Rozanne Colchester (née Medhurst)
Bletchley Park 1942 – 1945. Italian and Japanese Air Sections.
In 1942 I was 19 and waiting to be called up by the WAAF. I had heard of Bletchley
Park from my father, who was then Air Vice Marshal Medhurst RAF, Head of RAF
Intelligence at the Air Ministry. I had no idea where Bletchley Park was until the day I
I was delivered to my billet at mid-day. The owners were Bert and Molly Dickens, who
had two boys, Richard 3 and Tom 9. They lived in a council house and there I too was
to live for the next three years. We all became lifelong friends. Bert drove a lorry
everyday from London and Molly was a farmer’s daughter and a housewife. They were
so kind to me, and never seemed to mind that their home had been invaded by me!
Then my father drove me from my billet with the Dickens family to Bletchley Park. My
reason for being accepted by BP was because I spoke Italian, so I was put into the RAF
section (deadly, like the Italian Air Forces). I became a de-coder, and I did this job for
the next 3 years. It was hard work. We worked in ‘shifts’, 8.30 - 12, then till 6pm, 4 –
midnight, midnight till 8am.
Transport to and from the Park, day and night, was organised by a man known then as
Mr Simpson. Dozens of busses would appear before each of the three shifts began,
drop and pick up their human load, and disappear in a roar of noise and glimmer of
partially blacked-out headlights. These noisy phantoms of the night (and day) would
then drive away and vanish until the time of the next shift (I was not part of this as
every day or night I always came from Fenny Stratford on my scarlet-painted bicycle). In
the night, the appearance of the busses would be followed by the patter of thousands
of footsteps as the workers made their way to their huts, invisible in the dark, save for
patches of torchlight in the otherwise total ‘black-out’. For me this remains a prominent
memory when anyone says “Bletchley Park”. I have several others: lunch-time chats
under the trees on the lawn in the summer, quaffing cups of coffee or glasses of beer;
drinking tea and chatting in the big front room, then the ‘Recreation Room’, before or
after one’s shift; sitting in a cramped office behind a desk, the air filled with cigarette or
pipe smoke all the time (people smoked constantly in those days).
I was first in Hut A (the hut at the far end of the tennis court, now uninhabited) then I
moved to a brick block, newly built (near the lake). Then, in 1943 (December I think),
we moved into a newly built block in the far field (‘F’ I think).
To catch a train to London, we always walked down a woodland lane (which was on
your right as you faced the lake, and was a wonderful short-cut). But in the winter of
1944 it was closed for security reasons. From that time onwards the Japanese Section
grew to be vast, and the whole place became different – much more bureaucratic.
In my section worked Josh Cooper the brilliant code breaker. Head of Section (and
friend of my father) was Joe Hooper. He was 28, very clever and a contender for the
Camden Chair of Roman History in Oxford. [later Sir Leonard James Hooper KCMG,
CBE, Head of GCHQ 1965-1973]. Tom Boase was another code-breaker and
administrator (he had recently been appointed as Professor of History of Art at the
University of London). I remember two other brilliant de-coders: Margaret Sawyer and
Rhoda Welsford. Arthur Cooper (Josh’s brilliant younger brother) was Head of the
entire Japanese Section. He spoke several oriental languages, and was only 28 when
he came to work at Bletchley early in 1944 (I think).
Alan Turing I knew quite well. He was polite, kind, and intelligent, but preferred the
company of men. He deserved recognition for the brilliant work he did, and I’m so glad
he received it at last.
A friend of Tom Boase, Hugh Last, became my great friend and mentor, and we always
lunched together at the last sitting, which was at 1.30 pm. He tried to teach me Latin,
but became ill with a duodenal ulcer, and had to go back to Brasenose College, Oxford.
He was, like Tom Boase, then 45, which to me then seemed ancient, although I loved
him dearly. The canteen was just outside the main entrance to the Park, and did a
magnificent job, day and night. The food was plain, but there was lots of it, and the
cooking was excellent, or so it seemed to me at the time. The canteen was also used
for plays and revues which the brightest men at the Park produced.
