Saving Bletchley Park: The women of Station X

Sue Black recalls her first experience of Bletchley Park and the women who worked there, inspiring a campaign to save the home of the WW2 codebreakers

My first visit to Bletchley Park was on 9 April 2003. I was attending the British Computer Society (BCS) Specialist Groups Assembly representing BCSWomen, the online network for women in computing that I set up in 2001.

The idea behind BCSWomen was to support and encourage women in computing. I had found doing my PhD in software engineering on the whole enjoyable but sometimes lonely, with few women around, and I often wished for a group of friendly women to talk to. I set up BCSWomen to bring together such a group and found many friends there.

I’d heard of Bletchley Park, but I didn’t have a very well-formed idea of what it was and I had no idea what it looked like. I knew it was something to do with code breaking and World War II. In my mind’s eye was a picture of 50 or so middle-aged blokes sitting around in tweed jackets, smoking pipes and doing The Times crossword.

I’ve since learnt that view is not uncommon. I shared my image of the tweed-clad blokes with Stephen Fry when he came to visit Bletchley Park in May 2009; he then used almost exactly the same words to describe his own preconception of Bletchley on QI – I wasn’t alone in my thinking.

On the morning of 9 April, I got the train from Euston Station to Bletchley. I had no idea yet what a momentous visit it would prove to be.

The Bombe machine

I spent the day there, mainly in the mansion house ballroom, listening to BCS talks and chatting to colleagues in the break. At the end of the day, I decided to explore the grounds. Bletchley Park occupies a 26-acre site, with many huts, blocks and various outbuildings, plus a lake, so there was plenty to look at.

I entered one of the blocks and started looking at the exhibits on display; moving from one room to the next, I saw a group of middle-aged men working on what looked like the most amazing contraption at the end of the building. It was probably seven feet high and six feet across, a wonderful vision of engineering, with wires and what looked like cogs of some sort. I walked over to take a closer look.

I started chatting to a man who told me that he and his team were rebuilding something called the Bombe machine. I first heard this as “Bomb” machine, which sounded almost too exciting, but I soon learned all about it.

They had a couple of photos and an incomplete plan that had been found on a window ledge in a toilet
Sue BlackOn the enthusiasts rebuilding Turing's Bombe machine

That man was John Harper, who, with a team of enthusiasts, was rebuilding Alan Turing’s Bombe machine, which was used during WWII to mechanise the breaking of Enigma codes. John told me that it was taking years to rebuild because they didn’t have a complete set of instructions or information to help them reconstruct it. Most of the details of the construction of the Bombe had been destroyed at the end of the war, so they had the task of working with incomplete information to put together a plan and then rebuild the Bombe from scratch.

They had a couple of photos and an incomplete plan that had been found on a window ledge in a toilet. But that wasn’t the only difficulty. The parts for the Bombe were, of course, no longer manufactured, so they had to be scavenged, sometimes from old telephone switching equipment which had been thrown away, or sourced from various manufacturers, or specially designed and manufactured. It sounded like a very long, complicated and difficult task; I was completely in awe of this labour of love.

The women of Bletchley Park

After John told me all about the Bombe and what it was used for, he asked me why I was at Bletchley Park. I told him about the BCS meeting and said that I was there representing the network for women in computing that I had started in 2001 and now chaired.

“Did you know that more than half of the people who worked at Bletchley Park during the war were women?” said John. “No, I had no idea. How many people worked here during the war?” I replied. “Around 10,000.”

I was astonished. For many years, I had been interested in women in computing, women in science and women’s contribution to the world of work, but I’d never heard anything like this before. It was amazing to find out that more than 5,000 women worked at Bletchley Park during the war, and more amazing still, considering their massive contribution to the war effort and my interest in women, that I had never read or heard about it before.

John then showed me a plaque on the wall listing all the names of the generous people who had donated their time and money to making sure the Bombe was faithfully rebuilt. Some of them were women, and John said they had worked with the Bombes during the war and that some of them were still around, working as volunteers at Bletchley Park. At the end of our chat, I thanked John and we said our goodbyes. As I exited the block, I bumped into a group of my colleagues, including Jonathan Bowen and Conrad Taylor, who had also been walking around having a look at the site and taking photographs.

We decided to head back to London together. On the way, I told them about the Bombe machine and repeated what John had said about the people that had worked at Bletchley Park and how more than 5,000 of them were women.

I wanted to find out more about the work the women had done at Bletchley Park and asked everyone who I thought would be interested in funding a project which focused on researching and promoting this amazing story. By the time we arrived at Euston, I was resolved to find some funding to run an oral history project that would capture the memories of women who worked at Bletchley Park and bring them to a wider audience. The women who had worked at Bletchley Park deserved recognition, and I was determined to make sure they got it.

Looking for funding

Between 2003 and 2006, I talked to countless people about the women who worked at Bletchley Park, how many of them there were, how amazing their achievements had been and how we needed to record their experiences and raise the profile of their contribution. In those days, I had no idea who to talk to about funding and I also didn’t know many people who were in a position to help.

