Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bad Ass Girls of Bletchley

by Linda Thornburg, guest blogger
While we’re on the subject of good bad girls and bad good girls, and while Daedalus Books’ Forum topic is Hidden in Plain Sight, let’s look at some of the bad ass good “gels” of World War II.
The notched and numbered wheels of the bombe, the clacking lettered keys of the Enigma, the lines of code scanning across the screen in the opening of The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer’s Code beckoned me into Sinclair McKay’s The Secret Life of Bletchley Park.
The bombe 
Along with an eclectic set of cryptographers, mathematicians, scientists, linguists, translators, chess players, professors, undergraduates, antiquarians, museum curators, and general wunderkinds of the era, Bletchley Park was home to thousands of ordinary British girls. Many of them were billeted in spare rooms of townsfolk. Quietly slipping from their beds and riding their bicycles to work a midnight shift, these unassuming “gels” were cracking the codes of Hitler’s military. 
Alfred Dillwyn “Dilly” Knox, senior cryptographer and so-called mastermind of the Enigma team, had a volatile side and preferred working with women. "He certainly had a most enlightened approach to the employment of women at the period–one might even be tempted to call it positive discrimination." Knox’s female staff at “the Cottage,” a series of shabbily built huts that served as the decryption nerve center, became known as “Dilly’s Fillies.”  Knox selected the brightest and the best young women to come through Bletchley to work in his code-breaking team. Running the bombe machines was exclusively the work of Wrens.
Wrens working on the Colossus
The initial recruiting for Bletchley’s men and women came through old-school and social connections. It was thought if you could trust the father, you could trust the daughter with top-secret work. 
The Hon. Sarah Baring, (née Norton) was the daughter of the 6th Lord Grantley. She did the Season in 1938. When war broke out, she worked for a time at Vogue, and wrote some articles for the Baltimore Sun. Then she went to do her bit building Hawker Hurricanes, single-seat fighter planes.
She was recruited from Hawker, along with her friend Osla Benning. They were summoned to the Labour Exchange in London, where they were tested in German language skills. At 17, Sarah had been sent to Munich to broaden herself and learn German. She was fluent. Olsa attended finishing school in Austria. They passed, and were ordered to report to “Station X” in Buckinghamshire. When they arrived at Bletchley, they were assigned to Hut 4.
The Hon. Sarah with first husband William Waldorf Astor during the 1954 general election campaign
Enigma machine
“Nobody explained anything,” she recalled. “Pieces of paper in German would come through and you had to take out any salient information, put it all on to a filing card with the coordinates, and index it. The information we were dealing with was obviously decrypted. Even then we didn’t know the whole picture. We just did what we were told.”
The Hon. Sarah eventually worked in Hut 8 with Alan Turing. In 1939 then 27-year-old Turing came up with the code-breaking algorithm of the bombe, an electromechanical computing machine that could find settings for the German Enigma. The breaking and deciphering of the Enigma codes gave Allies access to Nazi troop, bomber, and U-boat movements, shortened the war by several years, and by all accounts assured Allied victory.
Alan Turing
(To add a little dish to today’s gleaning, and in keeping on topic, of changing definitions of good and bad. In 1952, Alan Turing, father of computing, code-breaking savior of the British and Allied Forces in World War II was arrested for homosexuality under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. He was sentenced to chemical castration (hormone therapy), labelled a sexual deviant and classified as mentally ill. Ostracized from society, unable to continue his government work (or find anything else) because he could no longer get a security clearance; Turing took his own life in 1954. In July, 2013, 59 years after his death, Turing was pardoned by Parliament.)
Not all of the women who worked at Bletchley were former debs. Jean Valentine, a Wren, was a working-class girl from the Scottish town of Perth. She started working the bombe and went on to break Japanese codes in Ceylon. Mavis Batey, who worked closely with Knox, was a “fiercely intelligent middle-class girl.” Bletchley’s sundry cast of characters came from all walks of life to do some of the most important work of World War II. 
Bletchley staff from Hut 6
McKay has engagingly captured the work, lives, time and atmosphere of Bletchley Park.
In line with The Secret Life of Bletchley Park is Jennet Conant’s revealing account of Julia and Paul Child's World War II service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the Far East, A Covert Affair.  Conant’s book also describes their entrapment in the McCarthy hearings. And don't miss this opportunity to catch any missed episodes of the BBC drama The Bletchley Circle: Cracking a Killer's Code.
Guest blogger and codebreaker Linda Thornburg is a film writer and director. Her film, Oh Dear: A History of Woman Suffrage, cracked a code of silence around the 19th-Century American feminist movement.

8 comments:

  1. OUCH MS THORNBURG,

    Like The immortal Cleopatra Jones (Pam Grier), Those ladies are ten miles of bad road! Or 10 'klicks" (kilometers).

    Fascinating (and ultimately dispiriting) how these intrepid women, much like their counterparts on the Assembly Lines in the States ("Rosie the Riveter"), jumped in and did historically "men's work" - and quite well; making outsized, huge and tide-turning contributions to the War Effort - they even ferried the planes across the oceans, as brave skilled pilots, only to all be rudely relegated to inferior work and lower pay post-Victory. Hey it even happened in baseball for crying out loud... Crying? In baseball... Absolutely right, two steps back on the womens' front merits shedding a brief tear; then a bat applied forcefully to the "glass ceiling" ... Heck I know five, six, seven, eight nine distaff family members who could easily ,nay, seamlessly and superbly ascent to a deserved title as Baroness, and making it their very oweof title of Baroness, thereafter imbued and radiant with myriad exemplary qualities: joie de vivre, sangfroid, aplomb, grace, judgment, discernment, discretion and shrewd common sense....qualities to which the Baron bears scant to ephemeral acquaintance.
    Ruefully Yours, Hollywood Independent Royalty
    BvMugen

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    1. Dear VonMugen,
      Thankfully the power hitter JPM will be back shortly. I fear I've sprained my batting arm. Thanks for your royal loyalty.
      Linda

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    2. Dear Ms Thornburg,

      This JPM whom you cit is Gravy, baby, Gravy. Absolutely crucial to the full-course meal. She is the cat's meow man! That said, I commend for your awesome 'pinch-hitting' - you brought a nuanced sensibility and keen perspicacity this reader found delightful. Otherwise stated: Behind the lens or at the keyboard, You deliver impressive work-
      Majestically yours,
      BvM

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    3. Thank you, dear Baron, for such kind words.
      Yours ever,
      Linda

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    4. A post from the Baron is guaranteed to make me laugh ... and sometimes I even learn something. His use of language is nonpareil. He has no peer.
      I am a fan!
      The real JPM

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  2. It's interesting to know that Mavis Batey has become one of the great garden historians in England. She has been the President of the renowned Garden History Society, and won the Veitch Award, as well as an MBE. Her writings on gardens and on Oxfordshire are standard reading. I've used her works in my studies and her insights are so sharp. She is a great lady!

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    1. and by the way, the submission form wouldn't accept my name/url so I had to post as "anonymous!"

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    2. Thanks for the info about Mavis! I will check out her work. Alas, dear Anonymous, you are still anonymous, but my thanks for your comments!
      Linda

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