Posts Tagged ‘Extraordinary’

The extraordinary female codebreakers of Bletchley Park

January 5th, 2015

These worker ants came, mostly, from middle-class backgrounds. Colchester, now 91, had heard of Bletchley through her father, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Charles Medhurst, an air attaché in Rome. At the time, she was living in Italy, where her family moved in high circles – before the war, she had met Hitler and been flirted with by Mussolini at an embassy party – but she found the prospect of working for her country equally thrilling. She passed the interview, she remembers, “and immediately it was a completely different sort of life than I had been used to. When you’re 19, everything’s romantic and exciting. You’re away from home, meeting all sorts of wonderful people.”

One such person was Pamela Rose, an actress from London, then 24, who had been urged by an interfering godmother to apply for The Park. “I’d just been offered a part as an understudy in a play called Water on the Rhine in the West End, and I was rather excited by it,” she says. “So I asked the man who’d interviewed me, the head of the naval section, what he thought I should do. And he said, ‘Well, I think the stage can wait. The war can’t.’ So that was that.” Rose, now 97, believes she was recruited on the basis of her well to-do background: “I don’t think it was as snobbish as some people say, but they had to be careful about how they selected you. They seemed to think that if they took in girls from families they knew something about, they were less likely to get a German spy.”

Pamela Rose, photographed for an acting shot before her days at Bletchley

Their work was varied. While Colchester focused on decoding, Rose was stationed in the indexing hut of the naval intelligence section, taking words and phrases of interest from French and German messages, noting them down on cards and cross-referencing them. “The codes came in broken up into something like a text message,” she explains. “We had to have a card for the battle ship, another for the port it was leaving, another for where it was arriving, and so on. Some days it was incredibly exciting – other times it was very dull, about the captain’s socks or something.”

Others among Dunlop’s 15 Bletchley girls had different roles – Muriel Dindol, at 14 the youngest of the group, was a messenger girl; while Cora Jarman, now 88, professes she still doesn’t know what exactly she was doing back then. “It was just noughts and crosses on a sheet,” she laughs. “I only went to The Park because I liked the uniform of the Wrens.” There were, of course, a few female codebreakers – notably Joan Clarke, who worked alongside Turing, played by Keira Knightley in the recent film – “but they were hardly representative,” says Dunlop. “Once you had all these gigantic thumping machines, you needed girls to run them. And Joan looked nothing like that.”

With its unique mix of military and civilians living in the same quarters (many of them were billeted in nearby villages and bussed in and out of The Park each day), Bletchley was an extraordinary experience, beset by highs and lows. The girls worked on shifts, through the night in smoky, claustrophobic quarters, and they amused themselves with card games and gossip. There were tea dances in local hotels; theatre performances in the canteen; clubs and societies and cliques for like-minded interests. “We all used to meet over coffee breaks in a little room in the main house,” says Colchester, who can still sing the ditties she learned by heart seven decades ago. “There was a pressure to work, but it was very much a together community.”

The good old days: life as a ‘Bletchleyette’ (picture taken from Cora Jarman)

The girls were younger than the men, but they did socialise together – to the extent it was acceptable at the time. “They might have flirted but it was all very dignified,” says Dunlop. “They’d never have rolled into bed together. This was the last generation to get married before they even thought of having sex.” Indeed, Rose (nee Gibson) met her husband, Wing-Commander Jim Rose, at The Park – he was head of the air section – and, through him, was introduced to Turing. “I didn’t know Turing well,” she insists. “He was polite and intelligent, but he preferred the company of men.”

The four years at Bletchley flew by – and most of its women subsequently gave up their careers, got married and never looked back. Rose stayed until the end of 1945, wed Jim the following January, “and did the usual old fashioned thing of settling down and having a family”. Colchester took a more unconventional path; having lost her brother, Dick, in the war, she applied for a transfer to Cairo, where her parents were living. There, she moved from the world of codebreaking to a career in espionage with MI6, where she later crossed paths with Kim Philby, the notorious Cambridge spy.

