It was a chance meeting outside the Star Cinema in Sidney. An older woman, wearing a black and white Nordic type toque and matching mittens walked up to have a look at the cinema’s coming attractions.
She had the bluest eyes and creamy curly white hair tucked into her hat. A quick smile and she said she was looking forward to seeing The Imitation Game, a new film about the lives of code-breakers during the Second World War.
“You know I worked there, at Bletchley Park, when I was 18,” she said, smiling again.
This is Pamela Hobbs’ story.
Pamela Hobbs was born in 1924 in Seaford, in the county of East Sussex, on the south coast of England. She moved to Pahang, in Malaysia, when she was three months old. Before her birth, her mother and father were living in Malaysia where her dad worked as a silk merchant, and later, as an accountant with BP. Her mother had come back to England to give birth.
PH: I sailed six weeks with my mom to Pahang, Malaysia and eventually went back to England to attend boarding school at the convent college in Farnborough Hill in the county of Hampshire. My parents were still in Malaysia. I hardly knew my parents you know.
In these days the parents and children didn’t know each other. My mom passed away when I was 10 and I only saw my parents once or twice in five years or so.
NG: You only saw them once or twice in five years?
PH: Yes, I saw them once or twice.
When I saw him again I didn’t know he was my dad.
NG: How did you get chosen for the job at Bletchley Park?
PH: I was living in Kensington at this time. I was 18 years old and I had finished boarding school in Farnborough Hill Hampshire. I knew I didn’t have enough money for university and I was wondering what to do. I received a letter from the War Office asking if I was good in math or English; they were recruiting. I had an interview at Green Park in London. Three guys came in with all their fancy buttons, majors and God knows what, sitting at a big table. They threw a German newspaper at me and said, “read this.” It wasn’t classical German, it was technical, and I translated it for them.
“We would like you to join the ATS,” (they said).
The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was the women’s branch of the British Army during the war; it was formed in 1938 and disbanded in the 1950s. I joined in 1942.
NG: Can you describe the atmosphere in England at this time?
PH: Everything was rationed. You could have offal, it was not real meat, it was the livers and kidneys — we even ate the hearts. It was very drab. I lived with my sister in Kensington and I remember her telling me, “you have to put sheets all over your face (during air raids).”
I used to put the sheets over my face so the glass wouldn’t shatter my face when I was sleeping. I went through bomb experiences. I remember another time playing field hockey in boarding school and we saw a dogfight going on and we laughed — we didn’t think the bleachers would save us.
NG: Were you scared?
PH: When we were younger we felt, what is that word, yes, we felt invincible; we didn’t think anything would happen to us.
NG: Did you know what you were going to be doing at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley?
PH: We didn’t know what we were going to do at Bletchley. I had to spend one month in billets and a whole month of training, all about radio and frequencies; we were not into the secret stuff yet. After this month I went to train at Bletchley, which is about 50 miles from London. We were first billeted at Story Stratford, eventually living in wooden huts in Shenley.
NG: Were you aware of the secrecy of the work at Bletchley Park?
PH: We had to listen to the Official Secrets Act and swear under oath that we couldn’t talk to anyone or we would be hung or shot. We took the oath once, and yes, we knew.
NG: How did that make you feel?
PH: It made you shut up. You couldn’t say a word; you couldn’t talk to anyone outside your domain. We could talk to our group we worked with, three officers and three NCOs, but couldn’t talk to anyone else in a different office. We were cocooned really.
People asked me if I knew so and so at Bletchley, but no I didn’t, because we couldn’t talk.
NG: Did you find it difficult keeping secrets?
PH: I liked to talk a lot, but I definitely would not say one word — even to my husband. He asked what I did and I laughed and said I was a spy. My sister’s husband thought I was full of it and was talking through my hat.
NG: Tell me about the work you did there.
PH: It was mixed with all kinds of stuff. I started off as a private, it was nothing, but I was promoted quickly because they wanted us to shut up. I got my stripes and became a staff sergeant and then I was promoted to warrant officer. I worked in traffic analysis and troop movement. I would have to translate the information coming through the machines.
