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Oral-History:Eleanor Ireland

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About Eleanor Ireland

Eleanor Ireland was born in Berkhamsted in 1926. After graduating, she moved to London where she joined the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1944. At WRNS, she was stationed at Bletchley Park. She was part of a top secret group of engineers, mathematicians, and programmers that worked together to break codes during WWII. At Bletchley Park, she operated the Colosssus computers until the end of the war. After the work, she went on to become an artist and illustrator, studying at Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art.

In this interview, Ireland talks about living in London during the War, joining the WRNS, and her work on the Colossus II while at Bletchley Park. She goes into detail about the actual work she did on several of the Colossus computers, how she felt about keeping her work secret, and her reaction to the public revelation of what when on at Bletchley Park.

About the Interview

ELEANOR IRELAND: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 23 April 2001

Interview # 604 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Eleanor Ireland, an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Eleanor Ireland
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 23 Apriel 2001
PLACE:Eleanor Ireland's son's house in Blackheath

Background and Education

Abbate:

So, just to begin at the beginning: when were you born, and where did you grow up?

Ireland:

I was born on the 7th of August, 1926. I was born and lived in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, which is about 25 miles north of London, until I joined up with the WRNS. Before that, I went up and worked in London for a year. I was seventeen when I left school. I went to Berkhamsted School for Girls.

Abbate:

Is that a grammar school? What kind of school was that?

Ireland:

A fee-paying girls’ school. I was there from the age of ten until I left at seventeen.

Abbate:

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

Ireland:

Yes, I had a brother who went to Berkhamsted School built in 1544. He went into the RAF, and later became a statistician with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and he was in the House of Commons. My father was a Civil Servant. I went to a very small school, to begin with, at the age of five. The person who ran the school was Scottish and a frightfully good teacher; she only took twenty pupils, five in each class. My brother also went to the same school but he was five years older than I was—and left more or less as I joined. I stayed there until I was ten. I took an exam to get into the next school, and, as I say, I stayed there for seven years.

Abbate:

Were you particularly interested in maths or science as a child?

Ireland:

No, not really. I wasn’t. I was much more on the arts side. I remember, I got distinction for English language, English literature, French—I’m not quite sure what the other one was—but I only passed in Maths. [laughs.] I think I got a distinction in Biology. What else? Oh, I did history, which I enjoyed, and got credits in all the others. But, no, I’m afraid I wasn’t a mathematician. That’s the awful thing to tell you! [laughs.] I’ve got a grandson who’s very good at maths, very good. And my father was very good! He could add up a column of figures by just looking down it. Incredible. And of course, my brother’s the statistician, and he worked with radar in the war, and was sent out to Burma, and spent a long time—most of the war—at Cox’s Bazaar. He never told me what he did there, but it was—I should think it was—all to do with wireless telegraphy.

Moving to London

Abbate:

Did you think that you would need to support yourself when you grew up?

Ireland:

Oh yes, I did. I realized I would have to support myself. My parents were not wealthy, and all my friends expected to support themselves. I don’t know of any of them who didn’t expect to support themselves. And so . . . Actually, when I finished school, I decided I wanted to be an architect. There would have been quite a bit of maths in that, and I did have extra coaching in trigonometry, and all ghastly things like that. [laughs.] And I applied to schools of architecture up in London—one of which was the Regent Street School of Architecture—and I went up there for an interview with my father, and yes, I was accepted. But the head, the principle, gave us a homily about it all, and ended up by saying that, of course, I might be called up, because the war was still on. No sign of it ever finishing. And this was too much for my father. He thought it would be a waste of time and money if I were suddenly called up. So he wouldn’t let me go into that, and I was disappointed, because a friend of mine went to the same college I wanted to go to—and she was not called up. She went right the way through, and got her degree, and she married another architectural student, and went off to America.

And so, I didn’t know what to do. And my father, he knew quite a lot of people. He took me to some huge paper factory, where they were making very intricate machinery for the War effort, under cover of course; goodness knows what it was for. But it was very delicate machinery. Now, I didn’t want to do that. Nor did I want to join the studio. And so, eventually, I went up to London with another friend of his, who had a philatelic shop, just in Chancery Lane. And I worked there for a few months, getting more and more bored.

Abbate:

Selling stamps?

Ireland:

No, she had a partner who sold stamps in the shop whilst she organized the bulk buying of stamps. She herself was doing it in a large commercial way; there was another girl besides myself and we were sent to New Zealand House and Australia House to pick up enormous blocks of stamps, and take them back to the office, and break them up. We would then parcel them up and send them abroad to various places. Amazing that this went on during the war! I did secretarial work for her, which I didn’t like very much; and I got tired of all the rather humdrum taxiing around London, and doing secretarial work. Whilst I was working there I stayed in a YWCA and shared a room with a school friend who went up to London to do a Domestic Science course, which her mother thought was vital for every girl to do [laughs], and I stayed up there too. We used to have quite fun. We went to the theatre, to plays, and to the ballet at the New Theatre where Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpman were dancing. We would walk all the way back to behind Victoria Station—behind Victoria Station, very near the back of the Tate Gallery, to the hostel, and the search lights would be on . . . [laughs]. But we’d walk quite happily back, round by Buckingham Palace.

Abbate:

What was it like, living in London at that point?

Ireland:

Well . . .

Joining the Women's Royal Naval Service

Abbate:

This was maybe ‘43, or something. When was this?

Ireland:

Early 1943. When there was an air raid—there were a formidable number of air raids—when we were at the YWCA we went down in the basement, and two roads away, there were big guns on railway tracks. And so you could hear them running up and down the tracks, and firing at any plane that braved the barrage balloons. But we just sat there until it was all over. You know, we didn’t think a great deal of it. I think when you’re young you don’t have a great deal of imagination. Though looking back now, I’m quite surprised at the fact that our parents let us go up there, and stay up there. Because the person for whom I worked lived in Berkhamsted and went up and down by train every day! But my father seemed quite happy. I can remember standing on the top of the hill where we lived, and looking towards London, and seeing the whole sky lit up; you could see the fire of London going on. Of course, I think a lot of the air raids slightly subsided after that. But even so, looking back, it was very dangerous really. We didn’t think anything of it at that time. Anyway, my friend finished her course and decided she was going to join the WRNS, which she did, and she became a M.T. driver down at Portsmouth. And I thought, right, I’m going to do the same.

Abbate:

And that’s an ambulance? Emergency . . . ? What was she driving?

