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Cracking the code: Teen's secret life or death work

PUBLISHED: 13:58 03 December 2009 | UPDATED: 17:24 25 August 2010

Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park

A WORKER on one of wartime s most closely guarded secrets has spoken about the reality behind code breakers who saved lives and changed the course of history. They should have been hailed as heroes but their contemporaries labelled them cowards: the bril

One of the Enigma machines

A WORKER on one of wartime's most closely guarded secrets has spoken about the reality behind code breakers who saved lives and changed the course of history.

They should have been hailed as heroes but their contemporaries labelled them cowards: the brilliant minds of those in WWII who cracked the German Enigma codes, a discovery believed to cut the war short by two years, saving countless lives.

Barbara Hutchcroft, a former pupil at Bexleyheath School (then Central School) was assigned to Bletchley Park, aged 17, in November 1943 just weeks after joining the Wrens.

Work at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, was being done to break Enigma codes used by Nazi forces to encrypt vital messages about naval, army and air movements.

Barbara's class mates - do you recognise anyone in the picture taken September 1939 at Bexleyheath (then Central) School? Contact the newsdesk on 0208 269 7014.

The Enigma machines were electro-mechanical devices that used a series of rotating rotors to scramble plaintext messages into incoherent ciphertext with billions of combinations.

Mrs Hutchcroft, originally from Barnehurst, said: "We were interviewed at Mill Hill where the Wrens were trained.

"Three of us were put in a blacked-out van not knowing where we going. When we arrived they told us where we were so I wasn't quite sure why they went to those lengths."

Her job was to load code-breaking machines with drums inserted at the front - a punishing regime that saw her and four other women in her cabin doing alternate eight-hour shifts, round the clock for three weeks at a time.

She said: "We were marched into huts separately, each containing a bank of machines and we weren't allowed to talk to each other.

"You sat at the end of this machine listening to the clicks and whirring. As soon as it stopped making a noise you wrote down the numbers that came up on the screen and handed the piece of paper to the real boffins.

"They were very clever gentlemen, but some of them were very weird to say the least. They didn't get the recognition they deserved at all.

"They didn't have uniforms and people at the time weren't very kind to them. How cruel people were. Just because they weren't in uniform didn't mean they were not doing something important. But people just didn't know and they weren't allowed to tell them about it.

"Its only looking back in retrospect what they gave, how they dedicated to their lives to the work." Sections were tasked with breaking codes within specific branches of the military.

"We were breaking naval codes," Mrs Hutchcroft said. "You didn't really have the excitement of knowing which code saved whose life, or this information saved this cruiser. We didn't know until after the war which codes had been broken.

"It's covered in all this mystery and glamour now but it wasn't anything like that at the time."

She recalls coming off a shift at midnight to a meal of pilchards in tomato sauce and 70 years on still remembers the smell. She also recalled seeing cockroaches walk across porridge that would be their breakfast before starting the next shift at 8am.

A far cry from the film Enigma (2001), starring Kate Winslet, which Mrs Hutchcroft went to see with other workers from Bletchley Park - "We laughed through most of it," she said.

"One Christmas we had some Americans come in who were throwing all the equipment around, we were worried if the machinery would ever work again.

"Then one day we knew someone important was coming, we could see him at a distance - it was Winston Churchill."

To speed up the code-breaking process, the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing developed an idea originally proposed by Polish cryptanalysts.

The result was the Bombe: an electro-mechanical machine that greatly reduced the odds, and thereby the time required, to break the daily-changing Enigma keys.

The huts operated in pairs and, for security reasons, were known only by their numbers. Their raw material came from the Y Stations: a web of wireless intercept stations dotted around Britain and in a number of countries overseas. These stations listened in to the enemy's radio messages and sent them to Bletchley Park to be

decoded and analysed.

In Early 1944 Mrs Hutchcroft was assigned to Eastcote, one of many outstations operating the Bombe machines. Originally the site had been intended as a war hospital but was expanded into the largest outstation for over 800 Wrens, operating 110 Bombes.

After a three-week shift the Wrens would get five days off and pile up to London, going to venues like the Nuffield Club where Frankie Howerd entertained the troops. She said: "I saw Glenn Miller and his band at the Queensbury Club, we thought it was fantastic." Shortly after the war the code-breaking machines were destroyed and staff were forbidden to talk about their work until 1978.

"My parents died without ever knowing what I did. It was only when they realised it was such an important part of our history that they have tried to put the machines back together." Of the five women she shared a cabin with at Bletchley Park, she is the last survivor.

Barbara is trying to trace former school mates at Bexleyheath School. Do you recognise anyone from the photo (top) taken in September 1939? Contact the newsdesk on 0208 269 7014.

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