“These are the rules: you do not talk about anything you see, read or hear outside your own office. And I just had to do it. We all did.“

Betty Webb, a 97-year old veteran of Bletchley Park – and the face on the cover of this month's UK edition of National Geographic magazine – talks secrets, the codes of war, and her greatest strength.

By Simon Ingram
Published 16 Jun 2020, 17:18 BST, Updated 16 Dec 2020, 12:02 GMT
“When people used to ask what I did during the war, I’d say ‘a boring secretarial ...

“When people used to ask what I did during the war, I’d say ‘a boring secretarial job.’ I got away with it.” Betty Webb, photographed for National Geographic at Bletchley Park, Bedfordshire, for the June 2020 edition.


Photograph by Robert Clark- National Geographic
Photograph by National Geographic Magazine

Charlotte ‘Betty’ Webb, MBE, joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service – the women's branch of the British Army – in 1941. A German speaker, and determined to 'do more for the war effort than bake sausage rolls,' she was stationed at Bletchley Park: the home of the codebreaking arm of British Intelligence that de-encrypted the messages of the German 'Enigma’ machines. Following the conflict in Europe, she was posted to Washington, D.C. to continue work on intercepted signals from the War in the Pacific. Under the Official Secrets Act, Webb was forbidden to speak of her experiences until 1975 – when it was revealed messages she had handled at Bletchley included the first intelligence relating to the Holocaust. Now 97, she features in National Geographic's special June 2020 edition The Last Voices of World War II. 

I always felt a bit of an outsider. I never went to school. My mother was a teacher and qualified to teach me and my sister at home, and to do all our schoolwork there.

The war started in ‘38, when I was 15. My family had quite a lot of connections with Germany one way and another – I'd lived there for about three months with a family [as an exchange student]. So that was really quite a wrench and an embarrassing one, as it meant we couldn’t communicate any more. It was quite disturbing. The family, who were of a very religious group, were very worried about what was happening. I sensed the anxious atmosphere, although nothing was actually said. I never heard from the family again; I have no idea what happened to them. Which is very sad. 

I grew up in Shropshire, and it was very remote. We weren’t troubled much by bombings, but we could see the flashes of light from Birmingham which was about 50 miles away. That was quite frightening. And we would always hear the German planes going up the country from Bristol to Liverpool. I can still hear the sound of the bombers, that droning sound. Quite clearly.   

A recruiting poster for the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), the women's branch of the British Army during World War Two. Betty Webb joined in 1941. Princess Elizabeth – later Queen Elizabeth II – served in the ATS in 1945, when she learned to maintain army vehicles. 

Photograph by National Archives

My father had been in the army. He was in the Royal West Kent regiment in India in the First World War. So I suppose I had quite a military background anyway, which probably accounted for my feelings towards going into the army. He didn’t talk about it much. He talked about their off-duty times, like visiting the Taj Mahal. But not about the fighting side. 

I went by train from Euston to Bletchley not having the slightest idea what I was in for. I'd joined the ATS not knowing what trade I’d be assigned to, and was totally bewildered. We had no idea a) where Bletchley was, and b) what was going on there. Having had an interview in London with an intelligence corps officer, it wasn't until the following morning when – with an English girl who had escaped from Belgium – we were bussed into Bletchley  and taken straight to the mansion to read, and sign, the Official Secrets Act. That was when I realised I was going to be cut off from my family for the rest of the war. And of course, I had to keep everything to myself until 1975.

The mixture of people at Bletchley, from aristocrats to people like me, was an education in itself. The experience, quite apart from the work, was absolutely marvellous for me – not having been to school very much, apart from in Germany. Quite a few of us have said we feel it was our university.

Bletchley Mansion, where senior officers and a number of teams worked. Prior to the war, the mansion was a private residence. Today it is a museum dedicated to the intelligence gathered there. 

Photograph by Bletchley Park Trust

The registration room at Bletchley Park at the end of the war. Given the sensitivity of the location and its operations, photography was banned on site during the war. 

Photograph by GCHQ, Crown Copyright

“Because you were busy doing things, there wasn’t time to dwell on the horrors of it. Not that we knew the horrors until later.”

Betty Webb

I was in the mansion, in one of the rooms upstairs over the ballroom. I remember the smells of the occasional log fires, which was all the heating we had. Very often if it was a full night shift the fire went out, and it would be jolly cold. We were in uniform and had fairly hefty greatcoats we could put on if we were that cold. What I also remember very distinctly was the weekly exercise of wearing one’s gas mask. We all had these military gas masks which were very heavy, and rubbery, and very smelly. They had to be put on every week for 20 minutes so if there was an alarm, we’d know what to do quickly. 

