DR JENNIFER ILES
On a recent trip to Bletchley Park, the site of the famous Code and Cypher School in Buckinghamshire, England, Dr Jennifer Iles (a volunteer with IWM London) had an unexpected brush with her family history.
During the war, both my parents worked as wireless operators at Beaumanor Hall near Loughborough, England (1) the site of a ‘Y Station’.
These were signals intelligence collection centres picking up enemy signals from Occupied Europe – and on occasions from German spies in the British Isles.
The name apparently is a corruption of the pronunciation of the letters ‘W’ and ‘I’ in English, these being short for the original title, Wireless Intercept stations – were staffed by both military and civilian personnel and the information they collected used by the armed services and government departments like MI5 and MI6.
My father though was actually posted to Bletchley Park for a few months before he was transferred up to Beaumanor.
Apart from being intrigued by the thought of vaguely occupying the same environment and landscape that he would have briefly encountered all those years ago, I was also interested to learn about the code breakers and the code breaking processes that followed on from the work that my parents had carried out.
As listeners, their job was to intercept the enemy’s coded military messages. Once the messages had been taken down, they would then be taken to Bletchley Park by despatch rider to be decrypted.
After the war, my parents often talked about their lives at Beaumanor and one day at the dinner table, when I was about 16, my father mentioned that he had taken down the German Terms of Surrender and that he was one of only a handful of people to learn on that day that the war had ended. He added how difficult it had been not to tell anyone what he had just discovered.
At this point, my mother swiftly interrupted him and said ‘Hush George!’
We could tell from her tone that the conversation was now firmly over. They were still bound by the Official Secrets Act. Because I knew that asking any questions was going to be pointless, I thought no more about it.
Many years later after my father’s death, I learned that my mother had been in contact with the archivists at Bletchley Park and that they were interested in acquiring my father’s transmission of the Surrender.
I had no idea that he had kept the document and fortunately I was able to get a photocopy of it before it was sent off. I wanted to do this because I knew that all museums display only a fraction of their holdings and that once the message had left my mother’s possession we would probably never see it again.
I filed the photocopy among my own family documents and there it lay untouched for nearly two decades.
On the day of my visit, we were given a wonderful guided walking tour and this was followed by a period of free time when we could wander around the various exhibitions, code‐breaking huts and buildings at our own pace.
With just under an hour to go before re‐joining the coach, I decided to look at the Museum in Block B.
The collections and objects in the Museum were fascinating and I was steadily working my way towards the exit when I came across a text panel with a photograph of a message from the German High Command dated 7 May 1945 containing the Terms of Surrender.
I was stopped in my tracks by the familiarity of the handwriting – it looked just like my father’s.
I remember thinking ‘It can’t be…’
But I looked again and was almost certain it was his.
I took a photograph of it but I did not say anything to anyone at the time because I wanted to make absolutely sure.
When I arrived home I checked the photograph against my own copy and yes, I was right. What an amazing surprise!
I am left though with a query that I need to follow up. I am not sure why my father still had his copy of the message and I suspect he should not have kept it.
However, it is just as well he perhaps broke the rules because decades later, the Museum at Bletchley has found it to be of historical value. And thanks to a fantastic visit put on for us by the IWM I now have a great story to tell my grandchildren.
On a slightly different tack, I have recently discovered that Tommy Flowers, who designed ‘Colossus’, the world’s first programmable computer and used at Bletchley Park from 1944, subsequently worked at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill in North London (2) after the war.
My uncle (my father’s brother‐in‐law) whose field was in telecommunications, was also employed at the Research Station on his return to civilian life.