Recognising Bletchley Park's unsung heroines

Codebreakers like Alan Turing have been rightly celebrated for their wartime work but, until now, the women of Station X have been largely overlooked
By Richard Thurston on
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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).

2 of 11 Richard Thurston/ZDNet

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.

3 of 11 Conrad Taylor

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.

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Teleprinters were vitally important to the codebreaking effort because they were the quickest way to send messages to Bletchley Park from the outposts. They were nearly always staffed by women, who were dubbed "teleprincesses" for their tireless work.

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Five-channel tape like this stored the intercepted messages. Each letter is represented by a different pattern of holes punched across the width of the tape. Each hole was transmitted as a pulse by the teleprinter.

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Enigma was the name of the main cipher used by the German Luftwaffe. The country's mathematicians thought it was unbreakable — the odds of breaking the code at random were supposedly 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.

The same name was applied to the machine, the inside of which is pictured here, which produced the cipher. The encryption wheels, or rotors, are on display. At the bottom, you can see the "Steckerbrett", or plug board, which was introduced to make decoding even more complex.

7 of 11 Richard Thurston/ZDNet

Nine women who worked at Station X made the journey to London for the launch of BCS's project. Many of them worked directly on Bombe and Colossus.

Pictured with them are Rachel Burnett (president of BCS; far left), Jan Peters (manager of the BCS Women's Forum and also the project lead; second left) and Sue Black (founder of the BCS Women's Forum; far right).

Most of the women at Station X were well educated and many had degrees, which was extremely unusual at the time. But they were, more often than not, given little training. The only exception was for those who operated Colossus. They were given mathematics lessons by Newman.

8 of 11 Richard Thurston/ZDNet

Ruth Bourne (pictured above and also sixth from left in the previous photo) was a Wren working at the Bletchley Park outposts of Eastcote and Stanmore. She gave her firm approval to the project, saying: "It's very helpful. It gives us more status."

Bourne continued: "It provides a platform for us to network and keep [Bletchley] Park alive". Bourne continues to visit Bletchley Park every fortnight as a volunteer, giving tours to schoolchildren and other visitors, and educating them in what it was like to work there.

9 of 11 Richard Thurston/ZDNet

Margaret Rapp was another of the nine Bletchley Park veterans to attend the launch. She described her experiences, which included working on Colossus, as "amazing", and proudly showed off her badges which recognise her work at both Bletchley Park and as a Wren.

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Simon Greenish, director of the Bletchley Park Trust, which now runs Bletchley Park, said at the launch: "Bletchley Park is the birthplace of the computer. It's absolutely fitting that we link with the BCS, which works with the modern-day computer world, and recognise the work that was done by all the women in an environment which they weren't used to in the dark days of the war."

11 of 11 Richard Thurston/ZDNet

This recent photo shows a rebuilt Colossus machine. It took 14 years to rebuild because of a lack of information on how the 2,500-valve machine fitted together. Bombe has also been rebuilt after 12 years of work.

At the end of the war, all the original Colossi and Bombes were dismantled and secretly discarded, mostly by their female operatives, on the command of Winston Churchill so that other countries could learn nothing of Britain's codebreaking efforts.

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