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Bletchley's secret war revealed
03:03 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Bletchley Park, just outside London, was home to Britain's top secret team of code-breakers during World War II

Women workers at Bletchley outnumbered men by about three to one, as many men were fighting in the armed forces

Churchill described the code-breakers as "the geese that laid the golden eggs, but never cackled"

Bletchley Park, England CNN  — 

Imagine … you’re six years in to a brutal and bloody conflict which has left towns and cities across your homeland in ruins, cost the lives of friends and loved ones, and threatened everything you hold dear.

Now imagine you know the end is finally in sight, the bombs and guns about to fall silent, the peace deal just days away from being signed.

It’s what everyone has been waiting desperately for as they cram into overcrowded air-raid shelters, queue for strictly-rationed food, and dread the arrival of bad news from the Front.

But you can’t tell anyone.

For Joan Joslin, this was the “reward” for years of work among the code-breakers, cryptanalysts and cypher machines at Bletchley Park during World War II: a sneak preview of history, but one she wasn’t allowed to share.

“It was May 5, late in the evening, and we were working the evening shift … Suddenly the news came through that Italy had given in, and so they immediately gave us 48 hours’ leave, because it meant the war [in Europe] was over,” she recalls.

“We went out of Bletchley as quickly as we could, onto the last train. We arrived on Euston station and it was teeming with all sorts: civilians, Army, Air Force, Navy … it was chock-full with people waiting to get the first train or tube. We sat there and I just wanted to shout ‘the war’s over!’ and I couldn’t.

“I arrived home at five in the morning and my mother gave me a good dressing down for being out all night – and I still couldn’t tell her,” Joslin says with a laugh, a sparkly hummingbird brooch glittering on her turquoise jacket, as she sits in the sun at a Bletchley reunion marking 70 years since the end of WWII.

Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously described the team at Bletchley as “the geese that laid the golden eggs, but never cackled.”

It was only decades later that their story became widely-known, thanks to books and movies like the Oscar-winning “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as computing pioneer Alan Turing.

Joslin and the hundreds of men and women (mostly women – the ratio was about three to one) based at Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School during World War II had all signed the Official Secrets Act, which banned them from talking about the work were doing – even with each other.

Betty Webb, who was sent to Bletchley while serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) – the women’s section of the British Army – remembers being made to read and agree to the Official Secrets Act as soon as she arrived.

“It was conducted by an intelligence corps officer with a gun on the table, just to emphasize the importance of the document one was signing,” she explains. “It was very intimidating. I think it was meant to be.”

Webb says those who signed it faced “pretty dire punishments” if they spoke out. “The worst of it was if you were really naughty you could be probably shot. I’ve not heard of anyone who was, but the provision was there.”

The high levels of secrecy meant those who worked at Bletchley had to think fast if anyone asked what they did: “My landlady used to sometimes say, ‘What have you been doing today?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, boring old secretarial job,’” says Webb, who recorded signals and messages as they arrived at the base.

They also had to play dumb when “news” they were already aware of broke: “We had decoded the message that the [German battleship] Scharnhorst was in a Norwegian fjord, and so battle commenced, and we got word that the ship had been sunk,” recalls Joslin, who ran decoding machines.

“On the news the next morning in my billet, my landlady said to me, ‘The news is wonderful, we’ve sunk a German battleship,’ and I said ‘Have we really?’ I couldn’t tell her that I’d been involved in it.”

But both say it never dawned on them to spill the beans – with signs declaring “Careless Talk Costs Lives” hanging all over the place, they were only too aware of the risks of discussing their top-secret work.

“It was in the interests of national security,” insists Webb. “The whole country was aware of the need to not talk about troop movements that they might have seen, and there were posters everywhere [saying] that it was a good idea to ‘Be like Dad, and keep Mum!

And despite the dark times they were living through, both Webb and Joslin have happy memories of Bletchley, which had a thriving social scene, with clubs, sports, a choir and dances.

Joslin met her future husband Ken on her first day there – Christmas Eve, 1940 – though she admits it was some time before romance blossomed.

“I was with another girl, both of us arrived the same time; I was dark and this young lady was blonde,” she says. “I’m told that he said ‘I’ll have the blonde and you can have the dark one!’ So, he wasn’t very interested in me, and to be honest I wasn’t very interested in him, because he stirred his tea with a pencil, which I thought was absolutely disgusting!”

The couple married as their time at Bletchley drew to a close, and recently celebrated their 70th anniversary.

For Webb, though, the war wasn’t over on V.E. Day – she had been working in the Japanese section at Bletchley, and with the conflict in the Pacific still raging, was sent to the U.S. to continue her work at the newly-built Pentagon, the only ATS member among the 32,000 people there.

After six years of wartime austerity back in Britain, she says she fully enjoyed her time in Washington D.C.

“You can imagine, going out from a ration situation here – food and clothes – and in America there was a bit of rationing, but it was minimal; you could eat almost anything, and you could buy as many clothes as you wanted, so it was absolute bliss from that point of view.”

“Normal life” soon resumed for both Webb and Joslin after the war – which experts say they and their Bletchley colleagues helped shorten by two or three years, thanks to their work breaking Germany’s Enigma and Lorenz codes.

But they kept their secrets for decades, and even now find it strange to talk about the work they did.

“I never told my parents, because they both died before 1975, when the veil of secrecy was lifted,” says Webb, who was recently awarded an M.B.E. for her work promoting Bletchley Park.

“Funnily enough, when it became agreeable to talk about it, we never did,” says Joslin. “We never talked about it … even my children, they didn’t know. We never discussed it.

“I worked with Ken for five years, in the same area, and he didn’t know what I did. Isn’t it weird?”

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