Monday, 30 November -0001


Secrets, survival, and sticking together – four women tell Tessa Dunlop what it was really like to crack codes

Written by Tessa Dunlop
The Imitation Game has focused minds on the ingenious achievements of Alan Turing, who pitted his wits against the staggering complexities of the Enigma machine, which encoded German communications. But by 1941 the cerebral origins of Bletchley Park had given way to an industrial scale code-breaking factory. A clutch of ‘professor-type’ cryptanalysts increasingly relied on a predominantly young female workforce to ensure the Allies stayed one step ahead of the enemy. At the peak of the war, women outnumbered men at Bletchley by three to one.

Bletchley-Jan23-03-590Y-station listeners outside their digs in 1943

In the living room of her home in Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire, Betty Gilbert shows me a large box full of her wartime memorabilia.

Bletchley-Jan23-07-Betty-176‘Ah yes, here it is, me and the rest of the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] girls. We were posted to the Yorkshire Moors. I didn’t know what I’d let myself in for. But being in the army, that was the best time of my life.’

Betty was from a poor family and she left school at 14 to work in a local shoe factory. But war and the death of her mother propelled her to sign up aged 18 in 1943. ‘Girls like me didn’t join the Wrens. I went into the army.’ A series of aptitude tests ensured Betty was selected for a ‘man-sized job’ as a Morse listener. ‘Not a word was said about the nature of the work we would be doing.’

After three months of training, Betty’s life in the army began on the Yorkshire Moors with a warning: ‘If you break your oath you are committing treason. What you are doing is important. You speak nothing of what you are doing out of this camp.’

Betty, as a Y-station listener, was the first vital link in the codebreaking chain. Scattered across Britain, the Y-stations were the nerve centres of a massive eavesdropping operation, intercepting Germany’s encoded messages that were sent on to Bletchley.

Factory girl Betty was a model worker. ‘Every dot, every dash had to be listed. Every message logged, dated. If you didn’t know a letter you didn’t guess, you left a space and carried on.’ Her ears picked up the enemy’s Morse communications through the atmospherics and her meticulous sheets of paper provided the undigested fodder that, at the opposite end of England, the Bletchley girls had to register. Neither knew of the other’s existence. ‘The messages were called traffic. Where they went I don’t know.’

But Betty remembers the motorbikes sitting, waiting, before careening through the night to reach their destination – an umbilical cord supplying Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire with its lifeblood.


Inside Bletchley’s mansion, Charlotte Webb took her seat daily (or nightly). She remembers a small room with an open fire, the embers of which were invariably insufficient to keep the occupants warm. It was Charlotte’s job to register the ‘encoded traffic’ that girls like Betty frantically collected.

‘Nothing was in clear language; it was all in groups of letters or figures on A4-sized Bletchley-Jan23-08-Charlotte-176sheets of paper – masses of them. All we were doing on the card index was putting things into date order and registering them under their call signs.’

It didn’t matter that Charlotte couldn’t understand the code that she was tasked to sort. Her job was not to understand, it was to register every message that passed across her desk. Beyond her department and rank these traffic logs and indexes would be analysed for telltale patterns that might indicate enemy movement and intention; their coded contents would be unravelled, translated and evaluated. But none of that was Charlotte’s business. She did not even know what went on in the room next door.

‘I didn’t know enough to say anything and I had no wish to say anything.’ But Charlotte knew the stakes were high. Only four years earlier she had been in Nazi Germany.

In 1937, at the age of 14, Charlotte was sent to Saxony on an exchange visit to learn German. Her host family, the Pauls, were deeply religious and lived near the Czechoslovakian border. Charlotte clearly remembers a shortage of butter (to rearm at breakneck speed Hitler opted for guns not butter and ordinary people felt the pinch). She overheard snippets of tense conversation she couldn’t fully understand but she picked up on her hosts’ general anxiety.

Charlotte went to the local school with the Pauls’ daughter, Elizabeth. ‘In class we all had to salute the Führer. I waved my arm about to be diplomatic but I didn’t say “Heil Hitler”. I had a hunch something was up.’

Charlotte pauses briefly. ‘It’s hard to imagine that I was there then.’

