Memories of codebreaking in WWII

Marry Sherrard (92) from WRNS at Bletchley Park
Marry Sherrard (92) from WRNS at Bletchley Park

“I was told that I couldn’t tell anyone about it, and that there was absolutely no prospect of promotion in the job, and I desperately, desperately wanted it.”

Mary SHerrard, 92, is remembering how she felt as a teenager, applying for her first job - which ended up being a role at Bletchley Park in the breaking of military codes vital to the Allies winning World War II.

Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park

“My parents were against it at first,” she says of telling them she wanted to sign up as a Wren (in the Women’s Royal Naval Service). “They wanted me to go to university.”

The way Mary tells it, there were three main reasons why she wanted to join up so fervently.

“Firstly,” she says, “my first boyfriend was Polish, a Polish pilot. Secondly, when I was younger, a German refugee stayed with my family, and thirdly, I saw the Clydesdale blitz, which was horrific.”

The refugee was a Doctor Stein - a woman known to Mary as ‘Steiny’, who had fled Nazi persecution in the Germany of the late thirties, escaping to Switzerland and then to Scotland.

Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park

“She had lost all her family, children and husband, everything, I don’t know how she was spared,” remembers Mary. “She was a trained doctor, but she was obviously unable to practice in Germany, so she got away to Switzerland and then to Scotland. And, when war was declared, as a German, she was moved from the east coast of the west, where I was living, outside Glasgow.

“I remember walking with her through the Botanic Gardens there, and you know, how you are when you’re just sixteen, I remember being embarrassed to be with her because she had this booming, guttural voice! I was just 16, and to me although she was 30 she was an old woman already.

“But she also spoke German with me, which was a great help.

“It became obvious that she would be unable to go on working as doctor in Britain with her accent, so she did what so many people tried to do, and moved on to America. There she settled very happily and continued working.”

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

The extra help in German may have paid off, though, as Mary remembers her interview on joining up.

“It was just me and this man from the navy, dripping gold braid,” she says, “and he was speaking to me in German. I thought, oh, my German isn’t good enough, but I’d studied it for two years at school, and eventually, he just said, ‘Alright, you’re in’ and after a couple of weeks orientation I was at Bletchley Park.”

Mary says she considers herself lucky to joined the codebreaking effort at the time that she did.

“I was there when they’d just started recruiting from the Wrens,” she remembers, “up to then, it mainly been Oxford and Cambridge men, and the ex-debutante kinds of women who were known and trusted by them.”

The operation in the former country house grew quickly, with, at one point, 2,000 Wrens onsite. “We were just doing small jobs, really,” says Mary. “We were all small cogs in such a huge operation.

Mary moved around Scotland in her postwar life, spending time in Glamis and Galashiels. Now she lives with her family near Duns.

Nowadays, she tells her stories to local groups and often talks to schoolchildren about her memories of the war.

“It’s very funny sometimes, the things that they pick up on,” she says.

“I was telling a group of children - well, they must have been about seventeen - about my getting married. I met my husband, John, at Bletchley, and we married in 1945. He had been in the RAF servicing Spitfires when he was ‘invited’ to make the move. The men in charge wanted to get the RAF on board to make sure the machines ran smoothly - because the RAF boys understood the electrics and they understood the women!

“Of course, at the time, the only thing I had to get married in was my uniform.

“And that would have been fine, but then one of the ex-debutantes who I knew said, ‘Oh, I have an old dress that you can borrow.’

“It was beautiful. I was married in this lovely ivory silk.

“But one girl just asked me in amazement: ‘You got married in someone else’s dress?’ They really couldn’t get their head around that fact.

“At Bletchley, the only clothes we really had were our uniforms. And we had very little space for our personal belongings.”

In fact, the huts housing the codebreaking efforts were a little less neat and tidy than they have been portrayed in some recent films.

Mary is keen to point out that, as with all her recollections, they are based purely on memory, which she acknowledges as subjective.

“It’s only really as I remember it,” she says now, “ and my memories may well be false or different to other people’s, but they are part of the memories of everyone who worked there.

“I have a friend, who I worked with at Bletchley, and she went back fairly recently, to see what the place was like, because they have received a lot of lottery money recently.

“She told me about it, and she said ‘Mary, don’t go back, they’ve made it all spick and span, it’s nothing like what it was!’”

And Mary is not shy of speaking her mind about her war work. After attending a university lecture in the mid-90s, she says she took great delight in speaking to him afterwards, picking him up on things that she remembered differently.

“And he thanked me!” she smiles now. “He said that everything he said was from people’s memories, so it was good to have more, even if they were different.

“Things in the films about that time are rather different too, from what I recall.”

Keira Knightley’s portrayal of a Bletchley codebreaker in The Imitation Game, fir instance, is judged “far too glamorous...although that is a bit bitchy, isn’t it?”

Mary has also visited America and seen, once again, the difference in attitudes to secrecy.

“When the Americans entered the war, it was very exciting,” she says, “because they brought us all sorts of stuff, chocolate and cigarettes and nylons. but they wanted to talk about the job all the time, at our dances and dinners in the mess hall! We told them - we only talk about that at work. I visited the CIA in the USA, and I found it to be still the same.

“Things are very different now, and it seems to be that way all over - who is say if it’s better that way?”