Bombe Girls

  |  Published: Mar 22nd 2016
Testing & checking room in Block D
Testing & checking room in Block D ©Crown. Reproduced by kind permission, Director, GCHQ

Eight Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service) arrived at Bletchley Park to operate futuristic machines 75 years ago, on 24 March 1941. The Turing Welchman Bombe machines helped find the daily Enigma settings on an increasing number of networks. By 1945 almost 3,000 Wrens had come through Bletchley Park to operate them both there and at far bigger, industrial outstations.

These trailblazing women were selected for Special Duties X or instructed to board the mysterious HMS Pembroke V. Bletchley Park’s Research Historian, Dr David Kenyon, says “A huge portion of the Bletchley Park workforce were Bombe operator Wrens and, because a lot of them were in their late teens and early twenties, they also form a big chunk of our surviving veteran population. They’re a large part of our story. It’s 75 years ago this month that the first eight arrived, no doubt with absolutely no idea what to expect or what they were going to do.”

Cynthia Legge was a Bombe operator at Eastcote and Bletchley Park, from 1943 to 1945. She recalls their less than luxurious living conditions. “I didn’t like Woburn Abbey. It was cold and I fell down the curly staircase, there were stone steps and I ended up in hospital.”

Ruth Bourne served at Stanmore and Eastcote between 1943 and 1945, and only learned how comparable their working conditions were to the Codebreakers’ at Bletchley Park long after the veil of secrecy was lifted. She says “We thought our machine rooms were dingy, dusty and dirty, but they were palatial in comparison to those dark, very sparse rooms in Hut 6. The working conditions were even more miserable than ours were.”

The first Bombe machines were housed in Hut 1 and their operation was overseen by RAF Sergeant Jones, who was eventually elevated to Squadron Leader as the operation expanded in response to the increased need throughout the war. Dr Kenyon says “I think if you’d said to Sergeant Jones, his eight Wrens and their three machines in March 1941 that within three years there would be 300 clanking away and 3,000 of you, and it might be helping to turn a battle in France, I think he’d have fallen down with shock. But mighty oaks from very small acorns grow.”

Like many of the jobs at the codebreaking factory Bletchley Park and its outstations became, operating Bombe machines was hard, repetitive work. Dr Kenyon adds “People get this idea that the story is about small numbers of Cambridge boffins. It’s not, it’s about large numbers of ordinary people doing quite mundane things very diligently for the greater good, not knowing until a long time after how important it actually was.”

You can hear more from Dr Kenyon and the Bletchley Park Bombe Wrens in this month’s episode of the Bletchley Park Podcast. Hut 11 at Bletchley Park, nicknamed the Hell Hole by the Wrens working there, now tells their stories.

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