The Forgotten Filly of Bletchley Park
On 18th December 1941, just ten days after the Japanese Navy attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, my mother Janet Rose entered through the heavily guarded gates of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire for the first time. Janet, with her dark shoulder-length hair swept back from her face in a fashionable wave, would have been smartly dressed on this her first day of employment at Station X. Was she nervous, or at least a little apprehensive about starting work in such an unusual environment? Or maybe she was more concerned about whether her carefully set hair would flop in the damp morning air. Through the fog that was prevalent that day she would have glimpsed a view of the house at the end of the drive – hardly an impressive sight. The building has variously been described as hideous, grotesque, ghastly, sprawling or grand; as Victorian, Georgian, mock-Tudor or just plain old; as a mansion, a pile, or country house. From the outside the place looked ordinary enough but the work going on inside and the innumerable outbuildings that had sprung up like mushrooms within the grounds were anything but ordinary. For this was the centre of Britain’s wartime code-breaking activities, where the Nazi Enigma ciphers were broken, thus helping to reduce the war by at least two years.
Before they began work, new recruits at the Park were given a security talk in the main house, where they were informed of the top secret nature of their employment. They then had to sign the Official Secrets Act. Following on from this, they would be taken to their future place of work in one of the many huts or other requisitioned buildings in the locality. As Janet was recruited by Dillwyn (Dilly) Knox as a code-breaker, she was sent to Hut 6 where she completed her training under Helen Morris, who remained a life-long friend. Work was carried out both during the day and night on an eight hour shift system, with a break of only thirty minutes half way through. After six days, the staff had one day off before beginning the next rota.
On entering the hut for the first time, Janet would have seen several rows of desks, each with what looked like bulky typewriters placed in front of the women who worked there. These were Enigma machines, used to de-code the messages coming from the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organisation. The women’s job was to transcribe the reels of taped messages as they came through on the Enigma, by arranging and re-arranging the dots on the tape which represented the transposed letters. It was repetitive work, requiring great concentration. Every possible combination of letters had to be tried, and once complete the messages were passed through to Hut 3 next door via an inter-connecting tunnel. From there the messages were translated and then all intelligence gathered was sent to the relevant sections at Whitehall via motorbike courier. Direct contact with others in different sections was not encouraged. Work was carried out on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis in order to maintain the secrecy of operations taking place at the Park. One code-breaker, Oliver Lawn, no doubt reflected Janet’s attitude at the time: ‘The content of the messages was of no concern to me at all. I knew enough German to get an idea of what it was all about. But I had no idea of the context.’
Most Bletchley workers lodged in nearby towns and villages, and were transported to and from the site by shuttle bus. Until she found a room locally, Janet stayed with Helen Morris and her husband Christopher, who also worked at the Park as a cryptanalyst in the naval section. Janet later lodged in a council house, an experience she did not enjoy. Billeted conditions were basic, often with no bathroom and only an outside toilet. Some host families resented this unwelcome intrusion into their homes and the misconception that many of the civilians were conscientious objectors and only working at Bletchley in order to get out of enlisting, did not help matters. As they were unable to explain to anyone the contribution they were actually making to the war effort, this must have been quite awkward for the Bletchley workers.
Conditions in the huts were no better than in lodgings. The temporary buildings were over-crowded and cramped – freezing cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer. The windows were permanently blacked out, so the staff had to work under artificial light at all times. Toilets were in short supply, even after the new blocks were built in 1942. Frank Birch, in charge of the naval section in Block A made a complaint about this to the works manager: ‘there is only one [lavatory] for men and one for all the women, which is not enough for the 200 authorised.’ Meals were taken at first in the main house and later in a purpose-built cafeteria. The food was generally considered awful, with one former employee commenting: ‘Our canteen outshone any sleazy restaurant […] One day I found a cooked cockroach nestling in my meat.’
Dilly had interviewed Janet in the front room of her digs in Great Missenden, where she was staying to be near to her husband, Victor, who was posted at barracks nearby. She said that it was the most extraordinary experience – more like a polite conversation with a family friend over a cup of tea than a formal discussion. The aim was obviously to put her at ease and tease out any likely problems. There must have been some concern about the time she spent in Munich with her German boyfriend before the start of war, but she evidently passed the test for she was engaged as a code-breaker on the spot. This was unusual, as most potential candidates had to have at least two interviews before they were taken on. Many of the staff were recruited through informal networks in the Services, universities and professions. However, this was not the case for Janet as she had not gone to university, neither was she part of the aristocracy nor a member of the Services. She was one of the many ‘geese’ who ‘seem simply to have happened on it. Ignorant of the machinations of recruiters, they ‘somehow or by chance’ came to work at BP.’