Eventually, in late 2006, someone suggested that I apply for money from the special fund set up to support projects related to the BCS 50th anniversary. I applied for £5,000. At around the same time, I was encouraged to apply for matched funding from the UK Resource Centre for Women (UKRC) in Science, Engineering and Technology, so I did. I was delighted when both applications were approved, and I was granted £10,000 in total.

After years of trying and failing, it was wonderful to finally get not only the financial backing for BCSWomen to run the Women of Station X project, but also the moral support and buy-in from established organisations and people. It gave me a great buzz when I found out that others felt the same way I did about something important to me and wanted to help me make it happen.

Read more about Bletchley Park

Finally, I could get going with the project – we had £10,000 to work with. Unfortunately, the funding came through just as I was starting a job. I had worked at London South Bank University full-time for around eight years, but in the summer of 2006 I got a job at the University of Westminster in Harrow as head of the Department of Information and Software Systems.

I was due to start at the beginning of 2007. It was my first management role and I was very excited about being able to make a real difference to students and staff, but I was also worried about how I would manage the Women of Station X project at the same time. How could I run the project when I’d just started the most demanding role of my career?

Luckily Jan Peters, then working for the BCS, came to the rescue and offered to run the project. She found an interviewer, Ann Day, and put together a plan for the project. She got in touch with Bletchley Park to find out if they were happy to put us in contact with the female veterans. The plan was to interview a few female veterans in depth to find out about their experience of working at Bletchley Park.

Capturing the stories

Since first finding out about the thousands of women working there, I had wanted to make sure their stories were captured for posterity. I was well aware the veterans who were still around were aged 70-plus and weren’t getting any younger. Everything that happened at Bletchley Park was kept secret for such a long time – everyone who worked there had to sign the Official Secrets Act – and there had been almost nothing recorded about what happened there and what life was really like.

There were a few stories floating around, but I knew there were more to be found. For one thing, I wasn’t just interested in what the veterans had done at work, I was also interested in their lives outside of work. Many of them were only teenagers when they started working at Bletchley. Thousands of teenage girls carried out essential wartime work, so I knew there had to be some great stories and I wanted to hear them and share them with the world.

Jan managed to persuade Bletchley Park to send a letter to the female veterans asking if they were happy to be interviewed. We recorded several in-depth interviews, and Conrad Taylor made a short film about the women of Station X narrated by Sarah Winmill – a great friend and BCSWomen committee member.

Bombe rebuild switch on

On 17 July 2007, John Harper and his team’s rebuild of the Bombe machine was complete and ready to be officially switched on. I was invited up to Bletchley Park along with others from BCSWomen and the BCS. My good friend Wendy Hall had been invited to give a talk about the Women of Station X project, which she did with all of her usual intelligence and charm.

What must it have been like for the women working [at Bletchley Park] during the war?
Sue Black

After Wendy’s talk and the reception that followed, we went down to see the Bombe rebuild, which the Duke of Kent switched on. John Harper and his team had done a fabulous job of rebuilding the Bombe, and seeing it work was incredible. It had taken many people several years to build and was a remarkable feat of engineering.

Hearing the sound of it working for the first time was very evocative. The loud, rhythmic clicking of the drums rotating on the Bombe machine made me wonder: “What must it have been like for the women working there during the war?”. It must have been so noisy, day after day, month after month, working in a temporary hut full of machines.

The women of Station X

Every September the Enigma Reunion is held at Bletchley Park, bringing veterans from all over the UK and the world together to catch up, have dinner and listen to a few lectures. In September 2007, while the Women of Station X project was running, I was invited to Bletchley Park to speak about the project.

I gave my talk, back in the lovely wood-panelled mansion house ballroom at Bletchley Park. I was so excited; it was the first time I had the chance to speak to any of the veterans. I spoke about my first trip to Bletchley Park, finding out how many women had worked there and wanting to do something to raise the profile of those women. How wonderful for me to now be standing in front of some of the very women I had so looked forward to meeting.

After I had finished speaking, several veterans came up to tell me how much they enjoyed my talk and how grateful they were that I was seeking to highlight their contribution. I was so delighted to meet them and we had the first of many discussions about what it was like working there during the war. It also drove home the point that many of these women had been teenagers when they had worked at Bletchley and that going to work there had been the first time they left home.

One woman told me how, wanting to do her bit for the war effort, she had gone along to the local office to sign up for whatever it was they thought she was suitable for. It was only on leaving the office that she realised she was the only one there wearing Clarks sandals – she had been wearing schoolchildren’s shoes.

Talking to the veterans reinforced my feeling that we really had to do more to help tell the full story of what happened at Bletchley Park. I left Bletchley that day feeling more resolved than ever to do my bit to get the story out to the world.

Sue Black

This is an edited excerpt from Saving Bletchley Park by Sue Black, which is available in special edition from Unbound.

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