Olive Bailey’s codebreaking work at Bletchley Park

CBC Radio calls her life’s story “amazing,” the Winston Churchill Foundation of Vancouver Island calls her “delightfully entertaining,” General Dwight D. Eisenhower called her WW2 codebreaking team “of priceless value.” I call her Grandma.

The historic era she served in is now chronicled in the new blockbuster movie ‘The Imitation Game’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

The British government purchased a mansion shortly before the start of WW2 that became the infamous Bletchley Park a code and cipher centre responsible for cracking codes, most notably the Nazi code dubbed Enigma.

Historian and British author Ben Macintyre once said, “Bletchley Park is a national treasure: the home of the best-kept secret in history, where a group of peculiarly brilliant people made a huge contribution to winning the war,”

Code breaking operations began in the mansion but soon sprawled into huts constructed on the mansion’s grounds.

My grandmother Olive Bailey did her code cracking in Hut 6.  

“It was very secretive,” she said. “You had to swear you would never say anything and it was very intense.”

Even after the war ended, Olive was prohibited from talking about Bletchley Park for several decades. She said she had no problem keeping her secrets safe.

“We must have little bedrooms in our brains where we keep things and that particular memory had a lovely sleep on a nice feather bed and didn’t come out for ages,” she said.

Olive received a completely different experience when she returned to Bletchley several years ago to show her husband Dr. Norman Bailey where she had worked,

“They’re taking troops of tourists around now and Norman and I walked in through the gates and as we were walking all of a sudden I heard a woman say ‘oh look there’s one of them now.’ She’d noticed my Bletchley Park pin I was wearing and it made me feel as though I was some sort of rare bird,” she said laughing.

Olive was 19 and living in London with her 39 year old mother when the war broke in 1939.

Every English woman under the age of 50 was called upon to play a role.

“It was the 11th of July 1940 that two letters plopped through our mailbox in London one for her and one for me,” she remembers vividly.

Germany bombarded British cities with ‘The Blitz’ an intense bombing onslaught that ran from Sept 7 1940 to May 21 1941. An estimated 40,000 British civilians were killed during The Blitz about half of whom lived in London.

The scenery this produced was every bit as horrific as one would imagine.

Olive remembers a particularly gut-wrenching scene she witnessed while riding a bus near Ealing, a western suburb of London.

“I had to take that route by bus that morning because the underground station had to be closed and I was on this London bus going along this road and one of these ghastly surface blast bombs had landed there the night before,” she recalls. “As I went along there were pieces of clothing and pieces of people hanging in the trees along the way… that was a sight I shall never forget.”

She recalls another event one Sunday morning on Oct. 6, 1940, where a bomb would have taken her life had she not been wearing a broach.

“It got to the point where Britain could not stop working just because there were bombers overhead,” she said. “Otherwise we might as well have surrendered there and then.”

Men—commonly referred to as spotters— would be on the roof equipped with microphones and would wait until the bombers were nearly directly overhead before sounding the alarm to take cover.

Olive was sitting at her typewriter that Sunday when the alarm sounded but she found herself trapped at her desk by her golden wire broach that spelled Olive.

 â€œAs I got up to go with my friend Joyce to the shelter with all the rest of the people this wire broach caught in the typewriter key and I was trapped there,” she said. “We heard these bombers coming and (Joyce) took hold of my hand and said ‘for God’s sake Olive come on’ but I couldn’t release myself and all of a sudden the bomb dropped and blew everything up and everybody in that office except for my friend Joyce and myself was killed…If we’d gone to the shelter a minute before we would have been right where the bomb dropped.”

She remembers being trapped under piles of rubble for about 5 hours before rescuers were able to dig them out.  

Olive’s stories and her knack for telling them has made her a widely popular lecturer in Victoria and she has received a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

She is currently working on a book about her life during the war.

“I can’t say I enjoy telling it but I think it’s quite a story of one person’s life of six years in Britain at war,” she said.



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