For the majority, however, Bletchley was the pinnacle of their intellectual careers. “It simply couldn’t have functioned without them,” says Dunlop. “And this talks for all the women of the war – Wrens, Land Girls, radio operators. Their job was to be the facilitators; but it’s about time we made them the focus.” Both Rose and Colchester’s names appear in The Park’s official Roll of Honour, created online in 2013, where they are lauded “for service in support of the work of Bletchley Park during World War Two.” Three words accompany their names: “We Also Served” – a nod, perhaps, to the fact that it has taken so long to recognise their contribution.

Pamela Rose (left) and Rozanne Colchester (right), pictured today

Modesty characterises the Bletchleyettes today – every one of Dunlop’s 15 retains the dignity and discretion that made them such perfect employees 70 years ago; loyal, still, to that iconic institution. “There was a sense that we were doing something important,” says Colchester, cautiously. “I am proud of what we did. But did we feel appreciated? Well, you didn’t think much about that in those days. There was a war on. You never thought whether you were happy doing it – you just got on with your job.”

She gained something else from her days at The Park – a lifelong friend. Having been introduced by one of their tutors on the lawn outside the huts, Rose and Colchester struck up a friendship that endures to this day. They wrote letters to one another after the war, comforted each other when their husbands died – and ensured their children and grandchildren became firm friends. “That is one lovely legacy of that time,” muses Rose, her eyes twinkling. “As for the rest of it… There are so many people who say they ‘saved the war’. I know I didn’t. But I daresay I – we – did alright.”

The Bletchley Girls by Tessa Dunlop (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £17 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit Tessa Dunlop will be in conversation with some of the Bletchley veterans at Waterstones Piccadilly on Thursday, January 8 at 7pm. To reserve your space at this free event, email

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The Extraordinary Story of Captain Winkle Brown, BBC Two, review

June 1st, 2014

There are war stories, and then there are War Stories. The subject of Britain’s Greatest Pilot: the Extraordinary Story of Captain Winkle Brown (BBC Two) was a Zelig of the Second World War and beyond, making cameo appearances in everything from the Nuremberg Rallies to the Battle of Britain, from the liberation of Belsen

to the trial of Hermann Goering. Eric “Winkle” Brown’s encounter with the latter was recalled with mesmerising precision – typical of a chipper 95 year-old with a memory to match. He was well served by Simon Winchcombe’s restrained, respectful film, introduced and overseen by historian James Holland. If it held few surprises in its presentation, at its heart lay a tale which needed scant embellishment.

What window-dressing there was came in the form of newsreel footage. Some of it was frivolous (juxtaposing the Austro-German Anschluss with The Lambeth Walk), much of it intensely serious. Brown looked haunted as he talked of Belsen concentration camp: seeing these “dying zombies” shattered his long-held admiration for the German people. These responses to death offered the deepest insights into the man. The dogfights above the Atlantic convoys were adventures, full of derring-do and excitement. Until, that is, his ship was sunk and he was left roped together with 23 survivors in the water. Only two of them made it through the night – “a very nasty business”.

His story was littered with such understatement. He was “a bit piqued” about being imprisoned by the SS at the outbreak of the war; and his response to getting through a test flight which had already claimed lives by the skin of his teeth? “I was pretty pleased about it.” Upper lips don’t come much stiffer, although the sober manner in which he recounted his record-breaking feats – 487 different aircraft flown, 2,407 aircraft carrier landings achieved – was usually matched by a twinkle in the eye.

Such extraordinary commitment to excellence – Brown himself called it an “obsession” – must have taken a terrible toll on his personal life and, barring a brief acknowledgement at the film’s close, there was a disappointing lack of curiosity about this: we only found out that he was married when he mentioned his wife’s concussion after a V1 missile attack. Getting inside the minds of pioneers is a fascinating pursuit, and this felt like a missed opportunity. No matter. His achievements were remarkable; this was a man who, while not quite changing the course of history, certainly gave it a gentle nudge in the right direction. A life very well lived.


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