A GCHQ memoir

Some months ago the Bletchley Park Trust asked me if I would write an article for their Newsletter about my early days at GCHQ (1952-3) when they were mainly at Eastcote before moving to Cheltenham; nobody there now remembers that interim period. I wrote a piece and found a photo of 5 of us from our section before an inter-divisional tennis match in 1953 which they included. The article has now appeared. They sent me 6 copies for relatives/ friends but they seem to have got lost in the post so I can’t send you one; they did send me 2 which they managed to scrounge from somewhere.

eastcote staff

Memories of Eastcote

After the War it was decided that GCHQ should move from Bletchley to a custom-built site. I was told that three locations were considered: Cheltenham, Rhyl and Warrington.
Cheltenham was chosen but, in the meantime, many staff were transferred from Bletchley to Eastcote, about 15 miles north-west of London where at 114, Lime Grove there was a collection of single-storey brick buildings which had been used previously by some Government Department, perhaps the Ministry of Food. From there staff gradually moved to Cheltenham over a period of 2-3 years ending, I would guess, in about 1954.

I had been studying mathematics at Manchester and Cambridge since 1946. The Head of the Department at Manchester was M.H.A (“Max“) Newman and it was known to us students that he and many others in the Department, including Alan Turing, Jack Good and David Rees, had been at a place called Bletchley in the War, but we had no idea what they had been doing there. In the summer of 1952 I completed my PhD at Cambridge and was then due for “call-up” to do my two years National Service. It was suggested that I should apply to join the Royal Naval Scientific Service (RNSS) which I did and was called for interview in London almost immediately. I was offered a Scientific Officer post, told that I must stay for at least two years and that this would count as my National Service, that I would be in civilian clothes initially at a place near London but was told nothing about what I would be doing.

In September 1952 I reported to “114, Lime Grove, Eastcote”. I had been found lodgings at 72, Lime Grove, which was highly convenient and I stayed there very happily until I moved to Cheltenham. On my first morning I signed the Official Secrets Act and was duly briefed after which I was taken to the section where I was to work and found that my “boss” was Jack Good, who had taught me Analysis at Manchester Jack’s “boss” was the famous chess-player Hugh Alexander. Most of the people in the section were mathematicians, several, including Jack and Hugh, had been at Bletchley and among the others was Denis Mardle, another chess-player, whom I knew from Cambridge. It was not surprising that at that time Middlesex had a very strong chess team; a year or two later Gloucestershire rose significantly in the rankings.

I was given a typed “training manual” to read; an introduction to some well-known old cipher systems as well as a description of the Hagelin machine, produced in Sweden and widely used by several countries. Later I was given internally-produced volumes describing the Enigma and Tunny machines and accounts of how their solutions were obtained in the War. I was astonished that anyone could have solved machines such as these and was filled with admiration, which remains to this day, for the people at Bletchley who had done this.

During the next year others joined me at 72, Lime Grove: Wilf Westlake, a Southampton maths graduate, Alan Blenkin (Oxford) and Norman Macleod. Norman was both a chess player and a magician, a Member of the Magic Circle. Our excellent landlady, Mrs Saunders, said to me on one occasion “Of course I know what you are working on”. I was alarmed until she said “Radar” to which I replied “I’m not supposed to talk about it”; leaving her convinced that she was right.

Early in December 1952 a very dense fog enveloped the London area. Id never experienced anything like it. On the Saturday night I went to Covent Garden. From my seat in the balcony I could see the fog swirling in the orchestra pit. Sadler’s Wells cancelled their performance that night. After the opera I walked down the Strand to Trafalgar Square, a walk made possible only because of the lights in shop windows and hotels. I hardly met a soul: at 10.30 on a Saturday night! The Tubes were the only form of transport still running and we were packed like sardines. The walk to my lodgings from Eastcote, a few hundred yards I’d walked many times, was a nightmare. I had to walk with one foot on the pavement and one in the road. Others had it worse; I heard of one man who crawled on his hands and knees. The fog cleared on the 5th day, to our great relief. During those days I could get to work easily but others had great difficulty; some came from considerable distances, as far as Brighton I was told.

