Irish woman honoured for wartime work at Bletchley Park

Leslie Greer produced reports based on decrypted signals during second World War

Leslie Greer (98), who worked as an analyst in Bletchley Park during the second World War. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Leslie Greer (98), who worked as an analyst in Bletchley Park during the second World War. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

One woman’s role in the extraordinary work carried out in Bletchley Park, Britain’s second World War code-breaking and intelligence-analysing centre, will be acknowledged today at a nursing home in Dublin.

The British ambassador to Ireland, Dominick Chilcott, will present 98-year-old Eileen Leslie Greer with a medal, the Bletchley Park commemorative badge, and certificate, headed “The Government Code and Cypher School” and signed by British prime minister David Cameron.

The certificate expresses the British government’s “deepest gratitude for the vital service you performed during World War II”.

Excited?

“Who wouldn’t be excited getting a medal?” replied Mrs Greer yesterday in the bedroom of her Ballsbridge nursing home, smiling, looking perky, and wearing lightly the burdens of her age.

Known as Leslie (and spelling her name the male way), Greer was born in London to an evidently spirited mother who, during the first World War, was a motorcycle dispatch rider for the Royal Flying Corps, the then British army’s air arm.

First in German

Trinity College

She went to Alexandra College, then in Earlsfort Terrace, and afterwards to Trinity College where she took a first in German.

By her early 20s, she was lecturing at Queen’s in Belfast when the war broke out.

“It occurred to me,” she said yesterday, “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, which was quick to realise her value as a fluent German speaker.

The year after the outbreak of war, Greer found herself working in Bletchley Park, an institution then masked by near complete secrecy and only popularly known today because of films such as Enigma (2001) and The Imitation Game (2014).

Bletchley Park’s war role was to crack the German communication codes, transmitted through Enigma and Lorenz cipher machines, and then use the information in a way that did not betray to the Germans that their communications had been compromised.

Harry Hinsley, a former Bletchley cryptanalyst and editor of the official history of British intelligence during the war, estimated that the work at Bletchley shortened the war by up to four years.

The cryptanalysts worked at Bletchley in Hut 6; Greer and others were in Hut 3, where she was, officially, a “temporary senior assistant officer” on secondment from the foreign office.

Her job was to produce intelligence reports based on German army and air force signals decrypted by Hut 6.

Linguistic skills

“We set up this small group of people who read all the stuff in German and knew what it all meant,” she said.

They gave their analyses to Stuart Milner-Barry, the codebreaking chess player who ran Hut 6, suggesting what they thought they should be looking for in future German communications.

“The work was on the whole boring,” she recalled in her room in St Mary’s Home on Pembroke Park, with her books (a highbrow few kept from a much larger collection and including Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes and Seamus Heaney’s Open Ground), pastel illustrations by her late husband Patrick, and some family photos.

“Some of the information was unimportant,” she said. “But some was very important.

“We had one or two things come in that really got us all on our seats, [for instance] when something happened that showed the Germans were deciding to start something with Russia, everybody got excited.”

It was also important to watch for anything relating to north Africa, she said.

After the war, Greer continued working for the foreign office and was awarded the MBE.

“I think it was because I was in South America and the queen or someone must have thought it was desirable,” she said.

Describing herself as an optimistic person, Greer likes keeping up with the world through The Irish Times and watching some TV, “but only in the evening”.

Despite her years and slightly rusty hearing, Greer is optimistic for the future. “Now, it looks to me that things are getting better,” she said.