Code breaker Olive Bailey played pivotal role in ending Second World War

Navy News / June 16, 2020

By Peter Mallett

For decades Olive Bailey kept her work during the Second World War and the pivotal role she played in bringing it to an end a secret.

She was a young woman living through the Blitz (the German bombings on London and Wales), studying mathematics at the University of London and working in a factory making engines for Halifax bombers. She even survived a direct hit on her workplace and was dug out from the rubble.

Then in 1942, British Intelligence assigned her to work at Bletchley Park as a code breaker. It was a top secret project in a Victorian mansion 60 kilometres north of London. She was told never to breathe a word to anyone about her work.

The job was to break the German Enigma, a device used to encode strategic messages. Heading the project was legendary mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing.

 “He had a lovely sense of humour and we got along very well,” remembers Bailey.

As part of a large team, Bailey worked around the clock trying to decipher the more than 84,000 messages intercepted each month sent to German U-boat commanders to locate and attack Allied vessels.

She worked on Turing’s massive computer system, nicknamed Victory, with his invention eventually breaking the Enigma code. She recalls Turing’s invention as an intimidating mass of dials and infinite number of wires hanging down the front of the machine.

Her job was to take the decrypted messages to the office where Turing and the “higher ups and big brains” were located.

She describes him as a person who would talk in bursts and had a desk so cluttered he kept his coffee cup sitting on top of an adjacent radiator.

The contributions of Turing and Bletchley Park employees at the codebreaking factory eventually worked. The German U-boats’ deadly attacks on Allied vessels in the North Atlantic declined, with many of them sunk and crews captured.

The work at Bletchley Park also set the stage for the D-Day landings of 1944. Some historians estimate the breaking of Enigma shortened the duration of the Second World War by two to four years, saving millions of lives.

Bailey married her husband Norman after the war in 1946. He had been working as a medical doctor with the Royal Air Force.

She remained silent about her codebreaking activities even after Britain lifted its restrictions about Bletchley Park in its Official Secrets Act in the 1970s. She didn’t tell Norman about the project until 2001, when one of her former colleagues mentioned it in front of both of them.

She was awarded the Bletchley Park Medal for Service and more recently the Queen’s Medal in recognition of her Second World War work.

After the war, the Baileys moved to Prince Albert and later Moose Jaw, Sask., where her husband worked as an eye surgeon. Years later, the couple resettled on Vancouver Island and have remained together ever since.