World War Two – Margarets Story

Margaret, one of our service users, was kind enough to talk to us about her time during World War Two. Margaret was one of the many aircraftswomen who worked at Bletchley Park. However, it’s only recently that the public has found out what happened at Bletchley and the amazing work that went on there.

It was a strange path that took Margaret to her intelligence work. Margaret joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at 19, after failing to gain her Mothers permission to join at 18.

“You could join at 20 without permission, but I didn’t want to wait that long. I tried again when I was 19 and managed to get in. My Father never told me it was him, but I knew he’d signed for me to join.”

Margaret told us how when she initially joined, she had her heart set on becoming a Wireless Operator. However, the [6 month] course had already started. This meant she had to choose another course to take or re-join the following year.

“I thought to myself I’m here now and I want to stay! They gave me a list which was – help in the cook house, help in the medical centre, help in the offices cleaning or the barrage balloon. I thought I’ve never heard of that, so I’ll have a go on the barrage balloon.”

I always wanted to be a wireless operator

After completing her 3 month course and passing out as a barrage balloon operator, Margaret was sent to Wythall just outside Birmingham. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, as Birmingham was heavily bombed during the war.

“We’d have to get up during the night and make our way to the air raid shelters. Half the time, there wouldn’t be enough time. You’d have to get underneath your bed. You’d be wearing your big great coat, tin helmet and gas mask, lifting your bed up to get underneath. You could hear all the shells dropping around you – it was frightening.”

After her stint at Birmingham, Margaret was sent to Barrow-in-Furness.

“We were shown around by the officer there, and we’d never seen bunk beds before! I didn’t want a top bunk as I was worried I’d roll out, most of us wanted a bottom bunk.”

After finding out they’d have to cook for themselves and realising the wash room only had cold water (and no plug to fill the sink up!), Margaret told us about the worst bit:

“She took us out to the toilets, which when you opened the door was a big tin bucket covered by a piece of board with a hole in it over the top! There was eight of those, then we were told we had to empty them ourselves. Every morning you’d have to carry them out to the middle of the field, dig a hole, and empty the bucket. Try digging a hole when it’s been freezing, or snowing, or chucking it down with rain!”

They said a streaker had ran past!

It wasn’t all emptying buckets and cold water. There was a day when Margaret had gone into Barrow-in-Furness on a day off. When she returned, she found out she’d missed quite the goings on that day.

“They told us there’d been a streaker outside! I thought oh well, never mind, we’ve missed it. The next day, we’re all outside working, and the streaker comes again! Baring all! The next minute there’s air force police coming one way and civilian police coming the other – they pounced on him. When they handcuffed him, they wouldn’t even let him pull his trousers up!”

Margaret Wilson in the WAAF

From there, Margaret was called to go on her Wireless Operating course in Blackpool. From there she worked at Bomber Command in Compton Bath and completed her MSR course. From Bomber Command they sent Margaret on to work at the World War Two Vital Communications Centre in Leighton Buzzard. After working there for only four months, it was then Margaret, and one other, was sent to Bletchley.

Margaret signed the official secrets act and was sworn in by a justice of the peace. The secrecy started straight away. Margaret was transported to and from Bletchley in blacked out RAF transport, back to her hut with just one other person for company.

The days were eight hours long, listening to the dots and dashes of morse code all day. Never speaking all day, she even had to raise her hand up to go to the toilet. The sergeant would come and take over while they went.

“I thought he was a miserable git. He never said a word; he’d get up and go and sit down and carry on as he was. I realised since, he was listening to the morse code coming through and he knew just by listening how important a message coming through was. When it was an important message, he’d get up straight away and take the message. I realised after he was a very clever man.”

“I was sworn in to secrecy”

One night, they had a visit from Winston Churchill. Late at night, he came in the office with two plain-clothes men and an officer. Margaret told us how she didn’t dare raise her eyes to get a good look. They were sworn to keep it a secret, though, and not to say he’d visited. Margaret found out after the war she was working under Churchill, and her work was top secret.

“I was sworn into secrecy by a justice of the peace – he said to us ‘look into my eyes, now, what I’m going to tell you, you take with you to the end of your days, you do not repeat anything. The government will tell you “yes, it’s open now, you can tell us, and you can say all” but you do not’.”

Like many other veterans, Margaret has kept her vow and never spoken about her secrets. Margaret found out that at the end of the war, everything she’d worked on had been destroyed. This was because of her work under Churchill being classified.

After 4 years code-breaking, Margaret left the RAF on 19th April 1946 as an Aircraftswoman First Class (ACW1). She has since received her Bletchley Park Veterans brooch and attends Bletchley Park every year for Veterans day.

It’s people like Margaret that make us feel honoured to provide care. It’s an absolute privilege – thank you Margaret.