Pamela Rose obituary: Actor who gave up the stage to become a wartime codebreaker

Rose worked at British codebreaking centre 60 years before making her West End debut

Pamela Rose
Born: November 29th, 1917
Died: October 17th, 2021

Pamela Rose, who has died aged 103, landed her first significant role as an actor on the London stage in 1941 under her maiden name, Pamela Gibson, but it would be another 60 years before she made her West End debut.

Instead she took her language skills to the secret wartime codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, where she ran Naval Hut 4’s indexing section. Later, she had little truck with the media glare Bletchley attracted: “It was something of a disappointment to a young woman and definitely a cushy berth”, but conceded that “a common enemy draws people together like nothing else”.

As part of the forces entertainment programme Ensa, Rose had begun the second World War in a reserved occupation, acting in Bournemouth and then at the Prince of Wales theatre in Birmingham. She was frustrated by Ensa’s below par productions so it was welcome news that she had been offered her first West End role in Watch on the Rhine.

In the meantime came an approach through a family friend: “I know you are doing splendid work entertaining the troops but there is a place where they want girls exactly like you. Here’s the address . . .”


Part of the social network through which Bletchley Park recruited its cohort of civilian women and with good German, Rose impressed her interviewer, Frank Birch, a thespian-academic working in naval intelligence. Torn between the West End and the prospect of unspecified secret war work, she sought Birch’s advice. His answer was unequivocal: “The stage can wait, the war can’t.”

Rose thought at first, “I was going to be dropped from an aeroplane into Germany. Goodness knows my German wasn’t really good enough for that but one has exalted ideas when one is young”. Her arrival at Bletchley Park was an anticlimax for the 24-year-old, but her utility was not in question.

A linguist in the indexing section of Naval Hut 4, she was the recipient of decoded German messages from which all significant information had to be recorded and indexed. It was assiduous work that required a good memory. “Requests for the latest movements of a German battleship had to be accessed and cross-referenced with all other relevant information.”

Rose was quickly promoted to index leader of this unprecedented data system (pre-microchip and housed on cards) and given the task of managing a clutch of former debutantes who included the wild Jean Campbell-Harris, later Lady Trumpington.

She attended section head meetings and was privy to a level of knowledge about the code-breaking nexus that most women were not. Among her female peers, many of whom were just out of school, she made an impression. One Bletchley recruit, Rozanne Colchester, remembered a woman on “the verge of being a rebel. She was more than stylish, she had her own style. And she was terribly brainy, creative and very quick at picking up languages”.

Rose was born in London into a family in which musical performance was the governing force. Her father, Thornley Gibson, was an opera singer and her mother, Dolly (nee Coit), was also passionate about music. Growing up Rose recalled PWE – “pleasant Wednesday evenings” – when her parents orchestrated musical gatherings on gold chairs and she and her brother were occasionally expected to perform.

She was sent off to boarding school aged six at Broadstairs preparatory school, then Westonbirt school for girls, in Gloucestershire, and elocution lessons reinforced her ambition to become an actor. A self-reliant child, she told herself: “Whatever happens I have always got me. I remember thinking that was quite a comfort.” A reluctant debutante, Pamela left the 1936 season early to cycle to France, where the Moulin Rouge singer Yvette Guilbert taught her French and cabaret performance.

Staying in Munich a year later to hone her German, with characteristic candour she later said: “I’m ashamed to say I don’t think I was aware of the ghastly things that were going on. I was like so many young people, preoccupied with myself. I wanted to get back to London and act.”

She enrolled on a Webber Douglas course and did just that, and even at Bletchley Park channelled her acting into theatrical revues. “I directed Candida, by George Bernard Shaw. I didn’t want anything too experimental; we had to bear in mind the ability of the actors.”

She might have returned to the stage after the war but meeting Wing Commander Jim Rose at the Park changed that. They married in 1946. After the war, Jim became a journalist and founded the International Press Institute in the 1950s.

Rose recalled that he told her: “‘If you go back on the stage you’ll be going out to work just as I am coming in’, so I gave up acting. I wanted to spend my life with Jim and I thought you can’t have everything. I doubt I would’ve thought like that now but one is conditioned by the way others think and I was a product of my time.”

She ran a mentoring scheme for African-Caribbean children in a London comprehensive school, was vice-chair of the NSPCC and served as chair of the Stroke Association.

Jim died in 1999, and she finally appeared on the West End stage later that year, in Lady Windermere’s Fan. “It was terrifying but great fun and it helped subdue the grief.”

Rose is survived by her daughter, Harriet, and son, Alan, five grandchildren, Chloe, Charlotte, Matthew, Clare and Hannah, and six great-grandchildren.