Secrets of Bletchley Park: Second World War codebreakers

Bletchley veteran Pat Davies looks back at her time working for Station X, the hidden home of the Second World War codebreakers

For decades, Pat Davies kept her wartime secrets to herself, not sharing her experiences even with her own family. In the Second World War, she was assigned to one of the war’s
most important operations: the ambitious attempt by Bletchley Park, centre of British intelligence, to crack the German Enigma code.

Before she had anything to do with Station X – the codebreaking HQ had its own codename, of course – Pat had heard of the Victorian mansion in leafy Buckinghamshire. Her godmother, married to a chap in the foreign office, wrote to Pat’s mother with news: some of the secretaries, a “crowd of jolly girls”, were going to work at a nice place called Bletchley Park and wouldn’t it be good if Pat went too? But it didn’t sound like Pat’s cup of tea: “I decided that I was going to join the Wrens [Women’s Royal Naval Service]
and be by the sea with a crowd of jolly sailors!”

But when she joined the Wrens in 1942, jolly sailors were not what they had in mind. When it was discovered that Pat could speak fluent German – thanks to her family’s Austrian refugee cook – she was sent for special training. “I was terrified I was going to be a spy – that would mean jumping out of an aeroplane. I was much too timid to do that.”

Instead, Pat was to work in close communication with Bletchley Park, intercepting messages sent by German ships in Enigma code and passing them to Bletchley to be unscrambled. She was posted to a Y station – a top-secret listening post – in sleepy Withernsea on the Yorkshire coast. “There was traffic that wasn’t too urgent from the Baltic,” she explains, “so you got run in quite well there.” She then spent a summer in Lyme Regis in Dorset, in a disused golf clubhouse, listening to German ships and lighthouses along the Normandy coast ‘talk’ to each other.

Pat Davies’ photo album. Credit: Jakob Ebrey

Pat had signed the Official Secrets Act as soon as she finished her basic training, and discussion of her work was strictly forbidden. As a cover story – of sorts – she told people she was working in radio (“there were aerials all over the buildings so it wasn’t very difficult for anyone to guess”). Pat and her fellow Wrens were a crucial cog in Bletchley’s wheel. When a message was received in Enigma code, one of the Wrens would dash to the teleprinter and send it to Bletchley Park. “They always wanted the messages immediately,” says Pat. The race was on to stay one step ahead of the enemy: if the war was to be won, the Allies needed advance knowledge of German manoeuvres.

The code generated by Enigma machines – five-letter groups of gibberish – had been considered impenetrable. The machines could be configured in 103 thousand million million million different ways, and the Germans changed the code daily.

Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman came up with the Bombe machine that cracked the Enigma code, based on a pre-war machine developed by Polish codebreakers. Turing’s is the name most associated with Bletchley, but he and his fellow boffins, from mathematicians and scientists to chess champions, are only part of the picture. Once the codebreaking techniques had been developed, Bletchley’s wartime ‘intelligence factory’ ran as a super-efficient production line, gathering, at its peak, some 4,000 messages a day, extracting intelligence and communicating it along the chain of command – all at a breakneck pace.

Bletchley Park hut exteriors. Credit: Bletchley Park Trust

When Bletchley opened in 1939 there were just 150 staff, all crammed into the Mansion; by D-Day, at the height of its powers, Station X was a secret city of 9,000 people – 75 percent of whom were women – working in purpose-built ‘huts’: a 24-hour rolling operation. So efficient had the system become that on D-Day itself, German Enigma messages were being intercepted, decrypted and passed on to Allied Command in as little as two and a half hours.

Pat knew little of all this. “We knew about Station X, but we never asked them anything and they never asked us anything.” In 1943 Pat was moved to an important Y station at Abbot’s Cliff, midway between Dover and Folkestone, only 23 miles from Cap Gris-Nez in France. It was a pivotal moment of the war – the run-up to D-Day – when swiftly intercepting messages that were passing between German ships was, more
than ever, a matter of life and death.

Read the full feature in the May/June 2020 issue of BRITAIN