Ireland:

Motor Transport, for the Navy. She mainly drove Naval Officers about in cars and jeeps. So I volunteered. I went to Queen Anne’s Mansions, which was the headquarters of the W.R.N. establishment, and volunteered, and they gave me an interview straight away, and told me that I would hear from them soon. Shortly after that I was asked to go for a medical, and very soon after that I got a letter telling me to go up to Scotland, to report to a WRNS establishment at Balloch on Lake Lochmond north of Glasgow.

Abbate:

And when would that have been?

Ireland:

August, ‘43. Beginning of August ‘43. It was only a small station, Balloch. I think we got the train to the station, and then walked to the training camp. The WRNS had got a huge castle there; they’d requisitioned a huge castle. And down at the base, you know, there were a great many wooden buildings for administration and long huts where we slept (Quonset huts?), and there was a mess, and a huge parade ground, and lecture rooms, and stores. And up at the top, the W.R.N. officers lived in the castle. [laughs.] And there was a parade ground up above as well. We had a flag, and we had a gun, and we had the raising and lowering of the flag every day. We were called about five o’clock in the morning, and had to do very mundane duties. You know, they wanted to get rid of anybody that couldn’t stand it quite early, before they did anything else. And I think—there were other categories there as well, of people who were going to—other categories, but they only stayed for a fortnight. I don’t know why. We thought it was rather strange we were kept on three weeks.

Abbate:

So this was a kind of basic training?

Ireland:

Basic training. Had to do our drilling, you know, smarten us up a little bit. And we were taught all about the traditions of the Navy from Pepys’s time. [laughs.] And generally lectured on what a marvelous institution it all was. And eventually we were called in and interviewed. We were asked what we’d like to do, and a friend of mine—I remember this quite clearly—told them that she wanted to go to into signals. I can’t remember what I said I wanted to be; I’ve got no recollection of that. But anyway, we were all drafted down to Bletchley, and we were told, “You’re all going to a station fifty miles from London.” We all groaned. We thought that was terrible. We’d thought we were going to sea, you see! [laughs.] A bit depressed about that.

So, yes, we traveled overnight, I can remember. The train was desperately crowded with service personnel; all the trains were very crowded with service personnel. We got out at Bletchley, where we were met by a little transport, and it took us round—you know, it’s only about five minutes away from the station, even less than that. The transport stopped in front of a pair of huge gates; they were very heavily fortified; and the guards came out and opened the gate. We were taken in a few at a time, into a little office they had there, and issued with station cards, and were told that in no way were we to lose these station cards; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get into the compound at all. So after that happened, we were taken to another small building. We could see through [it] another large Victorian mansion, but we went into a little building on the side. And we were addressed by a W.R.N. officer, and we were told that we were going to do very secret work. We could not tell anybody else what we were doing, neither were we to communicate with each other about what we did whilst we were on duty, nor were we to talk to anybody else (about work) on the site. And we all had to sign the Official Secrets Act. And we came out of there fairly traumatized by the whole thing. [laughs.] This was not what we’d been expecting at all!

Abbate:

What were you expecting?

Ireland:

I don’t know—didn’t know what I was expecting.

Abbate:

Rolling bandages or . . . ?

Ireland:

I didn’t know . . . I’d no idea what we going to do, or where we were going. I had no idea at all. It was a complete bolt from the blue.

Abbate:

And how many of you were there?

Ireland:

Well . . . I suppose we were about . . . I don’t know, there might have been forty of us went down. I should think that was about . . . because there were already quite a few Wrens there. After we’d had this terrific lecture, you know, to put the fear of God into us, we were then driven about nine miles out to Woburn Abbey, which is the seat of Dukes and Duchesses of Bedford, which had been taken over by the WRNS; round the back, I think, the building had been taken over by the Foreign Office. We drove up, went through these huge gates, drove up this long drive, beautifully landscaped grounds, and arrived in front of the front door, where we were met by a Petty officer, and taken in, and she gave us a briefing about what to do. And then we were taken by various Wrens up to our cabins—they’d all been allocated to come help us settle in—and up to these rather grand rooms, with green baize doors.

Abbate:

So you were staying in the Abbey?

Ireland:

[laughs.] Well, of course it was very basic. Mind you, everything had been taken out, absolutely everything. It was very bleak, and very bare. And we only had bunk beds; you had a bunk bed, and then we had one chest of drawers each. Eventually, when they decided what watch we were on, eight of us were sent up, right up into the servant’s quarters at the top [laughs], and we lived in that room under the eaves. That’s all we had, a small chest of drawers. And then there was one cupboard in which we would keep our luggage in. And we kept some food in there for a while, until we found the resident mice. [laughter.] And, it was terribly cold in winter; bitterly cold—because Bedfordshire is one of the coldest counties in the country, you know; completely flat, it’s flat right to the coast there. We used to have the windows open [for fresh air]—had to, because there were eight of us. During the winter the snow came in and stayed on the window sill for about three weeks! It was bitterly cold. We had to go right down to the basement, to where there were very large kitchens; we came through a long flagstoned passage, heavily worn by time, I suppose, and that’s where we ate. We all had our own mug, with our name on it, which we took everywhere. Later on, actually, we were very lucky. They opened up a room quite near us and they made it into a little sitting room. And put some sofas in with pretty cretonne covers, and a fire. So that was much better.

Abbate:

Yes. [laughs.]

Working with Colossus II at Bletchley Park

Ireland:

[laughs.] Much better! Anyway, after we settled in, I think the next day, we were driven in to Bletchley, in a transport driven by a soldier, and went through the woods and came out at Bletchley, which was a very small, sleepy town. We were met there and taken to a building called F Block. We passed the mansion, and came on all these very grim looking concrete block buildings, and we were taken to Hut F. This was [Max] Newman’s section—run by Mr. Newman—and he welcomed us in. He was very nice; awfully nice chap. In fact, the whole section was a very happy section. He was such a lovely person, and it was all very happy.

He told us what we would be doing. We were taken into a large room which had a huge blackboard at the back—I think he had meetings in there generally, with the various other mathematicians and engineers—and we sat in rows facing him. And he would draw all sorts of things on the blackboard, and initiated us into binary maths. [laughs.] And told us, you know, what we’d have to know, showed us the tapes which went on the machine; we had to learn the alphabet . . .

Abbate:

On punch . . . ?

Ireland:

We were shown the tape that was used on the computers, and there was a sprocket going through it, and there was room for two dots above and three below, and so it all depended on what the placing of the dots was, what letter it was. [For example], “A” was two dots at the top, nothing at the bottom. And we learned all that. He indoctrinated us for about a fortnight, and then we were given an exam. The result of that was where you were placed. He’d already taken us around to show us all the different machines—he took us to see the Heath Robinson, and then to Colossus I, Colossus II, which were in the same room, and then we went into a very huge room where they produced the tapes and repaired them. We had Bostick, and we used to Bostick them together. And they took us into the room where the messages actually came in on tape from various stations and somewhere up in the north of England—two machines, two or three machines, which were constantly sending out these messages on tapes It was GPO tape that we were using; the same kind of tape that was used in GPO [General Post Office].

