Meet some of the thousands of women who worked for Bletchley Park during World War Two. The top-secret intelligence they helped to produce impacted every sphere of the war. These are some of their remarkable experiences, in their own words.
In World War Two, codebreaking at Bletchley Park grew to industrial scale. Of nearly 10,000 personnel in 1945, 75% were women. Few were older than 24. Recruited from the Women’s Services and through the Civil Service, women intercepted wireless transmissions, transported messages and staff, compiled and indexed information, operated codebreaking machinery, received and sent communications, and kept the Park running smoothly. Those with specialist skills, such as linguists, were recruited to codebreaking and traffic analysis.
Teleprinter Course (1941)Bletchley Park
"In the Autumn of 1943, the Government called up all girls aged 17½...
"It was with some trepidation that I went for my interview at the Labour Exchange ... the official thought I should go for an interview at the Foreign Office.
"Within a month I was on my way to Bletchley Park. My first impression was a lecture on the utmost secrecy the work entailed.”
- Hilary Pownall (née Law), Foreign Office Civilian. Block D (Hut 8) at Bletchley Park, 1943 -1945
Norah Boswell (née Knight), WRNS.Bletchley Park
“I don’t know how I had ever got picked for Stanmore, certainly I was never asked any selection questions such as did I do crosswords or puzzles etc., or speak languages etc...
"However, I was certainly taller than most for my age and I often mused later that I was picked purely because of my height, as it required tall girls to reach the highest set of drums on the Bombe machines.”
- Norah Boswell (née Knight), WRNS. Bombe Operator at Stanmore Outstation, March 1943 - 1945
Staff of the Communications Centre in Block E at Bletchley ParkBletchley Park
“We started work the day after our arrival, operating a three-shift system covering the 24 hours, and working for a week on each shift. Three of the four of us were Northerners...
"We worked together with about a dozen other people in one of the huts. We were a mixed bunch including British and American, service personnel and civilians and men and women.”
- Gwendoline Burton (née Witchell), Foreign Office Civilian. Block E at Bletchley Park, 1944-1945
W/T Red FormBletchley Park
"We listened – we spent our four hours on watch, twiddling the knobs on our receiver up and down the frequencies that the German ships and bases used...
"What we were mostly listening to were coded messages and...we would write down the three or four letters as we heard them. Very often they were interrupted, fading or distorted so you really had to listen very very closely."
- Pat Davies, née Owtram, WRNS. Withernsea and Abbot's Cliff Y-stations, 1942-1945
Eastcote OutstationBletchley Park
"There was a very complicated part where you set the menu, and that had to be checked before you actually set the Bombe going.
"And when you changed the drums you had to be careful putting them on, in case you bent a wire.
"We were told if that happened you could cause a short and stop the Bombe working properly, so we spent ages with our tweezers straightening the wires."
- Betty Flavell (née Russell), WRNS. Bombe Operator at Eastcote Outstation, 1944 - May 1945
Colossus 10 (1943/1945)Bletchley Park
"We were working on Colossus, but to us it didn’t have a name. It was just this large dark brown machine, with pegs like a Post Office switchboard…
"We knew the machine was being used to decode, but not what happened after us or if one ever produced anything.
"I can only remember about twice actually getting something out of it."
- Rachel Hockenhull (née Kimber), WRNS. Colossus Operator in the Newmanry, Block H at Bletchley Park, September 1944 - August 1945
Wartime sketchBletchley Park
"One of the most important events was the build up to D-Day.
"We had a flat bed plot of the Channel...and we were plotting like mad, not just the real invasion but the false invasion as well...
"We plotted the German E Boats, particularly dangerous to us in the Channel, French fishing boats - the lot.
"It got so busy at that time that we stayed on for a second Watch."
- Agnes Smith (née Tocher), WRNS. Block A at Bletchley Park 1943 - 1946
Decoding Room Hut 6Bletchley Park
"I was a decodist at the Park, and one night on duty I was decoding a message freshly arrived on the teleprinter.
"After many trials and errors…the groups of numbers began to make sense.
"Italian bombers were leaving Tripoli to fly to Sicily at 04:00 hours. Imagine the thrill – it was then 01:30.
"Radio messages were sent to the RAF ... and, consequently, all the Italian aircraft were shot down."
- Rozanne Colchester (née Medhurst), Foreign Office Civilian. Bletchley Park 1942 - 1945
'Dispatch Rider Training'Bletchley Park
"We…were taught to use a service revolver, due to there being a real threat of an invasion.
"It was thought that if we were in a vehicle and a paratrooper had dropped, they would certainly try to obtain some transport, so we should be able to defend ourselves.”
- Pauline Sperring (née Tanner), WRNS. MT driver delivering daily despatch boxes from Portsmouth and other locations to Bletchley Park.
‘Night Watch’ by Wren Bombe Operator Phyllis Barton (née Dalton)Bletchley Park
"The scene that I remember most of all is a night watch, working on the Bombes in Hut 11, walking in the dark along the tennis court wire in the middle of the night, to the Mansion...
"Everyone read The Times. You talked to anyone, high or low, but no-one knew what anyone else was doing.
"After about half an hour you walked back ... to the “hell-hole”, the Bombe Hut, where there was noise, smell, no air and poor lighting, to complete your eight hour watch."
- Anonymous WRNS Bombe Operator at Bletchley Park.
VE Day celebration (1945)Bletchley Park
"Of course we did have to devise a means of changing from uniform to glad-rags if we were going to London and that was quite a problem...
"I clearly remember getting out at Swanbourne in my Wren uniform with a little bag, going into the cowshed, changing my clothes and putting my uniform in the manger, then catching the next train up to London in my glad-rags.”
- Marigold Freeman-Attwood (née Philips), WRNS. Colossus Operator, Bletchley Park, August 1943 - May 1945.