The Secrets of Bletchley Park – Rhys Bowen

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By Rhys Bowen

In the 70 years since the Allies defeated Hitler and Nazi Germany, World War II has inspired countless books, films, and television shows celebrating the bravery of the people who fought for freedom against great odds. But for the men and women who worked secretly and tirelessly to crack the German Enigma code at Britain’s Bletchley Park, heroism and sacrifice were classified subjects.

Not only were their vital contributions to the war effort something that remained under lock and key for several decades, but it also wasn’t until 2009 that they were officially recognized by the British government for their service. Among these unsung heroes were countless young women — including Kate Middleton’s own grandmother —whose stories have remained untold until now.

In doing research for my latest novel, In Farleigh Field, I found that when Bletchley Park was set up, they recruited mathematicians from Cambridge and people who were whizzes at crossword puzzles, but they also recruited debs. That was a shock to me. I knew that some debutantes had worked there, but I was amazed to find that they had actually been sought out. The thinking behind this was that upper class girls were brought up to do the right thing: they wouldn’t get drunk and spill the beans; they wouldn’t have hysterics; they would do their duty and soldier on in deplorable conditions. And amazingly they did. I was also delighted to find that Kate Middleton’s paternal grandmother, Valerie Glassborow, had been one of those girls working at Bletchley during the war.

Of course, I had to go and see about all of this for myself. At first glance, Bletchley Park must have looked like the sort of setting these girls were used to: a sprawling Victorian house with attached conservatory, extensive grounds with a lake with swans on it. How delightful! But then the new arrivals would have noticed the rows of long, ugly, makeshift huts on one side of the property. Those were where the actual work was done: where the German Enigma code was broken, where daily messages from Germany were intercepted and decoded.

The huts were about as unappealing as any building I have been in; fiberboard walls, bare floor boards, freezing cold in winter and heated only by the occasional smoking oil stove, and hot in summer. And yet Alan Turing invented the computer in such a hut! Thousands of British lives were saved when news of a U Boat attack was decoded. It literally was the hub of the British war effort.

And yet nobody outside of Bletchley knew about it. Everyone who worked there had to sign the official secrets act, forbidding them to say anything about their work. That act remained in place until the mid-1990s. And so families never knew what heroic work their sons, daughters, and wives were carrying out. They were looked down on as not being part of the armed forces, as only doing “office drudgery.” How sad that many parents were dead before the restriction of the act was lifted and that their son or daughter could never tell them what a big part they had played.

I find myself in admiration of these girls — taken from a life of privilege, of having a maid to dress them, their meals served in great dining rooms, their entertainment going out hunting or up to London for balls, and suddenly they find themselves billeted in a grim room next to the railway line, eating bread and dripping and boiled vegetables, working long shifts and not able to say a word about it when they were occasionally allowed home on leave. In fact, Kate Middleton’s family only recently found out that her grandmother was a “Bletchley Girl” because she too had kept her silence faithfully.

But now, at long last, the secret is out — the tales of Bletchley Park are becoming a subject of increasing interest to audiences everywhere, and these young women’s heroic stories can finally be told.

Rhys Bowen is the New York Times bestselling author of two historical mystery series: the Molly Murphy Mysteries, set in early 1900s New York City, and the Royal Spyness series featuring a minor royal in 1930s Britain. In Farleigh Field is her upcoming novel set at Bletchley Park during WWII.

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