I worked on a big board with little strings; this would denote where the German troops were. We had to find out what frequency the Germans were using.
We had shoe boxes as our filing cabinets; we had no metal filing cabinets as the metal was needed for the war. When the Americans working in the office saw our filing system they laughed. There was a very handsome lieutenant from the States who would bring us stockings that were a finer material than our thick Lyle stockings.
NG: Did you realize at the time how ground breaking the work was?
PH: No, we didn’t know. It was very fragmented and compartmentalized.
NG: What do you remember most about your time there?
PH: I can’t remember a single good meal at Bletchley Park. We had reconstituted eggs and these pickles that were bad. We had poor conditions for sleeping. The most money I made there was 37 shillings per week.
I was a sergeant on the night shift, we would get up at 10 p.m. and go to the mess and have a gin for the night shift. I never really liked gin and I never had alcohol until then.
It seemed drab, the town of Shenley was drab, it had a brick factory and a couple of pubs, but you couldn’t go into the pub unless you were with a man. That is why we hitchhiked to London for some fun.
We had little concerts at Bletchley Park, and once this fellow was playing, his house had been bombed and his wife was killed that week.
He didn’t say a word to anyone, he just kept playing. This is how plucky some people were.
I knew a girl called Sylvia; she had four-year-old twins she had taken to her sisters, there was a stray bomb and the two twins were killed. You would hear stories like this; people had to keep the light burning.
NG: Are you proud of the work you did?
PH: Well I wasn’t really. It wasn’t ‘till after it (was declassified) in 1974 that you realized what part you had done. I was a (small player) compared to the brilliant ones. It is hard to think you were doing something big when there were so many brilliant people working there.
NG: When did you first receive any recognition for the work you did at Bletchley Park?
PH: In 2003 I went to see my niece in Stratford-Upon-Avon in England. She wanted me to go with her to see the heritage site of Bletchley Park. They ask for payment as you go inside and I told them, “You know I worked in Bletchley Park.” I didn’t have to pay anything, and I received my Freedom of Bletchley Park certificate and pass. When I come to visit, I don’t have to pay.
NG: Did you receive any other communication or recognition from Bletchley Park over the years?
PH: The Queen gave everyone a pin that worked at Bletchley. I believe that was in 2003, the same time I was offered Freedom of Bletchley Park. In 2009, I received a certificate and a pin in the mail from Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of England. The certificate reads, “The government wishes to express to you its deepest gratitude for the vital service you performed during (the war).”
I had no idea I was getting it.
NG: Do you feel the government should have recognized the people who worked at Bletchley Park earlier?
PH: Yes, the recognition and awards should have happened when it was declassified in 1974.
Nothing was done properly and some people were upset that all we got was a badge, as some thought we should have gotten a medal.
NG: Did you feel the movie The Imitation Game was accurate?
PH: In many ways it was. They just showed all of the work by Alan Turing, which was very well done, but there were so many other facets of the story. There were so many other brilliant people that weren’t mentioned.
NG: How did you get to Sidney?
PH: I moved to Canada with my husband in 1953 and moved to Victoria in 1991. My husband passed away in 1994 and I moved to Sidney in 2009.
I was widowed for eight or nine years and met my boyfriend Neil when I was 80.
When I got back home from England in 2003 I saw a letter from the Legion, I was to get my 25 year pin, but I was at Bletchley at the time of this presentation.
I was having lunch at the Legion on the Gorge with my friend Shirley and I was telling her why I didn’t get my official 25 year pin as I was visiting Bletchley Park. There was a man staring at me and I laughed as I thought he was staring at me. He had actually overheard us talking about Bletchley Park and he had come over and wanted me to meet with his friend, who was an historian.
That is how I met my man. Neil had to get knee replacement shortly after we met, but he called me every two weeks to let me know he wanted to take me out.
I had 10 wonderful years with him and it all happened through Bletchley.
— by Nancy Gullason/Contributor