The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park
by Sinclair McKay
Near the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I read the book A Man Called Intrepid. It’s the story of Sir William Stephenson, a Canadian airman who became the UK’s primary intelligence operative and liaison with the U.S. government during World War II.
Reading the book was the first time I encountered information about Enigma, the name for both a machine and the supposedly unbreakable German military code it produced. Even before the war was officially underway, certain members of Britain’s government became convinced of the importance of breaking the Enigma code. Eventually, the government formed an operation called Top Secret Ultra to achieve that goal.
The men and women of Ultra were headquartered at a country estate called Bletchley Park. There, they struggled round the clock to crack the Enigma code. The operation gave rise to a number of innovations in mathematics, code-breaking, and computational science, including the development and use of the world’s first computers.
Eventually, Ultra succeeded. According to Dwight Eisenhower, the work done at Bletchley Park shortened the war by at least two years, saving tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of lives.
When I first read about Ultra, I was struck by how many women were involved in the operation. It was a time, after all, when women’s roles were highly circumscribed. Though more doors opened to women during the war, they were still generally limited to working in factories, on farms, and as nurses.
Despite the fact that women were so heavily involved in Ultra, however, many of the articles and books I’d seen on the subject didn’t say much about female code-breakers. Women were generally mentioned as an aside or a statistic, with the focus kept squarely on the operation’s (male) leaders.
But in Sinclair McKay’s book The Secret Lives of Codebreakers, the women get their due. McKay makes it a point to tell the stories of the women of Ultra, who (despite being largely relegated to subordinate positions) played a crucial role in the success of the operation.
According to McKay, Ultra’s male leaders realized from the start that women could be a major asset to Bletchley Park. They began by recruiting young debutantes from titled and wealthy families, primarily because these young women had been raised with a strong sense of noblesse oblige that made them willing to do even the most tiresome war work uncomplainingly (and, more importantly, confidentially). Later, Ultra recruited from universities throughout Britain, choosing young women who knew German or had a particular talent for math.
These women did a variety of tasks. The debutantes mostly maintained Bletchley Park’s meticulous card index, which enabled code-breakers to find “ins” to Enigma by cross-referencing possible code keys with certain words or phrases. The university students worked primarily as transcribers, translators, and code-breakers. When the first computers (called bombes) arrived, conscripts from the Royal Navy’s women’s corps were given the exclusive job of operating the machines.
It was all grueling work. The debutantes’ and students’ work was mentally grueling; the Navy Wrens’ job was physically so. Yet, according to McKay, there were few complaints and almost no breaches of secrecy. These young women worked tirelessly for years, never knowing the full significance of what they were doing, and receiving no recognition for it until decades later, when Ultra’s Top Secret status was finally lifted.
Beyond that, they found a way to make Bletchley life engaging and colorful. McKay writes of musical, dramatic, and sports societies, founded and participated in equally by the women and men. The resilience of the Ultra code-breakers was nothing short of incredible.
What inspires me about the story of these young women is their tenacity. Not just in the way they worked so hard, for so long, with so little recognition, but also in the way they seized the opportunities presented to them. The times being what they were, leadership positions at Ultra simply weren’t open to them. But they still had the chance to contribute, and they stepped outside social norms to do it.
Many of them were ahead of their time, anyway–after all, it wasn’t common in the 1930s and ’40s for a young woman to go to university. Their work at Bletchley was a natural extension of their willingness to break boundaries. And some of them, thanks to that willingness, went on to blaze trails in an even more dramatic way. One Wren worked her way up from machine operation to leadership in a code-breaking office in Singapore. Another Ultra alumna went on to have a long career as one of the UK’s few female politicians. Still others broke ground in quieter fashion, by finding fulfillment in the workplace at a time when homemaking was virtually the only acceptable feminine occupation.
It’s an inspiring picture of women who, at a very young age, made significant sacrifices to fill unconventional roles. Their courage, perseverance, and creativity are an example of how to seize opportunity, push it beyond its original boundaries, and generally make the most of it.
Note: As part of his efforts to cover not just code-breaking activities, but overall life at Bletchley Park, McKay includes a fairly chaste chapter that touches on the issue of sex at the Park. Some might consider it inappropriate for young teens.