Abbate:

These were the messages that were to be decoded?

Ireland:

These were the messages that would be decoded. One of my friends went to work in this room, and she spent her time receiving these messages. They had to clock them all in, say where they came from, before they’d pass them on to a room called Ops. This was a room where they had lots of open-ended shelving where they put all these tapes, like cubbyholes, which were labeled, and a huge table in the middle. The Wrens ran that; senior Wrens ran that and sent all these tapes out to various machines, and various places, and they had all the records of where every tape was. I had a friend who was detailed off to work there.

Two of us, my friend Jean [Beech] and I, were put onto Colossus. I was put onto Colossus II, and she was put onto Colossus I. And we were taught by Jean Bradbury on the machine. She taught the course. She had already been working on the machine when we got there, and she taught us all we needed to know, how to put the tape on and adjust the tension, etc.

Abbate:

She was the one who taught you?

Ireland:

Yes, that was the person who taught me. I haven’t heard anything from her since. I mean, I do go back to Bletchley quite a lot, you know, for these get-togethers, reunions, which they have the second weekend in September. But I’ve never met her, and I’ve never heard her name again.

Abbate:

Is there going to be one next September?

Ireland:

Yes, there is, yes.

Abbate:

I’m probably going to be back in September.

Ireland:

Yes, second weekend.

Abbate:

I could arrange to be there.

Ireland:

We go on a Friday night, and then we generally go into Bletchley itself on Saturday. Sometimes they take us on tours of blocks that we formerly had never been into—because you never entered any building other than the one you were working in—and that was quite a revelation. And, then I always go and visit Colossus [laughs]—and have a look at that, to remind myself of what it looked like.

Abbate:

Well, what was your impression when you first saw it?

Ireland:

I was absolutely transfixed by it. All these whirring tapes, and the noise of it all, as all the sprockets went through. Oh, it was a huge machine! I found it rather exciting, actually. The machine was quite exciting. I’d never seen anything like it in my life before, you know.

Abbate:

No one had!

Ireland:

Nobody had, yes! [laughs.] Unbelievable really. I was fascinated by it. I was fascinated by this; and I was very pleased, because I did want to work on it after I’d seen it. I thought, now that’s where I’d like to be, you know, not doing the other things. I wanted to be on that machine.

And Jean Bradbury who taught me was very nice, and very good—extraordinarily efficient. Eventually she left the machine, and I was put in charge, and I in my turn taught somebody else. I remember getting very worried, actually, when I had somebody new, because when you went for your lunch hour—either in the middle of the night, or the day, for your break—I was terrified that something terrible would happen to the tape! Because they were very delicate, and there was quite an art in putting these tapes on. Huge tapes. Have you seen the machine at all?

Abbate:

I’ve seen pictures of it. I haven’t seen it in person.

Ireland:

It was a huge machine. There was this big gantry at one end, and this big block of switches, most of it, and another big metal grid behind filled with valves and wires. And you had to peg the code, or whatever they wanted pegged in, on the back; they told you what they wanted pegged in on the back.

And I was terrified that the person I was teaching wouldn’t put the tape on properly, so I didn’t generally leave until I saw the tape was put on properly. In case it split or anything like that, and she wouldn’t know what to do, I used to rush back to see if it was all right! [laughs.] Tapes were sent to us, and they ran for about an hour, and we had to log it all in. We had a log book: log the tape in, log the date and time that it came in; we had to log the time that we took it off, and then it went straight back to Ops.

Abbate:

So, your job was to take these tapes, load them onto the machine . . .

Ireland:

Load them onto this big machine . . .

Abbate:

And that was a sort of tricky . . .

Ireland:

Put the tape on, make sure that the tension was right—you had to have the tension just right. When they rebuilt that Colossus, and the next day they were going to have the opening—I’ve forgotten who they had, some quite well-known person —it took them three hours to get the tape right, and we all thought that was very amusing! [laughs.] But one became very proficient at it and very quick at it, actually. It all depended how long the tape was, how many wheels it had to go round. You see, there were several wheels at the bottom. It all depended on the length of it, how many wheels it had to go on to get the tension just right. And there was a photo cell on the side. And it had a little gate. And you had to lock the tape in front of this photo cell, so it—that’s where it recorded the messages.

Abbate:

And then you also had to, you had a plug board in the back, where you had to set up . . . ?

Ireland:

We had a plug board at the back, and we had long pins which we put in there. They looked like very strong hairpins, actually. And I think they were nickel—I’ve got what it was down here somewhere—plated. They were plated. [pause as she looks through pages.] Yes, the sprocket holes went past an electronic eye. They went past at five thousand per second, so that five thousand letters were registered per second. And at the back of the machine, there was a huge peg board, and you had very strong copper nickel–plated pins to put in.

Working on Collossus IV

Abbate:

And they would tell you what pattern to put them in? Or how did you know . . . ?

Ireland:

We were told what pattern to put them into. I can’t remember much about that when I was actually learning, when I was working on that machine. I can’t remember how they gave us the directions. Nor can I remember, actually, later—after I’d worked on [Colossus] I and II, they were building some more, and they added another huge room on, and installed two more, Colossus III and Colossus IV. And Jean and I were sent on to III and III. She was sent on to IV, and I was sent on to IV. At the same time they were building another huge block where they had ten more. I never went into the other building—only went in to one place where III and IV were, so I didn’t know what the rest of it looked like, or how big they were, or if they were at all different.

Abbate:

The first one you worked on was Colossus I?

Ireland:

The first one I worked on was Colossus II. My friend Jean worked on Colossus I.

Abbate:

So, did you have to set up the pegs before you ran the tape?

Ireland:

Yes. Yes, you had to set all that up, and then you were told what they wanted from it; what the run was supposed to be. Sometimes they wanted special letters, like “E”, and you’d put down various switches. There were a whole lot of switches along the front.

Abbate:

So you also had to set those? You had to set the pegs in the back and the switches in the front, and then run the tape?

Ireland:

That was it, yes.

Abbate:

And did each tape have a different arrangement of pegs and switches?

Ireland:

Yes. Well, yes . . . We didn’t always have to change the pegs at the back, and as I say, the different tapes were sent to us about one an hour to do. And somebody used to come round and fetch them from us, and take them back.

Abbate:

What could go wrong besides the tape breaking?

