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.)

A little girl in Paris

I was 6 years old in 1939. My father was mobilized and I stayed home with my mother and my brother who was 1 year old. We received gas masks and we were allocated a shelter because our house had no cellar. But life went on as far as I was concerned as usual… I suppose it was the time of the “phony war”!

In October I should have started school for the first time. I was not accepted due of a lack of school teachers. Only the pupils who were prepring for exams were allowed, that has been my first great disappointment. So my grandfather decided to teach me how to read, to write and to count and in October 1940, when I went to school, I was accepted in the second class!! I was very proud!

But by that time “events” had changed. The Germans had invaded Belgium and rushed to the North of France. A lot of refugees were on the roads and many were killed by Italian military planes. Rumours about behaviour of the German soldiers spread: they cut the boys’ right hand and injured the young girls. Most of the people who had family in the country left Paris. But to leave Paris we needed a car with petrol and of course we could not find petrol. May be it is owing to this fact that I am still alive. Because the day my mother got petrol we met the first German soldiers. They were 2 in a sidecar dressed with long rain coats, helmet, boots and special large glasses. They stopped in front of the Town Hall. The Germans were here in Fontenay, East side of Paris and 9 km from the dead center of the capital. We had not been bombed and we did not even see a tank or a gun. They had not cut boys’ right hands and not injured young girls but they organized restrictions: we received tickets for every thing: food, coal, clothes, shoes etc…

The food intake for girls of 7 was very poor and my cousin who was older then I taught me how to steal bread tickets at the baker’s.

My grandfather had a garden with lots of beautiful flowers. The following year all the flowers disappeared and he grew vegetables.

The winter 40/41 was terribly cold. We had a lot of snow – people skied in Fontenay and since I never saw that again – I had a pneumonia and we had no more medecine. So I was treated with cod liver oil… My mother one day had to queue 2 hours to buy 1kg of frozen turnips. That was all she had to feed the family… and the dog. I forgot the dog. It was a little dog which was abandonned and of course the pound did not exist any more so the policemen killed all wandering animals. My mother could not resist and took it home! I suppose it was on that day that she decided to open a shop. It was a greengrocer. Thus she could make some “exchanges”.

On the other hand my father bred rabbits. (I know you don’t eat rabbits, but during the siege of Paris in 1870 Parisians ate rats). The only trouble with rabbits was to feed them. So every week end we rode by bicycle to the country in order to gather grass. (I promised to myself at that time that I would never ride bicycle any more after the war).

To come back to German soldiers I have only 3 souvenirs:

1°- I saw them one day (It should be in September 41 or 42 ? ) marching past through Fontenay dressed with only swimming suits, helmet and boots and singing loudly! ( Recently when I explained this to former German soldiers they said it was surely a punishment?)

2°- Another day I was with my grandfather in the metro and as we stopped at a station German soldiers appeared suddenly inside the wagon taking rather roughly some people who were sitting there, then lining them up on the platform and they shot them. I still can hear the noise of the guns in my ears and the noise of the wagon door closing.

After that day we never again went in to Paris with my grandfather. Later on it was said that a German officer had been killed nearby. I discovered the existence a French secret army called “Resistance” who wanted to get rid of German Soldiers.

It was quite usual to see on the wall a displaying place with posters giving names of men who had been shot as hostages. One of these displays was just in front of my school.

3°- I remember also when they arrested Jewish people. (I saw them because I was behind the bow window).

One of my friends at school wore the yellow star but that was nothing compared to what happened to her family. All her family was sent to concentration camp except her father and her. Why ? I never knew and never asked her.

It is said that French policemen arrested Jews but there were some exceptions. In fact the lord mayor of the town was not obliged to transmit the order of arrestat if he had not signed allegiance to the French government of that time. This was the case of Fontenay’s lord mayor who did not transmit the order and that is why the arrest of Jews in Fontenay was the act of the German army.

