The forgotten women who unscrambled secret codes.
New documents are surfacing, and researchers are interviewing the few surviving women who were instrumental in decoding enemy messages in both World Wars.
The brilliant work of these dedicated women is slowly emerging. During WWII, along with the Bombe machine, decoders helped to unscramble 3000 German messages a day.
(Photo by Nina at Photolab and Unsplash)
Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park
We might remember Alan Turing, computer pioneer, mathematician, cryptographer, especially after seeing The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke.
However, many women worked in the shadows and earned a solid reputation as code breakers. In fact, they were so proficient that even after WWI, they were sought after for their talents as cryptanalysts.
Mavis Batey, Margaret Rock, Joan Clark and Ruth Briggs were all employed at Bletchley Park where 75% of the codebreaking operation was made up of women. The four women who collaborated with Alan Turing were recruited at their universities. They were graduates of German language study (Ruth Briggs, Mavis Batey), or mathematics (Margaret Rock, Joan Murray).
Other women like Winnifred Roberts, as an example, were recruited from factories where they worked. Sent for three weeks training, they then joined one of 200 outstations of Bletchley Park where Turing’s Bombe machines were located.
Their decryption work is credited with shortening the war by an estimated four years.
The women who signed up for this secret mission never revealed the work they did that helped end the war. In 1996, the British government recognized Roberts and others for their wartime service.
American code breaker stayed in the shadows
In the USA, Elizebeth Smith Friedman is also largely forgotten while her husband, William Friedman, received credit for his success.
Yet Elizebeth Friedman was a definite asset to the US Coastguard. During WWII, she smashed the Nazi code containing their plans for inciting a revolution in South America with an eventual plot to attack the US.
She remained in the shadows and kept her involvement secret while the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover took credit for the work she had accomplished. The Woman Who Smashes Codes, is the story of her work by Jason Fagone.
Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Code Breakers of WWII writes "Young women majoring in math, science, or languages got secret letters inviting them to interview at Wellesley College." These women helped to decode German and Japanese battle plans and shipping codes, and had "significant, high level roles in US code breaking."
All these women are now coming out of the shadows as authors and researchers take a new interest in the secret missions with which they were entrusted in deciphering enemy codes.
Even though history neglected these cryptographers, it is clear that women were valuable assets to their countries and were instrumental in bringing the war to an end.
For the illustration that accompanies this post, I used mixed media, collage and gelli print in the original portrait. Then I uploaded the portrait into various apps to achieve different effects. In some versions, the portrait is softened while in others, the colours are "jazzed up". Which version do you like best? Please leave a reply IN THE BOX BELOW.
Supplemental reading about female code breakers.
The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park codebreakers helped win the war by Michael Smith (Pan Books, 2004).
The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked there by Sinclair McKay (Aurum Press 2011)