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More fascinating than fiction: The women codebreakers of WWII

A closer look at the women cryptographers who were instrumental in the Allied war effort against the Nazis.

Kerry Howard

IT’S EASY TO become fascinated by Bletchley Park simply by walking through the gates and exploring the old mansion house, the renovated wooden huts and concrete buildings that pulsed with the codebreaking energy of Britain during World War II.

My interest was first piqued by Robert Harris’s novel ‘Enigma’ but it was the Sundays I spent as a volunteer in Bletchley Park’s archive that cemented my passion for the site’s untold stories. Surrounded by cupboards full of declassified documents copied from The National Archives and boxes of memorabilia donated by Bletchley Park veterans I could almost hear the sound of people behind the glass panel of the door at the end of the corridor and smell the past in the musky aroma of so much history.

This was the start of my journey as a researcher, which has led me to uncover the previously unpublished papers of women codebreakers Margaret Rock and Joan Clarke. Both women joined Bletchley Park in April 1940 and went on to enjoy long careers as codebreakers at GCHQ.

The codebreakers of Bletchley Park 

Margaret arrived shortly before her 37th birthday and had worked as a part time statistician. She found herself breaking German Military Intelligence (Abwehr) codes with legendary codebreaker Dilly Knox and another female codebreaker, Mavis Lever. Dilly was unique in his giving his ‘girls’ the opportunity to explore their potential and develop codebreaking skills equal to their male peers.

Crucially, the Abwehr Enigma break gave Britain access to messages confirming that Hitler and his commanders believed the misinformation fed to them by double agents about the D-Day landings location.

Joan Clarke arrived fresh from receiving a double first in Mathematics from Newnham College, Cambridge. She was met by Alan Turing and whisked into Hut 8 to help break Naval Enigma using the new Bombe machine. Her skills were soon realised and within a week a table was dragged into an office she would share with the senior male codebreakers. Joan was quickly promoted to linguist – something she found amusing as she had little skill for languages. She enjoyed answered questionnaires ‘grade: linguist; languages: none.’ Joan was promoted to Deputy Head of Hut 8 in 1944. She was the only woman to reach such a senior level in a cryptographic role, yet she is better known for her brief engagement to Alan Turing.

The true story is more fascinating than fiction 

The epic battle to break Naval Enigma is told in the recent movie ‘The Imitation Game’. Like the book Enigma did in the 1990s, the movie has gone a long way to raise awareness and broaden the appeal of Bletchley Park’s past. Many people, including myself, have been introduced to our codebreaking heroes through these fictional accounts, which have been inspired by factual events. I urge people to take a step further and discover more about this fascinating site and the people who worked there. The true story of Bletchley Park is even more fascinating than the fiction.

In my research, I am always trying to get closer to the inspirational women of Bletchley Park’s past. Events like Inspirefest 2015 give me the chance to observe and meet inspiring, high-achieving women, brought together by Silicon Republic, and best represent the women whose lives and contribution to STEM subjects will be written about in the future.

Kerry Howard is a writer and researcher with a consuming passion for Bletchley Park’s untold stories. She shares her research on her blog www.bletchleyparkresearch.co.uk and is currently putting the finishing touches to her new book ‘Women Codebreakers – The story of Margaret Rock, Mavis Lever and Joan Clarke’. You can contact her via Twitter @CaptainRidley and Facebook: BletchleyParkResearch.

Inspirefest is a unique, new, three-day, international sci-tech event aiming to showcase diversity and leadership in Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM). Organised by Silicon Republic, Inspirefest will take place in Dublin from 18–20 June in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre and Merrion Square Park, where an extensive fringe festival and outreach programme will bring together design, the arts and STEM. Tickets are on sale now at a special early-bird price of €450, as well as two-for-one tickets and discounts for bootstrapped start-ups and students. Sale ends at midnight 15 May 2015. For further information: www.inspirefest2015.com and Twitter: @inspirefestHQ.

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Kerry Howard

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