Obituary: Betty O’Connell. The Wren who was in the first team at Bletchley Park to operate the Colossus Mk 1 that cracked Hitler’s ‘Lorenz’ messages
The Times – 28 Sep 2021
The Colossus computer was used by Betty O’Connell and others to decode the Lorenz encrypting machine. She saw one of the latter for the first time in 2016.
There was much excitement five years ago when part of a Lorenz cipher machine was found languishing in a shed in Essex. It was advertised on eBay as a telegram machine and offered for sale for £9.50. Two volunteers from the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park handed the seller a £10 note, telling her to keep the change.
Back in January 1942 the existence of Lorenz, which Adolf Hitler used to communicate with his generals, had been deduced by Bill Tutte and his team of cryptographers at Bletchley Park even though they had never seen one of the machines. Nor had Betty Oliver, as she then was, who arrived there later that year and was in the first team to operate the Colossus Mark 1 that by February 1944 was starting to crack the Lorenz messages. One of her key roles was to load and unload the precious paper message data tapes, which had taken hours of meticulous work to create.
She worked eight-hour shifts and was billeted in the servants’ quarters in the attic of nearby Woburn Abbey. Each day she and her colleagues were taken to Bletchley Park by bus, its destination showing as “Excursion” for security reasons. At the time she knew that she was doing important work, but she had no idea quite how important deciphering the Lorenz-encrypted messages was to the war effort.
Margaret Elizabeth Oliver was born in Coventry in 1925, the second of four children of Christopher Oliver, an engineer at Hawker Siddeley, and his wife Ann (née Bennett), who hailed from Cumbrian farming stock. With war looming, her father bought a farm near Whitehaven, in the west of the Lake District, where young Margaret spent much of her time.
At Calder Girls’ School in Seascale she was captain of the hockey, tennis and cricket teams as well as head girl. Her grandmother, concerned that she was becoming too much of a tomboy, bought her a pair of shoes with heels, but young Betty promptly took them to the farm workshop and sawed them off.
The outbreak of war meant that she was unable to consider university. Instead, at the age of 17 she volunteered as a Wren. Her remarkable ability to solve crossword puzzles meant that she was selected to work at Bletchley Park in the Newmanry, a section newly set up under Max Newman to automate codebreaking. She recalled being there for the arrival of the Colossus Mk 1, the prototype decoding machine, and also when it became operational in December 1943. On VE Day, May 8, 1945, she took the train to London with a group of Wrens to join the celebrations outside Buckingham Palace marking the end of the war in Europe.
Afterwards she trained as a shorthand typist, working for a clockmaker in Coventry, before gravitating to the bright lights of London, where she became a secretary at an engineering company. She met Guy O’Connell, an engineer and former wartime Royal Marine commando, in 1958 while playing tennis in Putney. They married the following year and in 1974 the family moved to Tehran for his work. After her husband’s death in 1977 she returned to Britain. She is survived by their children: Elizabeth, a farmer; James, a lawyer; and Patrick (Paddy), who presents the irreverent news programme Broadcasting House on Radio 4.
O’Connell tried various occupations to support her young family, eventually becoming a hotel receptionist at a health farm in Surrey. Speaking about her suitability for one particular job, she recalled in self-deprecating style: “I joined the Electric Vehicle Association with some trepidation, knowing absolutely nothing about electric vehicles. However, I was encouraged by my family, who thought I had many of the attributes of a battery: ever-ready, highly charged, expensive to replace, portable and not given to gassing.”
The discovery of the Lorenz machine on eBay in 2016 prompted renewed interest in the wartime work of O’Connell and her colleagues and she finally got to see for herself the machine whose messages she had spent so much time decoding. Although photographs were banned during the war years, one did come to light in 2014 showing O’Connell and her fellow Wrens in Colossus C Watch.
She also worked closely with the museum, on one occasion making an impromptu appearance there before a group of women in computing and holding them enthralled. She appeared at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2017 discussing her work on the Lorenz code with Paddy to promote a book by Captain Jerry Roberts, her friend and fellow wartime codebreaker, as well as on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 and The One Show on BBC One with other Colossus Wrens.
O’Connell remained a lifelong crossword solver and followed the news and current affairs assiduously, reading her newspaper every day and engaging in political debate with whoever had the good fortune to be within earshot. She also continued to mix what her family described as “a knockout gin and tonic”.
Having signed the Official Secrets Act, O’Connell had long refused to divulge the details of her work. When finally told that she was permitted to speak, she was bombarded with questions from her enthusiastic family, eager to know her wartime story.
Notwithstanding her talks at Bletchley Park and her media interviews, her answer to her grandchildren was invariably something of an anticlimax. “Do you know, dear,” she told them in a conspiratorially low voice. “I really can’t remember now.”
Betty O’Connell, wartime codebreaker, was born on July 25, 1925. She died on July 24, 2021, aged 95
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