Most secret work, 1942–3
And guard your sandwiches.
Britain’s new monarch is renowned for communicating by memo, whether to staff or members of the government. In today’s world this seems old fashioned, but back in the pre-internet days of course this was a standard form of communication.
A few weeks ago I took my kids to Bletchley Park, famed as Britain’s home of codebreaking and where Alan Turing designed the ‘bombe’ machine which broke the German Enigma cipher. Bletchley is an old estate, although the house that’s there now was only built in the 1870s. It was bought in 1938 by the Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) on the basis of its central England location with easy access to major cities and intellectual talent from Oxford and Cambridge.
The museum – spread across the house and several of the Huts which became famous for the codebreaking effort – is great, and encompasses daily life in a community whose population varied between 2,000 and as many as 9,000 during the war effort as well as all the stuff about cryptography. It’s that daily life which caught my eye, especially the wall of memos (pictured below) – these were the main form of internal communication in a place where the sheer number of staff (two-thirds of them women) and the services needed to support them (leisure, catering, maintenance…) created a lot of admin.
And the mixture of memos on display is fascinating – a lot of them very earnest, and covering everything from serious concerns over security to grumbles about coffee. So this week I give you a small selection which I’ve transcribed. Some are signed (usually using a rubber stamp to spare the writer an aching hand), many have abbreviated names, and they all offer a little window into the human context of the famous codebreaking work. And look out for some famous sandwich thieves…
[Let’s start with the coffee. Captain Alan Rousseau Bradshaw was a WW1 naval hero who became head of administration at Bletchley Park (‘B.P.’). I’d love to know what “Mrs. Ridley’s methods” were.]
The question of after-lunch coffee was discussed at the meeting of the Womens’ Committee and they would like to draw your attention to the following points:
(a) The quality of the coffee has deteriorated, and provided the quantity and quality of the coffee used remains the same, a return to Mrs. Ridley’s methods would improve matters.
(b) Considerable delay is caused by cups not being laid out beforehand and there would be better service if this were done.
(c) The returning of cups to the counter is now very badly neglected making the hut very untidy. The waitresses often have to stop serving in order to collect cups and this is, again, a cause of delay.
Secretary, Womens’ Committee.
Misuse of Cafeteria Facilities, 10th April 1942
It was reported to me to-day that Captain Jenkins and R.S.M. Benenson (both employed under Mr. Herivel in Block H) had obtained lunch sandwiches from Hut 2 in exchange for lunch sandwich tickets. As neither is entitled to these facilities, further enquiry was made.
The explanation given is that lunch tickets were provided to the Section for two G.P.O. men from Dollis Hill who were expected to visit Block H to-day. They did not do so and their tickets were therefore utilised by Capt. Jenkins and R.S.M. Benenson. Mr. Herivel, the Section Head, confirms that this was what happened.
Inasmuch as Military (Camp) personnel are not permitted to obtain meals or sandwiches from the Cafeteria, and the transfer of tickets between individuals is forbidden I have had the two offenders told that the matter is being reported to you for such action as you consider necessary.
In view of the clearly-expressed conditions of B/P G.O. No. 215 (paras 1, 5, 7, and 9) I shall be glad if you will deal suitably with the persons concerned.
Room 33, Main Building.
[It turns out that the RSM Benenson mentioned above was in fact Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International – and Captain Jenkins was Roy Jenkins, later Chancellor the Exchequer and co-founder of the SDP political party. John Herivel played a major part in the cracking of Enigma. Now to some more serious security issues…]
D. D. (S) Serial Order No. 90, 16th April 1943
Heads of Sections are asked to remind their staff that where confidential documents are handled care should be taken when rooms are vacated to see that windows are shut and doors locked. The Night Patrol constantly finds open windows and the room empty. As the weather gets warmer this will no doubt occur more often unless more care is taken.
Although this affords no real measure of security it does act as a slight check on the casual snooper and thunderstorms.
The outside doors of Huts which are left empty at night should be locked and the keys deposited with the watchman in the Hall of the Main Building.
[And finally, a reminder that careless talk costs lives…]
Confidential, 22nd September 1943
A serious case of breach of Security at B.P. recently came to light. The facts were as follows:
A member of this station “A”, engaged on Most Secret work, told a friend “B” outside B.P. precisely what her work was, in the course of ordinary conversation. “B” told her friend “C” what “A” was doing at Bletchley and “C” reported what she had heard to us.
On investigation it was found that these facts were indisputably true and when questioned “A” admitted them to be so. For this breach of Security “A” was summarily dismissed.
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