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A Louisiana Life: Marigold McNeely
Secrets of a code-breaker
Marigold McNeely kept a secret for 30 years.
Until the 1970s, the soft-spoken Covington resident was bound by Britain’s Official Secrets Act from telling anyone, even her family, about her important role in World War II.
Originally from Somerset, England, McNeely was just 13 when the war broke out in 1939.
She joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, or WRNS, also called “Wrens,” when she turned 17.
McNeely was interviewed and tested extensively before she received her assignment.
“You had to be able to keep secrets,” she says. “I know they gave us some psychological tests, but I don’t know what they were looking for.”
Something about her must have stood out, however, because she was sent to Bletchley Park, code-named Station X, where Britain’s top-secret code-breaking operations took place.
“I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do,” she says.
What she did was assist in an effort that, by some accounts, shortened the war by up to four years and aided significantly in the Allied victory. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the workers at Bletchley Park as “the geese that laid the golden egg but never cackled.”
McNeely’s assignment was to work eight-hour shifts on machines that decoded encrypted German Morse code messages.
The German forces used a high-tech typewriter called an Enigma machine that produces complex codes with a seemingly endless number of possible translations, rendering it virtually unbreakable.
Unbreakable, that is, until Alan Turing, a brilliant Cambridge University mathematician and the father of computer science, helped build a cryptanalytical machine that could decode the messages.
Workers at Bletchley Park were able to intercept German messages. The encrypted messages were then sent to code-breaking huts, where McNeely and her fellow Wrens programmed Turing’s large machines according to the settings on a provided menu. Then the machines would run.
“Once it got started, the machine went on until it suddenly stopped,” McNeely recalls. “And everyone let out a cheer because we had broken that code for the day. But we didn’t know what [the code] was, and nobody ever told us. And then we’d go on with the next menu. The variations of the combinations of the numbers and letters were unbelievable.”
The decoded message, written in German, was taken to another hut to be translated into English. “All this had to be done 24 hours a day,” she says.
Everyone at Bletchley Park was sworn to secrecy, unable to tell anyone outside the complex what they were working on. They were even restricted from speaking to one another about their work. This meant McNeely had very little context about the gravity of her work.
“All we knew was that we were doing a very important job, and we did know when the machine stopped, we had broken a code,” she says. “We knew we were code-breakers.”
Secrecy was important in the event of a German invasion. “We always had the idea that we might be invaded and the Germans might come and torture us, and that’s why it was important for each person not to know what the next person did,” she says.
Although the broken codes helped the Allies anticipate German movement, the Allies couldn’t prevent everything they knew about.
“The sad thing about it was, we found out later, some of these codes that we broke they couldn’t act on because if they did, the Germans would know that we had broken the code,” McNeely says. “Some ships and different battles had to be sacrificed although they knew what was happening.”
Recognition for her work came decades later in the form of badges and a certificate from the British government – and appreciation from fellow Brits.
“If I wore these badges in England, they give you free cups of tea – still! – get on a bus and it’s free, go into a museum and it’s free,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. They’re still appreciating what you did.”