Various social and other events were held, including inter-divisional cricket and tennis matches in the grounds of a large house, “Swakeleys”, where some people were billeted. In one of these I achieved by far the best bowling performance of my life. Called on to bowl when the other side were 56 for 5 I took 4 wickets for 0 runs in 5 balls, all bowled, but missed a hat-trick because our wicket-keeper, Hugh Alexander, missed a catch. Hugh afterwards said “I couldn’t see what you were doing with the ball”. “Bowling straight Hugh, and if you’d been paying attention I’d have had a hat-trick”.

Another evening at Swakeleys Norman, who was living there at the time, gave Alan and I a demonstration of some astonishing card-tricks. One particularly baffling one involved picking the right card, chosen by us whilst his back was turned, out of a pack. He got it right on the first occasion but apparently failed the second time. Pretending to be baffled he went through the whole pack but the card wasn’t there so he took the pack and rippled it and a tiny copy of the card jumped out. “No wonder I couldn’t find it” he said. He then went through the whole procedure again, failing each time so he put the pack on the table under a cloth, drew out 51 cards without success and then said “It must be this” as he took out a very large version of the chosen card. I have no idea how he did this, sitting two or three feet away from us.

There were many ex-Bletchleyites at Eastcote. One I particularly remember was Eric de Carteret. Shortly after I joined he introduced himself and said he was building up a collection of photographs which included many at Bletchley and asked if he could include one of me. I was rather surprised but said “OK”. I never appeared in his album though because the Head of Security heard about it and asked Eric to let him see it. Eric was very pleased “Sir George (Pearce) wants to see my album”. He wasn’t so pleased though when Sir George decided that it should be classified and took it away from him.

About 40 years later I was visiting GCHQ in Cheltenham and mentioned Eric’s album, nobody there remembered it but a search was made and the next day I was shown it. It contained photos of many individuals and groups of staff outside the huts at Bletchley. It is presumably still locked up in a safe in Cheltenham, but could surely be made public now. On this same visit I saw the typescript prepared by Alan Turing early in the War on how to solve Enigma messages; it has the title “Prof’s Book”; I had first seen it in Eastcote. Good to know that it still exists; quite a historic document.

Among many others I remember from Eastcote was a lady who, I was told, had joined in 1915 and had worked alongside Admiral Hall in Room 40 and was probably the only person to have been at GCHQ and its forerunner in both WW1 and WW2 who was still around in 1953. I think her name was Wendy Bird.

Most staff were gradually being moved to Cheltenham. Some people chose not to go and a few of the older staff kept their houses in the London area and commuted back at weekends until they retired but most of the people I knew moved: the Director (Sir Eric Jones) had assured the “Gloucestershire Echo” that “We want to be Cheltonians”. Many of the unmarried staff were allocated flats at Princess Elizabeth Way. I had joined too late to qualify and was found lodgings. The section that I was in was moved towards the end of August; I took a radio into the office on our last day and, as we packed boxes, we heard England win the Ashes at the Oval, for the first time since 1926. A memorable day.

(Postscript. I left GCHQ in 1963 to take up the post of Head of Programming at the Atlas Computer Laboratory of the SRC and, then, in 1971 was appointed to the Chair of Computing Mathematics at Cardiff, retiring in 1995.)

11 responses to “A GCHQ memoir”

  1. The only thing I can add to the this newsletter is that in May or June 1946 when I was at Luton Hoo Formation College impatiently waiting demob I went one day to Whipsnade to see the buildings by `Tecton`. From my diary; – I spent a day at Whipsnade Zoo with Buttle before he returned to his unit, to see the Lubetkin and Tecton works. All the zoo buildings very shabby and neglected but the two bungalows are wonderful We gawped around them thinking they were empty until caught by the occupant of the larger one. She was so nice about it that we were ashamed. On hearingthat we are architectural students she asked us in, showed us round and gave us tea. She is Mrs Marks, wife of a mathematician. Months later I came across a book by Lional Marks on Codes and Cyphers and the penny dropped. He must have been high on the B.P. staff or exceptionaly rich or lucky.

  2. It is fascinating to read your memories of Eastcote and the early days of GCHQ. I am interested because my mother, Leslie Rodgers worked at Eastcote in the early 1950’s after she graduated from a languages degree at the University of Wales. She described Hugh Alexander as her boss and made lifelong friends – Eunice and David Phillips – too. If anyone remembers my mother, Eunice or David, I’d love to hear from you.

