Burgh Wren was code-breaker

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Wren-Agnes-McGee-with-medalA HELENSBURGH woman became involved in the top secret world of code-breaking in World War Two.

Agnes McGee, who passed away on January 6 2016 at the age of 92, had a remarkable story to tell about her wartime endeavours at home and abroad.

She served with the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens) and travelled to Ceylon — today Sri Lanka — where she became immersed in code-breaking.

Agnes was a teenager when she joined the Wrens, and soon after noticed an internal advertisement calling on volunteers to try out for the Government Code and Cipher School. The 19 year-old jumped at the chance, and was soon on her way to the North of Scotland for testing.

“One of the things they asked us was whether we were good at crosswords and word puzzles,” Agnes. “It seemed I was, and before I knew it I was sent to Dover Castle to undergo training.”

As well as being the largest castle in England with a history stretching back hundreds of years, Dover Castle was set atop a warren of wartime tunnels and an underground hospital. It was from there that, in May 1940, the evacuation of French and British troops from Dunkirk was coordinated.

By the time Agnes arrived it was a sub-station of the famous Bletchley Park and a centre for training in cryptology, or code-breaking.

Trained in the use of the Enigma machine, before long Agnes was back on the train north, this time heading to the Clyde to embark on a ship bound for the Indian Ocean and Colombo in Ceylon.

“As I was only 19 I needed written permission from my father before I could serve overseas,” said Agnes. “I managed to convince him to sign. I was desperate to do it.

“There were around 40 ships in our convoy filled with people of all nationalities. During the journey we came under attack by air. One night we were told to gather on deck as a precaution in case we were sunk, and I and the other Wrens spent a cold time in our dressing gowns.”

The attack was fought off, with the enemy planes eventually dropping their bombs in the sea. Her ship went on to enter the Mediterranean before going through the Suez Canal to their destination on the Indian Ocean.

The year before, on April 5 1942, Ceylon had seen the Japanese Imperial Fleet launch surprise air strikes on the city of Colombo.Led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the same officer who led the attack on Pearl Harbour just a few months earlier, the attack on Ceylon had a similar objective — to destroy the British Eastern Fleet at anchor.

However, unexpectedly, most of the British Fleet was elsewhere and when the Japanese attacked there were only three Royal Navy ships in the area. History tells that the Japanese failure to destroy the Eastern Fleet prevented them from attempting a troop landing at Ceylon, but when Agnes arrived in 1943 the threat was still very much a real possibility and in the forefront of people’s minds.

“We were well aware of what happened at Singapore and that the Japanese could take Ceylon too,” said Agnes. “But to be honest, I was very young and probably a bit naïve at the time. I didn’t think too much about what could happen — I was more focused on the job at hand helping to decode Japanese signals.”

Enigma was a portable cipher machine used to encrypt secret messages during the war. Some of the best brains in the country were put to the task of deciphering the military signals, among them Alan Turing, the father of computer science.

Using a variety of techniques, code-breakers were able to exploit mistakes made by enemy Enigma operators to finally crack the code and yield invaluable military information. It was a breakthrough which some experts judge shortened the war by as much as two years.

Wren-Agnes-McGeeAgnes said: “With my brother Tom Burke serving in the Merchant Navy it was a worrying time for the family, as we knew the dangers he was facing at sea.

“I’m sure that our family worried about me too, but I wasn’t allowed to ever speak about what I was doing in Ceylon.”

It was a silence which Agnes and other wartime code-breakers maintained right up to the mid-1970s when the work at Bletchley Park and its outstations finally began to emerge.

Such was the veil of secrecy surrounding the enterprise that Winston Churchill christened the Wrens who worked in cryptology as: “The hens that laid the golden eggs but never clucked”.

Like thousands after the war, the Agnes and Tom slipped unobtrusively back into everyday life, rarely speaking of their experiences other than to relatives and close friends.

After leaving the Wrens, Agnes returned home and eventually forged a career in the field of social work, while her brother, Tom Burke, stayed on in the Merchant Navy.

The mother of two, grandmother of two and great grandmother of eight, passed away peacefully at home.

In August 2013 Tom received the Arctic Star medal to mark the part he played in the dangerous Arctic Convoys. His story is told here.

  • This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Helensburgh Advertiser, and is reproduced by kind permission of the Editor.