Feature

Celebrating Women's History Month

Last Updated: 08 Mar 2017
To mark Women's History Month, we're publishing a series of articles written by women working in intelligence roles throughout WWII. The jobs they did varied from technical support on decoding equipment to linguists working to break secret messages.

These stories are told in the authors' own words as they reflect on their work through this period.

Jean Millar

Having just passed the Solicitors intermediate exam I volunteered for the WRNS1 in March 1943 and on call up in November I was directed to work in P52 which I was told was vital to the war effort. I was posted to Eastcote3 and my pay would be 22 shillings a week. On arrival we signed the Official Secrets Act and were told about the Enigma machine seeing for ourselves the need for utmost security.

We were divided into watches. I remember I was on B watch. We worked 8 hour shifts, 08.00 - 16.00, 16.00 - midnight, midnight - 08.00.  We worked 8 days on days, then a day off, 8 days on evenings then a day off then 8 nights then 3 days off.

From time to time we were told how our work had played a small part in breaking the Enigma code and this was encouraging to us. The building where we worked was divided into bays, each bay containing 10 bombe machines4. Each bay was named after an allied country and each bombe after a city in that country, eg I might find myself working on Oslo in Norway. When we went on duty we were allocated a bombe and given a menu devised using a certain amount of knowledge from previous intelligence and some inspired thinking. We worked in pairs, one operating the bombe, the other in the checking room. The front of each bombe had three sections with spaces in each section for 26 wheels. We had to load up the bombe with the coloured wheels specified in the menu, one for each letter of the alphabet. We then had to plug up the back of the bombe as directed in the menu. We had Post Office engineers to call on if the bombes developed a fault. However it was our job to keep the wire brushes of the wheels in good order to the detriment of our finger nails. When the bombe was loaded we switched it on and it rotated the wheels in such a way that every possible combination of setting of the Enigma wheels was tested. Occasionally the bombe would stop and we had to note the setting at which it stopped.

The checker would set up the checking machine using the same coloured wheels as on the bombe and the setting of the stop. If it passed the check we would then pass it to Bletchley Park over a scrambled telephone line. To drown the noise of the bombes we were sometimes treated to 'Music while you work' on the radio.

I enjoyed my time at Eastcote and made many friends. Our job came to an end with VE Day when we were given the chance to remuster to another category; I chose radio mechanic. After being demobbed in 1946 I resumed my legal studies. I never told my husband or anyone about P5 until it became common knowledge. I then learned my brother-in-law had been at a Y station5 in Italy while in the Army.

 

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Footnotes:

1. The Women’s Royal Naval Service, also known as the Wrens, was the women’s branch of the Royal Navy.

2. P5 - HMS Pembroke V was an unclassified administrative cover term for WRNS being posted to Eastcote as Bombe operators.

3. Eastcote would later be selected as the post-war home for the GCHQ, which moved to Eastcote from Bletchley Park in April 1946.

4. The Bombe machine was an electro-mechanical device that was used to find the daily key settings of the Enigma machine.

5. Y Stations were signals intelligence sites set up during WWI which were used again during WWII. They were operated by a number of agencies including the RAF, Navy, and Foreign Office.