great ‘Station X’ operation. They were lectured at great length about the need to keep their work secret and that they were ‘never ever’ to talk about it.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939WREN, Gill McDermott in 1942
WRN, Gill MacDermott in 1942

They were told that absolute secrecy was just that and not even to parents, brothers or sisters and definitely not lovers could be told what they were doing.

Even Winston Churchill was later prompted to comment on how successful the Wrens had kept the secret and it is a fact that some of those Wrens are still reticent to talk about their time there even in the 21st century.

However they are now able to talk freely and one Station X Wren who was drafted in to break Japanese naval ciphers has made some of her diary memories available to us.

Gill MacDermott was then 3rd Officer Gill Oppenheim who, like almost everyone else, had never heard of Station X – but, quite unknown to her, they had a desk ready for her at Bletchley Park.

 

 


YP&M sent Bob Crookes to speak with Gill at home, to find out more of her intriguing life at Bletchley park and beyond.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939Gill MacDermott and Bob Crookes
Gill MacDermott and Bob Crookes share a moment while looking through Gill's photo album

 

 

Bob began by asking Gill what it was that possessed her to want to join the WRNS in the first place

First of all, because so many of the male members of my family...

Bob discovered that, still, in 1942, well brought up young ladies perceived there were serious risks when traveling on public transport.

One day the envelope arrived...

Life for a girl in WRNS could sometimes be too exciting, especially on bike trips.

I was in a cabin...

Having had to choose uniforms now she was an officer, Gill remembers how the 'little' extras were obtained and how innocent she was.

Things like stockings...

Now with her one blue stripe showing she was a Third officer she went off to her first job. The world of TOP SECRET however was not too far away...

They posted me up near to Preston...

Gill remembered Bletchley from pre-war days, but soon found it was now a different place...

My maternal Grandfather came from Whitstable in Kent...

After this she moved to work on the D-Day landings and then on to Ceylon...

 


Miss Oppenheim becomes Mrs MacDermott

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939Gill and Robert on their wedding day
Gill and Robert McDermott on their wedding day, Colombo
1942

Gill Oppenheim became Gill MacDermott on 10th March 1945 at a wedding service in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka ). Gill married Co. Londoderry born Robert MacDermott.

Robert joined the Royal Naval Reserve where he trained to become a pilot. Robert flew The Seafire - the Naval version of the Spitfire.

After stints in Canada, USA and Africa, Robert found himself in Ceylon / Sri Lanka where he took over 742 Squadron and was the Admiral's personal pilot.

Robert was keen to stay in the Royal Naval Reserve but felt a sense of duty to his father to return home, as Mr MacDermott Snr. had kept the the family business (a shirt and collar making busines in Bridge Street, Coleraine, Co.Londonderry) going during the war.

 

WRN Gill MacDermott in 1942
Gill MacDermott in her tropical uniform
WRN Gill MacDermott in 1942
Gill in her tropical uniform

Gill reads from her own war diary >>>




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