On the day when the government announced a £250,000 grant to the Bletchley Park Trust, V3.co.uk was privileged to interview Jean Valentine, who worked at the centre during World War Two operating one of the electromagnetic bombes used to decipher German codes.
The bombes were huge machines weighing a ton apiece, which were designed to find out the configuration of the rotors on German Enigma encoding machines. Each Enigma machine had three (and later four) dials with 26 possible positions, which were changed every 24 hours. The bombes were designed to identify the position of the dials and allow that day's traffic to be decrypted.
The first designs for a code-breaking bombe were originally from Poland and were smuggled to Britain after the German invasion which brought the UK into the war. They were then improved by Alan Turing for the use of the British military.
Jean Valentine was one of the first operators of the bombes, and spent almost her entire war service at Bletchley and its outstations.
The first, and most obvious, question is what was it like to work at
Bletchley and operate a bombe?
Well everyone who worked there were people like me. We were just small cogs in a very big wheel. Two people would work the machine, one of whom would set up the front of the machine and another at the back. These were very complex pieces of machinery, with over 12 miles of wire in each unit. We had just one job: to look for the settings for the rotors on the Enigma code machines used by the Germans. They were reset each day, so speed and accuracy were essential. If you got it wrong they could work all night and never solve the puzzle.
Was it unusual to have women working on the machine? I'm thinking
that, when telephone switching systems were first invented, men were found to be
inferior to women at organising the system. Was the same true with the
On the first bombe there were men working on the machine, but later more women were brought in to do the job, which I don't think some people liked. You must remember that there were 210 bombes, with three shifts of workers so they could run constantly. The shifts were 8am to 4pm, 4pm to midnight and then midnight to 8am. That's a lot of people doing the job.
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