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Issue 87 - We Also Served

Scotland Magazine Issue 87
June 2016

 

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We Also Served

John Hannavy tells of Constance Masterton's secret war

On a summer’s evening in August 1943, a group of young women stepped off a train at Bletchley station in Buckinghamshire to embark on what must have felt to many of them to be somewhere between the start of an adventure and a step into the unknown. They were nearly all civilians, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. They had been recruited by the Foreign Office and were about to join a close- knit community engaged in the best-kept secrets of the Second World War.

One of those young women was my aunt, Constance Masterton, then aged 20, who had just graduated with an MA degree from the University of St. Andrews where she had studied Latin, English Literature, Natural Science, Modern History and Medieval History. The university had introduced special wartime regulations that enabled degree programmes to be fast-tracked, and Constance had graduated after only two years of study.

The young women alighting on the platform at Bletchley station that day would all have been recruited through either their universities or through the Ministry of Labour, before being interviewed by officials from the Foreign Office. In Constance’s case, it is likely her recruitment had taken place while she was still a student at St. Andrews, in the final weeks of her final term – early in the summer of 1943.

If they passed the interview, the women were each given a rail travel warrant and told to make their way to Bletchley. For many of them that in itself would have been quite an adventure. Given their ages, and with wartime travel restrictions in place – as they had been since the girls were in their mid-teens – many of the newly recruited Scottish contingent arriving at Bletchley had probably never been outside of Scotland before.

Constance’s travel warrant took her from Fife to Edinburgh Waverley and then from Edinburgh Princes Street Station to Bletchley. On arrival at the station, most of the new recruits – who had been given a telephone number to call on arrival – were then picked up and transported by bus, perhaps still not really knowing what awaited them at their destination. Some of the women recalled arriving very late at night or early in the morning with no transport to meet them, and making their way, alone, along the dark road to the iron gates of the Bletchley Park estate.

Once there, they were taken into the large and imposing Victorian stately home – past two ferocious-looking stone griffins at the main entrance to the mansion – where the administrative offices were located. Inside, they were given a brief but stern introductory talk before being ‘invited’ to sign the Official Secrets Act.

From then on, their working lives were cloaked in the utmost secrecy. Indeed, their working lives remained a secret for decades after their wartime work had come to an end. It was a very different time and culture to the one we live in today – in 1943, if you were told you had to keep a secret until your dying day, then that obligation was simply accepted. It would be more than thirty years before the first stories of what they had been doing started to circulate, and the 1990s before their burden of secrecy was finally officially lifted. Indeed, when the first book about what had gone on at Bletchley was published in 1974, some of the former staff thought the author should be charged with treason and imprisoned.

The women had, of course, arrived at ‘Station X,’ the most top-secret facility of the Government Code and Cypher School, and the tenth out-station of the Special Intelligence Service in the grounds of Bletchley Park. There they became part of a rapidly growing team of people – linguists, mathematicians, scientists, cryptographers, analysts and typists, amongst others – engaged in the complex task of intercepting and decoding the huge volumes of coded messages passing between the various branches of the Nazi war machine. They would later be described by Winston Churchill as ‘the geese who laid the golden egg and never cackled.’ Their work changed the course of the war.

Given that the total number of people who worked at Bletchley Park during the war years had grown from around 200 in 1939 to more than 10,000 by June 1944, keeping their work secret is a remarkable testament to their integrity. About a tenth of that number were directly involved in the decryption and analysis of secret German intelligence traffic. In September 1943, just a month after my aunt joined, about 5,500 people worked at Bletchley Park. So, by June 1944 there had been a rapid and almost doubling of the personnel.

Most of those working on the site didn’t really know what the ‘big picture’ was, or how their work fitted into it. They were important cogs in a very large wheel, and each contributed a small but vital part to the winning of the war.

During that time, of course, the requirement of absolute secrecy had a very clear purpose – if the Germans had ever got a hint of what was going on at Bletchley, the site would have very quickly become a designated target. Hitler would have carried out his promise to replace all 100,000 of Germany’s ‘unbreakable’ Enigma coding machines, and all the ground- breaking work carried out since the Foreign Office outstation was established in 1938, in Bletchley Park’s mansion, would have been for nothing.