Ireland:

Well, not a great deal. And if anything did go wrong, you called for an engineer. We had several resident engineers—super chaps actually, very clever indeed—and they used to come and put them right. I don’t think I can remember them going wrong when I was on Colossus II Mark II, but they did occasionally on the bigger machine that we worked on. And we had to call them in, and then they’d work on them and get them going again.

Abbate:

But they were fairly reliable, it sounds like.

Ireland:

They were fairly reliable really; yes, they were very reliable. And we had a teleprinter at one end, where all the figures came up, and you’d hear that chattering the whole time. It was an electronic printer that printed all these results.

Abbate:

So then the printout would go off to . . .

Ireland:

The printout would go back to Ops. It was a paper about that wide, I suppose. [holds up hands.]

Abbate:

About four inches.

Ireland:

Four.

Abbate:

And there was only one person on the machine at a time?

Ireland:

Well no, generally there were two, but later when Jean and I worked on machines III and IV, we operated the machine by ourselves. We each worked with a mathematician. A mathematician would sit at the back of us, with a long table, and he’d have all these graphs in front of him, and he told us what to do. We no longer had tapes every hour from Ops, but had special tapes to put on; he told us what to do. And he often used to tell us to run for certain letters, like “E’s” and “A’s,” which you’d get most of. And then on some tapes we had to run for the “norm,” and as the number came out, we had to quickly calculate whether the result was above or below the norm, and how many by. And so we had to do that quickly as the tape was coming through. [laughs.] I must say, I got very good at mental arithmetic.

Abbate:

Now, how did you figure out if it was above or below the norm?

Ireland:

We were told what the norm was, you see.

Abbate:

And then you would figure out the number of . . . ?

Ireland:

And then the figure that came out on the tape, you had to decide how much above or how much below, so we’d put plus or minus . . .

Abbate:

So that was the number of “E’s” or something?

Revealing Bletchley Park

Ireland:

. . . as it clicked out, you know. Now I’ll tell you how fast those they were going. [pause as she looks through pages.] Yes, they were twice as large, and five times as fast. So, instead of 5,000 characters a minute, being read by this electronic eye, there were 25,000 characters, so you see the speed in which the whole thing was going. The actual gantry was much bigger. [pause.]

Well, I found it very interesting. I was never worried by it all. You know, you felt you were doing something worthwhile. But certainly, what I call speed was of the very essence; the whole time one felt like you couldn’t waste time at all. That’s why I got so worried that the tape might be bust, because, you know, you never knew whether it was costing lives or not. Very important that the messages were broken and sent back to Ops as soon as possible. And then they used to get handed on to translators, you see. Not that I knew much about that!

Abbate:

Did you have any idea what you were working on?

Ireland:

No, I didn’t. I didn’t know until I went to the first meeting of Bletchleyites, a long time after the war. And I think we didn’t have those until after a book came out, which gave the whole game away. [laughs.] We were horrified, actually! All of us, we were horrified, because we’d never thought this would happen. We had to sign the Secrets Act when we left, and we had to take all these machines down. My parents never knew what I did, and neither did my husband. I never told anybody at all, none of us ever did. We weren’t allowed to keep diaries at all, so you put nothing down to remember it by, just nothing. So, we were horrified when this book came out. In fact, I think I heard of it when I went to dinner with an RAF couple that I knew; he was an officer who was based over in High Wycombe, and I went to have dinner with them. And he said, had I seen the book about Bletchley? And I said, “Book about Bletchley? What book about Bletchley?” [laughs.] “No, no, no, of course not.” He told me, and I just sat there in utter silence, absolutely transfixed by all this news.

Abbate:

Did you read it?

Ireland:

No, I didn’t read it, actually. No, I didn’t read it. I don’t know why I didn’t, but I didn’t. But I did read articles about it. But I don’t know what this first book said, except that it gave the game away, you know.

Abbate:

That was much later, right?

Ireland:

Oh, much later.

Abbate:

In the ‘80s or something?

Ireland:

Something like that. You probably know better than I what date that book was written.

Abbate:

I’m not positive.

Ireland:

No.

Abbate:

But did it matter at that point?

Ireland:

I don’t know whether it mattered at that time. I don’t know.

Abbate:

But you were so used to keeping it secret.

Ireland:

Well, yes. And I did know that when they broke the machines up—when Churchill insisted on all the machines being broken up, except, I believe, two: one went to Cheltenham, and I’m not quite sure where the other one went to—of course, Cheltenham became the center of all the coding after that.

Abbate:

Where is that?

Ireland:

Cheltenham, that’s in Gloucestershire. That became the secret place. But we were horrified having to break those machines up. Terrible.

Abbate:

Were you involved in that?

Ireland:

Mmmm. I’ve even got a little valve. [laughs.]

Abbate:

You do? [laughs.]

Ireland:

Very naughty. I’ve got a little blue valve, I think it is.

Abbate:

That’s great.

Ireland:

Which I’ve treasured in a little box.

Abbate:

So you were literally tearing them to pieces.

Ireland:

That’s right, yes. I don’t know how many—I think some of the engineers kept a few pieces, actually—I think they did. [laughs.]

And I got to know—well, I didn’t know the engineers very well when I was actually working on it; one really didn’t have time, you know. But, when I started going to these meetings at Bletchley once a year . . . I went to the very first, and that was when we were told what we—what we were actually doing! And what the codes were that the Colossus were breaking. That was the Lorenz machine, which we—I’ve got that somewhere . . . [looks through papers.] Yes. And that was especially ordered by the German High Command, to enable them to communicate in complete secrecy. The Lorenz machine was used by Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, and the field marshals and generals. They now have a Lorenz machine in Bletchley Park Museum which actually belonged to Field Marshal Kesselring. The teleprinter signals using the Lorenz were first heard in 1940 by a group of policemen on the South Coast, who were listening out for possible spy transmissions. So that was the first time they heard them. And that’s all that . . . I’ve heard, you know, though I’ve heard a lot since. And we were very surprised when we went along the first time and were told all this, you know, and were shown the machine . . . [laughs.] Because how could they manage to keep this secret? Because only—most people only knew their little bit, and didn’t know any more. So that’s the way they kept it all.

And I’ve heard that a lot of the mathematicians whom we worked with have become well-known people, like Donald Michie, who’s gone on to America, and he’s now a professor over there; and Jack Good and Shaun Wylie; people like that—and when we were working with these mathematicians, most of whom came from Cambridge. Other mathematicians would trail in and out, and they’d have long conferences about what the chap was doing who was sitting behind us, you know, and what the next best thing to do was, to break the code. Because they were—because the code was changed every day, you see, by the Germans; and they were looking for the start of the code—for that day’s code—which was an incredibly difficult thing to do. And that’s why they had to have these very fast machines—just to tackle it at all!

