Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 30, 2018

The Bletchley Girls, by Tessa Dunlop

It’s not possible to read a book like this without being a little awestruck at what ordinary people endured in Britain during WW2.   This remarkable history of the unsung women of Bletchley is an eye-opener into working conditions that none of us would tolerate today…

Bletchley Park, immortalised in films such as The Imitation Game and the TV series The Bletchley Circle, was the centre of intelligence gathering in Britain.  As the war progressed, Bletchley grew from modest beginnings in 1938 to employing thousands of people engaged in the complex work of decoding enemy transmissions, and was the birthplace of modern computing.  Today the site is a heritage tourist attraction but during the war it was top secret and the people who worked there were all bound by the Official Secrets Act.

For the young women recruited into the service—from the ATS, the WRENS, the WAAF and civilian life—their work was a complete mystery.  Because it was vital that the Nazis (and later, the Japanese) not know that their transmissions were being intercepted, each cog in the mighty machine did not know what others were doing.  The women did not know and they were not allowed to ask.  Only the men at the very top of the organisation knew how and why seemingly mundane tasks fed successfully into the massive code-breaking machines which, some say, shortened the war by two-to-four years.

The Bletchley Girls doesn’t tell the stories of the eccentric geniuses who invented the information technology that broke the Enigma and Lorenz Ciphers: Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Hugh Alexander and Stuart Milner-Barry.  Their stories have been told elsewhere.  This book tells the story of the thousands of young women on whom the entire enterprise depended.  Although it’s true that very few of them were involved in high-level tasks, nevertheless their work was vital, and it required intense concentration, patience, and care.  What was most extraordinary was the extent to which these hand-picked jobs went to better-educated and highly intelligent women, who then had to work at mind-numbingly tedious tasks that were in no way commensurate with their intellectual abilities:

In early 1942 Lady Jean arrived in Hut 8.

‘It is little use asking where, what or why but for the next year I marked the letters in the German messages then perforated those same marks and then compared one message on top of the other that I had marked.  If three holes were on the top of those other marked ones these were put through the hatch to the next room.  Doing this for a year sent me nearly crazy.’ (p.114)

Y-station listener Betty spent her war recording messages in Morse code and passing them on to Bletchley—though she didn’t know that’s where they went or what for.  Some shifts were hours of listening just to static, while others meant frenetic activity to record accurately what had been heard, guesswork absolutely forbidden.  Her colleague Charlotte was also hand-picked to listen in for this component of espionage because she spoke German.  (In 1938, 72,000+ pupils sat for School Certificate French, while there were less than 10,000 doing German).  It was interesting to read that as the Allies closed in during the last phase of the war, frantic messages ceased to be coded; it was also interesting to read that for some weeks before the atomic bombs were dropped, the Americans knew the Japanese had been extending peace feelers via Russia, courtesy of their own decrypts.  In other words there might have been another way to end the war but the Americans chose not to pursue it. (p.255)

The women worked long hours without breaks in arduous shifts, in cold and uncomfortable workplaces.  They were billeted in all sorts of places, some of them very disagreeable indeed, and many of them had to cycle to work in Britain’s deplorable weather, including during the blackout at night.  Like everyone else, they had to put up with rationing, and while some landladies became lifelong friends even across the class divide, some were atrocious cooks.

The author Tessa Dunlop interviewed 15 of the women still alive and in their nineties and brought their stories together to form a fascinating and highly readable book.  What stands out, apart from their vivacious personalities and the individuality of the postwar lives, is their acceptance without complaint, of their wartime lot.

This generation of young girls had been brought up to do what they were told and ask no questions.  According to Lady Jean, ‘it was made clear that once I had started work it would be very difficult to leave.’ But the finality of the situation does not seem to have put her off.  At the beginning of 1942, she simply collected her rail warrant and headed towards a ‘terribly secret’ place called Bletchley Park.  It was wartime; the country was being governed on a ‘need to know’ basis and the Bletchley Girls, exhibiting a level of trust that would be considered extraordinary in today’s world, made that job much easier. (p. 95)

I always thought that my mother, (who served in the ATS), with her flair for languages and her extraordinary skill in doing word puzzles and cryptic crosswords, would have been a natural for Bletchley Park, but now I know better!