How much these young women knew in advance about what their new working lives would entail was probably very limited indeed. Most of them didn’t even know they were going to be assigned to a secret establishment – joining the Foreign Office as temporary staff could have involved just about anything. Indeed, if asked what they did, they were told simply to say they worked for the Foreign Office, and if pressed to say what exactly they did, the required answer was “I just work there.” Constance was put through a ten-day training course before being assigned to Hut 6 which, along with Hut 8, was where the messages intercepted from the German army and air force Enigma machines were decrypted. When originally set up, Hut 6 had been just that – a wooden hut. By the time my aunt arrived, the Bletchley site had been hugely expanded and that decryption work had been transferred to one of the buildings in Block D, but its old title of ‘Hut 6’ continued to be used throughout the remainder of the war.

A month after Constance joined in August 1943, Philip Stuart Milner-Barry took over as the new Head of Hut 6 – replacing Gordon Welchman, one of the pioneers of electro- mechanical cryptography – and coinciding with a considerable increase in the hut’s staff to 450 people. Her immediate boss was the mathematician Harold Fletcher, Hut 6’s General Administrator. Numbered amongst the 450 were the likes of the historian Asa Briggs, the Scottish chess champion James Macrae Aitken and the future politician Roy Jenkins.

While the work of the cryptanalysts must have been both challenging and engrossing, much of the work in Hut 6 was described by some of the clerical staff variously as mundane, routine, monotonous and boring; although occasionally it got much more interesting when things did not quite go as they should, or when a crucial message was decoded.

Hut 6 was made up of several rooms, including the Machine Room, the Registration Room and the Decoding Room – where Constance was one of a team of women decoding messages using settings that had been found by the Turing-Welchman Bombe. A giant electro-mechanical device in the Machine Room, the Bombe unlocked the secrets of the Enigma and gave the cryptologists a ‘start point’ for the processes of decryption.

The job of many of the staff in Hut 6 was to key in those intercepted encrypted messages into a ‘Modified Typex Machine’ – a modification of the British cypher machine which had been used by the intelligence services since 1937. The original machine used a complex coding system set up using five ‘cores’ or rotor wheels which offered millions of possible settings and thus was virtually unbreakable. The German Enigma coding machine used only three cores, so two of the Typex machine’s cores were disabled in the modified version.

If the settings they had been given by the staff who operated the Bombe were correct, then the coded message they keyed in on the modified Typex should come out as readable German.

As the Germans re-programmed their Enigma machines every day, those who operated the Bombes worked in shifts around the clock to identify the correct settings, while those in the decrypting huts – who also worked a three-shift roster – were under constant pressure to decode the huge volumes of incoming traffic and get it to the analysts quickly enough for military planners to make use of it.

To add to the stress on all those at Bletchley Park involved in breaking the Enigma code, the Germans did not rest on their laurels. The Enigma machine was modified, evolved and made more secure as the war progressed, and the total volume of traffic increased exponentially over the same period, multiplying the challenges facing the code- breakers. The introduction of the 12 core ‘Lorenz’ machine added further layers of encryption to the German messages, requiring ever more inventive decoding methodologies, and many more personnel.

Constance’s time at Bletchley ended shortly after VE Day. She had been on leave at the time, returning to Bletchley only to find her hut empty and be sent back home.

Her pro-forma Foreign Office reference gave nothing away – ‘Miss C. M. Masterton was employed in this Department from September 1943 until the present time when her services were no longer required owing to the termination of the work for which she had been engaged. During her service she was employed in important and highly specialised work of a secret nature. The Official Secrets Acts preclude giving any information in connection with these duties’ – an abrupt dismissal of years of committed and demanding service.

After VE Day, Churchill decreed that what had gone on at Bletchley should remain a secret. The Bombes were all destroyed, the paperwork burned, the staff dispersed and everything which might hint at what had gone on there was removed. Amongst the machines destroyed on Churchill’s orders was Colossus, the world’s first semi-programmable computer which had been developed to speed up the decoding of messages from the Lorenz machine, and the direct antecedent of the machines we all have on our desks today.

Many years later, once the embargo had been lifted, Constance would discover that one of her closest friends in Edinburgh had spent her war years at Bletchley as well – and not only that, her friend had been in Hut 6’s Machine Room, just the other side of a partition wall from where Constance worked. Neither had ever known.

The work of Bletchley Park was not officially recognized until 2009, the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Government Code & Cypher School, when all the surviving veterans were invited to apply for a commemorative badge and certificate signed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. On the reverse of the badge, unseen as were its recipients during the war, is the legend ‘We Also Served.’

Visitor Information

Bletchley Park Trust
The Mansion, Bletchley Park,
Milton Keynes, MK3 6EB
+44 (0) 1908 640 404
www.bletchleypark.org.uk