Deciphering the legacy of women codebreakers in World War II

20 Feb 2015

Kerry Howard, writer, researcher and historian

Inspire 2015 speaker Kerry Howard spoke to Claire O’Connell about the women codebreakers of Bletchley Park, her new book and the need to ‘futureproof’ our records today.

If you could go back in time and get a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ insight into a particular period in history, when would it be? For writer and Inspire speaker Kerry Howard, it’s Bletchley Park in England during World War II, when teams of sleuthing cryptographers cracked Axis codes to gain advantage in combat.

At the height of its code-breaking activities, nearly 10,000 people – around 75pc of them women – worked at Bletchley Park and related sites, and their achievements advanced the fields of cryptography and computing. Alan Turing worked there, and it was home to Colossus, a first-of-its-kind programmable computer.

At the time though, the whole initiative was – for obvious reasons – a secret, and this drew writer and historian Howard’s interest.

“That fascinated me,” she says. “How can you have so many people keeping that secret – imagine it now, it would never happen – effectively 10,000 people going in and out of the site, that was just phenomenal.”

Today more is out in the open about Bletchley Park – the public can visit the site and numerous books, plays and films (including the Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game) have mined into the intrigue of the Government Code and Cypher School that it housed – but there are plenty of stories still to be told, according to Howard.  

Pioneering women at Bletchley Park

Next week sees the publication of her latest book, Women Codebreakers at Bletchley Park, which explores the lives and works of Margaret Rock, Mavis Lever and Joan Clarke (as they were then called) and contains previously unpublished photographs.

Howard’s interest in Bletchley Park was initially sparked when she read Enigma by Robert Harris, and she has since written several articles and books based on primary source material from and about the historic site, where she volunteered to work in the archives.

“I really wanted to go scratching behind the surface, and seeing the real details and the archives gave me that opportunity to be there with all those papers and original photographs,” she recalls of her time there. “At that time, the archive was in one of the blocks which was not really used, so you could almost smell the past. I was there quite often by myself and it was quite spooky, you could almost imagine people at the end of the hall. I love that.”

Watching the fictional drama series The Bletchley Circle, about women codebreakers who later apply their intellectual skills to solve crime, Howard was inspired to find out more about the real women who worked at Bletchley Park.  

Diving into the ‘rabbit hole’ of research led her to contact Margaret’s family, and she was thrilled when they invited her for the weekend to go through the material.

“That set my heart on fire,” she says. “I went up and saw her papers and I thought these need to come out, we need to share these. Really there was a need to shine the light on these fascinating women … who were absolute pioneers at a time when women were such a minority of going to university.”

Women Codebreakers at Bletchley Park by Kerry Howard will be published next week

Team effort

Cracking the codes at Bletchley Park was very much a team effort, notes Howard.

“It wasn’t just one person, somebody would come up with an idea and it would take the team to work things out,” she says.

“One night on an evening shift, Mavis (Lever) spotted a message which she figured out was a message made up of one single letter, then with the help of a male codebreaker (Keith Batey, who later became her husband) they managed to break it. It gave them the settings for the Italian navy, which then led to the Battle of Cape Matapan, which put the Italian navy out of the war.”

Protecting the legacy

While the engineering and cryptography at Bletchley Park has been much lauded, Howard believes the social history is also key to understanding more about what went on.

“When you go to Bletchley you have got the Enigma machine, which is beautiful, an amazing piece of engineering,” she says. “Yet I get more excited about the diary entries and the little slips of paper that show how much somebody got paid. They are small details that disappear through the cracks of history, but they build the picture.”

For her talk at Silicon Republic’s Inspire event in Dublin in June, Howard plans to use the stories of Margaret, Joan and Mavis as pillars around which to weave the stories about the women of Bletchley Park.  

Yet while her work looks at the past, Howard is concerned about how future historians will access information about the pioneering researchers of today. She describes how, when she was speaking at a gathering at Bletchley Park hosted by women working in cybersecurity and intelligence, her head turned towards the future.

“I looked into the room of dynamic, intelligent women and (thought) these are the people who are at the cutting edge of codebreaking now,” she says, but she wondered if their primary material will be accessible in the future.

“In this digital age we write emails, all our photographs are in the cloud – as a researcher how would I access your information if I was looking into you? If you are my next subject, how will I find you?”

Kerry Howard will be a speaker at Inspire 2015, Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-19 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Buy your early bird tickets now

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication