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Wartime Women

The Bletchley Girls. War, secrecy, love and loss:
The women of Bletchley Park tell their story

Tessa Dunlop (Hodder & Stoughton, $49.99)
Reviewed by Judith Nathan

Bletchley-001Coinciding as it does with the movie Imitation Game which focusses on Alan Turing breaking the Enigma code in Hut 6 at Bletchley Park (“BP”), this book is likely to attract a wide readership. It deserves to do so, as it illustrates that BP was very much more than Turing and his colleagues. The first astonishing fact I learned was the sheer scale of operations. The scope of the work was much wider than Enigma. It is estimated that 8,500 -10,000 people worked at BP during the war, 75% of them women. The workers often did not know how their work fitted in to the bigger picture and certainly did not know what went on in other parts of BP.

Tessa Dunlop, a broadcaster and historian, interviewed fifteen articulate women from amongst those who worked at BP: they had an average age of ninety. She has produced a very readable account of their varied experiences. In a decision that adds to the interest of this book, Dunlop included women (not counted in the 8,500-10,000) who worked at some of the satellite stations which fed data to Bletchley, for example one who monitored the communications of German shipping from Yorkshire.

The fifteen interviewees included an Oxford maths graduate, a 14-year-old school leaver, an actress, and the daughters of a duke, of an admiral who was director of naval intelligence and of a diplomat based in Italy till 1940. Two were sisters, British citizens who had escaped from Belgium where they grew up with a limited knowledge of English. At least two others were Jewish. Several were fluent in German and one in Italian. Some were WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service – smart uniforms), a few were in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service – dowdy uniforms) and several were civilians. They included decoders, an indexer, an operator of a Bombe (an electronic testing device) and an operator of a Colossus (a prototype computer).

Dunlop has chosen a thematic approach, starting with the varied pre-BP experiences of the women, then how they came to be at BP (often through family connections), their home lives while there (some billeted with local people of quite a different class), their social and romantic lives, and to a certain extent their working lives, limited by their on-going awareness of having signed the Official Secrets Act before, and at the end of, their service at BP. Socially, work was a taboo subject.

For many of the interviewees, BP was a highlight of their lives. Like most of their contemporaries, the majority became full-time mothers after the war. Not all found their jobs at BP exciting: some were bored by their repetitive nature, one “excessively” so, but they were aware that in some way what they were doing was very important; all took on board the necessity for extreme secrecy both during and after the war.

While it was interesting to read of their sometimes difficult transitions back to civilian life, exacerbated by their inability to say what they did in the war, I found some of Dunlop’s generalisations in this chapter about life in the 1950s and 60s somewhat irritating. For example, I do not believe Dr Spock had a huge influence on child-rearing in Britain, though I take the point that it was more hands-on for more women than in pre-war Britain. But this is my only criticism of a well-written book that I highly recommend.

Read this book to get a lively, well-rounded picture of what life was like at Bletchley Park for a cross section of its largely female workforce.