Britain at War: Bletchley Park

The code-breaking work done at Bletchley Park during WWII is said to shortened the war by several years. It told the British where German U-boats were during the Battle of the Atlantic, helped them defeat Rommel’s forces in North Africa, and allowed the Allied strategists to plan the 1944 D-Day landings.

To encode their messages, the German military used rotor machines, the most famous of which was Enigma. The Enigma codes should have been unbreakable, but luckily, Polish intelligence had managed to work out Enigma before the war and had passed on all their information to the Allies. Then the British managed to capture a German U-boat in 1941, complete with an Enigma machine and code book. A large electromechanical device called the Bombe was used at Bletchley to work out which daily settings the Germans were using on their Enigma machines, and the deciphered messages were translated into English and sent off to high-ranking British military leaders.

Bletchley was staffed by thousands of ‘boffins and debs’, who took their vows of secrecy so seriously that it wasn’t until the 1970s that the general public began to learn about their remarkable achievements. Many of the ‘debs’ who worked there had been recruited because of their social connections (“they were really frightfully snobbish about the girls who worked there”1). Other workers were recruited due to their linguistic or mathematical skills, with several of them identified after winning a national crossword competition. Among the ‘boffins’ was the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, who was greatly admired by one of the debs, Sarah Norton:

“I once offered him a cup of tea but he shrank back in fear. He seemed terrified of girls and on the rare occasions when he was spotted, like a protected species, he would be shambling down to the canteen in a curious sideways step, his eyes fixed on the ground. It was explained to me that if you had spent most of your adult life closeted away in a study in Cambridge, you too would be scared of women and not know how to handle them.”2

Or, you know, you might be gay, which was then illegal. Sadly, Alan Turing was arrested after the war for consensual sex with another man, lost his high-security job, was given a choice of imprisonment or chemical castration, and killed himself. The laws against homosexuality were applied very selectively in those days. It was much easier to get away with being same-sex-attracted if you were rich and royal, like Prince George, Duke of Kent.

Tomorrow: My favourite novels about Britain at war.


  1. Jean Campbell-Harris, quoted in Anne de Courcy’s Debs at War
  2. Sarah Norton, quoted in Anne de Courcy

The FitzOsbornes at War, Plus My Favourite Non-Fiction About WWII Britain

The final book in the Montmaray Journals trilogy, The FitzOsbornes at War, is released in North America today. Hooray!

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American edition
‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, published in North America on October 9, 2012
This edition is pretty much the same as the Australian edition (apart from the cover art and the American spelling and punctuation, of course), but one difference is that it contains a family tree for the FitzOsborne family, dated 1955. As I don’t want those who bought the Australian edition to miss out, I’ve now posted a version of that family tree on my author website. (Please note that the family tree contains plot spoilers for all three books, so it’s not a good idea to click on that link until you’ve read all three books. Unless you’re the sort of reader who always reads the last pages of a novel first – in which case, go ahead and click.)

Now that the trilogy is finished, does anyone want to ask me any questions about the Montmaray books? I could set up a separate page on this blog with a big spoiler warning. If anyone thinks that’s a good idea, leave a comment below, and I’ll start a Montmaray Q & A page. (Of course, you can continue to email me with questions, but I thought it might be more efficient if everyone could read the questions and answers, especially as people tend to ask the same questions.)

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in how I went about researching, planning and writing The FitzOsbornes at War, I wrote a series of blog posts about it earlier this year. And here are my five favourite non-fiction books about Britain during WWII:

1. Debs at War 1939-1945: How Wartime Changed Their Lives by Anne de Courcy

The privileged young British women who joined the services, drove ambulances, built aircraft in factories, nursed the wounded and worked on farms during the war tell their stories.

'Wartime Britain 1939-1945' by Juliet Gardiner2. Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner

A meticulously researched account of every aspect of life on the Home Front, from the blackout, rationing and the Blitz, to the experiences of ‘enemy aliens’ and prisoners of war in Britain.

3. Voices from the Home Front: Personal Experiences of Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Felicity Goodall

Moving stories taken from the letters and diaries of ordinary British people living through extraordinary hardships.

4. Keep Smiling Through: The Home Front 1939-45 by Susan Briggs

A fascinating and well-organised collection of wartime photos, cartoons, advertisements, posters, pamphlets and songs.

5. Sea Dog Bamse: World War II Canine Hero by Angus Whitson and Andrew Orr

The story of Bamse, a charismatic St Bernard who was an official crew member of the minesweeper Thorodd and a mascot to the Free Norwegian Forces stationed in Scotland during the war.

Tomorrow: The Home Guard

The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy

'The Fishing Fleet' by Anne de CourcyI’ve enjoyed Anne de Courcy’s previous social histories and biographies, so when I saw her latest book was about India, I was keen to read it. As usual, her subject is posh English people, circa 1850 – 1950, but this time she has focussed on the young English women who sailed to India to find themselves husbands. The first such ‘Fishing Fleet’ arrived in Bombay in 1671, the women having been paid generous allowances by the East India Company. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no need to provide incentives to prospective brides. The only respectable career for a Victorian ‘gentlewoman’ was that of wife and mother, but there were far more unmarried women than eligible bachelors in England. Women who were neither rich nor pretty enough to snare a husband knew they’d have a much better chance in India, where white men outnumbered white women by four to one and were forbidden (by their terms of employment and social custom) from marrying females with any tinge of ‘native blood’.

