TWO days before Christmas 1943, 19-year-old Gwen Witchell, a shorthand typist from Morley, near Leeds, received a letter from the Foreign Office instructing her to report for duty in 11 days time as a temporary clerk in an out of the way Buckinghamshire village called Bletchley.
Her pay would be 36 shillings a week, with a war bonus of 11 shillings a week.
Now aged 90, and still very sprightly and living in a smart bungalow in Wrenthorpe, Wakefield, she can recall the moment the letter arrived mixed in with the Christmas post, with amazing clarity.
“When my instructions arrived my father became quite excited, got out his map of England to see where Bletchley was located, rubbed his hands together and said: ‘We’ll soon have you off.’”
Her father, says Gwen, was thrilled that his daughter was going to play her part in the war; he had no son to serve in the Forces as he had done himself nearly 30 years earlier, as Gwen’s only brother had died as an infant.
As she set off for Bletchley on January 3, 1944 with three other girls, Gwen did not realise just how important a part she was going to play in the war effort.
Indeed, it was not until some 30 years after the war had ended that details emerged of what was achieved in the huts of Station X, the code name for the government’s top secret code and cypher school at Bletchley Park.
Upon arrival at Bletchley Park, a mansion on the outskirts of the village, they were escorted to a gloomy room, given their instructions and told to recite the Official Secrets Oath. The women were warned that the Germans knew they were there and they must not talk about their work to anyone. Ever.
Along with the other new recruits, Gwen was billeted with an elderly lady in a nearby village and became a ‘guinea pig’.
“We were called that because those who accepted us into their homes were paid a guinea a week for our keep which was deducted from our wages,” she says.
The following day they began work in one of the many huts, operating a three-shift system, a week on each shift – at the height of operations there were some 10,000 men and women employed at Bletchley Park.
“We were trained to deal with messages from many of the theatres of the war which were received in code. Our job was to rearrange the preambles, decode and recode them and pass them on via a tube system to the next stage of their journey into another hut,” she says.
Nine months later she was transferred to another section and given a crash course in Morse code. “We began to learn Morse code at the end of our day shift at 4pm one Sunday night and were expected to use it on our return to night shift at midnight.
“Despatch riders would arrive on motorbikes from listening posts all over the country and we accepted their messages in Morse code and recorded them in type.”
Although Gwen and her fellow communications officers did not know the exact nature of the work they were undertaking, they realised they were only a small part of what went on at Bletchley Park.
“We used to occasionally meet these rather eccentric looking people and one of my colleagues recalls meeting a young man who appeared so preoccupied by whatever problem he was trying to solve that he walked straight into the lake.”
The work was arduous, the three-shift system particularly exhausting, especially when Gwen and a group of her friends asked if they could move to Bedford, some 20 miles away, to take advantage of the more exciting lifestyle it offered during their time off.
“Every third Sunday the shift pattern involved a quick changeover. We took our bikes on the train in the morning, cycled the 20 miles back to Bedford at teatime, had a few hours rest and then got on a bus back to work for our shift to start at midnight.
“It was all worth it though; we were able to join the Grosvenor Club which had a laundry, canteen, regular dances and most importantly, partners. The BBC Symphony Orchestra had been evacuated from London to Bedford and used to broadcast every Wednesday from the Corn Exchange.”
Gwen was in Bedford when the announcement came that the war was over. “We were there on the embankment dancing with our boyfriends and, quite out of character, decided not to board the bus to take us into work that day. I have often wondered how we dared make this decision, although it later transpired that many others had done the same thing.”
Life at Bletchley Park had been hectic during the final stages of the war in Europe but, after VE day there was a marked drop in the number of messages being sent, staff numbers were gradually reduced and Gwen was made redundant in September 1945.
She returned to her old life as a typist in the education department at Wakefield’s County Hall where, four years later she married her colleague Ron Burton, who had spent the war years in the Royal Air Force in Burma. Gwen and Ron, who had two children, celebrated their golden wedding in 1999 but sadly, Ron died the following year.
Gwen looks back on her war years with fondness: “Apart from the fact that there was a war in progress and the lives of many people were shattered for ever, I, along with most of my colleagues at Bletchley Park enjoyed our experiences.
“As young ladies of 19-21 we took things very much in our stride, as most people did in the war years. I have three grandchildren who have been to university and I feel my wartime experience helps me to appreciate their life away from home, even though the reasons are different. I tell them we ‘oldies’ had a life too.”
According to the official record Gwen worked in Block E Communications centre as a Morse slip reader and communications signals officer. But although Gwen has visited Bletchley Park on a number of occasions to take part in veteran weekends and has spoken to members of the Bletchley Park Trust (who campaigned for years to have Bletchley Park designated as conservation area) but she has never managed to track down anyone who did exactly the same job that she did.
In 2009 the government belatedly honoured the work of the Bletchley Park veterans and they were all awarded a medal for their efforts in shortening the war –some said by around two years.
Work is continuing at Bletchley Park to transform the site into a heritage attraction of world importance.
Some of the wartime huts and blocks have been recreated and there are interactive exhibits and displays that tell the story of the thousands of people who worked there in the 1940s – unsung heroes and heroines like Gwen Burton.
Story snapped up by film makers
Bletchley featured heavily in the 2001 film, Enigma, which starred Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet, and last year’s critically acclaimed film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode.
Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the British computer pioneer and mathematician who worked at Bletchley Park and was a key figure in cracking Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, which helped the Allies win the Second World War.
Cumberbatch, best known for his role as Sherlock Holmes in the hugely popular BBC series Sherlock, said that Turing was a “national hero” and that he hoped the film would help bring the scientist greater recognition.