Seventy years on, former Bletchley Park WRN revisits Woburn Abbey

Mrs Hill during her visit to the Abbey
Mrs Hill during her visit to the Abbey

Woburn Abbey was honoured to receive a visit from Mrs Dorothy Hill last week.

Dorothy was one of the WRNS working at Bletchley Park and billeted at Woburn Abbey during the Second World War.

Woburn Abbey

Woburn Abbey

During the start of the war, Woburn Abbey and its estate buildings were requisitioned by the government as the country headquarters of the political intelligence division of the Foreign Office (CHQ). Several hundred officials lived and worked on the estate. In 1943 CHQ retreated to the Riding School on the estate and the Abbey was reallocated to the Royal Navy for billeting WRNS until the end of the war.

Many of these young women, including Mrs Hill who was only 17 at the time, worked at Bletchley Park, the central site for British code-breakers.

It housed the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which regularly penetrated the secret communications of the Axis Powers – most importantly the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers.

Mrs Hill, who started work at Bletchley in early 1944, recalls the gruelling shifts, work went on 24 hours a day and the days and nights were divided up in 3 9-hour shifts.

“The night-shifts were the hardest; we used to work nine nights in a row. It was difficult to sleep during the day as the lights would be on and the other girls would be talking in the same room. We were very tired during the night shifts,” she recalled.

The WRNS slept in the attic rooms of the Abbey with the state rooms out of bounds. The bedrooms had four bunk beds and eight ladies shared each room.

The WRNS dined in the former Servants’ Hall and the meals were basic due to rationing. The women were not allowed to venture to far into the estate grounds as the Foreign Office was undertaking highly sensitive work.

By the time Mrs Hill joined Bletchley in 1944, the GC&CS were able to decipher messages sent via Enigma machines. Mrs Hill worked on an actual Enigma machine, she was taught how to apply the correct settings, she would then type in the encrypted messages in order to decipher them.

She recalls: “There were so many messages, by the time you deciphered one there would be several more in your in-tray.”

Mrs Hill preferred her stay at Woburn Abbey compared to Wavendon House where she was billeted when she started work at Bletchley. She recalls that the ‘bedrooms’ were in the stables where the leaves and snow used to blow under the doors.

Mrs Hill enjoyed her recent visit to the Abbey and seeing the view from the windows to recall the location of the room she stayed in during her year at Woburn Abbey. Room guides at the Abbey loved speaking to Mrs Hill to find out some of her personal experiences from her time at Bletchley Park and at the Abbey.