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It’s been a momentous year for Betty Webb, one of Bletchley Park’s last surviving veterans.
Not only has she published a book about her life and enjoyed a front-row seat at the King’s Coronation, she’s also celebrated her 100th birthday in style.
Webb was only 18 when in 1941 she arrived at Bletchley Park – the centre for Allied codebreaking during World War Two – after volunteering for the Auxiliary Territorial Service.
She had no knowledge of why she was there other than that she was aiding the war effort. After signing the Official Secrets Act, she got to work, initially performing clerical tasks such as filing messages sent by the German police.
“Then somebody discovered that I was rather good at paraphrasing,” says Webb.
“That was in the Japanese department. I didn’t speak Japanese, but I had to read the translated messages and put them into different wording for onward transmission.”
In the Second World War, Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire, became the principal centre of Allied code-breaking.
In 1938 the former country house became home to the Government Code and Cypher School and more than 10,000 people went on to work there.
The Enigma machine used by the German military had the potential for billions of combinations when creating ciphered messages.
In response the allies created its own team to try to break this complex system, which included mathematical genius Alan Turing – who was played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2014 film The Imitation Game.
The round-the-clock work done by the team at Bletchley Park has been credited with shortening the war by at least two years and provided vital intelligence in the Battle of Britain.
At the end of the War the expertise developed at Bletchley Park was taken forward in the organisation known now as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Bletchley Park is now a museum.
At first she didn’t fully understand what was happening at the Buckinghamshire centre.
“Obviously, senior people would have known all about the exercise, but anyone who was as junior as I was, had no idea,” says Webb.
“Outside the office, we were not allowed to speak about anything we saw, read or heard.”
When wartime information was declassified in the mid-Seventies, she was free to discuss her time at Bletchley but at first she stayed quiet.
Betty Webb with her parents in 1947
“When you’ve been keeping everything to yourself for that length of time, it’s quite difficult to suddenly open up,” says Webb, who was posted to the Pentagon, in Washington, after she left Bletchley.
“Since my parents had died (by then), there was no one that I wished to talk to about it.”
It wasn’t until the Nineties that she revealed her involvement to some friends. At their encouragement, she made the leap from guarding her secrets to sharing them publicly at a series of talks.
Now, her story is reaching a wider audience with the publication of her book No More Secrets.
Even now her life continues to get more remarkable – in May she was invited to the Coronation.
“The invitation itself was a beautiful document,” she says. “It was a tremendous privilege to be able to attend.”
For the occasion, she selected a vibrant red jacket and skirt, which made it easy for her friends and family to spot her on television. “That wasn’t intentional but proved to be very useful!” says Webb, who lives in Wythall, Worcestershire.
Accompanied by her niece, she was up at 5am to travel from her hotel to Westminster Abbey for security checks, as they were required to be in their seats by 7.30am to await the King’s arrival at 11am.
“I was sitting in the nave,” she says. “Everybody walked past me to get to the front. When King Charles came back down towards the exit, he was about six feet from me.”
But this wasn’t the first time Webb has seen the King up close.
“He presented me with my MBE some years ago,” she says. “We chatted about Bletchley and got on very well.”
Betty Webb at the opening of Bletchley Park museum with a friend
May also saw Webb turn 100 and her landmark birthday was honoured with a party at Bletchley.
“I was privileged to be able to use the ballroom, which is enormous and beautiful,” she recalls.
Along with 60 friends, relatives, and Bletchley staff members, Webb enjoyed a buffet lunch followed by speeches. “Then I had to say a few words, but I don’t have the foggiest notion of what I said!”
The highlight of the day was when she was surprised by a Lancaster bomber fly-past.
“It was amazing,” she says. “Something I’ll never forget.”
Written by Rebecca Norris she/her
Rebecca Norris is Features Assistant at Saga Magazine. She trained in news and features writing at City, University of London, graduating with an MA in Magazine Journalism in 2022.
Previously, she studied English Literature at the University of Warwick, where she navigated the pandemic as Comment Editor of her student newspaper and became an expert in Leamington Spa’s takeaway offerings.
Now hopping between London and the Berkshire countryside, she can often be found plotting her next trip abroad, following (and constantly rewinding) crochet tutorials on YouTube, or listening to good singer-songwriters on shuffle.