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Read below the fascinating tale of what went on in WWII at Eastcote. This story was first published in the RNELHS journal for 2005. The author, Susan Toms, has kindly given permission for it to be reproduced here, no part of it may be copied or reproduced without her permission. Copyright to it does NOT rest with Ruislip Online.
ENIGMA AND THE EASTCOTE CONNECTION
By SUSAN TOMS
Many of us are aware now of the code breaking activities at Bletchley Park, which contributed so much to this country’s victory in World War 2. But how many of us are aware that some of this highly secret work, took place on our doorstep at the now almost empty and derelict Ministry of Defence site, situated between the Eastcote Road and Lime Grove.
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Originally the decoding activities were based entirely at Bletchley Park and involved the operation of machines called Bombes, which had been developed to identify and break the German codes. These Bombes were run to obtain the daily settings of the drums on the Enigma machine. Altogether over 200 Bombes were built and to accommodate and operate some of these machines outstations or satellites were established. Hence the existence of Eastcote, which along with Stanmore, Wavendon, Adstock and Gayhurst were all outstations. Originally the site at Eastcote had been intended as a war hospital but in 1943 it became an outstation and soon it expanded into the largest outstation accommodating 800 Wrens who operated the 110 Bombes based there. Besides the Wrens there was a small contingent of 100 RAF technicians most of whom had been Post Office engineers in civilian life. Their role was to service the Bombes and repair any faulty wiring. The final group based at Eastcote was a detachment of American personnel, who operated their own machines independently in one bay. They did not live on site like the others, but were transported in each day. Consequently there was very little official contact but there are many mentions of joint dances where the superior food of the Americans was much appreciated by the British personnel who were enduring rationing. Some Wrens can recollect the snacks of ice cream, apple pie and chocolate from the Americans which mitigated the long hours of a night watch.
The site was known as H.M.S. Pembroke and always flew the ensign. It was divided into Block A and Block B. Block A, which was nearest Lime Grove consisted of the living and eating quarters and the other administrative areas whereas Block B further back on the site was the strictly controlled work station where the Bombes were housed. This Block was protected by a high brick wall and guarded by military police. The two Blocks were separated by a public footpath, which still divides the site today. This separation was physical and social since none of the cooks, stewards and other staff working in Block A had any idea of the true nature of the work happening in Block B. The footpath also caused problems for the Wrens when they were on night watch since they had to cross the path usually singly in pitch darkness to go for a meal break. One girl was attacked and consequently the Wrens “used to run across at something like Olympic speed”.
The Bombes were housed in separate bays each of which were named after an allied country while the Bombes were named after towns in that country. The bays were enormous with 8-12 Bombes in each. The working conditions were noisy, airless, hot, smelly from the use of oil and stressful with the Wrens being constantly reminded that lives depended on what they were doing. No wonder the arrival of the tea trolley was a keenly awaited event on each watch. The Bombes had to be loaded in a certain order using “menus” sent over from Bletchley with the wires at the back of the machines being plugged in according to the “menu”. Each machine was operated by two Wrens. If the machine stopped the results or settings were checked and relayed to Bletchley since this could indicate they had struck lucky and cracked the German code for that day. The Wrens were always told if any of their “stops” had been successful. It was tedious work but it demanded great accuracy and concentration while working under pressure. One said “it was a job for conscientious young women-we had tweezers for tweaking wires”. Another in answer to the question “Was it exciting?” always replied “No it was a horrid job”.
It was also physically demanding work since the machines had to be operated round the clock. Hence the Wrens were organised into 4 watches or shifts namely A, B, C and D. to work the following weekly hours. Week 1 was the day watch from 8am-4pm, followed by week 2 the evening watch from 4pm-midnight and then week 3 the night watch from midnight-8am..The last week 4 was the relief or split watch. Each watch consisted of 100/200 Wrens with its own complement of officers and petty officers who lived and worked together as one unit. This made it easier for them to cope with the unsocial hours since everyone was on the same shift. Each watch was staffed also by 4 RAF technicians. The 4 week rota was followed by 4 day’s leave which was much appreciated by the Wrens. Many talk of a stream of girls racing down Lime Grove to reach Eastcote Station as quickly as possible to make the most of their precious time off.
The living conditions were fairly basic also. Many of the early arrivals remember being greeted with “a heap of angle iron, wire bed frames etc. which with a spanner and nuts and bolts, we assembled into bunks.” To add insult to injury the floors had to be cleaned before assembling the bunk beds since the builders had only recently finished their work. Later on a hall was built on the left of the entrance from Lime Grove which was used for dances and showing films. During the summer there was enough space between the wooden accommodation cabins to relax outside. Any local people who saw them would have had no idea of the highly secret work on which they were engaged. They might even have thought it was a Wrens’ rest home.
