by Tessa Dunlop
Bletchley Park’s role during the second world war has been well documented in recent years. This once highly secret hub of the Allies’ intelligence gathering activities has been the subject of numerous books, films and TV programmes, But it is fair to say that by and large, the central characters in these tales have been the big hitters such as Alan Turing whose genius paved the way for the computer revolution.
This book is a little different. IN The Bletchley Girls, journalist Tessa Dunlop looks not at the code breakers themselves – although they do get a mention – but instead focuses on some of the girls who found themselves, for one reason or another, essential components in the Park’s code-breaking activities.
Talking candidly about their experiences both before and during the war, the fifteen women whose tales are told here give very different accounts of Bletchley and their roles there. For some, it was an exciting adventure, their first time away from home. For others, it was something a little less glamorous, a period that had to be endured rather than enjoyed. But for all of them it was a time that helped to shape them and whether their memories are fond or otherwise, they can at least be assured that the work that they did at Bletchley Park really did matter, even if they could not see this at the time.
The work at Bletchley Park was intensely secretive and compartmentalised. Staff were forbidden to speak to anyone, including those who worked in other sections (or huts) about the work they did. And whilst all were aware that what they were doing was vital to the war effort, for most it was tedious and repetitive, with no idea of how their labours contributed to anything else. Some of these lively and interesting nonagenarians have never spoken to anyone about their experiences. The need for secrecy was made only too clear to all of the Park’s staff and the consequences for breaching it very severe.
The Bletchley Girls shows a very different side of life, not only for those women working for Bletchley but for women in general. There is no agenda to the telling of these stories but focusing as it does on the role played by these amazing women, it does highlight the prejudice and condescending attitude they all faced from the male establishment.
Tessa Dunlop has captured the highs and lows of these young girls who were, until recently, the often overlooked but essential part of the system that broke the enemy codes. Her book paints a warts-and-all picture of life, not only at the Park itself but also at its outlying stations and offices throughout the UK. The stories put a human face on the most secret of British establishments. Her easy style is well-suited to the subject and she manages to get the best out of her sometimes reluctant interviewees.
The conversational style of the book makes it very easy to read and the open and honest observation of the “girls” themselves a real eye-opener.