Many of us are now familiar with the story of Bletchley Park, the British government’s top-secret code-breaking establishment in World War Two, and the huge achievements of some of the key staff there, such as Alan Turing. Bletchley Park secretly broke the German ‘Enigma’ codes, helped turn the tide of war in the Atlantic, and was also the home of ‘Colossus’, the world’s first semi-programmable computer.
A combination of the work of historians and recent Hollywood movies has provided researchers with a much better picture of the role of secret code-breaking in helping the Allies bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But we often overlook the fact that, as well as brilliant mathematicians, scientists, language scholars and other key experts (many of them drawn from Britain’s top-class Universities), Bletchley also employed many hundreds of other people, and a considerable number of these did not actually work at the site itself, but were stationed in other parts of the British Isles. Bletchley had a large but highly secretive ‘support network’ of people who fed vital information and messages back to the main station, known back then as ‘Station X’.
Towards the end of last year, it was reported in the British press that 97-year old great-grandmother Alison Robins, a mother of three who had seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, had quietly died in a nursing home in Bristol, after suffering from dementia.
Apart from close members of her family, many of those who encountered Alison in her later years were not aware of the secret but vital role she had played in World War Two. Alison was one of the last surviving Bletchley Park ‘listeners’, who was responsible for passing messages to Britain’s top-secret wartime code-breaking establishment in Buckinghamshire.
Dressed in civilian clothes, her job involved being positioned at various and rather isolated points around the British coastline. When on duty, she had to stay up all night and eavesdrop on messages from German submarines and ships that were covertly operating in the seas around Britain and were trying to sink British and American vessels. This was extremely important and confidential work, equally important in many ways as some of the main work that took place at Bletchley Park itself. Recalling her duties some years later, Alison told her children that ‘anyone who thinks black coffee keeps you awake is wrong – the only thing that keeps you awake is the thought that if you fall asleep people will die’.
Before her job working as a ‘listener’, Alison, who had left school with no qualifications, had joined and served as a ‘WREN’ in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (see photo), but had become rather bored just working in the canteen at the Royal Navy College, and had taught herself Morse Code in her spare time. After becoming a ‘listener’ for the network that served Bletchley, she found herself working alongside people who could also speak German, so Alison purchased a book, Hugo’s Teach Yourself German in Three Months, which gave her a working knowledge of the language. Although she could not speak German fluently, she picked up enough so that she was able to translate key phrases and write them down.
According to her family, Alison (who had signed the Official Secrets Act in the war), very rarely spoke about her wartime experiences, but it is known that her husband, Maurice, who also spoke German, was sent to Germany just after the war, and carried out translation work during the Nuremberg Trials, where the leading surviving Nazis had been prosecuted by the Allies for war crimes.
Interestingly, when Maurice returned back to Britain, the devoted couple embarked on their own process of ‘reconciliation’ with Germans. When some German POWs (Prisoners-of-War) were working at the bottom of their garden, Alison and Maurice gave the men regular cups of tea and also invited them to lunch. Alison’s daughter, Jill, told the press after her mother’s death: ‘It was very practical – my parents went to talk to them, I think that was a really important part of the post-war period for them’. Jill added: ‘My mother was lovely – we all adored her’.
What Alison Robins’s life does is to help remind us of the importance of the ‘listeners’ in the Bletchley story, their contribution to the war effort and defeat of fascism, and also the incredible spirit of generosity that a number of people demonstrated in the immediate post-war years, despite all the wartime trauma and stress they had been through.
The code-breaking and intelligence gathering operations of Bletchley Park and its associated networks came to an end in 1946, but much of its pioneering work was continued in a new organisation now known as GCHQ (the Government Communications Headquarters).
The Bletchley Park site itself, after years of falling into disrepair, was ‘saved’ by voluntary and other work conducted by fundraisers, local historians and conservation experts. The Bletchley Park Trust, set up to regenerate the site, has helped finance a visitor centre and various interactive exhibitions. The famous Bletchley mansion, its huts and its grounds is today a heritage site, open to the general public. Significantly, the wartime role of Bletchley is also the subject of on-going research by historians who specialise in intelligence and the history of the ‘secret state’.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: Wikipedia Commons)
For more information on Bletchley, see: https://www.bletchleypark.org.uk