After the end of World War II, four women who performed vital but secret jobs during wartime, settled into mundane lives in London, England. Susan, who had a husband and two children, had never revealed to her husband what her job was during the war. She passed it off as a clerical job for the war effort. Her keen mind has been put to the test when a series of grisly murders stumped the London Police Department. She followed the newspaper accounts religiously and realized that there was a pattern to the activity of the killer that had escaped the eyes of the authorities.
Although the major characters in “The Bletchley Circle” may be well known in England, their names are not familiar to American audiences. This film is the first of two series that were aired in the United States by PBS.
Bletchley Park Hut - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Female Code Breakers
In reality, Susan had worked at top secret headquarters, Bletchley Park, nine years previously. She was a part of a group of brilliant women who helped to crack the German military codes, an act which shortened World War II by at least two years and saved the lives of thousands of people. The British government used women as members of the intelligence force known as M16 in the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) to work as codebreakers in the Hut at Bletchley Park.Women outnumbered the men four to one in this onerous task.
When Susan informed the police about her theories, they dismissed her as a bored housewife obsessed with the newspaper clippings about the events taking place in London. Susan contacted three friends with whom she worked at Bletchley Park to discuss her thoughts and to enlist their help. They were part of the codebreaking team for the British military during the War and were good at their jobs. Lucy had a photographic memory, Jean was highly organized, and Millie was fearless and adventurous.
Bletchley Park IMG 3628 by Magnus Manske - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia
The Foursome Use Their Expertise
The foursome were compelled to tell their husbands that they were getting together to form a Book Club in order to divert any suspicions the men might have. The body of a fourth woman had been found. The first three victims were Jane Hart, Patricia Harris, and Sophie Trent. Each of the victims was murdered, then raped. None were found near their homes. They were out on their own at night. They were all making journeys on the Railways. Susan deduced that the killer was on the train also, in his own train compartment. The foursome, in their research, found that there were an additional eight murders in the area which had supposedly been solved, but had been attributed to the wrong persons.
Susan’s husband, Timothy, who had been wounded in the war, served with the Deputy Commissioner of Police, and arranged for Susan to meet with him. By this time, he knew that Susan was interested in the serial killer’s murders, but did not know that her three fellow-workers had been helping her. Susan related to the Commissioner that the killer might be a ticket inspector or a guard, someone respectable and in authority, someone who could be trusted. He might have had something that the girls wanted - perfume, lipstick, or nylons. The Deputy Commissioner needed evidence, not theories, and would not listen.
Timothy had been expecting to receive a promotion at his office as Supervisor of Vehicle Licensing, and was fearful that Susan’s talks with the Deputy Commissioner would impede his promotion.
Enigma - Wikimedia
Lucy Agrees to be the Bait
Lucy, the youngest of the foursome, agreed to be the bait to lure the killer. Sure enough, a man approached her compartment, flirted with her, and took her to a dark place. She managed to escape, and was reunited with the girls. He was not the killer, however. He was just a man intent on putting Lucy in a compromising position. Unfortunately, her husband, misunderstanding the events that had occurred, beat her ferociously, a deed that he executed frequently. Millie took her in and Lucy was safe.
Susan met with a man named Cavendish, who had been in charge of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during the war. Through mathematical procedures that the girls had used at Bletchley, such as vector analysis and standard deviations, the girls had come up with the name of one of his men. Susan told Cavendish that his colleague had killed twelve women. His method was to take them somewhere dark, strangle them, and then rape them. He sprayed them with perfume that, in small spaces, smelled unbearable.
The Police had the wrong man in custody, due in part to Susan’s theories. Cavendish was able to pinpoint the correct person for Susan. During the war, Malcolm Crowley who worked for Cavendish, was working in a building that was bombed. He was buried in the rubble for three days in the dark. A dead girl was in there with him. When he was rescued, he needed psychiatric help to overcome the trauma.
A great deal of work was done by the four sleuths to bring the matter to a close. Susan returned home, but it is unclear whether she revealed to her husband Timothy at that point what her job at Bletchley had been and the work she did to reveal the serial killer nine years later.
Turing Plaque by Joseph Birr-Pixton - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia
Alan Turing is Lauded for his Work
Alan Turing and his crew at Bletchley Park have always received all the credit for breaking the Enigma code. The film “The Imitation Game” tells this story from a different point of view than we now know. In reality, the women who worked at Bletchley Park never received due respect for the work they did on Enigma. They were bright young women recruited from secretarial colleges, the armed forces, or straight out of school. Author Michael Smith has set the record straight in his recent non-fiction book entitled “The Debs of Bletchley Park,” published in 2015.
Significant Word Done at Bletchley Park
The work at Bletchley Park was really the beginning of the Information Age when breaking codes became possible through machines such as Alan Turing’s “Bombe” and the introduction of the world’s first electronic computer, known as “Colosssus.”
Breaking the German code, allowed the British naval forces to track the German U-Boats which had been sinking ships that brought crucial supplies to Britain from the United States. The British were also able to confuse the Germans about where the Allies planned to land on D-Day. Their decision to divert their troops away from Normandy was the key to the invasion’s success. It was vital to keep secret the fact that Enigma had been broken.
It is good that the women from Bletchley are now getting the recognition they deserve for their part in the war effort. This film has helped to bring out the truth, along with author Michael Smith’s brave effort to right this wrong.