Book review: The Bletchley Girls

Real secret of Bletchley were the girls who worked there, writes Hannah Stephenson.

Book review: The Bletchley Girls

WITH the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and Oscar nominations for The Imitation Game, the biopic of Enigma codebreaker, Alan Turing, a book about Bletchley Park is timely.

Turing deciphered messages encrypted by the German Enigma machine, and provided vital intelligence for the Allies. But in 1952 he was prosecuted for homosexuality and chemically castrated. He committed suicide in 1954, aged 41.

The Bletchley Girls

Tessa Dunlop

Hodder & Stoughton, £20

Tessa Dunlop’s focus is the women who worked at Bletchley. But only 15 of them are still alive. In the film, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Turing — widely regarded as the father of the modern computer — as a socially-inept loner. Lady Jean Fforde worked for Turing in Hut 8. “He was an awfully nice man,” she says, listing his personal idiosyncrasies as “shabby, knitting, nail-bitten, tieless, sometimes halting in speech and awkward of manner”, a man famous for his curious cycling habits. His erstwhile fiancee Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) was one of Bletchley’s rare female cryptanalysts. “Everybody talked about their engagement,” Lady Jean says. “They thought it was fantastic that Joan should be going around with him. She didn’t know he was homosexual to begin with, and, when she found out, she said, ’You knew what he was and you never told me.’ She didn’t know and she felt a fool.”

Rozanne Colchester, now 91, arrived at Bletchley when she was 19. She spoke Italian, as her father had been an air attache in Rome during the war — she had met Hitler when he visited the British Embassy there.

“We were told we had to do very secret work and must never breathe a word about it, or go into other people’s rooms or other huts in the park, or talk about our work. We were told that if we were found gossiping about it, we were quite likely to be shot,” she says.

Within the confines of the park, there was a sense of laissez-faire. “At first, I was amazed that people were sleeping with each other and married people were having affairs. Nothing like that had ever happened before in my life. One grew up a lot there.”

Bletchley girls tended to be well-educated, middle-class and have language skills.

The Bletchley women weren’t privy to the code-breaking. It was a production line, each section segregated from the next to ensure the secret remained safe.

“Each part of the process cooked up by the likes of Turing was done by different cogs. One girl was ticking a box, another was inputting a formula into a wheel, but none of them had a bigger picture. It was literally a factory for codebreaking. It was hard, monotonous work. These women were the work ants, the backbone. Take them away and you wouldn’t have had anyone to implement the blueprint of the genius,” Dunlop says.

Colchester, who went on to have five children, was there from 1942-45. It was 30 years before she found out how crucial Bletchley Park had been in ending the war. She later worked in Cairo for MI6 and married an SAS parachutist.

“Life was quite exciting,” she says, chuckling. She didn’t tell her children about Bletchley for years.

Doris Moss, 92, fled Belgium with her sister to escape the Nazis during the war, settling with their uncle in Kent. They both worked at Bletchley. She says:

“We didn’t really know how important the work that we were doing was, except that we were deciphering naval messages in Italian... It was exciting when you got the message out and you saw something about the Bismarck Nazi battleships, even though you didn’t understand what.”

So, what long-term impact did Bletchley have on these women? “For some, it’s having its biggest impact now,” says Dunlop. “A lot of them didn’t realise that what they were doing in the war was groundbreaking”.

More in this section