When Marigold McNeely was just 13 years old, World War II broke out in Europe. Just a few years later, McNeely would play a role in the war that was critically important—and remained top secret—for decades.
Even in her quiet hometown of Somerset, England, McNeely heard bombs drop and saw their destruction. “Only when the German planes were jettisoning their bombs to get back to Germany were we sometimes targeted,” the soft-spoken Covington resident says. “I can remember coming home from school and seeing great big bomb craters and pieces of furniture hanging up in the trees.”
At 17, McNeely joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, pronounced “Wrens”). “During the war, all the girls and boys were called up when they were 18 if you hadn’t volunteered,” she says. “And I didn’t want to go in a factory, which was one of the options. So I volunteered for the navy.”
The navy interviewed and tested all the new recruits extensively in order to place them at various posts. Though she’s not sure what their requirements were, something about her stood out. “You had to be able to keep secrets. I know they gave us some psychological tests, but I don’t know what they were looking for,” she says. “I didn’t know where I was going, or what I was going to do.” McNeely was eventually placed at Bletchley Park, code-named Station X, the site of Britain’s top-secret code-breaking operations.
The Germans encrypted transmissions on troop and supply movement using a sort of high-tech typewriter called an Enigma machine. The Enigma produces highly complex codes with virtually endless translation possibilities. It was thought to be unbreakable. Unbreakable, that is, until eccentric Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing broke the code. Turing developed an electromechanical machine called the bombe, which could reveal the daily settings for the Germans’ encrypted messages.
The large code-breaking effort at Bletchley was divided among various huts at the Bletchley complex, where workers would intercept encoded German naval messages, decode the messages, and finally translate them into English. McNeely was assigned to program the code-breaking machines.
The Bletchley Park efforts, according to some historians, may have shortened World War II by up to four years and was a significant part of the Allied victory. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described the workers at Bletchley as “the geese that laid the golden egg but never cackled” because they stayed tight-lipped about their important contributions.
McNeely and her fellow Wrens worked eight-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, programming the enormous machines that Turing had invented to decipher the encrypted messages. At the start of each shift, they were presented with a menu that showed them how to align the settings on the bombe machines with the code corresponding to each encrypted message. Then they would run the message through the machine. After the machine decoded the message, it would be sent to another hut to be translated into English.
“Once it got started, the machine went on until it suddenly stopped. And everyone let out a cheer because we had broken that code for the day,” McNeely says. “All this had to be done 24 hours a day. The machines made an awful noise clicking as they got to each position. And the variations of the combinations of the numbers and letters were unbelievable.”
Because the work was intelligence-related and extremely important to the war effort, everyone at Bletchley Park was sworn to secrecy. Britain’s Official Secrets Act dictated that they couldn’t speak to anyone—including their families—about their work. Nor could they discuss it with their fellow Bletchley workers. So while McNeely knew what she was doing was important, she had no idea what the decoded messages said or the larger significance of her work.
“All we knew was that we were doing a very important job, and we did know when the machine stopped, we had broken a code. We knew we were code breakers. Everybody clapped, but we had no idea what it was all about,” she says. “We just knew it was good, and then we’d go on with the next menu. We had all these friends, but we couldn’t talk about what we were doing.”
There was an ongoing fear that Germany might invade England and discover the code-breaking operations at Bletchley. “We always had the idea that we might be invaded and the Germans might come and torture us. That’s why it was important for each person not to know what the next person did—so you couldn’t really help [the Germans] too much,” McNeely says.
Though England was far from the front lines of the war, McNeely remembers being aware of the danger around her. She admits, though, that she was also probably a bit too young to fully understand the realities of the war. “That’s the funny part about it. Looking back on it, we were all into ‘Oh, we’re going to win the war,’ and we were all so enthusiastic. It was the older people who were worried to death about what was going to happen. Now, as a grandmother, I can certainly understand how my mother felt,” she says.