My grandfather had Jewish tenants in a suburban house in Fontenay. I used to play with their son whose name was Guy Forget (exactly the same name as one of our famous tennis players). All the family disappeared one night just before the Germans raided the Jews in Fontenay. A few months later Germans came to move all their furniture, paintings, carpets, everything even the curtains!!

Time was passing with not very much to eat, nothing to heat the house and nothing to wear. We had special shoes with wooden soles. Fortunately my grandmother knew how to sew. So she could make “new” clothes out of old ones. From time to time we heard air raid sirens but we did not care. We knew it was RAF or US Air Force planes flying to Germany to bomb them! And except when we were at school we never used a shelter. On the contrary we tried very hard to see the planes which were so high in the sky.

Nevertheless one day a plane was hit by the FLAK (the German anti-aircraft guns) and it fell down in the fields not very far from our home. When we saw it coming over our house we could see very distinctly the men inside because the nose of this kind of plane was like a window. (according to Paul this was certainly a B17 Flying Fortress). The plane touched the ground but when the Germans arrived near it the men had disappeared and that day I realized again that “Resistance” existed. Sure the men had been rescued by members of this organisation.

Some French men were requisitioned to work in Germany. I had an uncle belonging to this category.

To come back to bombardments, only important railway stations and factories which worked for the German army were bombed. I remember one night, (it was the first time my father woke us up saying: “Take whatever is the most precious for you” – I took my 2 new combs!! – and we stayed near the exit ready to run to the shelter. The bombardment was directed against an entire German regiment ready to leave by train for Russia. A fortnight later when we went to gather grass (for the rabbits) pieces of rails were still stuck in the street. We never knew how many dead there were but I can remember that I was not feeling sorry at all!! It’s queer but even now I don’t feel sorry. Sure I am as barbarian as they were.

On the 6th of June 1944 when arriving at school I already noticed a special excitement. What was going on? Older girls were pleased to tell us “Allied troops landed this morning in Normandy”. That was going to be the end of the war I immediately thought.

When we entered the class room our teacher opened the blackboard and we could read the words of “La Marseillaise” and all together we started singing!

The end of the war really was approaching. The “Resistance” became more and more daring. In Fontenay we could see cars with FFI (French Internal Forces) written in white and with French flags, men with armbands and with guns where going without any fear.

In August things became very serious. The policemen had disappeared to join the Resistance. (We could recognize them because we knew them but they did not wear any longer their uniform. It was said that in Fort de Nogent (about 1,5 km from us) 300 SS tank men were about to leave. We feared they’d came down to Fontenay to join Paris. So the Resistance went up to fight. My father who was in the garden near Fort de Nogent explained to us it was very serious. He kept laying down between 2 rows of potatoe plants without being able to move. 27 resistants were killed but the German had other plans and left towards East.

Two days later we saw our first “libérateurs”. They were Canadian and they drove 3 half tracks and were looking for quinine because one of them had very bad fever. One or two days after (I don’t remember precisely) when I woke up the streets around our house were full of American soldiers. Two of them were sleeping in front of our door taking the first step of our outside stairs as a pillow. When I remember that even after 65 years I feel like crying.

One of the first thing I noted was their shoes. The German made a terrible noise when they walked and the American had shoes with rubber soles, very silent and not frightening at all.

That was the end of a 4 year nightmare for us. We could again find food. I was very happy to eat a piece of real bread just for the taste of it. It was also at that time I had my first coat made specially for me (because my clothes were only old ones coming from my cousin too small for her). My coat was made out of 2 US blankets which my mother had dyed. Unfortunately the dye did not come out of the same colour. But never mind the couturier arranged this difference very artisticly.

For those young men who came to save us (not “you” but “freedom” as it said one day to me an old American lady) the way to Berlin was still very long and I am sure painful and dangerous.

Long after the war I spoke with former German soldiers about the war… but this is another story.