Boffins, as the mathematicians like Dilly were called, were known for their eccentricity and absent-mindedness. They would wander around the premises in scruffy clothes or sometimes even in pyjamas and dressing-gown, much to the disapproval of one WAAF Officer, who describes ‘filthy civilians with their greasy hair and dirty trousers.’ What he lacked in appearance, however, Dilly certainly made up for in the way he treated his staff. He was very good to them, especially the women, and sometimes would take them out for the best meal available in the Seven Bells public house nearby. This group of women came to be known as ‘Dilly’s Fillies’ and were all ‘pretty girls.’
Sixty five years after Janet left Bletchley Park, I went on a trip there to see for myself the place where she had worked. On arrival, we listened to a talk by a former MI6 officer, who then took our party on a tour round the buildings, explaining the nature of the work that took place on the site during the 1940s. I stopped off to take a closer look at Hut 6, where Janet was based. It seemed such an insignificant building, considering all that was achieved there and it was hard to imagine that this was the hub of Bletchley Park activities during the war.
While viewing the display of photographs in the main house, I stopped short in front of a rare picture supposedly of staff working inside Hut 6. I felt sure that one of the women sitting at a desk to the right of the room was Janet. Her profile was unmistakable, with her high cheekbones, wide forehead and hair swept away from her face. I photographed the display so that I could compare the image with a portrait I had of Janet that was done at a similar time. I was intrigued, so on my return home, I began to research Janet’s past. I wished that I had paid more attention to her on the rare occasions when she talked about her war-time experiences. Of course, she was sworn to secrecy about her work at Station X. It wasn’t until the thirty year rule was lifted in 1974 and the first book was published about the Ultra machine that details of the war-time work at Bletchley Park gained publicity. Most of the staff there had kept quiet about their role even to their closest family, and it is because of this that they have been referred to as Churchill’s geese that laid the golden egg and never cackled.
By the time the film Enigma was released in 2001 most surviving Bletchley workers felt they were at last able to talk about their wartime role at Station X. I took Janet to see the film, feeling sure that she would be enthralled by it. However, glancing at her in the cinema I was surprised to find her frowning. Afterwards she complained that the portrayal of Bletchley on screen did not match up to her memories at all. Apart from anything else, the set was all wrong, as the filming had not taken place at Bletchley Park, but at Chicheley Hall nearby. Also, when Janet first arrived at the Park, there were about 2,000 people working there. Her section was ‘a very small department’ and she would have had little awareness of the affairs of others on site. Having recently watched the film again, I quite understand why Janet found it disappointing. This fictional story of adventure and romance would have born little resemblance to her experience at Bletchley. Newly married and with a strong Protestant work ethic, nothing would have been further from her mind than the thought of someone betraying their country.
Having discovered that all staff records at Bletchley Park were destroyed after the war, and that the Trust relies on friends and relatives to contact them with any information they might have about people who worked there, I set about gathering evidence of Janet’s involvement at Station X. My first task was to locate a reference letter written by Janet’s boss there that my sister had found amongst her papers after she died. This was written by P.F.G. Twinn, who had taken over from Dilly Knox after his death in 1943, and confirmed Janet’s employment at Bletchley from mid December 1941 until the end of July 1942, when she became pregnant with my brother. Twinn describes Janet as being ‘reliable and energetic’ and states that she ‘possesses in particular high qualities of intelligence and enterprise.’ On the letter Janet had made a note about the Code Breakers book by Hinsley and Strip, published in 1994. After locating her copy I found further notes written by her that included ‘see after page 137 for my photo.’ Sure enough, turning to the relevant page, I found the same photograph I had seen on display at Bletchley. An arrow with the name ‘Janet’ points towards the woman sitting on the right.
With the Twinn letter and the photograph confirming Janet’s presence at Station X, I felt I had enough evidence to support having her name added to the list of employees at Bletchley Park. With these, I recently contacted the Bletchley Park Trust via their website. As a result, Janet’s name has now been added to the Roll of Honour, and with this came a certificate recognising her service in support of the work of Bletchley Park during World War II. It is heartening to know that this particular filly is no longer forgotten.