Feature

Celebrating 100 years of women's service in the UK Armed Forces

Last Updated: 07 Jul 2017
To commemorate the centenary of Women at War we take a look at the contribution women made to signals intelligence in WWII.

There is a cliché that describes the "incalculable value of the contribution of ..." but the contribution of women to signals intelligence in the Second World War is eminently calculable. By 31 December 1944 there were 6,760 women at Bletchley Park (4,086 service, 2,674 civilian), which made them 76.35% of the total workforce (the proportion will have been even higher at the various outstations).

Women worked as cryptanalysts, as linguists, as traffic analysts. Women were slip readers, code clerks, teleprinter operators. Women were dispatch riders, drove buses and cooked and cleaned. Women operated the most cutting edge technology in the world including COLOSSUS, the world's first computer. In fact the only two areas of signals intelligence work in which women weren't represented were the armed guarding of the perimeter of sensitive sites, and in the senior management of the organisation: both of these were exclusively male.

We reflect on these achievements with memoirs from former servicewomen Barbara Alp and Gladys Peed.

Barbara Alp

When I decided to join the Air Force in 1941, I don't think I had any definite idea of what I wanted to do. I was working for Staffordshire County Council as a secretary and shorthand typist but didn't know if these skills were needed. However, on going to Bridgnorth to sign on and be kitted out, we were given choices. I decided I would like to do wireless operating. So, after three weeks there, I was sent to Edinburgh for my training in the Post Office. We were billeted in a beautiful Georgian house from where we would march along Queen Street every morning with a lantern at the back and front of us! I was there for about four to five months learning Morse code. I passed my exams and was given my sparks badge. From there I was sent to Blackpool for a further seven weeks' training.

Then I was posted to Cheadle in Staffordshire, a beautiful old home in the country. We were told that it was secret work that we were doing and that we were never to disclose the nature of it to anyone. If we were asked, and it was natural for us to be questioned, as of course there were signals all around the building, we were to say that we were involved with weather forecasting.

At first we were billeted in private housing about six miles away but were soon transferred to Army huts in the grounds. We built up a very good camaraderie with one another. We worked three shifts - morning, afternoon / evening and nights, after which we had two days off. We worked in a large room where there were several radio receivers, everyone on different frequencies.  We sat for many hours listening for signals, at night it was quiet until 7 in the morning which was pretty tedious and tiring. On one occasion I took out my knitting of tennis socks which was taboo and I was put on a charge. My chore was to pick blackcurrants in the orchard but being my favourite fruit it wasn't a chore at all.

During the day we were very busy. Our task was to intercept German messages but on many occasions there could be up to five different signals transmitting at once on the same frequency. We would then interpret these messages onto forms, mostly the messages were in groups of five letters. These forms were collected by couriers and we had no idea as to where they were taken.

It has been very interesting during these last few years to find out what happened to the messages. I visited Bletchley Park and it was quite emotional to see where my messages had been sent to.  

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The set room at RAF Cheadle with female military staff working
The set room at Cheadle. ©Crown Copyright

 

Gladys Peed

On the outbreak of the Second World War Gladys volunteered to join the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) undergoing her initial training at Glen Parva Barracks, Leicester. After her initial training she was chosen for secret training, possibly because of her love for mathematics. This was undertaken at Douglas, on the Isle of Man, and she remembers marching along the promenade. Returning home on leave she showed off her second stripe, having been promoted to Corporal.

From Douglas, Gladys was posted to Harrogate, living in Queen Ethelburga's school on the far side of Valley Gardens. From there the ATS girls would travel out to Forest Moor wireless station on army trucks in all weathers. They worked 12-hour shifts intercepting coded German radio transmissions being sent in Morse code.  Gladys wrote these down in groups of five letters. Sometimes they would be asked to listen in to a frequency that had no transmissions but would have to report immediately if there was any activity.

Nobody knew who or what the initials 'BP' stood for. Enquires to her supervisor elicited various answers including Big Place, Baden-Powell or Buckingham Palace.  It was many years later that Gladys learned BP was Bletchley Park, and about Enigma. In 1999 to mark her 78th birthday, Gladys' family took her to visit Bletchley Park and there relived her wartime years sat at a receiver with those familiar headphones on.

Many of the girls she met in the ATS became lifelong friends and when prompted she still delights in being able to recite the alphabet in Morse code.

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A copy of a Second World War WT Form containing intercept of a message encrypted by Enigma
Intercept of a message encrypted by Enigma. ©Crown Copyright