Beryl Elizabeth “Berry” Howe (née Howard)
Home Town: London, United Kingdom Conflict: World War II Branch:
The secrecy was such that we didn’t talk about anything at all outside the office. We didn’t even talk about things inside.
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In 1943, in January, I was interviewed in London. The interviewer went into quite a bit of detail about my family background, asked quite a few questions and then we got onto my schooling and she discussed the level of my languages in school. I told her that I just had high school French, high school German. And she seemed to be quite satisfied with that. She intimated at the time that she wasn’t really looking for somebody with fluent German, just somebody who had a knowledge of German and would recognize German when she saw it. But she didn’t talk very much about this, she wasn’t specific in any way.
She asked if I’d be willing to sign the Official Secrets Act and I said yes. Having done that and read through the papers and put my signature to it, she informed me that within ten days, I would receive notification, just to be ready with a suitcase packed. And within about ten days, I did receive a letter, a railway pass to go to Bletchley and indication of what I should take with me. I was given a date and a time and a person who would be waiting for me. So in due course, I arrived in Bletchley and I had no idea what it was or what we were supposed to be doing there.
The next day, I, with two other girls who’d very recently joined, were taken to Hut Six and were told that we’d be working on the Enigma machine. I made very good friends with the two girls that I was originally introduced to. In fact, we became, with another girl, a foursome. We were known just within our own hut as Berry and Co. We lived together, we worked together, we did everything together and I’m still in touch with them, 65 years later.
Before we began our work on the Enigma machines, we were escorted around Hut Six and shown ‘the Bombe’. And this was the Colossus, the first big computer that was built in order to try and decode the messages from Germany. To go back to the beginning, we were given to understand that these messages were plucked out of the air by large groups of girls whom I believe were mostly WRNS [Women’s Royal Naval Service] and they had really very little idea of what their work entailed, other than to take these messages and pass them on.
The messages came into Bletchley Park and they were deciphered in a very very intricate manner by men and some women who’d been employed. Most of them came from Oxford or Cambridge University, mostly mathematicians or people who had sort of sideways vision in that they could look at a problem and see it from other than the straightforward angle. They were people who could do cryptic crossword puzzles in no time at all. People who had high mathematical skills. These original findings were sent to the Bombe which was an enormous machine. It stood about six and a half feet high, was about seven feet long and by the end of the war, ten of them had been built. And each one had 108 revolving dials. And these are the things that eventually finished the code and brought it to a point where it could be used by us. It was then sent through to the decoding room and we were given the letters to feed into our machines.
We also had a plug-in board which the Germans called a Steker, and depending upon the codes that had been broken, we were given certain pairs of letters to plug into the Steker and this in turn with the revolving wheels, when we pressed the first letters, it brought up an entirely different three-letter code. And then we changed the wheels again to show the last set of letters. And hopefully, when you began to type, German came out. And that was why they didn’t need, in our room, anybody that was particularly proficient in German. All we really needed was to be able to recognize German when we saw it and to know if and when it went off into gobbledegook.
The decoding room was in Hut Six. Our fellow room was Hut Three and those had people who were proficient in German. And they did all the translating. It would have been I think quite impossible for us in the decoding room to read very much at all anyway because the German was all abbreviated and you really needed special learning to be able to decipher what it meant. But the people in Hut Six did this and sometimes they got messages through extremely quickly. But everything was very hush-hush. Nobody talked about their work. Even in our own room, we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t go outside and talk about it with other people that we knew who were at Bletchley. We didn’t discuss our work in Hut Six with the people in Hut Three for instance. And one of my friends was in Hut Three.
She did tell us one day that one message that had been deciphered was translated, sent back to the commander in the field, who was standing opposite the German commander, and he received the message before the German commander did. But that was an unusual occurrence for it to be so quick.
Well, simply said, I was working in a government office and it sounding so uninteresting, nobody ever wanted to know any more. People did ask but we just downplayed it. The secrecy was such that we didn’t talk about anything at all outside the office. We didn’t even talk about things inside. We went to a cafeteria for meals and nobody discussed what we were doing, nobody discussed anything that happened. It became so much a part of being silent that I think we pushed things to the back of our minds and later, I found it a little hard to remember everything. It was sort of pushed away because if you kept it in the back of your mind and didn’t think about it, you weren’t likely then to come out and accidentally say something. And I think everybody felt the same way.