Bletchley-Jan23-09-Pamela-176PAMELA ROSE
Pamela Rose was also in Germany before the war. Along with a handful of other upper-class English girls, Pamela absorbed all Munich’s art scene had to offer and even turned the head of a very grand German, Count Karl Erdmann Henckel von Donnersmarck. But nothing, not even a dashing German aristocrat, could put Pamela off her ambition to be an actress.

She returned to England and within four years had landed her first role on the West End stage. However, she never took up the part. With a war on, it was decided that Pamela’s German must not go to waste. A letter was dispatched to Bletchley Park and an interview followed.

‘Because of the secrecy I thought at first I was going to be dropped from an aeroplane into Germany. Goodness knows my German wasn’t really good enough for that but one has exalted ideas when one is young.’

Initially her job in the Indexing Section of Hut 4 came as a crushing blow. The Park has an extraordinary legacy – some argue its intelligence shaved two years off the war – but Pamela is determined that no amount of retrospective glorification will disturb the memory of her own experience. Translating words onto cards from broken bits of German was not what she’d imagined when she sacrificed the opportunity of a lifetime.

But her role was vital. While Charlotte began her working life at Bletchley registering freshly received Y-station traffic still wrapped in its encrypted package, Pamela, at the other end of the Bletchley equation, was indexing messages that had already been decoded. Only by sorting the contents of thousands of messages into vast military databases could the raw decoded material be marshalled and turned into useful intelligence – or Ultra (the cover name for the high-grade signals intelligence produced at Bletchley Park).

Bletchley-Jan23-10-Rozanne-176ROZANNE COLCHESTER
Pamela’s best friend at Bletchley, Rozanne Colchester, doesn’t remember the actress for her hut work (they weren’t allowed to talk about that), but for Pamela’s stage presence. ‘She was in lots of the Bletchley revues.’ Then suddenly, mid-story, Rozanne bursts into song.

‘At the age of 16 I was kicked by a mule Seduced a school master before I left school

But I longed to experience life in the raw

That’s why I came here… whatever it’s for? !’

Rozanne laughs aloud. The memories are still vivid and her 72-yearlong friendship with Pamela is still very much alive. ‘The plays and entertainment at Bletchley were essential for letting off steam,’ she says. Professional actress Pamela, five years her senior, was one of many inspirational people Rozanne met during her three years there. Stationed in the Italian Air Section, Rozanne even got to know Alan Turing. ‘He was polite, kind and intelligent but preferred the company of men.’

Thanks to their great age and the era through which they lived, spending time with the Bletchley girls is to enjoy a direct connection with the monumental events and personalities of the 20th century. Before the war, Rozanne, as the daughter of the air attaché in Italy, met both Mussolini and Hitler. Daily she and her sister walked past Mussolini’s Villa Torlonia. ‘He used to come out at a certain time, just when we were going to school, and wave at us.’ With a chuckle Rozanne explains that ‘Musso’ was very fond of girls. And as a family member of the British diplomatic mission, Rozanne was there when in May 1938 Hitler arrived to woo Il Duce.

Her recall is precise. ‘I shook Hitler’s hand. He looked much more normal in the flesh. I imagined a Charlie Chaplin-type figure with a black moustache but was amazed to see he was on the blond side!’ The sandy tones in his hair didn’t show up in black-and-white photographs. But above all else, what stood out for Rozanne were Hitler’s eyes. ‘I remember his eyes very vividly, they were grey-blue. There was something about his eyes that looked slightly fanatical.’

Bletchley-Jan23-05-590Pamela Rose with colleagues at Bletchley Park

Little did the two fascist dictators realise that the teenage girl standing in front of them would soon be using her schoolgirl Italian against their war machine. Rozanne, with the language skills acquired in Rome, was a valuable asset at Bletchley.

One night she was working late – it was 1.30am. ‘I was decoding a message freshly arrived on the teleprinter. After many trials and errors… the “groups” of numbers began to make sense, and I found myself faced with a message that made sense.’

The next few hours in Rozanne’s life were the stuff of movies. She was reading something no one else in the Allied Forces knew: in three-and-a half-hours’ time, Italy’s SM.79 torpedo bombers and SM.82 transport carriers were due to head across the Mediterranean. This ‘hot’ information was radioed to the RAF in North Africa. ‘Very soon our aeroplanes were in the air and all the Italian aircraft were shot down!’ The Italians were heading for Sicily – thanks to Rozanne they never reached their final destination.

The Bletchley Girls, by Tessa Dunlop, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20.

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