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.
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.)