Anne de Courcy uses memoirs, letters, diaries and interviews to provide fascinating details of these ‘husband-hunters’. First, there was the arduous sailing trip (all the way around Africa before the Suez Canal opened in 1869), the poor women having to contend with cramped living space, sea sickness, limited fresh food and other inconveniences:

“Fresh water for washing clothes was in such short supply that many women who knew they were going to travel saved their most worn underwear and then discarded it overboard on the voyage, leaving, one imagines, a trail of dirty, threadbare nightdresses across the Indian Ocean.”

Arriving in Bombay or Calcutta, the young woman was often overwhelmed by the heat, the dust, the smells, the “teeming mass of people”. She was then flung into India’s version of ‘the Season’, attending (depending on her social rank) Viceregal balls and banquets, dinner parties, tea dances, picnics, tennis parties and tiger-hunts. Couples often became engaged after only one or two brief meetings, the men desperate for companionship after years of celibacy, the women anxious to avoid the mortification of being sent home as a ‘Returned Empty’ (that is, a failed husband-hunter). Most military and Indian Civil Service men weren’t permitted to marry until they were at least thirty, which meant bridegrooms were often several decades older than their teenage brides and could be unwilling or unable to change their bachelor lifestyles. One beautiful and cosseted young woman, who wed in 1932, found herself living on a remote tea plantation, miles from her nearest white neighbour, with no transportation, no electricity and nothing to do. Her much older husband spent all his time working or hunting with his hounds and horses and forgot her twenty-first birthday, and her child was delivered by the local vet because there was no doctor available. Still, “Sheila was a true daughter of the Raj, brave and uncomplaining” and later told her daughter that she always dressed in an evening gown for dinner because “it was felt that one must keep up standards and not let oneself go native.”

Actually, Sheila had it relatively easy. Other women were shot at by mutinous ‘natives’, while some were caught in avalanches and earthquakes. Women died of cholera, smallpox, malaria and even bubonic plague. Infants were particularly vulnerable to diseases, and those who survived were routinely sent off to boarding school in England from the age of six, so their mothers had the agonising choice of being separated for years at a time from either their husband or their small children. And then there was the wildlife – panthers that snatched pet dogs from gardens and golf courses, snakes that slithered up through drainage holes into bathrooms, scorpions hidden in shoes, rats under the bed and monkeys that stole silver spoons from the table. One young woman awoke to find a civet cat drinking from her bedside glass of milk.

What I found most interesting was how British India was far more patriarchal and snobbish than Britain itself. By the twentieth century, it was possible for a working-class man with a great deal of intelligence, talent and luck to rise as high as Prime Minister, and for a well-born woman to become a Member of Parliament. This was impossible in India, where women had no status at all and “the hierarchy of the Raj position was fixed, according to service, rank and seniority in an unalterable grading . . . within which there was room for petty nuances that could be painful and damaging.”

Everyone was obsessed with their own and everyone else’s social precedence, and in a small society where nothing was private, it was thought essential to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Those who could barely afford it still kept polo ponies, paid expensive subscriptions to clubs and held elaborate dinner parties, and there was little tolerance for those regarded as ‘intellectuals’.

The stories in this book are mostly of upper-class British women, rather than, say, the women who went to India as teachers, nurses and missionaries. There are also few mentions of Indians, apart from some anonymous, silent servants and the Maharajah of Patiala, who married Miss Florence Bryan in 18931. The author clearly feels that Britain’s colonisation of India was a very good thing – after all, most of the Indian rulers prior to colonisation were cruel despots (true, but so were the rulers of most countries in the eighteenth century) and the British “left India, after independence, with an enviable infrastructure, a democratic Government and a common language”. (The book makes only passing mention of the terrible famines that resulted from the British forcing Indian farmers to grow jute and cotton, rather than food2, and of the violent suppression of pro-independence Indians3.)

'Heat and Dust' by Ruth Prawer JhabvalaDespite these reservations, the book is recommended for those interested in reading about British women’s experiences in India. But I think novels can be just as useful for this purpose, so here are some of my favourites:

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
The Jewel in the Crown and other novels in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden4
Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden
(Actually, read all of Rumer Godden’s India books, because she’s brilliant. Anne Chisholm also wrote an excellent biography, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life.)
– And for a slightly different look at Europeans in India, there’s also Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai.


  1. It was a “brief and unhappy” marriage. She was shunned by both Indians and Europeans, her infant son was poisoned, and she died of pneumonia three years later.
  2. Up to ten million Indians died in the famine of 1876-8, and a similar number in 1899-1900.
  3. For example, hundreds died at Amritsar in 1919, when British troops fired on unarmed protesters.
  4. Black Narcissus was made into a hilariously bad film in 1947. In one memorable scene, the mad nun flees through a Himalayan ‘jungle’ inhabited by kookaburras.