I had several secretarial jobs around the park. The signals that had been taken down – from Germany, Italy and Japan – had to be registered, and that was the first thing I did. The messages as they came in didn’t have anything in the clear except the date, then groups of five letters or five figures. Totally unintelligible, until the decoders had sorted it out. The next procedure was translation – there were linguists there – and then a sifting as to where the messages should go in order of importance. 

Somebody discovered that I was reasonably good at transcribing. These messages were Japanese, which had been decoded and translated. The paraphrasing of these messages was a ‘diversion’, shall we say. The wording was such that it meant the same thing, but wasn’t immediately recognisable [as coming from a broken code] – that’s what we hoped. It was very interesting, and that's what took me to America at the end of the war in Europe.

The women outnumbered the men three to one at Bletchley. So when people say ‘were there ever any romances?’ I’d say ‘well, chance is a fine thing!’ 

I may have come across Alan Turing, but of course he wasn’t famous then. And in any case he tended to cycle to work with his gas mask on because he suffered from asthma.

You didn't dwell on what you were reading. You got used to it. We had a map up of Burma and India, and we knew where all the problems were. Somehow, because you were busy doing things, there wasn’t time to dwell on the horrors of it. Not that we knew the horrors until later.

Alastair Denniston's office, at in the Bletchley Mansion. It was at this desk that Betty Webb signed the Official Secrets Act in 1941, in front of a senior intelligence officer who had a handgun “lying casually beside him.” Denniston – the owner of the office – was the operational head of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) until 1942. After the war the organisation was renamed as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ.) Today it is based in Cheltenham. 

Photograph by Bletchley Park Trust

The interior of Hut 3 at Bletchley Park. While a certain amount of work was conducted in the mansion itself, much of the Bletchley personnel were stationed in the various huts around the building, where conditions were often challenging. Betty Webb was based in the mansion, but also worked in hut 4, and later Block F – where the codebreaking computers Colossus and Tunny were housed.   

Photograph by Bletchley Park Trust

You have to say to yourself, ‘these are the rules: you do not talk about anything you see, read or hear outside your own office.’ And I just had to do it. We all did. 

When you’re so used to bottling things up and keeping things to yourself, you don’t think about it very much. When the veil of secrecy was lifted in 1975 it just so happened that I was walking round Birmingham and there was a girl across the road whom I recognised from Bletchley – I didn’t know her name, and she didn’t know mine – who just said ‘it’s out.’ I said ‘what’s out?’ and she said ‘we can now talk.’ And I said ‘well, thank you very much,’ we parted, and I never saw her again.

And I still never said a word about it. As I said, I’d been bottling it all up for such a long time, both my parents had died in the meantime – so there was really nobody to talk to about it. And I didn’t want to. It was all in the very back of my mind, very firmly. Then I think it was in the 1990s I had a conversation with a former Territorial Army person who suggested I do talks. Which I did – and have been doing ever since.

Did I ever doubt we would succeed? Good gracious, no. That was not the sort of attitude one had to take – oh no. We win.  

An Enigma machine. Used by the German military to encrypt sensitive documents relevant to the war effort, this machine – capable of creating 103 sextillion combinations – by use of an ever-changing cipher and component, and a counterpart machine. Breaking the code of Enigma, known as 'ultra' intelligence, became critical to victory in Europe. 

Photograph by Karen Fuller, Alamy

“Did I ever doubt we would succeed? Good gracious, no. That was not the sort of attitude one had to take, oh no. We win.”

Betty Webb

What is your greatest strength? 

I think it’s probably having learned to be diplomatic in my replies to people over things. When people used to ask what I did during the war, I’d say ‘a boring secretarial job.’ I got away with it.

What is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome? 

Coping with my husband’s illness. He had hardening of the arteries and had to have both of his legs amputated. He died shortly after the operations. It is an irony that he got through the war without a scratch then had this terrible illness. That was in 1975. I’ve been on my own a long time. 

What advice would you give young women today?

Get as much education as you can. Do as much as you can, get around and meet as many people as you can, travel as much as you can – obviously that’s on hold at the moment – and get as much experience as they can. Because it’s terribly important. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Explore more of National Geographic's Women of Impact articles here. 

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