Author: Tessa Dunlop
Title: The Bletchley Girls
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015, 341 pages
ISBN: 9781444795721
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting choice of subject 😉😎. I’ve spent today at Dover Castle with it’s seven miles of underground secret tunnels carved into the chalk rock of the white Cliffs of Dover. During World War Two it was the secret admiralty HQ and an underground military hospital. It was from here that Operation Dynamo was masterminded which rescued 338,000 troops from the beach at Dunkirk. My family were discussing on the way home if people nowadays could put up with those conditions and achieve such feats. Excellent exhibition if anyone is in the Dover area

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    • Hello Jude, thanks for dropping by:)
      Dover Castle sounds like something I would like to do on my next trip to England.
      When I was in Vietnam, I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels (see https://tinyurl.com/ycpgswnp/) and was awestruck by the extensive underground city complete with a hospital too, though very rudimentary compared to what the Brits had surely had twenty years before. The ingenuity of people never ceases to amaze me.

      But yes, you do wonder whether people today would have the same fortitude, or even the same sense of being all in it together. Nowadays we hear stories of cracks in the general grin-and-bear-it WW2 history, but it’s obvious that cracks is all they were. Britain would not have won the war without the indomitable spirit of its people, and the willingness of women to do dreary jobs to free up men for battle. Both my parents’ homes were bombed in the Blitz, my father’s destroyed utterly and my mother’s still bearing unrepaired bomb damage years later in the 1950s. Yet both of them spoke of it as casually as if it were commensurate with getting a flat tyre on a wet night.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like a fascinating book Lisa. But, have I missed something re why you now know better re your Mum? Is it the doing what you’re told and among no questions?!

    I liked your opening about what people endured during the war. This and how they rose, or didn’t to the occasion, is larger ly why I love war stories.

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    • Yes. My mother was too independent-minded to take kindly to the unquestioning discipline that was necessary. A trait I took with me to my first employment, most memorably at Stafford Ellinson’s where I jumped ship after a day and a half because I was bored…

      Wars are fought so differently today, I think we learned to question them with Vietnam, and then learned to ignore them after 9/11. It makes me feel ashamed that nobody cares very much about what happens in the wars our troops fight in these days, not until one of ours dies.

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  4. This sounds like an ideal read for me.

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    • Absolutely, you would love this!
      Though I should say, there is criticism at Goodreads of the way it is written. I liked the way it was organised in themes (.e.g. a chapter about accommodation, another chapter about the entertainments they had and so on). But some readers felt they could not connect with the 15 women whose experiences were recounted across these themes rather than chronologically or all about them as individuals. These readers felt they could not ‘connect’ with the women, though I suspect that what they really couldn’t connect with was their selfless devotion to duty.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! You’re probably right. Goodreads as a tool for keeping track of my reading, I like, but it’s a bit of a fruitcake in terms of the varying readers letting loose on books.
        I’m going to look for it. I like the idea of the theming, particularly in a book that covers so much detail about so many women. 15 is a lot, so I expect this was an ideal way to bring some cohesion to the book.

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        • I thought so too. I’m very choosy about whose reviews I follow on GR, so sometimes it’s a bit of an eye-opener to see some of the reviews written by other readers.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I think this will be a good one for me. I did read one other fiction title recently set in Bletchley-Enigma by Robert Harris, and that too talked a little about the conditions in which they worked though it was essentially a mystery. Will look this one up-great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read a fictional account some years ago written by a computer programmer of how a ‘manual’ computer would work, basically if each transistor on/off switch was one human, and that is what Bletchley Park sounds like. Mind you people on assembly lines still do mind-numbing jobs. I worked for a week at in a can factory (Gadsens) hand-stacking sheets of thin steel as they came through a cutting machine. 12 hour shifts!

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    • That job at Stafford Ellinson’s involved ruling lines in a ledger book. It baffled me why they didn’t get them pre-printed.

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  7. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM.

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