One of the last surviving female codebreakers of Bletchley Park dies aged 99
One of the last surviving female Bletchley Park codebreakers, who worked helping to decipher enemy communications during the Second World War, has died aged 99.
Margaret Betts, of Ipswich, Suffolk was 19 years old when she was headhunted by “men from the ministry”, having performed well at school, her son Jonathan Betts, 68, said.
He said she agreed to help, explaining: “She had recently lost her brother because his ship had been sunk by a German U-boat.
“It was absolutely tragic, he had just married a few weeks before, the whole family was in terrible shock and desperate to do something, to do their bit.
“She was inspired by this and said ‘absolutely, any way I can help I will’.
“She wasn’t told what it was, she was just told it would be highly secret work and that eventually she would be told what it was but meanwhile she was to pack her bags and go to a clearing house in north London.”
He said that she was headhunted in 1942. After a selection process she started work codebreaking in the summer of 1943 and worked through until Victory over Japan (VJ) Day in 1945.
“Like most of them did, she always played down her role,” said Mr Betts, who lives outside Salisbury, Wiltshire.
“She said yes, I know it was incredibly important, our part in it, and I know it was highly secret, but please don’t come away with the idea that we’re all Alan Turings, because we’re not.
“We were there operating the machines, we were obeying orders, we were applying logic to do what we were told to do, and we were doing so efficiently and intelligently, but we didn’t design the machines for decoding.
“We were the service staff who were operating them.”
She said they programmed machines, called bombes, and set them running to identify encrypted code.
“When they (the machines) stopped they knew the machine had come up with something,” said Mr Betts.
“It may not be anything, but what they then did was take a printout from what the machine had produced. They then took it to an Enigma machine – as they had German Enigma machines that had been captured.
“They then put the deciphering through the Enigma machine and if it came up with something they then sent it up the line to the senior personnel.”
Mr Betts said his mother was told at the beginning ‘you must never, never tell anyone about it’.
“And so she didn’t – for over 40 years she wouldn’t talk about it, all she told us was she worked in an office in the Royal Navy’s service at home.
“It was only when documentaries started to appear on the TV and books started to be published that eventually she said ‘you know, I was one of those’,” said Mr Betts.
“We said ‘gosh, why didn’t you tell us before!’ and she said ‘well, I signed the Official Secrets Act, we were told never to tell anyone but it’s obvious now people are all talking about it so I feel it’s OK to mention it’.
“She was very proud about it, but she played it down.
“When we said that sounds really exciting like James Bond spy stuff, she said no, it wasn’t at all like that, it was very humdrum.
“We were operating machines night and day and it was incredibly boring work most of the time.
“You just had to stand by the machines, you had to concentrate when you were programming it and make sure it was set up correctly, and the rest of the time you were there watching it, waiting for it to come up with something.”
Mr Betts said the Navy Wrens of Bletchley Park were invited to parties at local American airbases and “they had proper food, as in Britain there was rationing but the Americans didn’t have it in the same way”.
“We were all terribly proud to know (of her role),” Mr Betts said.
“Yes, we heard what she said about it being humdrum but it was vital work they were doing.
“She was put in a great position of trust and respected that trust and worked hard and along with all the other Wrens in that service she did extremely well.
“Without their work the war would have lasted longer – some people reckon it would have gone on two years longer if they hadn’t been able to break the German and Japanese codes.
“She contributed a small part to a very important element in winning the war.”
He said that his mother “ran the family” after the war, as her husband – who had been a Japanese prisoner of war – “was ill quite often and never really recovered from his terrible traumas”.
She had five children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and lived in Ipswich for 99 years.
She died on August 26 this year of natural causes, while in a nursing home in Minehead, Somerset.
“She kept her sharp brain right until the end,” said Mr Betts.
He said one of the stories that his mother told was that the Wrens would sometimes go out from Bletchley Park into the nearest big town, Northampton, to go shopping.
“They would hear gossip, and the gossip was there’s something going on down the road in Bletchley Park and nobody knows what it is,” said Mr Betts.
“But the strong rumour was it was actually a home for pregnant Wrens who had got pregnant accidentally and had been very naughty and were having to quickly disappear so they could have their baby and then get back to work.
“Of course, the Wrens thought this was hilarious.
“They didn’t particularly like the idea they were thought of as being naughty Wrens but of course the officials really encouraged this belief as it was a wonderful cover for what was actually going on.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub