Bletchley Park remembered by Harpenden woman
WHENEVER the work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park is raised, Harpenden resident Gwen Hollington is all ears.
For Gwen, 92, worked in translation at Bletchley Park during the Second World War at the time that British Intelligence decrypted the German Enigma and Lorenz codes.
The intelligence gathered at Bletchley, code-named Ultra, has been praised for cutting the duration of the war by at least two years.
Gwen recalled her experience at Bletchley, and the time an important guest first visited the code breakers.
She said: “It was interesting how you could go through a war and know nothing really about what was happening. During the four years that I worked at Bletchley Park I didn’t know that I was part of anything very special or feel that I had a responsibility. That was only if you were at the top and you knew what was happening.
“For everyone it was war time and you never asked ‘Why am I doing this?’ or ‘What are you doing?’
“I was in my early 20s and just out of Cambridge where I had studied German and French at Girton College. When the war began the intelligence services came and interviewed lots of us Oxbridge students. I knew that it was to help with the war effort but I had no idea how.
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“Once I arrived I found it was just like being at school because us girls worked separately from the boys. We only socialised in our smoking breaks and in our free time.
“One day we were all told there was someone come to visit us and we had to come out on the lawn. It was a horrible, cold, grey day so none of us went.
“And then half an hour later back came this summons, ‘Come on, you’ve got to come out and talk to this very important person’. Eventually we did go out, and it was Churchill on the first of his many, many visits to Bletchley.
“I was told to go and fetch him a chair from the kitchens because in fact Churchill was rather small and he needed something to stand on. So I tore in and got a chair for him.
“He didn’t seem to notice me when he got up to stand on it; he was very proud.
“He thanked us for our work and told us that we had just sunk the Bismarck, the biggest boat of the German fleet. It was a key turning point in the war when Hitler changed his ideas of invading England.
“That was in May 1941 when I had only been at Bletchley for a few months. It just shows we knew nothing of what was going on. ‘It’s just another boat’, we thought.
“By the lawn where we were standing, Churchill could see some of the men playing basketball and he said, ‘Basketball, an American game, fancy playing that here. They must have some tennis courts’. So he arranged for us to have two tennis courts built that are still there now. And that’s typical Churchill.
“From then onwards he used to come regularly. He found Bletchley Park so interesting.”
Gwen went on: “We all worked in what they called huts spread around the estate.
“I was in Hut 8 where the German naval Enigma messages were solved, but I didn’t crack the code, I just translated short sentences from German into English. Sometimes I came across words that I didn’t understand and then I just left them blank, and the translation would be taken to my superiors. I never understood what any of the sentences meant or whether they were important.
“My section was led by Alan Turing who I got to know quite well. He did the most important thing when he invented the bombe. Without it they would never have been able to find out the Enigma settings and crack the code. He was fantastic.
Those of us working in translation were still civilians so we wore normal clothes and that was considered the pits. We all wished we were WRENS because they had a lovely uniform with beautiful silk stockings.
“A lot of them at Bletchley Park had not been to Germany and they didn’t really know anything about the enemy. Before the war I had lived in Germany for a year studying at Freiburg as part of my degree and I made a lot of friends.
“A lot of the Germans I knew were charming, so it was difficult to think of them as the enemy.
“But then if you heard of some awful murder you thought that they must be awful people.”
She added: “The hours we worked were ferocious. It was from dawn until dusk most days. We were all billeted in different places and the buses would bring us in to Bletchley.
“I lived in Woburn Sands with a granny and her married daughter whose husband was away at the war.
“I remember Bletchley Park mainly for the people I met there; I made some very good friends. I go back to reunions once a year or so and although most of my friends are now gone, I hope I can keep going back for a while longer.”