The Oscar-tipped film The Imitation Game has once again brought the story of Bletchley Park – the Second World War code-breaking centre – to the masses.
But for many years all of the 12,000 or so people who worked within the grounds of the Buckinghamshire stately home at various points between 1939 and 1945 could not even discuss it with their dearest loved ones.
Here, Margaret Bullen, 90, of Old Hunstanton, discusses how the now famous wartime hub was not only a mystery to the outside world but also to many of those who worked within it.
Margaret, who has recently been along to see The Imitation Game for herself, was recruited to Bletchley Park soon after her 18th birthday, in the middle of the war. She remained there until victory was declared, but she still does not even know how she got the job in the first place. The influence of a relative who had also been based there may have come into play but all she was aware of was a call from the foreign office asking her to attend an interview in London with a view to doing some war work.
Margaret, an only child from Gaywood who had led a sheltered life, asked her mother to accompany her on the train and went along.
“I was interviewed by a very severe looking lady who asked me lots of questions,” she said. “I don’t recall specifically what, but presumably I answered correctly because she told me I was going to Bletchley Park.
“The lady who interviewed me was just like a headmistress, in a tweed suit and very solid shoes and I was left in no doubt that if I talked to anyone about what I was doing I would be a very naughty girl.
“I was told I had to sign the Official Secrets Act and there and then I signed it.”
Two weeks later, having never travelled anywhere alone, she boarded a train to Cambridge and picked up a connecting service to Bletchley.
There she found Bletchley Park, surrounded by 10ft wire fencing, topped with barbed wire and identified herself to the lone guard on the gate.
“In the film it showed lots of army people around the grounds, but I don’t recall such extreme security,” Margaret said. “At the time the area was all fields and meadows with no houses to be seen. Bletchley the village was a tiny place but nobody in the village even knew what was going on and nobody ever asked. My parents never even asked. I was never put in a position where I had to make up a story even. It’s extraordinary really.
“There was always the fear that some spy would be around and we were all so patriotic.”
To begin with, Margaret was sent to live with a couple and their 11-year-old son nearby and even they never asked what she did. Later, a hostel was built on-site and she moved in there. There was no heating and Margaret recalls it meant her bath towel never had the chance to dry out.
Her job was in one of the many small huts in the grounds at the back of an 8ft tall Colossus machine, now cited as the world’s first electronic computer and a massive contributor to the allied victory.
Glamorous looking Wrens in smart uniform sat in front of the machines collecting the ticker-tape style papers from it for decoding, while Margaret, in civilian dress, was at the back with a soldering iron.
She said: “I’d never used a soldering iron before. We were given a plan, which as far as I can remember was something along the lines of attach A2 to B4 and A was probably yellow and B blue and we had to link them up. I found I could follow the plans quite well.
“We were wiring every day and I didn’t know what we were doing was important until one evening we were told to work late. We were given the sheets to do the wiring from and these VIP officers from the army and navy with lots of braid on their hats were standing there watching, waiting for us to finish the wiring because until that was done, the Wrens couldn’t do the decoding.”
Margaret worked at Bletchley Park, 9am to 6pm for three years. She says even within the confines of the grounds, no-one even asked who worked in the next hut or what went on in there.
When the war finished, she married her boyfriend Geoffrey Bullen, had a daughter Jane, who now lives in California and son Andrew, of Downham Market and became a housewife.
She said: “As soon as the war was over, we were told we could go, just like that. I just got on with my life. I don’t think anybody realised what we were doing at Bletchley until years later. Now I do feel very proud.”
The Majestic Cinema, in Lynn, gave Margaret and Andrew complimentary tickets to see The Imitation Game, which tells the story of Alan Turing, whose theories contributed to the design of the Colossus.