Women in Bletchley Park
About 8,000 women worked in Bletchley Park, the central site for British cryptanalysts during World War II. Women constituted roughly 75% of the workforce there. While women were overwhelmingly under-represented in high-level work, such as cryptanalysis, they were employed in large numbers in important auxiliary work, such as: operating cryptographic machinery and communications machinery; translating of Axis documents; traffic analysis; clerical duties, and many more besides.
Bletchley Park was the central site for British cryptanalysis during World War II. It housed the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which regularly penetrated the secret communications of the Axis Powers – most importantly the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers. According to Sir Harry Hinsley, the "Ultra" intelligence produced at Bletchley Park shortened the war by approximately two years. Bletchley Park is famous for the impact it had on the war and for the work performed there by scholars such as Alan Turing and Dilly Knox. This work, though secret until 1974, had a significant impact on the history of science and technology – in particular, the history of information technology. In the past decade,[when?] archivists and historians have increasingly emphasized the role of the women who worked in Bletchley Park.
Recruitment of women
In 1937, when the tensions in Europe and Asia were becoming apparent, the Chief of MI6, Admiral Hugh Sinclair, ordered GC&CS to begin preparing for a war-footing and to expand its staff numbers. These were to be "men of the professor type", primarily drawn from Oxford and, in particular, Cambridge universities. However, as the cryptanalytic work became increasingly mechanized, many more staff were needed. Women were first brought into Bletchley Park after being approached at university or because of trusted family connections; debutantes especially were prized, as they were considered the most trustworthy due to their upper class backgrounds. These "debs" performed mostly administrative and clerical work. However, the personnel needs of Bletchley Park continued to grow. The heads of Bletchley Park next looked for women who were linguists, mathematicians, and even crossword experts. In 1942 the Daily Telegraph hosted a competition where a cryptic crossword was to be solved within 12 minutes. Winners were approached by the military and some were recruited to work at Bletchley Park, as these individuals were thought to have strong lateral thinking skills, important for codebreaking. The majority of these women came from middle-class backgrounds and some held degrees in mathematics, physics and engineering; they were given entry into STEM programs due to the lack of men, who had been sent to war.
By the end of 1944 in excess of 2,500 women were employed by GC&CS from the Women's Royal Naval Service (whose members were called "Wrens"); over 1,500 women were assigned from the Women's Auxiliary Air Force ("WAAFs") and approximately 400 came from the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Six out of ten women working in Bletchley Park were serving in the British Armed Forces. Many of those women were more interested in working on planes and ships, and never expected to work in a place such as Bletchley Park.
Women held numerous roles at Bletchley Park, ranging from administrators, index card compilers and dispatch riders, to a very few as code-breaking specialists. Initially many of the men in charge were skeptical that women would be able to operate the Bombe machines and the Colossus computers; in one section which employed women, including college graduates, the male section head opined that “women wouldn’t like to do any intellectual work”. Gordon Preston persuaded Max Newman (who thought that the women would not care for the "intellectual effort") to authorise talks to the Wrens to explain their work mathematically, and the talks were very popular. Women in Bletchley Park soon proved themselves to be up to the task, as they performed good work in any position they held at Bletchley Park.
Though the initial focus of recruitment, particularly during the latter years of the inter-war period, focused primarily on male academics, there soon emerged an eclectic staff of "Boffins and Debs", which caused GC&CS to be whimsically dubbed the "Golf, Cheese and Chess Society". At the outbreak of the war Dilly Knox was the GC&CS's chief cryptanalyst and, as such, took a leading role in the work on the various Enigma networks. His team, which he staffed with women ("Dilly's girls"), included Margaret Rock and Mavis Lever, sometimes termed "Dilly's Fillies". During a September 1941 morale-boosting visit, Winston Churchill reportedly remarked to head of GC&CS Alastair Denniston: "I told you to leave no stone unturned to get staff, but I had no idea you had taken me so literally."
