September 8, 2023
Last month I promised you the story of Margaret MacFarlane, a Scottish codebreaker who cracked Nazi secrets during World War II. She died in late July at the age of 102.
I'm broadening the story! Another Bletchley Park women, Margaret Betts of Ipswich, Suffolk, died this week at age 99.
Yes, Margaret was a popular name for that generation! Of the 8,000 women who worked at the central site for British cryptanalysts during World War II, a good number were named Margaret. Today, two who'd been among the last of the living.
These days we're losing the first women in tech, but we'll not let them fade
The Last of the First Women in Tech
Margaret Betts was 19 when scouts for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley noticed her school performance and asked her to work for a top-secret
Her son, Jonathan Betts, says she agreed to because her brother had recently died when his ship was sunk by a German U-boat.
“When we said that sounds really exciting, like James Bond spy stuff, she said 'no, it wasn’t at all like
that, it was very humdrum. We were operating machines night and day and it was incredibly boring work most of the time.'"
Margaret Betts, one of the last surviving female Bletchley Park codebreakers, has died. Photograph: Robert S
"We heard what she said about it being humdrum but it was vital work they were doing,"
says her son. "She was put in a great position of trust and respected that trust and worked hard and along with all the others in that service she did extremely well. Without their work the war would have lasted longer..."
Women comprised three-quarters of the work force at Bletchley. The operation could not have run without them. The jobs ranged from cryptanalysis to clerical, including administrators, index card compilers, dispatch riders, translators, traffic analysts and communication personnel.
Women worked tirelessly in close quarters throughout the war. UK Government, CC BY-SA 4.0
A small percentage of the women held high-level cryptanalysis positions. Because of the secrecy at Bletchley Park, we may never know the identities of them all.
Margaret MacFarlane was one of the few women who worked directly with the Enigma machine breaking the Axis power's codes. She was sworn to secrecy, signed the Official Secrets Act and didn't tell even her closest family members what she did during the war for more than 30 years.
Bletchley Park codebreaker Margaret MacFarlane lived to 102.
The Enigma was used to encode and decode messages sent by the various branches of the Nazi military, but the British mathematician Alan Turing and his team, including Margaret MacFarlane, cracked the codes. By some estimates, their work shortened the war by two years.
German Enigma machine from World War II, at the Imperial War Museum, London, England. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Margaret MacFarlane's grandson, Jamie MacFarlane, explained the Enigma machine.
"It was like an extremely complex typewriter, and you had to be skilled to learn how to use it. Her job was to translate coded German messages into decipherable English. They were given no information whatsoever about what happened to the information they produced. But we know
the output from Bletchley Park went straight to 10 Downing Street and informed major war time decision making by prime minister Winston Churchill and the Cabinet.”
Many of the first women at Bletchley Park were recruited because of trusted family connections. According to Bletchley Park People: Churchill's "geese that never cackled" by Marion Hill, officials sought debutantes because they believed upper class women were more trustworthy.
They assigned these "debs" to mostly administrative and clerical work, but as the codebreaking operation grew they prioritized skill and looked for women who were good typists, linguists and mathematicians.
Margaret MacFarlane, born in Old Deer, Aberdeenshire, was a 22-year-old a secretary when her boss recommended her to the Foreign Office. She received a letter asking her to go to Edinburgh and take an exam.
A young Margaret MacFarlane.
Apparently, she scored high on the test. She was told to report to Bletchley Park, having no idea what she'd be doing
“She grew up very poor...never lived away
from home before....It was a life-changing experience for a girl brought up in an Aberdeenshire village to suddenly be working with the brightest minds in the country," Her grandson says. “Gran would later talk about the freedoms she enjoyed for the first time as a young woman... It made her realize what was possible in life.”
Margaret and the other women lived with English families in the countryside.
"Every morning she’d get on her bicycle and not say where she was going then cycle back late at night. They worked night and day, seven days a week.
“She [and all the women] knew if they breathed one word of what they were doing at Bletchley Park, the Germans would bomb it to smithereens the next day."
When Margaret and the other women arrived to assist in the codebreaking, many men in charge were skeptical they would be able to operate the Bombe machines, (electro-mechanical device that replicated the
action of several Enigma machines wired together) and the Colossus computers. One speculated women wouldn't like to do any intellectual work. Imagine that.
Bletchley Park, site of the WWII British Government Code and Cypher
Bletchley Park is open to the public as a tourist
attraction. Huts on the grounds where most work was done have been rebuilt to appear as they did during their wartime operations. Hundreds of thousands of people visit every year.
Earlier this summer, June 12, was the 75th anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 and Executive Order 9981. President Joe Biden called for renewing our commitment to breaking down the remaining barriers to women’s advancement, opportunity, and well-being
in the military Events to commemorate this milestone continue through the end of the year.
Legalman 1st Class Sasha Blair, Naval Support Activity, discusses the historic contributions of women to the U.S. military during a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act on June 12, 2023. (U.S.
Navy photo by Nicholas S. Tenorio)
I'll be speaking in October at an event hosted by the Military and Veteran Services at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. They're featuring a number of speakers to highlight the contributions of women and African Americans veterans.
Check out the events listed below. They're free and open to the public via Zoom. I'd love your support when I speak about Standing Up Against Hate
, October 25th.
Dr. Bryan Jack, Department of History (SIUE) presentation on history of military service of African Americans
Wednesday, September 13th at 12:00PM CST
MAVRC Book Club
Thursday, September 28th at 12:00PM CST
Book: What’s A Commie Ever Done to Black People? A Korean War Memoir Fighting in the U.S. Army’s Last All Negro Unit by Curtis James Morrow (McFarland & Company, 1997)
Community read and author talk with Mary Cronk Farrell
Wednesday, October 25th at 7:00PM CST
Book: Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII by Mary Cronk
Farrell (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019)
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