Hugh Last, Tom Boase and Rhoda Welsford all lived together with Rhoda Welsford’s
formidable mother Lady Welsford, in Newton Longville Manor near Bletchley. Today its
environs are covered in housing estates, but then it was in the country. Many happy
hours I spent there, for all three were sweet to me.
About two months after arriving in the Park I met a WAAF called Kate Godfrey, the 19yr
old daughter of Admiral Godfrey RN (he was then Chief of Intelligence in the RN, and
my father was Chief of Intelligence in the RAF – an odd coincidence!). Kate and I
became life-long friends. She is now the widow of an American, Charles Warren, and
frequently contacted by the Park because her father’s P.A. was Ian Fleming, author of
the ‘James Bond’ books.
Another great friend of mine was W/Cdr Jim Rose RAF who later married another
(Park-made) friend, Pamela Gibson (an ex-actress) who is still living, aged 92, although
Jim has died.
There were a great many love-affairs going on about which we did not speak in those
claustrophobic days of the war.
At Bletchley I took part in the revues. I was a dancer when young, and was part of the
chorus at Bletchley! Every week we had a day off and usually went to London.
Here is one of the Park songs from the revue of January 1945 called “This is the end”.
It was written, mainly, by Patrick Barrington, who in peacetime worked and wrote for the
magazine “Punch”. I think he worked with the editor, too, and was a senior member of
Bletchley Park’s hierarchy. A dear, clever, and brilliantly humorous man.
Cast aside what mothers knit us
Put on clothes that really fit us
Sophisticated black is ‘de rigeur’
A hat that leaves your hair free to curl
Peace-time glamour only more so
Once a week roll out the torso
Dab away the wrinkles and the frown
Throw your cares away and go to town
This ditty is so reminiscent of Bletchley Park and the longed-for days off. I dedicate it to
the memory of Patrick, who was at the Park from 1941 – 1945.
Another ‘star’ of the revues was Bill Marchant, who was outstanding as an actor, and
helped Patrick Barrington with the songs.
I was a de-codist at the Park, and one night on duty I was decoding a message freshly
arrived on the teleprinter. After many trials and errors, alone in my room, with Jo Hooper
on duty at a far desk, the ‘groups’ of numbers began to make sense, and I found myself
faced with a message that made sense. It concerned S82s and S79s (Italian bombers)
which were leaving Tripoli to fly to Sicily at 0400 hours. Imagine the thrill – it was then
0130. I rushed to Jo Hooper with the message and he leapt into life and tore along the
passage to Josh Cooper’s room. Then radio messages were sent to the RAF in N Africa
and, consequently, ALL the Italian aircraft were shot down. I was much congratulated
by all at the Park. It was my moment of glory in three years of slog!!
Bletchley Park was an extraordinary place to be because it was so isolated. We were
given a pep talk on arrival by Tom Boase, and told NEVER EVER to breathe a word to
anybody about our work, or ask each other about the hut we were in or the work we did.
Many people a bit older than me who had jobs before the war were frustrated by the
isolation of being at the Park.
About myself: at 23 I was married in Cairo, Egypt, to a Captain Halsey Colchester, 2nd
SAS (parachutist), and have five children, four boys and a girl. One son died in 1995,
and my husband died in 1994. I have fourteen grandchildren (ten boys and four girls).
My brother (in the RAF) aged 19 was killed in action over Arnhem in September 1944.
This was a great sadness.
My father died [in 1954] aged 57, after a massive stroke. When my father died, he was
an Air Chief Marshal, and was in line to become head of the RAF – but he died.
Oh, that terrible war. And yet – looking back – it was, perhaps, England’s finest hour,
but I may be wrong, and better still may come.
[Mrs Colchester’s brother was Pilot Officer Richard Medhurst, co-pilot of a Dakota aircraft
flying a re-supply operation. The aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, but the pilot Flight
Lieutenant David Lord continued with the drop, even making an additional run to ensure
that all containers were delivered. The aircraft crashed, killing all but one of the crew. For
this action, Flt Lt Lord was posthumously awarded the VC].