Women in World War II worked in many places that previously had been largely confined to men, such as industry and the military. Bletchley Park was unusual because the women there worked on demanding intellectual labour. One of the few directly comparable scenarios during the conflict was that American women recruited to do artillery ballistics calculations and program computers. These women "computers" used a differential analyzer in the basement of the Moore School of Electrical Engineering to speed up their calculations, though the machine required a mechanic to be totally accurate and the women often rechecked the calculations by hand.
A Colossus Mark 2 computer being operated by Dorothy Du Boisson (left) and Elsie Booker.
|Related articles||Colossus computer|
This section tells the stories of a few selected women who worked in Bletchley Park.
Mavis Lilian Lever was born on 5 May 1921 in Dulwich to her seamstress mother and postal worker father. She was brought up in Norbury and went to Coloma Convent Girls' School in Croydon. She was studying German at University College, London at the outbreak of World War II, concentrating on the German romantics in particular.
Initially employed to check the personal columns of The Times for coded spy messages, in 1940 she was recruited to work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. She worked as an assistant to Dilly Knox, and was closely involved in the decryption effort before the Battle of Matapan. According to The Daily Telegraph, she became so familiar with the styles of individual enemy operators that she could determine that two of them had a girlfriend called Rosa and this insight allowed her to develop a successful technique.
In December 1941 she broke a message between Belgrade and Berlin that enabled Dilly Knox's team to work out the wiring of the Abwehr Enigma, an Enigma machine previously thought to be unbreakable. While at Bletchley Park she met Keith Batey, a mathematician and fellow codebreaker whom she married in 1942.
Jane Hughes was assigned to Hut 6, a "Decoding Room" of women only. The conditions were poor—dimly lit, poorly heated, and poorly ventilated—and the women worked long hours under extreme pressure. In Hut 6, Jane and other women like her would receive the daily Enigma keys and type them into their own Typex machines. They would then determine if the messages were recognizable German.
On 25 May 1941, Hughes and several other women were briefed on the search for the German battleship Bismarck. Shortly thereafter, she decoded a message referring to the Bismarck that detailed its current position and destination in France. The Bismarck was subsequently attacked by the Royal Navy and sunk on 27 May. This was the first significant victory by the codebreakers, demonstrating the utility of the project.
Her work did not come to light until decades later, during the 1990s, as it had been classified under Britain's Official Secrets Act of 1939. Compared with the publicly acknowledged heroics of the navy, Fawcett said "we felt slightly ashamed of having only done Bletchley, like also-rans. So when everything we had done, which we knew had been very hard work and incredibly demanding, suddenly showed its head and we were being asked to talk about it, it felt quite overwhelming. I'd never told a soul, not even my husband. My grandchildren were very surprised."
Jean Valentine (born 1924, Scotland) was an operator of the bombe decryption device in Hut 11 at Bletchley Park in England, designed by Alan Turing and others during World War II. She was a member of the "Wrens" (Women's Royal Naval Service, WRNS). During this time, she lived in Steeple Claydon in Buckinghamshire. She started working on 15 shillings (75 pence) a week. Along with her co-workers, she remained quiet about her war work until the mid-1970s.
More recently, Jean Valentine has been involved with the reconstruction of the bombe at Bletchley Park Museum, completed in 2006. In 2006, she said: "Unless people come pouring through the doors, a vital piece of history is lost. The more we can educate them, the better." She demonstrates the reconstructed bombe at the Bletchley Park Museum and also leads tours there. She participated in a major reunion at Bletchley Park in 2009.
On 24 June 2012, Jean Valentine spoke on her wartime experiences at Bletchley Park and elsewhere as part of a Turing's Worlds event to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, organized by the Department for Continuing Education's Rewley House at Oxford University in cooperation with the British Society for the History of Mathematics (BSHM).
Joan Elisabeth Lowther Murray (née Clarke; 24 June 1917 – 4 September 1996) was a cryptanalyst and numismatist. Though she did not personally seek the spotlight, her important role in the Enigma project that decrypted Nazi Germany's secret communications earned her awards and citations, such as appointment as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), in 1946.
