WWII Code Breakers Told to Keep War Role Secret for 30 Years

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WWII Code Breakers Told to Keep War Role Secret for 30 YearsCode Breakers recognized for WWII Service 
by Wanda Chow

Left,  Edna Cooper, 82, shows off the pin she's received from the British government recognizing her as a war veteran for her contribution to the Enigma codebreaking project at Bletchley Park. Cooper, and some 10,000 other workers on the project had to keep their work secret for 30 years after the war concluded.

Burnaby’s Edna Cooper had a role in changing the outcome of the Second World War.

She neither dropped bombs nor led secret missions on foreign soil but she helped save lives nonetheless.

Cooper, now 82, was a typist at Bletchley Park, Britain’s famed code-breaking centre during the war. Her weapon? The Enigma cipher machine.

The machine, captured by British sailors from a German submarine, formed the basis of much of the code-breaking that happened at Bletchley. Cooper was among a group of typists who worked eight-hour shifts, around the clock, 10 at a time, in a drafty room.

She recalled the machines looked like typewriters but with four rotating discs that would be rearranged to decrypt coded messages. When such messages came in, they were in the form of five blocks of letters. She could type a T and get an A on the page but the next time she typed the same letter she’d get something different…

     

“All day long you typed gobbledygook,” she said. They were afraid to take their eyes off the page because if a line was missed, they had to start again from the beginning.

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As with everyone who worked at Bletchley Park, Cooper was sworn to secrecy until 30 years after the end of the war. Even then, her contribution to the war effort seemed minor compared to the bombing missions her husband had experienced while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

It wasn’t until about seven years ago, 55 years after the end of the war, that Cooper learned the significance of what she was a part of. Bletchley Park, an estate that is now part of Milton Keynes in England, is now a museum and a friend who visited there helped fill her in on its importance. And only last year did the British government finally recognize her and her colleagues as war veterans.

The work of the codebreakers is credited with shortening the length of the war by two years. It also helped change the course of convoys in the North Atlantic to avoid attack by German U-boats, reducing Allied losses by about 80 per cent. “I didn’t know about that,” said Cooper, who has become well read on the subject in recent years.

Working at Bletchley Park wasn’t an entirely foreign concept to her when she started. Her father was in the navy and worked as a wireless telegrapher. For years, before civilians were sent away in 1940 (her family moved to their cottage in Bournemouth) they lived in Flowerdown, a naval base which was designated as a “Y-station,” a secret listening station that collected coded messages for decryption. Cooper’s father stayed there throughout the war, where he was assigned to receive messages and send them off to Bletchley, which was known as Station X.

“I knew Daddy sat with earphones and took down messages,” she said.

But that likely didn’t play a role in her recruitment for Bletchley. Like every other 18-year-old, Cooper was essentially conscripted for some role in the war effort, if not the military then work in munitions factories and the like or in her case, Bletchley Park.

She simply got a letter one day in 1943 directing her to report on a certain date and time to a certain address. “A gentleman behind a desk asked me a few questions. ‘If you were asked, could you keep a secret’ or something like that.” The meeting lasted 15 minutes and a week later she was told to report to Bletchley Park and to give a letter to security at the gate.

She remembers on more than one occasion all 10 typists in the room were given the same message and each had to type it with their machines set one letter off from the next person on one of the rotating discs. They’d type, shift the discs, and type some more until the gobbledygook made sense.

“We were being a computer together,” Cooper marveled. “Somehow we would join together and hit the right code … Men and women would come in and look to see how we were doing.”

If they didn’t crack the code during their eight-hour shift, the next shift would continue where they left off.

“That was the hardest thing we had to do,” she said of the intense typing sessions.

Apparently harder than keeping a secret of such importance to the war effort. Cooper noted that through the work of the codebreakers, Britain learned of planned German bombing blitzes of Coventry in advance. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered no one to act on it to prevent the Germans from realizing the British had access to the Enigma machine. About a thousand people were killed in the bombing raids but no one at Bletchley, some who even had family there, ever said a word. “In retrospect, silence was more important than we realized.

“When you’re in a war on a small island, you didn’t say anything [in conversation] other than ‘how’s the weather’ or ‘how’s your mother,’” Cooper explained.