Now, I’ve got another bit about that you might be interested in . . . [looks through papers.]

More on Work at Bletchley Park

Abbate:

What kind of shifts did you work? Was it a 24-hour operation?

Ireland:

Oh yes! And I’ve got that. [Pulls out papers.] Yes, we worked on four watches: eight to four; four to twelve; twelve to eight; and we did a— so we did a week of days, a week of nights, and a week of evenings, and a week of change-overs—this was the fourth week, when we filled in any gaps in A watch. We [the women in C watch] worked with A watch, mainly. C and A watch were integrated together, and B and D watch integrated together.

Abbate:

A “watch” was what?

Ireland:

Well, we had four watches of people that came on, you see. And you’re on A, B, C, or D. And all the C people went on together; you see, if we were on days we would get in the transport about half past seven in the morning—a whole bus full of Watch C people if you were working on the eight o’clock watch—and go into the Park. And you took over from another watch, B or C watch. And then when you had a change-over, and you went in at odd times, we always found we were working with people from Watch A.

Abbate:

I see. So if they needed to replace someone from Watch A, they’d send you in?

Ireland:

Yes. Yes, that’s right. And then, what do we have . . . You had a week of change-overs, when we could go in at—say we went on at eight, and came off at four—we might have to go on at midnight, again; so that week was pretty grueling, actually. And at the end of that week, we had a weekend off. And we had a weekend off once a month.

[TAPE 1, SIDE 2]

Abbate:

What did you do on the weekends off?

Ireland:

I often went up to London. We weren’t all that far from the A-1, so we used to hitch a lift over to the A-1 road. And then we used to hitch a lift up to London in cars or lorries! [laughs.] But it was mainly lorry drivers who seemed to stop for us. And we would sit up in the front with the driver. [laughs.] Some of them were very nice. They used to take us in to one of their lorry drivers’ pull-ins and give us breakfast. [laughs.]

When we got to London, I know I often went into Fortnum & Mason’s for tea, which I rather liked doing! And we often went to something called the Stage Door Canteen, in Piccadilly where—now what’s that marvelous saxophone player?—Glen Miller, that’s right: we used to hear Glen Miller. And we used to dance, and we thought that was great fun!

And then often we went home, and I can remember going on a long holiday leave down to Devon with my friend Jean, who worked on the other machine, and we went down there, and had a very pleasant week and recovered.

But, I must say, they worked us very hard—so hard, actually, that I think Bletchley Park told the First Officer, and the other officers at Woburn Abbey, that they weren’t to stress us. To begin with, we had to march two miles down to a church on a Sunday for services, then walk two miles back again; but they stopped that and they became—they were fairly lenient with us, actually. Because they didn’t know what we did—didn’t know at all what we did: no idea. But . . . No, I think that we were—all about the same age, of course—and it was quite jolly, really, [laughs] because they were all very good-humored. I still see my friend Jean, who went to the same school as I did, actually. I met her in the High Street about a fortnight before I was due to be called up, and found that she was going to be called up at the same time. And then we stayed together right through until we got demobbed [demobilized].

Abbate:

Which was . . .

Ireland:

1947.

Abbate:

Was this Jean Bradbury, or a different Jean?

Ireland:

No, it was a different Jean [Jean Beech]. No, this is my school friend—school that I went to. And I was only with Jean Bradbury when she taught me how to work the machine, on Colossus I.

Abbate:

So you worked on those two machines.

Ireland:

I worked on Colossus II, which was a Colossus Mark I; and I worked on Colossus III, which was a Colossus Mark II.

Abbate:

How different was that?

Ireland:

Well, Colossus Mark II was almost twice as large—much larger than the one they’ve got at Bletchley now. I can remember, quite a massive machine. It was a very large machine, one long machine, and then there’s a gap, and behind another huge gantry the same size, and that’s where all the valves were. And it was Tommy Flowers—I expect you’ve got all that kind of thing, haven’t you?—about Tommy Flowers who designed the machines. Do you know about him?

Abbate:

Yes. Did you meet him?

Ireland:

I met him after the war, yes. I met him there [at Bletchley Park] at one of our get-togethers—I think that was, again, when the Duke of Kent came. I think it might have been when they turned the machine on. They had a special celebration turning on the first Colossus after it had been rebuilt. And I spoke to him then. Yes. He was a lovely chap, he was sitting in a wheel chair, and he was there with his wife. He died, I suppose about two years ago, didn’t he? I was very pleased he was given the MBE before he died, because none of these people have got any recognition, you know.

Abbate:

Because it was secret, you mean?

Ireland:

Well, no. A long time after, when it was all let out, I thought that a lot of people who had worked on it—like Mr. Newman, for instance—would get some recognition for the marvelous work they had done. Several of them were geniuses. I met his son because he put on an exhibition at St. John’s College in Cambridge on the centenary of his father’s birth. And he put up a marvelous exhibition of a lot of people who worked on Colossus, and even a diagram of the building, which—I have quite a job to remember it all. And he had pictures of a lot of people—what they said about the section, you know—pinned up on a board. And I can remember him ringing me up and asking me if I would send in my memories of his father, which I did. And then he rang me up and asked me for a photograph. And then he invited us, Jean and I, to St. John’s College to see this exhibition. And that was staggering, because I was very impressed—still further impressed—by how desperately clever his father was. He’d been taken out of St. John’s, you see, when they’d realized that they’d just got to have an automated machine to crack these codes much more quickly than they were able to do at that time—they couldn’t afford to waste time having them hand-broken, they had to have an automated machine, because they were then building up for D-Day. And so Churchill said that a lot of money had to go into it. And Mr. Newman was put in charge of the whole project. He liaised with the Telecoms Research Establishment out at Malvern. He then met Tommy Flowers, and it was he, actually, that designed Colossus, and it was his idea to use all these valves. They thought that it wouldn’t work, but Tommy Flowers insisted that it would, and it did work—the valves were very, very reliable.

Abbate:

And fast.

Ireland:

Yes. So they worked night and day to develop these machines, because they had to have them up and running by D-Day; well before D-Day. They developed the Heath Robinson, that was the first one, then they developed Colossus I and II.

Abbate:

Are there any particular incidents that stand out in your mind from that time?

Ireland:

Not really. In some of the other sections, like Naval section, they told them when they’d made some big coup, which must have been very satisfying for them, because they knew they were doing something really worthwhile. But they didn’t tell us anything. We weren’t told anything. I don’t know whether it’s because we were working with mathematicians, who were breaking the code for that day or a new code which they were battling with—they had all these huge papers and slide rules and so on. I’m sure they all knew.