    Many thanks
    Lindsey Hall

  3. I remember Eunice and David Phillips. though I didn’t know them well. I met them in 1954/5 when we had all moved to Cheltenham. I was “posted” to Washington in Oct 1955 and returned in late 1957. I seem to remember that Eunice’s maiden name was Howard (the same as my mother) and that David had some medical problem, possibly diabetes. I’m afraid I don’t remember Leslie Rodgers but although I was initially in Hugh Alexander’s Division he “loaned me” to another Division in 1955 to get involved with computers and I stayed there until I left GCHQ in 1963.
    Bob Churchhouse.

  4. I came across this site when I did a Google search for Wilf Westlake, whom I met at UCLA in 1958. I believe he later joined IBM and rose to a senior position. I knew others that Bob mentions, eg Jack Good, Norman Macleod and (particularly) Denis Mardle.

  5. Any family information or background on Marjorie de Haan who served in B P during WW II, would be most gratefully received.

  6. Bob Churchhouse’s account of people at Eastcote and the move to Cheltenham is very interesting to me. I joined GCHQ just after the move to Cheltenham, and I knew almost all the people Bob mentions quite well, though only a very few are still alive.

    I had been doing research in Algebra at Cambridge under David Rees (of course I had no idea he had been at Bletchley Park), but when I had failed to achieve any results worth submitting for a PhD, I applied in 1954 to the University Appointments Board to find a non-university job for a mathematician. I could have gone into computers, which were just taking off then, but I was also offered something very hush-hush (no idea what) “Somewhere in the West of England”! Leslie Yoxall, who interviewed me for this job, also told me that C.H.O’D Alexander worked there. As C.H.O’D had been my boyhood chess hero, I decided to chance it; and I spent the rest of my working life at GCHQ (until Mrs Thatcher banned Trade Union membership in 1984). I never regretted it.

    When I arrived at Cheltenham, my first surprise was to find myself sitting opposite George Toulmin, who I had known very well at Cambridge: I had thought he was in the army! (Theoretically he WAS Corporal Toulmin, but he looked no more military than he had at Cambridge!). After that I met Jack Good, head of the mathematical research section HR, which was part of H division, headed by Hugh Alexander.

    HR then consisted of about 8 young mathematicians – mostly from Cambridge, some from Oxford, including Bob Churchhouse, Alan Blenkin, Wilf Westlake, Dennis Mardle, and David Weekes as well as myself and George Toulmin, plus one or two more experienced people who had been at Bletchley, notably “Sep” Wall and of course Jack Good himself. There was also usually one “integrated” American mathematician from NSA, but they changed about every six months at that time. (It was Ted Leahy when I arrived). There were also three support staff – Olive Cox, Sheila Preston, and Enid Binns, who had – among other things – the unenviable job of transcribing our unreadable mathematical scribblings into typewritten form.

    At that time the system was that about half the young mathematicians would be in a room close to Jack’s, working directly for him, while the others would be “farmed out” for a year or two to various other sections where it was thought that a bit of mathematical thinking might help solve some of their problems. This was a “Good” arrangement!

    We all had to move to different offices from time to time. I remember that after one of these moves some of us were in an office between the offices assigned to Hugh Alexander and Sep Wall. As both Hugh and Sep had exceptionally loud and clear “Cambridge” voices, especially when telephoning, and as all the partitions between offices were very flimsy, when Sep and Hugh were on the phone to one another (which was quite often) we could hear every word of both ends of the conversation. So much for security!

    Bletchley Park was famous for its brilliant eccentrics, but there were still many eccentric individuals working at GCHQ when I joined. One particularly loveable and otherworldly individual was Geoffrey Timms. He always rode to work on his motorcycle, and he usually looked as dishevelled and windswept as if he had just got off it. His expertise was in applying mathematical thinking to engineering problems, and vice versa – two very much needed skills.

    He was modest, shy and quiet, but he sometimes gave talks to groups of us. On one memorable occasion, while he was in the middle of putting a diagram on the blackboard, his coat or gown somehow got caught on the frame holding the blackboard up. But Geoffrey ignored this, and carried on with his lecture for several minutes, even though he was half hanging from the frame – until someone unhooked him. It was hard to concentrate on what he had been saying!

