My Sister the Code Breaker at Bletchley Park


John Lidstone has enjoyed a varied and eventful life in business and public service being an internationally recognised broadcaster, public speaker and author of 16 best-selling books on business management. He gave a presentation to the members of the Probus Club of Basingstoke about the Bletchley Park code breaking centre and the secret part played by his elder sister Pamela stationed there.

Until fairly recently, Bletchley Park, or ‘Station X’, has probably been Britain’s best kept secret. This is because all the activities carried on there during World War Two were of vital importance to our national security and ultimate victory. It is estimated that because of their work that the war was shortened by two years and saved 80,000 lives. It was purchased in 1938 for the Government Code and Cypher School and MI6 in the event of hostilities. Its mission was to crack the Nazi codes and ciphers. The most famous of the cipher systems to be broken at Bletchley Park was the Enigma.

Few outside Bletchley knew of its mission, and even fewer, inside or outside, understood the breadth of that mission and the extent of its success. All staff signed the Official Secrets Act and a 1942 security warning emphasised the importance of discretion even within Bletchley itself as people in each working hut were not allowed to discuss their work with people in other huts. Any subsequent breach could have led to 30 years imprisonment or the death penalty.

Debutantes and other high born women, considered capable of being able to keep a secret, were initially recruited for administrative and clerical jobs. Then intelligence became the criterion. Personal networking sought out suitable recruits from Oxford and Cambridge universities as it was recognised that formally trained mathematicians were needed if the enemy’s electromechanical cipher machines, particularly Enigma, were to be cracked. Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman from Cambridge worked alongside other cryptanalysts including a chess champion.

John’s sister Pamela was one such recruit, having graduated from Reading University with a First Class Honours Degree. She was called up for National Service and attended the selection procedure for the Foreign Office part of which was a timed completion of the Daily Telegraph crossword. Most addicts took eleven minutes: Pamela completed the crossword in seven. She was consequently discreetly approached about a particular type of work as a contribution to the war effort.

The first operational break into Enigma came in January 1940. Secrecy shrouded the fact that Enigma had been broken and to hide this information, the reports were given the appearance of coming from an MI6 spy with a network of imaginary agents inside Germany.

Winston Churchill called Bletchley Park his “goose that laid the golden egg and never cackled”. The “golden egg” was nothing less than the ability to decode the secrets of the German war machine. Station X, as it was known, was so efficient it could read coded messages from German generals on the battlefield before they were even seen by Hitler in Berlin.

At the end of the war, Churchill ordered that all records of the place be destroyed and the embargo on Bletchley’s secret work remained until 1976. John only learned of Pamela’s part at her death at 95. She, like many others, never told her family about her work. They thought she had worked for the Foreign Office throughout the war.