The later ten computers that were built were there to run the tapes when the codes were broken. I don’t know if [those operators] were told what they’d broken, but we certainly weren’t. The computer operators who worked on the last ten machines worked in twos to do that, as I had done with Jean Bradbury. But no, I never heard anything particular, nothing really that sticks out in my mind, over that period.

Abbate:

Did you at least get news about the war? You must have had some idea of how the war was progressing.

Ireland:

Oh I knew, we knew how that was all progressing . . .

Abbate:

But no relation to what you were doing?

Ireland:

No relation to what we were doing. In other buildings some of them probably knew, especially the linguists. The Enigma machines were also breaking the codes which were used by the German U-Boats. And they knew when they were being successful. But we actually knew nothing. As I say, I didn’t know until I went to those later lectures, a long long time after the war, what codes the machines we worked on were breaking. We were quite, quite thrilled then, to realize that we were breaking messages sent out by Hitler. And we thought, “Oh, well, that was terrific, wasn’t it?” [laughs.] All I knew was that I was doing something that was vitally necessary; vitally necessary.

When I got to know some of the engineers better. . . Harry Fensom, for instance, was a brilliant engineer—who both built the Colossus at Mt. Pleasant—and then broke it down and brought it out to Bletchley and rebuilt it there—and was kept on to be in charge of all the maintenance on the machinery. He was really brilliant. When he left after the war he developed Ernie—he invented Ernie. Do you know Ernie?

Abbate:

I don’t think so.

Ireland:

It’s a machine involved with the Premium Bonds, which selects winning numbers at regular intervals. I don’t know how often it is they’re drawn.

Abbate:

It’s a lottery?

Ireland:

Yes, it’s a lottery.

Abbate:

A computerized lottery.

Ireland:

A computerized lottery. It’s been running for years.

And there’s another chap, I’ve forgotten what his name was, who organized the automation of the traffic lights throughout London, when they came on and off and how they coordinated all the way through.

Work after the War

Abbate:

Did you have any desire to go on working with computers after the war?

Ireland:

No! [laughs.] No, that was it.

I was then sent up to be retrained as a pay officer and sent up to Rosyth Harbor with Jean, and we helped to demob the men from the Navy at the end of the War, and do all the accounts, which I thought was very boring. Very boring. And eventually we were discharged from there. We stayed at a place called Dunfermline, just outside Edinburgh. That was quite fun. The food was very much better up there! [laughter]. Much better food up there than we were given [at Bletchley] [laughter]—because the food was pretty grim, you know. To be faced with cold congealed liver and prunes in the middle of a night watch was not very good. I never ate another prune for 30 years! [laughter.]

On night watch we would walk down to the railway station and over the bridge and down onto a platform. There was a YMCA at the end of it, and we had a cup of tea and a bun—decent cup of tea—and walk back again. Sometimes we used to row on the lake, in the middle of the night; they had a little rowing boat, and ducks used to quack as we rowed around there. It was a fairly uneventful life, really; very uneventful. Because we were out of all the bombing.

Abbate:

Right.

Ireland:

That’s one of the reasons why they took us up to Tullichewan, I heard later on, from an Admiral’s daughter with whom I went on a cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg about six years ago. She said, “Oh, you know why you were sent up there when you first volunteered? It was because there was an awful lot of bombing, a lot of raids at the time; and as they intended you to work at Bletchley on the new machines, they sent you up to Scotland.” [laughs.] I said, “Oh! Oh really?” And she knew exactly that we’d been there for three weeks rather than two. I said, “Oh did you?” “Yes,” she said, “because you were going to do Top Secret work your background was vetted.” Amazing what revelations you get from different people, isn’t it?

So, yes . . . When I came out [of the WRNS], I thought I’d go into interior decoration. I’ve always liked drawing and painting, and I drew and painted from a very early age. Well, anyway, I had a very formidable aunt who taught art in one of the big Wolverhampton grammar schools. And she said, “Oh no,” she said, “you can’t do interior decoration. There won’t be any call for interior decoration at this time!” [laughs.] And my father always took what she said as gospel—I was furious about that. But she did say I could go to an art school, and so I went to Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art. I stayed there five years, and did oil painting, took sculpture, and I decided to become a book illustrator. And it was a very jolly time, it was, five years in London; I enjoyed that. And so I started doing book illustration.

It was quite a job to get work, it wasn’t easy to get work. I was taught by a very well-known illustrator called Stuart Tresilian. He did a lot of adventure stories for boys, and he was very good, an extraordinarily good draftsman. We had some very good draftsmen there, Stuart Ray and Norman Blamey. They were very keen on drawing then, though they do not seem to bother now. We were taught to draw very well. And so I started book illustration, hawking my wares around the various publishing firms.

And then I met my husband, who was a microbiologist—research—at a research firm, Glaxo. They produce marvelous drugs, as you may know. It is a very big firm now. He worked on the development of a lot of those new drugs. When I had two sons, I just couldn’t cope with doing book illustration and bringing up two boys. We hadn’t got enough money for me to employ anybody, so I had to look after them. I had Robin when we’d only been married about eighteen months, so I’d never really got into the world of illustration. The trouble was that if people wanted a book illustrated, they’d keep you waiting and then they’d say, “Well right, yes: This is what we want”; and you had to do all the illustrations—right through the book—in rough, and give it to them. And then they’d sit on it for another month or two—and then immediately they wanted it, and they wanted it within a month, or three weeks, or something like that! And so, you know, you’re more or less working night and day to get this book ready for them. And that doesn’t really go with looking after a family. For instance, Robin thought whatever pencil or pen I had in my hand was the magic pencil or pen, and that’s the one he wanted. [laughs.] And that made the working very difficult!

So I went on just painting for pleasure. When we went away on holiday, my husband was very good; he would take the boys out, whilst I painted. We went down to Cornwall an awful lot. I used to go and paint out there for a whole day; I would pack their food and pack them off, and they’d go fishing or exploring whilst I used to paint. I did a lot of painting—most of my painting—like that, on holiday.

Then I joined a drawing group. It was with Henry Trivick, somebody who was a great friend of Stanley Spencer. In fact, he’d taught Stanley Spencer to do lithography. I was also taught lithography by Henry Trivick. I think it was after I left the Art School that Stanley Spencer went in and worked with his students, and produced one or two well-known lithographs. In fact, I’ve got a copy of one of them: “Marriage at Cana.” Henry Trivick ran this drawing group, down in Cookham—with Stanley Spencer, but he died before I joined them. We met every Thursday night, in a hall behind a pub; and we had local models to draw, and I went down there for several years. So I kept it up, and I also used to exhibit at various local exhibitions, and at the R.B.A.