    One of the pleasant things about working at GCHQ at that time was the lack of formality and the disregard of the official working hours. There was of course the “need to know” restriction on exchanging information, but – at least for us mathematicians – there was a great deal of freedom. We worked the hours we felt like, often got in late and sometimes worked all night. It was not unlike a university atmosphere. Lots of people brought their dogs into their offices. Not many people had cars then, most people cycled or walked to work, or used one of the many buses that came to the office from different parts of town. And we all worked in small offices, usually for 1, 2, or 4 people; though there were some rooms with as many as 16 people of various skills working together on a single problem. But the idea of “Open Plan” working for everyone would have appalled us.

    Kit’s Background:

    I joined GCHQ as a “Scientific Officer” (paid £630 per year) in October 1954, at the age of 25, and retired in April 1985 as a “Senior Principle Scientific Officer” (paid about £20,000 per year) after 30 and a half years, including three years spent in Washington working as an “integrated” mathematician in NSA, and working in at least ten very different areas of GCHQ’s work – changing jobs about every three years on average, and working together with other staff with many different skills. It was always interesting to have to learn about new problems and to try to find ways of using my mathematical mind and experience to help solve them, sometimes more successfully than others!

    I have now been retired for longer than I worked at GCHQ.

  7. This is a fascinating article with intriguing comments. As an independent BP researcher, I’d love to hear more about your Eastcote memories, especially from Bob Churchouse and Kit Braunholtz. I’d love to hear from anyone with a BP relative too.

    You can find me at http://www.bletchleyparkresearch.co.uk or bletchleyparkresearch(at)gmail(dotcom). I hope it’s ok to put this request here.

  8. Hi Kerry! You ask for memories of Eastcote. Well, I never worked at Eastcote, but I did – for a few years in the 1960’s – visit the site fairly regularly. At that time I was working on the mathematical aspects of designing secure communications equipment for the British Armed Forces; but all the engineering design was being done at Eastcote, so I would go there and meet up with the engineers from time to time, to ensure that I understood enough about their work (and vice versa) to get us all on the same wavelength.
    The (electrical) engineers I met at Eastcote were a very friendly and interesting group – most of them had worked at BP during the war, and they were all considerably older than me. They were also very clever people, and I was impressed by the quality of their work. Unfortunately I have forgotten most of their names – it is fifty years ago! – but I do remember most of their personalities. (One name that seems to come up from the depths was Stan Parkes). They treated me with far more respect than I deserved – they really knew what they were doing, while I was pretty new to it all.

    At that time digital communication methods were just taking off, and I was learning about such things as Information Theory, and Error-Correcting Codes (there was a very good book by Berlekamp on these codes). On the engineering side, silicon chips were just starting to be used. The Eastcote engineers had also realised that for one of their machines they could make it much more cheaply by using a component that was also about to be used in Colour Television, and which would therefore be made in mass quantities and be cheap!

    I remember that they were all very amused by a chap from Lancashire who had contacted them with a design for some device that would use “hydraulic logic”. The Eastcote engineers, who were used to thinking of their machines operating in microsecond time units, asked this designer how long operations using this logic would take, and were highly amused by the answer he gave, in a strong Lancashire accent: “It works by hydraulics – its instantaneous!”
    They would quote this to me, and be convulsed with laughter.

  9. My father was Stan Parkes – Eric Stanley Parkes – the electrical engineer mentioned by Kit above. He took secrecy very seriously, with the result that we never really heard about what he did at work. I remember him once telling me that at work they had a slide rule 6 ft long! And one other time when he obviously had to tell someone – he brought home a little circuit board in a plastic box and told me it was the smallest circuit in the world, and he had been part of the team that developed it. I would love to hear of any memories people have of him. (Sadly he died very suddenly of a heart attack out of the blue when he was not even 70.)

  10. Fascinating article.
    I was wondering does anyone remember William Norman Rowe?
    He was my Uncle and lived near-by too.
    He always said he worked for the GPO which I know was based at Eastcote but they have no record of him so I’m more than curious to find out what he may have done there.
    Nigel Rowe

  11. This is fascinating. My great uncle Harold Fletcher was at Bletchley then I believe Eastcote, then Cheltenham. He never said anything about his service and died many years ago. Did anyone come across
    him? – I’d be delighted to know more.

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