As was common throughout the war whole groups of people who had never mixed before were thrown together. Several mention the Wrens, who were “posh” or “upper crust” who after their weekend leave would appear in ”The Tatler” the following week. One of the Wrens was Audrey Pullen a professional singer who used to broadcast when her duties permitted. There was also Romany Evens the daughter of “Romany,” who for many years broadcast on the BBC children’s programme.
Despite the arduous shift work all the Wrens talk of making the most of their precious free time. Many have memories of travelling into London to attend concerts, films and plays often with free tickets which were issued to service personnel from a kiosk in Trafalgar Square. There were also the many dances and big band concerts. One Wren remembers obtaining the autograph of Glenn Miller while some mention dancing to Lou Praeger. Many Wrens frequented the various service clubs in London like “The Nuffield Club,” “The Queensbury Club” and “The New Zealand Club” where there would be music and dancing. If none of these appealed one unusual alternative was to go to the Old Bailey to listen to the court cases.
They also enjoyed the local social amenities. There are many references to the “The Case Is Altered”, “The Woodman” and “The Black Horse” and local cafes and restaurants like “ Kerswalls” in Eastcote And “The Orchard” in Ruislip. Several talk of going to a café opposite Eastcote Station for a cup of tea and a snack before walking back to Lime Grove. One Wren recalls an officer using the café and noticing a scrap of blank paper on the floor which she recognised as coming from the sheets of paper used in Block B. Although it would not have meant anything to anyone else all the Wrens were given a stern warning to be extra careful. Other venues for refreshments were the W.V.S. canteen in Ruislip and the Toc H club which was used by the Polish air crews from Northolt.
For those who were more energetic there were mixed hockey games with the RAF staff which were played on the fields at Ruislip Manor or Eastcote. The matches usually took place after coming off night watch and were followed by a late breakfast before collapsing into bed. Service personnel had the use of the tennis courts on the corner of Eastcote High Road opposite “The Black Horse” and the swimming pool owned by Lady Anderson in the grounds of Eastcote Place. Finally they organised their own entertainment with dances, concerts and amateur dramatics. This was when the talents of Wrens Audrey Pullen and Romany Evens were put to good use. One Wren recollects teaming up with the Americans based a short distance away for a production of “Charley’s Aunt.”
Despite all the bombing of London the site only suffered one incident when in 1944 an incendiary bomb landed on the wing of the living quarters. Fortunately the cabins were empty at the time so there were no casualties and the only damage was some flooding from the fractured pipes. However some Wrens mention hearing doodlebugs going over when they were crossing the footpath for a meal break on night watch. One recollects initially being told to get up and stand in the corridor for safety when doodlebugs were heard.
In 1945 the war in Europe ended and many of the Wrens were in London for V.E. celebrations. One Wren’s reminiscences are typical. ”We climbed a lamp post in Downing Street to cheer Churchill and his wife leaving for the Palace, then joined thousands outside the Palace to cheer again and ended up dancing down the Mall. Cannot remember how and when we got back to Eastcote.” But the end of the war meant the Bombes were redundant and the Wrens spent the next few months taking all the machines apart so that all the metal could be recycled and more importantly no one would know about the operation. However in one sense the base at Eastcote continued to play an important role in the security of the country, since Block B became the headquarters of G.C. & C.S.- Government Cipher and Code School. It remained there for 6 years until 1952 when it was renamed G.C.H.Q.-Government Communications Headquarters and moved to its present location in Cheltenham.
In conclusion most of the Wrens looked back on their time at Eastcote with fond memories despite the danger and physical hardships. Most had volunteered with no true idea of the type of work they would be doing, having been told they were suitable for “Special Duties”. All kept faithfully to the Official Secrets Act they had signed and never disclosed the true nature of their work even to family and close friends. Only after the late 1970’s when one or two books were published which told the story of Bletchley Park did some feel able to talk.
One Wren called Eastcote “a soulless place” while another described it as “a place dreamed up and I am sure manufactured and delivered ready made at an inconvenient, unlit distance from the tube station.” But all agreed that their war work at Eastcote was an amazing experience, which they felt proud to have performed to the best of their ability.
I would like to thank the many Wrens who contacted “The Wren Magazine” with their reminiscences of life at Eastcote Outstation and whose letters have formed the basis of this article. I would also like to thank Jean Dixon an ex Wren who first contacted “The Wren Magazine” to prompt these memories and Karen Spink who liaised for the Society with Jean Dixon.
Ruislip Online is, of course, indebted to Susan Toms and the Ruislip, Northwood and Eastcote Historical Society for this piece. It came for the 2005 Journal of the society, if you wish to join there are membership details from the above link.
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