And then when the children grew up and Robin was at Medical School, I was asked if I would teach adults. And I thought, “Well I’ve got more time now,” because Toby was coming up to 16 and would be leaving home as well; and so I took over from somebody who had been trained at the same art college that I had. I taught four days a week—I don’t know how I did it, now! Four whole days a week I used to do that! [laughs.] I retired a year ago, exactly. When my husband retired, he got fed up with me being out of the house all day, so I went down to two days a week, I taught two days a week. It helped, actually, to buy medical books for my son, who wanted to do medicine, and they’re very expensive. It helped there, and it helped with my other son, who wanted to train as a landscape architect. It helped to support him as well. He did three years up at Askham Bryan. And then one of the Lecturers must have realized he was very good at design, and he sent him up to Newcastle University to see somebody he knew up there, who was examining students for the landscape course they were doing there. He was accepted by Newcastle University, and he went up there for two years.

And then eventually, when my husband retired, I taught for two days a week; and then eventually, a few years ago, I went down to one day a week; I thought I’d had enough of it by then.

Abbate:

When was the next time you used a computer?

Ireland:

Shall I tell you that I do not use a computer?

Abbate:

You haven’t used one since Bletchley Park—ever?

Ireland:

Isn’t that awful! [laughter.] I know, you’re thinking it absolutely ghastly! There’s a computer upstairs—or actually it’s in that other room now—and [laughs] my son and his wife both use it, and three of the children. All very adept at it. I just don’t want to know.

Abbate:

I’m just surprised you escaped ever having to use it for some reason or another.

Ireland:

I didn’t want to use it.

I, of course, didn’t realize I was working on the first computer, when I worked on it. I didn’t know it was the first computer. I didn’t know that till I started going to these weekends at Bedford when we’d go into Bletchley, that I’d been working on the very first computer. [laughs.] Then we were told exactly what we had worked on. But I didn’t know [at the time]. And then, it all sounded so desperately complicated that I put a shutter down! [laughs.] I didn’t want to know any more about that! All I know is, I did my job when I was doing it. But, you can understand perhaps that I was not very mathematically inclined. I was very good at carrying out what I was asked to do. When they wrote my recommendation, when I left the WRNS, it said that I have a very retentive memory. And I have; I have a very, very retentive memory; I can remember all sorts of things. But, as we had been told we were not to divulge what we had been working on and signed the Official Secrets Act again—we just put the shutter down; and that’s why I can remember very little and didn’t really know the fact I had worked on the first computer, for a very long time.

Abbate:

Do you know of any Wrens who did go on into computing after the war?

Ireland:

No.

But, no, I knew nobody who works in computers. Not at all, no, nobody: none of my friends. My great friend Jean did a secretarial training, and she worked for a publishing firm. Later she joined the Orient Line, and as an adventure to see the world she was secretary in the office on one of the Orient Line cruisers going back and forth to Australia. [laughs.] And my other great friend . . . We all meet—the four of us meet, who were in the same cabin, called Swordfish 50, at Woburn Abbey about two or three times a year. One of us, who’s called Betty, belongs to a luncheon club called the Parrot Club, just off Bond Street—no, just around the corner from Harrod’s—and we meet there and have lunch. And we all talk about all sorts of things: what we’re doing now, our families, etc. Betty became a speech therapist before she married and had children. And Margaret—What did she do? Oh she stayed in the WRNS, became a WRN officer. She made a career of being a WRN officer, until she married an officer in the Fleet Air Arm.

Reflection on Work at Bletchley Park

Abbate:

What was the most satisfying aspect of your work at Bletchley Park?

Ireland:

Oh, the fact that I knew it was vitally important; I did know that. I’m desperately patriotic; very patriotic; and I was very pleased to think that I was doing something to help the war effort; that’s basically what it was. We were quite high-minded in those days, you know. I don’t think any of the young [today] would put up with what we put up with: not at all! They wouldn’t put up with the living conditions—for instance, there was very little heating in Woburn Abbey at all. Before we had that little drawing room, we used to sit in what was known as the Grand Cube Room; an enormous room. It was all boarded up and everything had been taken out. And there were sets of three tubular electric bars, at intervals some way apart; and we used to sit in our greatcoats huddled round these three metal bars! [laughing.] Of course the food was pretty awful in those days. But we never grumbled about that or the watch system at all—and it was very hard. I have a friend who worked over at Eastcote, and she said, “Oh, we regarded it as a fate worse than death to be sent out to Bletchley!” [laughter.] Because where she was at Eastcote, they could get up to London very easily, when they were off-duty, which they enjoyed; and they heard that we had to work very, very hard out in Bletchley with very little available entertainment. But we didn’t worry. We were young, you know, and quite happy.

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for a young woman thinking about working with computers today?

Ireland:

It’s a case of application, isn’t it? Whatever I’ve done, I’ve always, shall I say, applied myself. I’ve always done everything to the very best of my ability. And I think that’s the only way to work! You know, that’s really my advice to anybody: not to go into anything in a half-hearted manner. You’ve got to do it to—yes—to your best ability. I wouldn’t have been satisfied with anything else. If I was going to work on Colossus, I jolly well had to be jolly good at it, and know what to do. Probably that was why I worked with one of the mathematicians: because Jean and I worked very hard. I was quite happy doing my work—and wanted to know, wanted to learn; you have to want to learn. And I did want to learn; I did want to do it well. Whatever I was doing, I wanted to do it well.

[laughs.] And it was the same exactly when I went to the art school. I went in at 9:30 in the morning, and started working at ten, and except for Wednesday night, I didn’t come out till nine o’clock at night.

Abbate:

Do you think your wartime experience was useful to you later in life?

Ireland:

Well, probably concentration. I’m very good at concentrating on what I’m doing. And it—I think probably that’s what it is. And also, living—working with other people: learning to integrate, and be helpful; Mr. Newman ran his section very well because it was a very happy place. You know, everybody was kind. They were all similar kind of people, who wanted to help as much as they possibly could, and there was no friction of any kind. I never heard of any friction: never a cross word; nobody ever said anything, ever a cross word to me when I was there, and I didn’t hear anything about anybody else. It was a very happy state to be in: everybody trying to do their best. Now that makes a lot of difference; you know, it’s a case of teamwork. It’s a case of doing everything to the best of your ability. And that I’ve always tried to carry on. When I started teaching, I wanted to do that really well, too, and I put an awful lot into it. But I taught for twenty-five years; and I’ve just been approached recently to go back and teach in the evenings, but I don’t know that I really want to.

Abbate:

I think you’ve earned a rest!

Ireland:

I’ve earned a rest by now, yes! [laughs.]

