Veteran Stories:
Elizabeth Burnyeat

Navy

  • A code and cypher machine used to read and code messages during the war.

    Elizabeth Burnyeat
  • Elizabeth worked at a station similar to those seen here during the war.

    Elizabeth Burnyeat
  • A certificate of appreciation from the Prime Minister of England for her service as a Code and Cypher operator during the war.

    Elizabeth Burnyeat
  • Bletchley Park, 2010.

    Elizabeth Burnyeat
  • Pins that Elizabeth recieved for her service as a code and cypher specialist at Bletchley Park.

    Elizabeth Burnyeat
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"Bletchley Park was full of odd people, all nationalities, all different types of uniforms, all doing different things; nobody knew what anybody else was doing."

Transcript

I had to do something. My parents were active, so I did not have to stay at home. You got a choice. You had to do something. If you had to stay at home, you went into the Land Army or munitions. But if you were free to go, you could join a service. So I applied, I decided I’d like to join the Wrens [Women’s Royal Naval Service]. So I was interviewed first of all in Leeds. I was born in Yorkshire, so Leeds was the near point. Then I went down to London, where they said, after having medicals and things, they said, you can do two weeks training to learn the naval way of doing things, and then you get a posting. So I was quite unknown, I was interviewed again.

At the end of the two weeks, I guess they decided I was mentally alert or something or other, and they said, you’re going to this place. They never mentioned the name Bletchley [Park]. They said it’s where it was and I went off. I can’t even remember how we got there, whether we went by bus or train. Anyway, we were living in an old country mansion in a village called Newport Pagnell and went every day in a rickety old bus. Now , we still weren’t quite sure what we were doing except we did realize after a few days, it was coding and decoding. There was just a lot of huts. It was a mansion which actually belonged to the Duke of Bedford; and, ironically enough, he was for a time, I don’t say it literally, under suspicion, but a lot of people wondered about [him] because he was very friendly with Hitler apparently.

But, anyway, we were in his house, where we worked, but we lived about an hour away. So our days were quite long. They were eight hour shifts and it was a monthly cycle, eight hours, eight to four, eight hours, four to midnight, eight hours, midnight to eight, and then three days doing rotating shifts. Then you got your four days off at the end of each month. So that’s how the system worked. We didn’t know what we were doing, we never saw any results. These were the earliest computers and this medal I’ve got represents the wheel on one of the computers. It’s very hard to explain them if you, but they were quite big and there was just one station that had these. Bletchley Park was full of odd people, all nationalities, all different types of uniforms, all doing different things; nobody knew what anybody else was doing. The main mansion was for food, and some of the individual officers. The rest of us were all in different huts which were most unhygienic because they were mostly going 24 hours a day with blackouts, so there was very little fresh air.

They opened up another station. I was moved up to the outskirts of London, at one of the out stations at Stanmore in Middlesex, which was really out, it’s still part of London really. It was at the end of the Bakerloo line, the tube station, so it was much more fun for us, we could go onto London. We had lots of narrow escapes. Most of the stores has people on roof watch and a whistle would blow, and you’d get down behind a counter. But, anyway, I saw more of London than I ever had, having lived in Yorkshire all my life.

We really, until afterwards, we had really no idea what we were doing. I mean, we knew roughly, that’s what it was, that these were messages being received. But beyond that, we didn’t know. We never knew what anybody else was doing, or who all these people were. Apparently it wasn’t until after the war that I’d ever heard of this Dr. [Alan] Turing, who invented these.

These machines, which we named, each bay had about eight machines and they were all named after countries; and funny enough, I worked in Canada. Each machine was the name of a town, so when something went wrong with it, you’d say Winnipeg is out of action or so and so is this. These machines had rows of three disks which were programmed and I can’t remember now, we were given a menu, as they called it, and we programmed each disk the same. And then you’d set the machine going and when it stopped, you made a note as to what letters it had stopped at and this then was passed through to the next segment and you didn’t know whether it was a mistake or whether it was an important message. But every now and then, you’d get a little note saying, [British Prime Minister] Winston [Churchill] says the chicks are hatching, or words to that effect. Why we were Wrens and not chickens, I don’t know, but anyway, we’d get these odd messages every now and then when something that had come through that was really important, but we never knew what it was, of course.

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