The secret life of a Kiwi wartime code-cracker

The secret life of a Kiwi wartime code-cracker

Pamela Pigeon, the New Zealander who became the first female commander of a British spy base during World War II.

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Pamela Pigeon, the New Zealander who became the first female commander of a British spy base during World War II.

When England’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) turned 100 on November 1, it shared publicly for the first time some of its World War II code-breaking exploits.

Among the welter of now-declassified information was an astonishing photo, with special relevance to New Zealand.

It shows a group of uniformed intelligence officers, both men and women, in 1943. But in the middle of the group is a young woman named as New Zealander Pamela Pigeon.

Just 25, she was the first female intelligence officer to lead a unit at the GCHQ. She was head of operations at Marston Montgomery, Derbyshire, a remote station where staff listened to multiple radio operators to identify enemy signals.

A view of the German battleship Bismarck as it is sinking, torpedoed by a British ship off Brest, in western France, in May 1941.  Pam Pigeon's team  broke the enemy code which led to the battleship being located and sunk.

GETTY IMAGES

A view of the German battleship Bismarck as it is sinking, torpedoed by a British ship off Brest, in western France, in May 1941. Pam Pigeon’s team broke the enemy code which led to the battleship being located and sunk.

Pamela and others would be listening to at least 25 operators each, identifying radio signals; her team broke the enemy code which led to the British Royal Navy sinking the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941.

Bound by the agency’s official oath of secrecy, after the war she kept her astonishing job history tightly under wraps. When news of the 100th anniversary broke, and journalists and readers started fossicking for public details about this young woman, they found nothing.

Pamela Pigeon just seemed invisible, as far as public records went.

Who was she? How had she been recruited for a job of such vital importance to the Allies? And where did she go aftwards?

Like many other women in wartime, Pamela Mary Pigeon had joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs) and was at some point handpicked for her mathematical abilities.

This week her niece, Susan Brassey-Edwards, spoke about Pam (“we never called her Pamela, just Pam”) from her home in the Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St Peter.

“Pam had a mathematical brain – she could do the most complicated things in her head,” Brassey-Edwards says. “it used to annoy me as a child. She was also an excellent swimmer.”

Pam was born in September 1918 in England to English surgeon and keen cricketer Dr Hugh Walter Pigeon and Fanny Hensel Parker, a daughter of Robert Parker, organist of St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral in Wellington.

The doctor had moved back and forth between Wellington, the Chatham Islands and England in the previous 14 years, including serving in the Royal Medical Corps in WWI.

Pam had an older sister, Elizabeth, born in 1906.

The family moved back to Wellington for good when Pam was a few months old.

Back in England in 1919, the Government Code and Cypher School was newly launched; its function was ostensibly to protect British communications, but its real work involved decrypting messages sent by foreign countries. This organisation would later become the GCHQ.

In Wellington, Pam settled into school (Chilton House and Queen Margaret College) and her father opened consulting rooms, first in Lambton Quay and then in Willis St.

His death, when Pam was 8, was sudden: Dr Pigeon drowned in a freak accident while fishing.

Three years later, older sister Elizabeth married Stanley Brassey-Edwards; they moved to England and raised two daughters.

As a young adult, Pam returned to England and studied at the London School of Economics; by 1941 she had been recruited into the top ranks of Britain’s spy-surveillance network.

Her command base was at Marston Montgomery, set up in 1941 as an outpost of RAF Cheadle, one of dozens of RAF stations scattered around Britain, and dismantled after the war.

A British Government receiver control bay in World War II.

Ministry of Defence

A British Government receiver control bay in World War II.

Pam oversaw the radio operators who were constantly monitoring tell-tale identifying characteristics of their radio counterparts in Germany.

Unlocking them could lead to breakthroughs involving troop or ship movements. “Some of the work they did was sent to Bletchley,” says Brassey-Edwards.

In 1945, after the war, “Pam came out (of the intelligence world) because her work was finished”.

“The government paid for her to go to Oxford University, and that’s where she met her husband, Clifford Wale, a biochemist. They married in 1948.

“Pam was very kind to me as a child,” her niece recalls. “She taught me to swim; she swam for St Kilda’s at Oxford.”

Pam’s last known public appearance in print was at a garden party at Buckingham Palace in 1947, where she’s listed among the guests.

Waleand Pam in 1948 both worked as teachers, Brassey-Edwards recalls. Their son Thomas was born in 1950. Two daughters followed: Sarah in 1955 and Louise in 1958.

But even several years after the war, Pam still seemed to be living cautiously. “You weren’t allowed to talk to anyone” (about the wartime work).

“They changed addresses a lot,” Brassey-Edwards remembers. “They lived all over the place – Norwood, Upton, Slough,” and Blunham, a hamlet in Bedfordshire.

Pam never went back to New Zealand. Clifford died in 1979; Pam’s life was longer – “she got to her 90th birthday,” says Brassey-Edwards.

Pam and Clifford’s son Thomas now lives in Spain.

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“The Doughnut”, the GCHQ building, in Cheltenham, Gloucesterhire.

Footnote: In 2004, the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) moved its 5500 employees into its newly modernised complex – nicknamed ‘The Doughnut’ – in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. It’s the largest building constructed for secret intelligence operations outside the United States.

The Dominion Post

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