But as I taught, I would remember all that my tutors ever told me; it would all flash into my mind, you know, all the things they had said. I taught both oils and water colors. First I would teach them to draw, right from basics; they had to go right back to square one, as far as I was concerned. I taught them to draw, and after I decided that they could draw, they would tell me what medium they wished to use, watercolor or oils, and I helped them with whatever they wished to do. Some wanted to draw birds or animals, and some wished to paint landscapes. Unless you taught them what they wanted to do, they would lose heart. I thought the best thing for them to do was to enjoy themselves, and do what they wanted to do, so I didn’t make them do anything. And I never put their work up for criticism at all. Some teachers do, insist at the end of the session they put all their work up and criticize it. That’s an awful thing to put people through. I don’t believe in that kind of thing. I don’t think it’s helpful.

I always had very happy classes. I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed bringing my two sons up; I enjoyed that. And I didn’t want anybody else to bring them up!

Abbate:

I don’t know if I’ve missed any—Have I’ve missed anything major from your accounts?

Ireland:

I don’t know . . .

Abbate:

It seems like we’ve been pretty thorough.

Would you like this? [Offers typed copy of “Bletchley Park—Station X: Memories of a Colossus Operator.”]

Abbate:

Could I get a copy of that?

Ireland:

You can have this copy, because my son’s got a copy.

Abbate:

Okay!

Ireland:

You’re very welcome to that, if you want.

Abbate:

That would be great! I’m sure I will be able to . . .

Ireland:

I think that’s probably the best thing for you to do, isn’t it? . . .

Has that [the interview] been useful at all?

Abbate:

Yes! Yes, very much. Thank you very much, because I haven’t heard anyone [else who worked on Colossus].

Ireland:

There aren’t many of us left!

[The interview was going to end here, but after a few minutes Ireland made some additional comments:]

Ireland:

. . . I’d meet, when I go back [to Bletchley Park for reunions], people from other watches, whom I didn’t actually know, one of whom was a Colossus operator and another who worked in Ops. I return with two Ex Wrens, one who worked in Naval Section and another who worked at Eastcote. But other than my small group of friends—well, there never were a very large number of Colossus operators. There weren’t an enormous number; you can work out more or less from the number of machines how many there were. My friend who went to the other station I was talking about, Eastcote, and there worked on a machine called Tunny. I still see her. But she hated working on Tunny. She said it was very hot in the Tunny room, and she didn’t like that very much. I don’t think she really enjoyed it.

Abbate:

Was the machine you worked on hot?

Ireland:

Although these two machines were very large the room we worked in was vast.

So no, the heat was not overwhelming at all.

Abbate:

Sounds like it might have been nice, considering how cold it was, to have a room with heat.

Ireland:

It was terribly cold in winter! And one thing we were allowed to do: We were allowed—and this is quite incredible, really—we were allowed, in the winter, to wear any jumpers or pullovers that we wanted: completely non-uniform. I can remember wearing a turquoise blue jumper. [laughs.] And I wore that. But that was the only thing we were allowed to do, really. We felt we were a little special, just like the pilots that were allowed to wear something non-uniform. I thought that was very good. [laughs.] But that’s about all. No, it was very cold—but then, you see, we’d been used to being very cold. I mean, when I was at school at the beginning of the war, we sat in our classrooms with our overcoats on; we more or less sat in all our school uniform, because we couldn’t have the heating on. So we were used to cold. It was extraordinarily cold—Bedfordshire is supposed to be the coldest County in England—so I didn’t mind the heat generated by Colossus. It was just nicely warm, you know, during the winter, with all these valves pulsing away!

Abbate:

Yes.

Ireland:

And, the room was large enough, as I say, during the Summer, for us not to bother about it very much. [pause.]

I would like to have gone into H. Block and seen those other computers. I’d love to have seen them, I really would.

Jean and I were both made Leading Wrens whilst we were there, but when we left and had to change category as soon as we went off to do pay, they took that away from us—which I thought was rather mean, really! [laughs.]

Abbate:

But what did that mean?

Ireland:

Well, you went up in pay. You were promoted.

Abbate:

So that was while you were at Bletchley Park.

Ireland:

Yes. I think people in Ops were. Yes, some were made Leading Wrens and some people in Ops were made Petty Officers.

We didn’t really wear any category badge on us at all. And if anybody asked you what you were doing, you’d say: “Oh, boring old stuff, you know: writing.” “We’re just writers. Fill in forms.” [laughter.] I know my father was itching to know what I did. “Boring old stuff!” I said. [laughs.]

All right, well. Nothing else particularly stands out at all, really.

I’m glad I did it, very glad I did it. Because I can look back on it all, and think, “Oh, yes; right. We did something really worthwhile. We helped.” So that satisfies me, satisfies me that I did a really useful job. And I think that’s the way most of us think of it—that we feel kind of, in a way, fulfilled that we did a very useful job in the war. Because we all knew that it was very important and vital work.

I wish we had been told, occasionally. It would have given us a bit of a fillip, to have known something that we achieved; because as far as I can gather, from what I’ve heard since, a lot of the departments were told when they’d done anything really successful, as a result of which a submarine had been sunk, or a battleship, or something like that. Or they’d won a battle. And of course it was vital on D-Day, when we went into France. What we did was absolutely vital.

The interpreters say that they could recognize by whom the message had been sent, by the idiosyncrasies of the German officers sending the messages. That seems extraordinary to me. The sender even managed to put their individuality into it. Extraordinary, isn’t it! And they built up quite a picture of some of the German transmitters: where they were, and where they moved to—just by slightly unusual turns of phrase! They could therefore work out when they had been moved from A to B, which was also valuable information to know.

We have some very interesting talks at Bletchley. They’ve even told us a lot about breaking the Japanese codes, which I knew nothing about. They had a very interesting lecture, last time I went, about that and the Japanese field of war. People come from all over the world; and of course the people that sent in messages to Bletchley, they were stationed all over the place. In fact, there were several large receiving stations. There was a network of people, and even the police were involved.

Abbate:

They must have needed a lot of electricity to run them [the computers].

Ireland:

Oh yes. They must have done. Oh, they must have devoured electricity, those machines we worked on. All these huge clicking valves pulsating; the whole thing was pulsating. They generated a great deal of noise, of course, as one valve after another pulsed in, and then the whirring of the tapes. It was quite noisy.

But we met some very interesting people . . .

Abbate:

Were you on your feet the whole time?

Ireland:

Yes, I got terrible varicose veins, because I literally stood for nine hours at a time on these hard composition floors. We did have a little stool in front of the teleprinter, but I didn’t sit on it very much! [laughs.] So!

[end of tape]

Further Reading

Bletchley Park, Station X - Memories of a Colossus Operator - A first hand account written by Ireland about her experiences working with Colossus