There have been many efforts to commemorate the contribution of women in Bletchley Park; in particular, there has been a proliferation of online articles devoted to examining the role of women in Bletchley Park during the past 5 years. Due to the secrecy of Bletchley Park and the United Kingdom's Thirty-year rule, it wasn't until the 1974 publishing of The Ultra Secret by former RAF officer F. W. Winterbotham (who supervised the distribution of Ultra intelligence) that the wartime role of Bletchley Park began to be discussed, and only in 2009 did the British government award honors to its personnel. There have been recent efforts to get women who worked in Bletchley Park to meet up some 70 years after they last saw each other, as the women tended not to stay in touch with their coworkers after the war (due to the secret atmosphere back then). Women often didn't even know the names of the machines they had worked on until they read books about Bletchley Park released decades after WWII; families and friends usually had no idea what these women worked on during WWII.
Interviews of women who worked at Bletchley Park have them saying they enjoyed their time there due to doing interesting work and being around interesting people, as well as a sense that they were doing important work (although most never knew just how important their work ended up being, which reportedly shortened WWII by up to two years and saved millions of lives). Most women gave up their careers after they left Bletchley Park and got married; however, many of the full fledged female codebreakers (such as Joan Clarke) went on to have fruitful careers in cryptanalysis (bolstered by the good work they had done in Bletchley Park).
www.bletchleypark.org.uk has a Roll of Honour, which lists everyone in Britain believed to have worked on signals intelligence during WWII, at Bletchley Park and other places; it was compiled from official sources, veterans, friends and families. No complete list of those who worked at Bletchley Park and its outstations was ever produced, so new information is constantly being added to the list. As of June 2017, there are almost 8,000 women listed in the Roll of Honour.
- The Imitation Game is a film focusing on Alan Turing's life in Bletchley Park; one topic is his relationship with Joan Clarke, one of the few women who worked as a full fledged codebreaker in Bletchley Park. However, there is some criticism of the movie for portraying codebreaking as a men's game and not talking more about the role of women in codebreaking.
- The Imitation Game (play) is a television play focusing on the female protagonist's successes and frustrations while working in Bletchley Park.
- The 2012 ITV programme, The Bletchley Circle, is a set of murder mysteries set in 1952 and 1953. The protagonists are four female former Bletchley codebreakers, who use their skills to solve crimes. The pilot episode's opening scene was filmed on-site, and the set was asked to remain there for its close adaptation of historiography.
- Enigma (2001 film) is a fictional story about the Enigma codebreakers in Bletchley Park where a love affair between coworkers is a main topic.
- Hut 33 focuses on day-to-day life in Bletchley Park, and so, discusses women's daily lives in Bletchley Park.
- List of women in Bletchley Park
- List of people associated with Bletchley Park
- United States Naval Computing Machine Laboratory, where some women recruited from WAVES worked as codebreakers (one notable such woman being Agnes Meyer Driscoll)
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- Smith, Michael (2015). The Debs of Bletchley Park. London: Aurum Press. ISBN 978-1-78131-191-2. (=pb)
- Smith, Michael (2015). The Debs of Bletchley Park . London: Aurum Press. ISBN 978 1 78131 387 9 (=hb).
- Smith, Christopher (2015). The Hidden History of Bletchley Park: A Social and Organisational History, 1939-1945. London: Palgrave. ISBN 1137484934.
- The Bletchley Girls by Tessa Dunlop (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015) ISBN 1444795724
- The Lost World of Bletchley Park: The Illustrated History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by Sinclair McKay (Aurum Press, 2013). ISBN 978-1-78131-191-2
- My Secret Life in Hut Six: One Woman's Experiences at Bletchley Park by Mair Russell-Jones and Gethin Russell-Jones
- The Secret Lives of Codebreakers has a section on romantic relations between men and women in Bletchley Park on page 194
- Hacking the Nazis: The secret story of the women who broke Hitler's codes
- The Women of Bletchley Park
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