Leslie Greer: natural linguist who used her talents at Bletchley Park

Obituary: she was always modest about her wartime role

 Leslie Greer  worked as an analyst in Bletchley Park. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Leslie Greer worked as an analyst in Bletchley Park. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

When Leslie Greer was well into her 80s, her niece Stephanie asked her what she would do if she won the lottery. “I’d like to buy my own theatre company and my own racing stables,” she replied.

It was the sort of spirited response that characterised much of the life of Greer, who has died at 99, and would likely have been acted upon, had such good fortune presented itself to her – even at that great age.

Leslie Greer (née Tyrrell) MBE, a woman of remarkable wit and intelligence, was also modest about her wartime contribution. That part of her life was acknowledged last January when the British ambassador to Ireland, Dominick Chilcott, presented her with a medal, the Bletchley Park commemorative badge, in recognition of the work she did at the British government’s code and cypher school.

Leslie (she always used the masculine form) was born in London in April 1917 to a mother who was a first World War motorcycle despatch rider for the Royal Flying Corps, the then British army’s air arm.

Her father, the son of a Trinity College Dublin professor, was a barrister and shortly after her birth, the family moved to Dublin.

Greer attended Alexandra College, situated at that time on Earlsfort Terrace, before going on to Trinity College where she studied modern languages, taking a first in German. Linguistics was apparently in her blood: her grandfather was the eminent Trinity classical studies professor, Robert Yelverton Tyrrell.

Life-long education

But it was her prowess in German that was to prove useful to the British war effort. Following graduation from her initial studies at Trinity, Greer found herself as a part-time German language lecturer in Queen’s University, Belfast, when Hitler invaded Poland.

“It occurred to me,” she said in an interview with The Irish Times last January, “that there was the war going on and it seemed to me that the war was more serious than teaching German.”

With the encouragement of her professor at Queen’s, she offered her services to the British government. Told at interview to go to Bletchley Park the following Monday, Greer inquired as to what she might be doing.

“They said ‘we couldn’t possibly tell you that’,” Greer recalled in later life.

Enigma machines

The information obtained was used sparingly and in a way that did not betray to the Germans that their communication codes had been compromised. The work done at Bletchley has been estimated to have shortened the war by four years.

Greer was always modest about her role there and quick to point out that hundreds of people worked at Bletchley. Nonetheless, she was a member of a very exclusive club and did not speak about it to her family until much later in life.

“She was very offhand about the work she did there, not dismissive, but she never felt she was important, even though she was doing important work,” Stephanie Jewell recalled this week.

Her skills may have been more than linguistic.

“She was piercingly accurate and wouldn’t take any nonsense,” said her nephew, Rob Jewell. “She had a way of looking at you that seemed to be looking at the truth inside you.”

After the war, she worked for the British Council, living variously in Germany and Spain, where she met the writer Patrick Greer, whom she married in Jerusalem in October 1966.

Several years working with the British Council in Brazil and Uruguay preceded her and Patrick’s initial retirement in the Pyrenean foothills before moving back to Ireland. Here, prior to Patrick’s death in the 1990s, they moved in Irish literary and artistic circles, numbering among their friends the poets Brendan Kennelly and Máire Mhac an tSaoi.

She received her MBE for her work with the British Council and was characteristically modest with it.

She and Patrick did not have children of their own but in her nieces and nephew, whom she loved deeply, Leslie showed respect and shared her knowledge, gifts they value as irreplaceable.

She died at St Mary’s Home, Pembroke Park, Dublin surrounded by pastel illustrations by Patrick and volumes of poetry and the German dictionary she insisted were always with her.

Leslie Greer is survived by her sister Stella Jewell, nieces Antonia and Stephanie, and nephew Rob.