This story is told in Nancy Winbolt's own words as she reflects on her work through this period, and forms part of our series 'Celebrating Women's History Month' 2017.
In late June 1943 a recruitment officer interviewed me at St Hilda’s College, Oxford shortly after I competed my degree in French and German, The options were teaching or the Woman’s armed services. I enquired about possible jobs in the Foreign Office for a linguist as I wanted to work in London and commute from home. At the end of 1943 I was appointed to Berkeley Street, a branch of the Foreign Office. Intelligence was so shrouded in secrecy that I had no knowledge of GC&CS 1 and what it did. No. 8 Berkeley Street was a dress shop with a small side entrance leading to six floors of office space above.
On my first day the work was explained to me. I was not required to translate but only to decipher and decode telegrams. Some ciphers had already been broken and we worked from a very fat photocopied code book. I believe the original was retrieved by the Royal Navy after a successful submarine attack. The traffic was not operational but diplomatic, much of it German reports on Ireland and Irish politics. We were able to use the information to intercept a smuggled arms delivery on Lourenco Marques2.
The Head of Berkeley Street was Commander Denniston3, and one immediate supervisor was a Captain Filby (not Philby). We worked an average 52 hour week (6 days) with one day off per week. It was possible to get a weekend by taking Saturday for one week and Sunday the next, moving the next time off to an appropriate weekday.
A group of 6 – 8 girls worked in a room on the sixth floor with two more senior men in an adjacent room. It was furnished with large tables under which we were encourage to hide if there was an air raid warning in order to avoid glass shattered by blast. During my time London became a target for V1s and V2s . One Sunday a bomb fell in Berkeley Street but on the other side of the road where there were casualties. Our building was not damaged. Later one girl had a miraculous escape when a V2 landed on the house next door and left her in bed hanging on a partition wall. We had regular warnings of an approached V14 from a pair of watchers on the roof of the Strand Palace hotel visible from our sixth floor window half a mile away. They raised a warning flag.
After VE day we worked on deciphering some historical Enigma traffic used at various European posts. This meant days copying lines of figures and subtracting one line from another. It gave some insight as to how the ciphers were distributed to different places. I was then transferred to the French section for a short spell. There was concern that French ciphers were insecure and therefore a danger to the Allies.
London had its lighter side and we queued for tickets for the ballet in the era of Ashton, Helpman, Fonteyn and Shearer. Theatres and concerts were also open. There was a limit of 5 shillings on all restaurant meals including the Ritz, a short walk away. However we often went to a tiny restaurant run by an elderly French couple who cooked and served French style meals for about 3/6d. A smart Mayfair sandwich bar offered such delicacies as salmon and crab at a high price. A regular alternative was a sandwich brought from home.
In 1945 the department was closing down. Two of us were offered jobs in the Foreign Office archive department but we didn’t accept because the pay dropped from £4.15s to £4.0 a week. My colleague became a GI bride and I left to help my mother who was in poor health. I eventually learned shorthand and typing and joined the Foreign Office by that route.
3. Alistair Denniston was the first head of the GC&CS in 1919 and led the organisation during inter-war years.