She said there was never any temptation to talk about her work. She recalled with a laugh one occasion when she was out at a local pub with two girlfriends from work. One fellow approached them and said, “’I know what you’re doing there [at Bletchley Park].’ We all widened our eyes and said, ‘Oh, what are we doing?’

“’We heard that Littlewoods had moved their headquarters there,’” he said, referring to the bookmakers known for their football pools, similar to today’s sports lotteries.

“That’s the closest we ever came to temptation, but that just isn’t even in there. You just didn’t think of doing something [to reveal the secret].”

Along with sadness – her brother Russell Neville had a “soul shattering experience” when he was forced at gunpoint by a superior officer to shoot and kill a helpless German sailor who’d survived the sinking of his ship – Cooper has fond memories of that time in her life.

She dated Capt. Jerry Roberts who also worked at Bletchley in a building across from where she typed. Romance was common in those days. “You never knew whether anybody was going to be alive the next day.”

Unbeknownst to her, he worked on Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer which filled one-and-a-half rooms and was used to decrypt codes. Fluent in German, he later went on to serve as translator in Nuremberg after the war ended and the prosecution of German officers began.

The food in the Bletchley cafeteria left much to be desired. She remembers suet pudding, essentially a large slab of boiled fat covered in custard. “We called it ‘septic log with ointment,’ that was about the most appetizing thing we could say,” she said with a laugh.

But everyone managed to keep up morale with a lot of laughing and singing. People played “when the war’s over I’m going to make a dinner of…” They’d break out into song on packed trains and on subway platforms during air raids.

After the war ended, she met a Canadian RCAF officer, John Francis “Jack” Cooper, who had served in Burma. They spent eight days together before he went home to Canada. About four months later, in February 1946, he contacted her and asked her to marry him.

She agreed and they tied the knot that July. They adopted two children, John and Valerie, and after years as a commercial photographer, Jack became a minister with the United Church. They lived in Ontario and Quebec before settling in Burnaby upon his retirement in 1990. They were married 47 years until he died in 1992.

When the war ended, the 30-year commitment to secrecy began. “You put it into a place within your mind and you never went to it.”

For 30 years she only ever told people she worked as a typist during the war. She kept in touch with her two closest Bletchley girlfriends for about 10 years but “we never mentioned it except, ‘wasn’t it fun at Bletchley?’”

Her “one deep sadness” was that she never had a chance to discuss her experience with her father, who died in 1971, four years before the vow of silence ended.

When the secrecy order ended in 1975, “it was a bit of an anticlimax because, how interesting was it?” She called the CBC with her story and was interviewed on the radio but even then she was embarrassed wondering if people would think after all these years that she was making it all up.

Then there was the time she gave a talk about her experience with a group at Confederation Seniors Centre. Afterwards, one man, who had been a British civilian during the war, took her hands, his eyes welling up with tears.

“It was real, wasn’t it?” he asked Cooper.

“He said, ‘They told us it wasn’t real,’” she recalled. After the war there were a lot of stories coming out, maybe not everyone was keeping the secret as they should have. But the official government line was it never happened.

As for finally being recognized as a war veteran only last year, with a lapel pin for herself and a posthumous one for her father, Cooper said, “It’s a little bit too little too late. Why now? Why at all? Who put the pressure on? So many people are dead.”

Cooper has had some benefits from the official recognition and subsequent media coverage. She met a lady who did the same work as Cooper’s father, and they’ve become friends. And she has been invited to talks on the subject by the local chapter of the Winston Churchill Society, which has invited her to an international conference being held in Vancouver next month.

It’s the sort of attention she finds amusing.

“I’m a dinosaur. I’m understood as the lady who actually typed on the Enigma. I’m a living dinosaur.”

Then again, “In a few years there won’t be any of us.”

She’s only been back to Bletchley Park once, on their 30th wedding anniversary in 1976, before it became a museum. “I don’t go back because nothing’s the same. I would rather have my memories than disappointment.”

Ironically, her volunteer work at Confederation Seniors Centre is a perfect foil to her wartime and post-war experience with keeping tightlipped.

For the past 14 years she has been giving relaxing foot massages once a week at the centre and providing a sympathetic ear. She finds that often people become so relaxed during the sessions that they open up about subjects they’ve never talked about.

“I’m now unlocking secrets,” she said with a chuckle.


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