Code-breakerMavis Batey

Born in London, Batey was studying German when World War II broke out, so she was recruited to help in the war effort. “So I thought, great,” she recalled. “This is going to be an interesting job: Mata Hari, seducing Prussian officers. But I don’t think either my legs or my German were good enough because they sent me to the Government Code & Cipher School.” She became a leading code breaker at Bletchley Park, Britain’s leading code-breaking center, and was put to work on breaking Germany’s Enigma cipher machine. She was only 19 years old.

While working on an Italian Enigma, she broke the code. The message was short and simple: it essentially said an important message would be sent in three days. Three days later, “a very, very large message came in,” she said: plans for an attack by Italy on a Royal Navy convoy. It was detailed: “How many cruisers there were, and how many submarines were to be there, and where they were to be at such and such a time, absolutely incredible that they should spell it all out.” The Royal Navy thwarted the attack, winning a decisive victory in what is now known as the Battle of Cape Matapan. Later, she worked on the Abwehr’s (German’s military intelligence service) Enigma, which used a more sophisticated cipher. She broke that, too, and helped ensure the success of the D-Day landings. Batey was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1987 — not for her code-breaking work, which was kept secret for decades, but rather for her post-war work on the preservation and conservation of historic gardens. She died on November 12, at 92.

From This is True for 17 November 2013