Recognising Bletchley Park's unsung heroines

Recognising Bletchley Park's unsung heroines

Summary: Codebreakers like Alan Turing have been rightly celebrated for their wartime work but, until now, the women of Station X have been largely overlooked

TOPICS: Security

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  • During World War II, around 6,000 women worked at the highly secretive Bletchley Park and its outposts. Bletchley Park, or Station X as it was mysteriously known at the time, was the intelligence centre behind the country's efforts to decode Germany's encrypted wireless messages.

    While newspapers and history books have devoted a lot of attention to high-profile codebreakers, including Alan Turing and Max Newman, who between them designed the two main codebreaking machines, Colossus (pictured) and Bombe, there has been little recognition of the work of the women of the time, even though they comprised two-thirds of the Bletchley Park workforce.

    Women played a critical role in ensuring the smooth running of the two machines, which have been credited as instrumental in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. Finally, almost 63 years after the end of the war, the achievements of these women have been recognised by a project headed by the British Computer Society (BCS).

    Credit: Bletchley Park

  • The project, launched on Friday, called the "Women of Station X" or the "Women of Bletchley Park", is the brainchild of Sue Black, chair of BCSWomen — a networking group within BCS that strives to support female IT professionals in the workplace — and the head of the department of information and software systems at the University of Westminster.

    Speaking at an event to publicise the project, Black (pictured) said she was horrified that, despite all their hard work, women's achievements at Bletchley Park hadn't been fully recognised historically.

    A visit to Bletchley Park's museum four years ago triggered the idea. Black said of the historical exhibits: "I found it fascinating, but it was all about the men that worked there. I thought: we can do something to show what a lovely job was done at Bletchley Park, and that it was done by women."

    Since that day, Black and project lead Jan Peters have been interviewing many of the women who worked at Station X, with the aim of documenting their stories for the web-based project, which is now live on the BCS' website. The project was initially funded by only BCS, but that funding has since been matched by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology and added to by the European Social Fund.

  • As the home to the Government Code and Cipher School, which later became the government's intelligence arm, GCHQ, Bletchley Park was the headquarters of Britain's codebreaking efforts.

    Bletchley Park also operated five outposts, where many of the codebreaking machines — and, therefore, women — were based. When a message was intercepted by one of the outposts, it was sent by motorcycle courier or teleprinter to Bletchley Park to be collated with all the other intelligence.

    The work at Station X was carried out in secret; employees were instructed not to tell even their family that they worked there. The first female recruits were brought in as an experiment — senior figures in the establishment doubted they could do the work.

    Many of the women who worked at Bletchley Park had been Wrens — that is, they had worked for the Women's Royal Naval Service — and many reported their disappointment when they found out quite how far away from the sea they had been located. Other female recruits came from the Women's Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

    Some were as young as 15 and most were poorly paid. Weekly income totalled just 13 shillings and sixpence for the youngest women — one-fifth of the national average pay.

    Few of the women designed or maintained the codebreaking machines; instead, they typically worked as radio operators, Morse-code readers or teleprinter typists. On occasion, they operated the codebreaking machines and played a key part in cracking the codes sent from the German Enigma machines.

    Credit: Conrad Taylor

Topic: Security

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