Before she makes your coffee, Betty Webb feels obliged to apologise for having been unavailable the day before.
“There was a conference of the Birmingham branch of the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association, of which I am chairman, so I thought I should attend. They asked me to stay on as chairman yesterday. I said yes.”
Not bad, perhaps, for a 94-year-old on her second hip replacement. But it wasn’t bad either, as an 18-year-old in 1941, to have left a domestic science course to join the fight against fascism.
As part of the top secret codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park that cracked the Enigma cipher and let the British read Nazi messages, Mrs Webb was involved in an intelligence triumph said by historians to have shortened the Second World War by between two and four years.
Two years ago, she learned from a researcher that those soon-to-be-decoded messages she had been ordered to catalogue – strings of letters and numbers that meant nothing to her at the time – had in fact been communications between the worst of the worst: members of the SS and the Gestapo, some of them discussing the beginnings of the Holocaust.
Once the chill of the revelation had subsided, she says, “I was rather pleased to know I had been working on an important part of the exercise. I do hope I made a contribution.”
Mrs Webb quite understands the interest in Bletchley. She’s just amazed anyone would want to come here, to her cosy front room in a Worcestershire village, where she keeps the binoculars on the windowsill, ready to examine whatever birds she may spot in the garden.
“I’m quite surprised people are interested in me,” she says.
You try to tell her she played a key part in defeating fascism, but are very politely reminded: “Well yes, as one of 8,000: very young, very inexperienced, only doing what I was told to do.”
The codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park was portrayed in the film ‘The Imitation Game’, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (StudioCanal)
She greets nearly every question with a rather enigmatic, not to say mischievous grin.
As far as you can tell, the grin seems to come from her own lively curiosity about the interviewer, wry amusement at the younger generation, and a good dollop of kindly encouragement.
It does seem that Mrs Webb was fairly typical of many of the 8,000 women who found their way to Bletchley during the Second World War. (By 1945, women made up three-quarters of the workforce…