The women of Bletchley Park

July 2016

Bletchley ParkSue Black OBE discusses the excellence of the role models provided by female codebreakers, stemming from her time with BCSWomen and from researching her new book.

The first time I went to Bletchley Park was in April 2003. I was there for that year’s British Computer Society Specialist Groups Assembly (SGA). I had set up BCSWomen, the UK’s first online network for women in technology, in 2001, and was visiting Bletchley Park on that day representing BCSWomen as Chair of the group.

I didn’t know that much about Bletchley Park before I went. I had in my head the idea that probably around fifty people worked at Bletchley Park, all men, and that they sat around codebreaking and doing The Times crossword at the same time.

After arriving at Bletchley Park I spent the day in the ballroom in the mansion house at the SGA. I enjoyed catching up with friends and meeting new people and learning a bit more about what the other specialist groups were doing.

After the meeting was over, I walked around the site and wandered into a building where I saw a group of guys working on an amazing looking feat of engineering. I went over and started chatting to one of the guys who turned out to be John Harper, who was leading the rebuild of the Bombe machine. John told me all about the Bombe, then asked me why I was there. I told him all about BCSWomen. He said that more than half of the people that worked at Bletchley Park during WW2 were women. I asked how many people worked there and was amazed by John’s answer: more than ten thousand.

I left stunned by the fact that more than five thousand women had worked at Bletchley Park, but that I’d never heard about that before. On the way home from Bletchley, on the train with many BCS friends, I said that I wanted to know more about the women that had worked there, and find some way to capture their experiences for posterity and raise their profile. I wanted everyone to know about the amazing contribution of the women of Bletchley Park.

It took me several years to get some funding to help make that happen, but eventually I did and thanks to BCS and the now defunct UK Resource Centre for Women in Science Engineering and Technology we at BCSWomen interviewed 14 women for the ‘Women of Station X’ project. One of those incredible women was Mavis Batey.

All of the veterans that I have met have been such interesting people, and Mavis one of the most interesting. I met Mavis a few times over the years, but I think the first time was when I and Professor Caroline Wardle took ACM Turing award winner Fran Allen up to Bletchley Park for the day in September 2008.

Fran came over to the UK to speak at a BCS conference in 2008 and really wanted to visit Bletchley Park while she was here. I hadn’t known at the time but Fran was going to be talking about a code breaking system that IBM built for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the later 1950s. Fran had spent a year at the NSF delivering a programming language, Alpha, that she and her colleagues had developed. Fran was also really interested in the women at Bletchley Park so I was delighted to take her up there for the day.

The 19-year-old codebreaker

Our hosts on the day at Bletchley Park were Frank Carter and BCS Past-President Brian Oakley. They talked about Bletchley Park from various aspects with Frank giving a demonstration and explanation of the Enigma machine.

Brian told us about some key breakthroughs in the Second World War that had been enabled by intelligence from Bletchley Park. This included the Battle of Cape Matapan, which Churchill regarded to be the greatest Royal Navy victory since Trafalgar. The victory had effectively removed the Italian Navy from the Mediterranean and therefore the war.

The breakthough had come from a nineteen year old codebreaker working as one of Dilly’s Girls at Bletchley Park. Her name was Mavis Batey. It was such an exciting moment to hear that great story, especially because Mavis was in the room with us. How awesomely cool was that?

After learning a crazy amount of interesting information from our hosts Fran and Mavis had a good chat about what it was like to work at Bletchley Park. We drank several cups of tea and then gathered to go on a tour of the site.

The name’s Bond

The tour was great. We walked all around the site, saw the Colossus rebuild at The National Museum of Computing and the new (at the time) exhibition at Bletchley Park ‘From Bletchley, with love’ which had been curated by Mavis. The James Bond author Ian Fleming had been a liaison officer between Bletchley Park and the Director of Naval Intelligence throughout the war and I’m sure used some of his experiences in his books about James Bond. Did you know that?

We learnt a lot about how the Park had come to be set up, what had happened there and how important it was in our winning of the Second World War.

Finding out about Mavis’ incredible codebreaking achievement at the age of nineteen was just fabulous. Oh, how I wish we had all heard of these incredible, true, stories growing up. I remember reading about Edith Cavell and other female spies when I was at school. I would so have loved to have known about Mavis Batey too. Role models are so important. How many nineteen year old girls do you know that have changed the course of history? What a great story.

When Mavis was interviewed in 2007 for the ‘Women of Station X’ project she spoke about Bletchley Park and the ‘special relationship’ with the US. I absolutely love it when she says, on speaking about the difference between the British and US at Bletchley Park during World War 2, that with the Brits ‘everybody was the same... a 19 year old girl could make a contribution’.

Over the last ten years I’ve got to know quite a few veterans and have always been extremely impressed and humbled. Every conversation that I have had has been interesting, always delivered with great intelligence, humility and a fabulous sense of humour. In the back of my mind, whilst speaking to veterans, I always hear Churchill’s words: ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few.’ Fabulous people that we owe so much to.

I started a campaign to save Bletchley Park in 2008 after finding out that they were having financial difficulties. It took three years and hundreds, if not thousands, of people to make sure that Bletchley Park was saved for posterity. The story of the campaign and the people that got involved, from Stephen Fry to politicians, geeks and social media enthusiasts is told in my book Saving Bletchley Park: how social media saved the home of the WWII codebreakers, which  is available in all good bookstores.

Further reading
 

Image: iStock/LanceB

Comments (3)

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  • 1
    Bryan Colyer wrote on 29th Jul 2016

    Please, please stop using the word "guy" when you mean man or woman. It is a horrible Americanism. A guy is what you put on a bonfire.

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  • 2
    Phiilip Statham wrote on 29th Jul 2016

    I think you will find that NSA is the US National Security Agency, not the National Science Association.

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  • 3
    Joanna Lloyd wrote on 2nd Aug 2016

    Fascinating article and it is so great to hear about such amazing feats from women coders that for decades have largely gone unrecognised by the wider public. Thank you.

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