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Speaker Mike Toogood: ‘Enigma’

Mike Toogood has studied Military History and Genealogy for 40 years. He gave a very interesting talk on Bletchley Park and an Enigma who spent some of her time there. This Enigma was a Czech named Dita Balmer, born Edita Herman in Bohemia, who died on Tyneside in 2012 at the age of 91. She had joined the WAAF at the beginning of the war.

Some WAAFs worked at Bletchley Park, which had been purchased in 1938 by the head of the Secret Intelligence Service. Bletchley was a small village, half way between Oxford and Cambridge from where many of its best brains were recruited. Staff were also recruited from those who sent in Times crosswords to the newspaper. Bletchley Park had its own water supply, good telephone connections and was close to the railway station. In short, it was the ideal location for its unique purpose. Between 7000 and 8000 worked there in the war, but somehow, this did not raise suspicions. Alan Turing was recruited at the age of 24. Bletchley is where the new town of Milton Keynes was built.

The Enigma machine was first invented in 1918 in Germany and available commercially in the 1920s. Very quickly, it was developed for military use in the belief that it would make communications impenetrable. However, the Poles had worked out how to break the code by 1932. The machine itself had a Qwerty keyboard and rotors. In 1941, a U boat was boarded and a machine was captured. The Poles had built machines called Bombas which could break the code. Improvements to these used ‘cribs’, assumed or known words in a message as an aid. In October 1942, the German U boat U559 was captured in the Mediterranean. Three seamen from HMS Petard recovered a hugely valuable machine and documents from the stricken vessel before she sank. Unfortunately, First Lieutenant Anthony Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier drowned when the U boat sank. The third man, a NAAFI canteen assistant, Tommy Brown survived.

Dita spoke German, Russian and English as well as her native Czech and was therefore very attractive to the Security Services. After being trained at Arisaig in Western Scotland and a ‘finishing’ school at Beaulieu, she was dropped behind enemy lines 4 times. She also worked at Beeston Bump Y station, a listening post at Sheringham in Norfolk. Much of her work will remain a mystery forever. Her family was shocked by what they learned after she died – they had not even known that she was Jewish. She had become a practising Roman Catholic at the end of the war. Whether she was involved in the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, planned by the SOE will never be known.

She was awarded the Star, War Medal and Defence Medal and Mentioned in Dispatches in 1944. She received a Veteran’s Commemorative Badge in 2009, when Gordon Brown ordered acknowledgement of those who had not had sufficient recognition of their war service. This badge is a GC&CS badge, the forerunner of GCHQ. This resulted in huge surprise for her family when details were discovered after her death. She became a naturalised British citizen in 1947. She married an ex-army officer and they moved to Newcastle in 1963. She was a model heroine, spending the rest of her life working for various charities and remaining reticent about her earlier life. She left her body for medical research.

In reply to questions, Mike said that there is little evidence that the Germans were successful in breaking our codes, although they did learn about radar. It is not clear how we communicated the information we obtained from their messages to the front line commanders. Churchill was very guarded and ordered that information which could be traced uniquely to Enigma, would never be used in the field. Mike noted that the planned National College of Cyber Security which will train 16-19 year olds will be at Bletchley Park.