Marj, 95, still reluctant to talk about top secret job

A SECOND WORLD WAR codebreaker has been revealing her memories of working with Enigma-decrypting machines, after decades of having to keep her wartime work secret.

Marj Dodsworth contacted the Guernsey Press after an article appeared about John Campbell trying to translate a German code he had found in his home.

She was interested in seeing Mr Campbell’s code, having worked extensively on Alan Turing’s electro-mechanical bombe machine, built to crack the Enigma code.

‘When I first saw it I thought there’s no way without a machine,’ she said.

‘There’s not a cat’s chance I’d be able to do it.

‘The machines were big, noisy, oily, dirty and so large I could barely touch the top.’

The decrypting machine was so big that Marj could barely touch the top.

Now 95, Mrs Dodsworth joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service – familiarly known as Wrens – in 1943, aged 18.

‘At that age you had to register either for work or the services. Unless you weren’t fit you were conscripted. My father was in the Navy, although the Wrens were voluntary. With him in the Navy I got in without any problems. Otherwise it was war work, like munitions, which I didn’t want to do.’

For six weeks she did introductory training, which involved lots of potato peeling.

‘Then I went to an interview to find out what I was going to do.’

Wrens were employed in various roles, including radar plotters, air mechanics and as weapons analysts.

‘I was told I’d be doing something very secret and I signed the Official Secrets Act. There was a gun on the table and you don’t say no to that.’

She was informed she would work in Eastcote, at a Bletchley Park outpost.

‘Bletchley was so full they couldn’t take more people in,’ she said.

‘There were 800 of us where I was, but three or four more outstations. What we did was passed on to Bletchley by teleprinter. We did exactly the same work and used the same machines.’

Drums marked with every letter of the alphabet rotated at varying speeds to crack codes, Mrs Dodsworth said, and when the spinning stopped, the letters may have been be the key to a code.

‘To start with we had to plug in all the wires at the back to programme it.

‘It just went on and on and on and if the machine stopped it came up with letters. Then we went to a second machine, which was a cross between a typewriter and a bombe. You plugged the letters into one of these and it came up with certain things, which possibly meant a code had broken.’

Air force troops checked the code produced, which was often wrong due to mechanical faults or crossed wires when programming. ‘Tiny wires behind the drums would curl up with all the turning and we had to straighten them out with tweezers.

‘When I went home my parents were worried and wondered why my hands were nicked, but I couldn’t tell them where I was.

‘When we signed the act, it was for life, but after 50 years we were notified that the Official Secrets Act was no longer enforced.

Following her father into the services was Marj Dodsworth’s choice rather than war work such as munitions manufacture.

‘My parents died never knowing what I did during the war. My husband, Bert, worked in the Navy, and only found out a few years before he died. Because we never talked about it, I still feel like I can’t.’

Before the war finished, those at Bletchley knew victory was coming because fewer messages were coming in.

‘I was hostilities only, so after the war I had to stay until the Japanese war was over. Afterwards I was a legal secretary and had four sons.’

Mrs Dodsworth remembers doodlebugs [V1 flying bombs] striking the perimeter of the Eastcote outpost.

‘They sent down one of the rockets and all the windows and china broke. We got used to them flying over.’

While she was on board a train the tracks were hit with a rocket.

‘The train stopped and everything went black, and we were told to disembark and walk over to another carriage. The bombs left huge craters and submerged double decker buses.’

When an IT company opened an office named Turing House in La Gibauderie, Mr Turing’s sister was invited as a special guest, plus Mrs Dodsworth and her sons.

Mrs Dodsworth met Mr Turing once, but only briefly.

Born in Reading, she moved about 20 times due to the Navy jobs she and her husband did before settling in Guernsey.

She now lives in a local residential home.

Top Stories

More From The Guernsey Press

UK & International News