A Chiswick woman will receive the Légion d’Honneur, the highest French order of merit today (Tuesday 18 June) for her work during the Second World War. Pat Davies was one of the ‘Bletchley Girls’, working at listening stations around the coast, eavesdropping on German naval radio transmissions and relaying the content to the code breakers at Bletchley Park. “It was interesting work – exciting and serious in equal measure. We didn’t know the significance of the messages we passed on, but we knew the work we were doing was important” says Pat Davies (then Patricia Owtram).
Photographs above: Patricia Owtram in 1942; WRNS insignia; Patricia Davies as she is now
Pat joined the WRNS – the Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1942, as a volunteer when she was just 18. After a basic training course – “we learned to march and salute and learned the Admiralty rules. I remember it was during a heatwave and we had these heavy serge uniforms – not ideal”- she was chosen for special duties as a linguist. Pat had grown up in her grandfather’s house in rural Lancashire, with her parents and brother and sister and throughout the 1930s they had a succession of Austrian cooks and housemaids, Jewish refugees – “they couldn’t always cook, but they were escaping Hitler”. Pat spent a lot of time with one in particular, talking to her in the evenings, and as a result spoke fluent German, albeit with a slight Viennese accent, as she was told recently by a German radio host who interviewed her for the 75th anniversary of D Day.
Photographs above: Pat in her WRNS uniform; her photograph of WRNS colleagues tap-dancing; her photograph used for the cover of a book about The Bletchley Girls
Eavesdropping on the German navy
The navy had 26 listening stations dotted all round the east and south coast of England, in what had been small hotels and family homes. After initial training in Wimbledon, Pat started at Withernsea, one of the navy’s ‘Y’ stations in Yorkshire, listening to the conversations of German boats in the North Sea. “We had 12 German speaking WRNS, an officer in charge and one man – a naval signalman who looked after the equipment”. Working on shifts around the clock, their job was to transcribe messages on a teleprinter and send them to Bletchley Park. Most were in code – the famous Enigma code – and were conversations between the ships and their base or from a commander to a group of ships. The Enigma code was arranged in four letter groups, using a phonetic alphabet based mainly on names – Anton, Bertha, Caesar, Dora, Emil, Fritz and so on.
“We didn’t know what happened at Bletchley Park. We’d all signed the Official Secrets Act and we didn’t ask questions”. The first wartime Enigma messages were broken in January 1940, so all the time Pat was working, the messages she passed on were being decoded and added to the Allies’ information on German activities. The WRNS worked two at a time, writing down what they heard on a signaling pad, using radio receivers. “Mostly it was in code but some of it was ordinary speech. When they were in action they had no time to put it in code”. Even the mundane was potentially useful. “We knew everything could be important. Even one torpedo boat to another just saying they were going to be on shore leave next week”.
Pat learned Morse code and direction finding, so she could pinpoint the position of ships. She was promoted to Chief Petty Officer and passed the board for a commission, but was not allowed promotion as she was too useful where she was. She transferred to a station at Lyme Regis in the summer of 1943, where they listened to shipping off Normandy. “You could hear the German lighthouse keepers. They’d say things like ‘put your lights on at eight o’clock’ and you’d know there was a convoy expected”.
Photographs above: Notification that Pat had been accepted as a WRN; her WRNS identity tag; identity photos
From Lyme Regis she moved to Dover, where she had a grandstand view of the preparations for the Normandy landings from their clifftop perch. “We knew it was coming because Churchill was there. I saw him on the cliff top at eight o’clock one morning. He visited several times. They were trying to deceive the Germans into believing the attack would be at Calais, and it worked”. The WRNS watched as hundreds of empty landing craft and what looked like upturned tables, sections of the Mulberry harbour, a temporary harbour built to facilitate the offloading of cargo on to the beaches, passed by on their way up the Channel.
“We were not allowed to go more than 20 miles from base” she says. Despite heavy shelling of Dover and the adjacent anti-aircraft guns pounding away at the German bombers – “it was very noisy, rather annoying when you were desperate to get a night’s sleep” – she had what is termed ‘a good war’. “You were working with people your own age and we were invited to regimental dances. We saw a lot of the RAF”. Pat passed her 21st birthday at the Abbot’s Cliff station at Dover. The RAF popped over the Dublin to buy the gin. “I didn’t have a serious romance, though there were lots of them” she says.
When the German navy capitulated she transferred to London to work for the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, under General Eisenhower. Her job there was to go through German official documents the army had sent back from mainland Europe, looking for potential war criminals. The British government recognised her service with the Victory medal. “I only got the Victory medal” she says, “there was another medal – the Defence medal for 1,000 days service. I’d done over 900, but not quite 1,000 so I didn’t get it. My sister got one. She was with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (the FANYs) in Egypt, and she got one for serving abroad, even though she’d done less time than me, so I was rather aggrieved. I thought it was rather stingy”.
Photographs above: Pat’s Victory medal and Bletchley badge; friends in the WRNS; Churchill’s Spirit of Britain speech
The Labour government made amends in 2009 when Gordon Brown decided to award the Bletchley Girls with a Bletchley badge. Now Pat will be picking up an attractive metal star on a red ribbon from the French ambassador and celebrating with close friends and family by having tea at the Ritz. Pat Davies went on to work in the Norwegian embassy after the war and from there to Granada and the BBC. She worked for many years on The Sky At Night with Patrick Moore and it was she who developed ‘University Challenge’ into the popular quiz show it became. She retired in 1883 and lives by the river in Chiswick.
Photographs below: Pat wearing her Victory medal and Bletchley badge; Pat’s wartime photograph album; Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recognition of her work; her album of photographs; Supreme Allied Command Intelligence Glossary; Pat’s name in a brick wall at Bletchley Park; Pat at her home in Chiswick; Pat with her WRNS friend Christian Lamb, author of a book on the WRNS; Pat and Christian with Huw Edwards, being interviewed for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Thanks to Pat for the use of her photographs.