The stress of the war and keeping secrets eventually took its toll on some of McNeely’s fellow Wrens. “Our work and not being able to discuss it with anyone—even our friends we worked with—was quite stressful,” she says. “So some [people] kind of went off the deep end. Instead of being discharged, [they were put into mental hospitals so they could not] divulge what they knew.”
Other aspects of life at Bletchley Park were strict, too. Punishment for arriving late to a shift or breaking minor rules involved either peeling potatoes or sitting on the roof of a hut and manning a stirrup pump to extinguish any incendiary bombs that might fall in the area. McNeely says that because it was an undiscovered secret, Bletchley wasn’t a target, but the fire bombs would still occasionally fall nearby. Her punishment of choice? Bomb duty. She remembers once having to extinguish a fire bomb that dropped on her shift.
Though the broken codes aided the effort, the Allies did not always act on their knowledge. “As we found out later, the sad thing about it was that they couldn’t act on some of the codes we broke; if they did, the Germans would know that we had broken the code,” McNeely says. “Some ships and different battles had to be sacrificed. Although they knew what was happening, they couldn’t act on it.”
McNeely worked at Bletchley until the war ended. Still in the navy, she was sent to the HMS Royal Arthur, a navy shore establishment. There, she transitioned out of her code-breaking duties and worked as an interviewer, administering psychological tests to new naval recruits. Prince Philip, who was a first lieutenant in the navy, was also stationed at Royal Arthur. McNeely remembers Philip as an aggressive field hockey player and a frequenter of London. “He was always dashing up to London to see Elizabeth; we didn’t realize there was this big romance going on,” she says.
Years after the war had ended, McNeely came across an intriguing coincidence regarding her work. She eventually learned that her work included breaking code involving German submarines, which were attempting to sink supply ships delivering rations to England. McNeely met a German man who served as a captain on a submarine in the Atlantic at the same time she was breaking code about the submarines’ positions. To add to the coincidence, Richard McNeely, the man McNeely would later fall in love with, marry and start a family with, was one of the Merchant Marines running supplies back and forth across the Atlantic.
McNeely’s post-war chance meeting with her future husband is the stuff of fairy tales. She was invited to stay with an American family in Houston after her tour with the navy ended. Six months into her visit, she received a call that her mother was very sick in England. McNeely quickly obtained a spot aboard a freighter traveling from Houston to England. On board was Richard, the ship’s chief officer and a native New Orleanian. As the ship’s 12 passengers were boarding, McNeely caught Richard’s eye. “That’s mine,” Richard said to his cousin, the ship’s second officer. He pursued McNeely, and before the 12-day journey was over, they had decided to marry.
It was a quick courtship. Richard’s orders took him to Singapore after the ship docked in England. They kept in touch while McNeely cared for her mother and were later married in New Orleans, where they raised their four children. Now retired, McNeely and her husband, who worked as a Crescent River Port pilot on the Mississippi River, have been married for 63 years and recently welcomed a great-grandchild into their family.
All this time, though, McNeely has kept her secret. The Official Secrets Act was finally lifted in 1974 as the Cold War dwindled to a close, but McNeely didn’t find out about it right away. “This was a terrible shock to us because no one had told us it was lifted. All of a sudden, we saw the movies and articles coming out about Enigma,” she says. McNeely heard the news when a fellow Wren from Bletchley called her. After decades of keeping quiet about her important role in World War II, McNeely could finally speak out.
And that meant she could also receive recognition for her work. The British government awarded the Bletchley Park workers badges and certificates of appreciation. Hollywood caught on to the story, releasing the movie Enigma, starring Kate Winslet in 2001.
McNeely says that even decades after the war, fellow Brits are still showing their appreciation. “If you wear these badges in England, they give you free cups of tea—still!; get on a bus and it’s free, go into a museum and it’s free,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. They’re still appreciating what you did.”Filed under: Front Page Feature, History, Northshore Notables, September-October 2012