Imagine discovering that your beloved elderly mother hadn’t just worked for the Foreign Office during the Second World War, as she modestly admitted, but that she had been one of the team at Bletchley Park who were tasked with helping to identify and crack the secrets of the Germans’ coded Enigma machine messages…
Looking through a recently published book about Bletchley Park and its vital role during the war, Gethin Russell Jones saw a photograph which showed his mother, Mair, as a young woman, and gradually he unearthed the full story of his mother’s work which she had faithfully kept secret for so many years after signing the Official Secrets Act.
Once others were publishing their recollections of this work, she finally felt able to tell her son the full details about the rather bizarre way she was head-hunted at Cardiff University where she was studying Music, German and History, and her quite remarkable life and experiences working at Bletchley Park. Her background from the small village of Pontycymer in the Garw Valley in South Wales was a marked contrast to the majority of the other “BP” workers, and it took some time before she felt at ease with her co-workers and with her task.
A deeply devout Christian, Mair would likely have become a missionary after her time at Mount Hermon Missionary Training College in London if the war had not supervened; her time in London ministering to those in the East End and supporting Jewish refugees had a marked impact on her, as did the death of a dear friend whose family was killed by a German bombing raid on Cardiff. The pacifism of some of her Christian friends was not for her, she felt very deeply that to allow Hitler to continue with his actions was unconscionable and that he must be stopped. She was both happy and proud to play her part in the war effort, despite the tensions it caused with some members of her family and her first landlady when she initially arrived at BP.
Despite the vital importance and complexity of their work, they were told remarkably little on a day-to-day level about how their work was so significantly changing the course of the war in favour of Britain and her Allies, which must have been incredibly dispiriting and seems to have been very short-sighted of the “top brass” in charge of the team. Quite how Alan Turing’s “Bombe” worked always remained a bit of a mystery to Mair, who admitted she was not particularly mathematically inclined!
Secrecy and discretion were held to be paramount and Mair witnessed two of her colleagues being hauled over the coals and then publicly and summarily dismissed for discussing information that had been passed on to them by other people, even though this had been done in the confines of the works canteen at BP.
She became friends with another new recruit, Joan, and safely ensconced in her new and much more friendly lodgings, she began to relax and really enjoy her work. Her ongoing courtship with Russ, who was studying to be ordained into the Baptist ministry, continued to flourish despite their long periods apart and blossomed into an engagement. Ill-health due to the poor working conditions at BP plagued many people and Mair became desperately ill with pneumonia towards the very end of the war. She was sent home to recuperate, but was then discharged from her duties at Bletchley Park and free to marry her beloved Russ and raise her large family.
I found the final few chapters where Gethin takes his mother back to Bletchley Park and her work being publicly honoured by the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to be immensely moving. She kept her silence for over sixty years, and I am glad she was finally able to tell her story.