‘Mum had extraordinary secrets’: TV and radio presenter PADDY O’CONNELL reveals how a spellbinding wartime diary found in an attic taught him more about his mother than he’d ever cared to ask
Two years ago I lost my mother, on the eve of her 96th birthday. Still sharp as a tack, she was doing the crossword until her final days and remained firmly in possession of the sense of humour and relentless curiosity which had defined her.
Like anyone suffering such a loss, I will feel her absence all the more acutely this Mothering Sunday.
Betty O’Connell was an extraordinary, determined woman. She had raised three children as a single mother after my father died when she was 51. Her resilience influenced who I am today.
We underestimate our mothers at our peril. They have much to teach us, if only we’ll listen. As the generation which came before us, their experiences are a precious social history. The small battles they fought made us who we are.
And today – too late, after her death – I am learning more about the woman who raised me than I could have imagined.
Like anyone suffering such a loss, I will feel my mother Betty’s absence all the more acutely this Mothering Sunday
Mum, like many of her generation, had extraordinary secrets. She was one of the famous Bletchley Park codebreaker girls, despatched as a wartime teenager from the family home in Coventry to Buckinghamshire.
As a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS for short, but better known as the Wrens), she signed the Official Secrets Act and never disclosed much of what went on behind those famous gates to anyone. Not even to my father, a Royal Marine who led a commando unit during the D-Day landings.
If anyone asked, she blamed her fading memory for her inability to recall the events of those days. ‘I wish I could remember the details of it all,’ she’d say. But what she had also forgotten was that she had kept a diary. My brother found it, stashed in a box in her attic with some old letters, while going through her things last summer.
Bound in brown crocodile leather, it held a time capsule. The gilt-lined pages were filled with rows of her distinctive, elegant handwriting, the entries dating from November 1944 to January 1946.
She describes the gruelling eight-hour shifts at Bletchley – including overnight – to operate the code-breaking machines, the dispiriting lack of men at the local dances and the films she loved to watch.
Finding it now is bittersweet. How I wish I’d been able to talk to her about those days in more detail.
Ten thousand people worked at Bletchley Park, the hub for Britain’s military code-breaking operation during the war. The vast majority, 8,000 in all, were women.
They deciphered secret communications from the Axis powers and broke codes from the German Enigma and Lorenz machines, using counter-devices developed by the British – the Bombe and the Colossus.
Many were billeted to the stately homes nearby – Mum to Woburn Abbey. Her dormitory, Rodney Nine, became the subject of a poem, written as she sat on one of the Abbey’s enormous lavatories.
‘Tis my intent to compose a rhyme/Dedicated to Rodney Nine/To Ronnie, Pam, Jean and Joy/ Bar and Nan whom oft I annoy/Rene the mother of us all/Ready to answer every call.’ ‘Rene’ was Irene Dixon, and she and Mum were known as the ‘Morecambe and Wise’ of the Wrens.
The ditty appears to confirm a rumour that the WRNS would sunbathe naked on the Abbey roof. As Mum also wrote: ‘Jean is her name, and her suntan is proof/Of the browning power of the Abbey roof.’
She also wrote often of the local dances they frequented known as ‘hops’. She rated them according to the ratio of men to women, and noted a dislike for ‘the Yanks’, as she called the American soldiers.
At one, in March 1945, she’d met a Polish RAF officer called Michael. ‘He was extremely nice – I enjoyed myself very much,’ she wrote.
Mum later describes waiting by the phone for him to call and heads off for liaisons he cannot, in the end, make. She admits to being ‘thoroughly depressed’ by thwarted attempts to see him.
But they did meet again. An entry records that she’d had to ‘work hard to get a pair of suitable stockings’ for the occasion. On arriving into Bedford by train, her hat had blown off in the wind and she’d had to borrow his coat to stay warm.
She never forgot him. When I went to Poland on holiday a few years ago, Mum hoped I might track him down. She still had the embroidered leaves from the uniform of a captured German officer that Michael had given her. Those years weren’t all fun. There was boredom and sadness at the relentlessness of war. Mum recounts how ‘terribly tired’ she was and how she hated Bletchley’s night shifts.
They had to feed a tape through various wheels on the Colossus machine, standing upright the entire time. She desperately wanted the war to be over.
But when that moment came – those at Bletchley were told two days before Churchill officially announced the ceasefire to the nation – it felt ‘flat’, she recalls.
‘A message came to us at work that war was over,’ she wrote. ‘Everyone went mad – literally mad. But no news bulletin confirmed it and everything became very flat.’
Mum had once hinted, just before she died, about being among the VE Day crowds in front of Buckingham Palace. I didn’t believe her. But she describes in the diary the ‘pure joy’ of the celebrations.
After the war, she returned to the diary only twice. In January 1946, she documents the death of her brother, David, who had been in the RAF but was killed in a plane crash before being demobbed.
‘Never again will my whole being be alive and happy,’ she wrote. ‘With David, part of me has died forever.’
The final entry is another romantic lament. A man had dumped her and had written a letter in which he said: ‘I hope you find someone else.’ She was very angry about it. And, curiously, because I know who he is – although I won’t name him here – I’m aware she met him once a year, in a pub, for the rest of her life. Some flames never die.
Mum went on to marry my father, Guy O’Connell, who died when I was 11. She never remarried, using her shorthand skills to become a secretary and hotel receptionist.
And she never forgot her days at Bletchley. She went back, several times, for reunions and events. She and Rene Dixon reconnected and had another ten years of friendship later in life.
I once watched as they were invited to see, for the first time, the Lorenz Schlussel-Zusatz machine that had defined their early lives.
The size of a car engine, it made German troop movements and messages between the High Command vanish into smoke.
But the team at Bletchley had cracked its code. That day, Betty and Rene had held each other by the arm and squinted at it. It seemed to haunt the room. Clearly, it had haunted this pair, too.
Mum could not have foreseen that the diary’s first readers would be her children, nearly 70 years into the future – a very different time.
How I wish we could talk about it now. Treasure your mother today, talk about the past.
We can all, as I have, learn from our mothers.
Paddy O’Connell’s fee for this article has been donated to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley.
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