'Witness' is a daily history programme on the BBC World Service. And in today's edition, I am talking to an old BBC colleague, Rena Stewart, about her wartime work as a German translator, initially at Bletchley and then at an interrogation camp at Bad Nenndorf near Hanover. While at the camp, she and a colleague were given the task of delivering an authoritative translation of a document ... that turned out to be Adolf Hitler's will.
Listen to the programme, it's just nine minutes, by clicking on this link:
The photo above was taken at Bad Nenndorf in 1946 - Rena is in the front row, second left. Below is a photo of Rena wearing her army intelligence corps badge, also from 1946. The photo below at the perimeter wire fence was probably taken in September 1945 - shortly after Rena and her colleagues arrived at Bad Nenndorf. Rena is third from left. To her left is her friend Margery Forbes, who was her co-translator of Hitler's will. Rena tells me that Margery died in the 1960s, but that three others in the photo are still going strong in their nineties - one in Belfast, one in Holland and one in Vancouver. Rena celebrates her own 90th birthday next month (Feb 2013) - many thanks to her for permission to post these wonderful photos.
LATER: I have included below - with Rena's permission - a transcript of my interview with Rena, which has much more detail about her wartime work at Bletchley and post-war work at Bad Nenndorf:
RENA STEWART – talking to Andrew Whitehead at BH, 2 November 2012
AW: So you were a student, where and doing what?
RS: I had just graduated from St Andrew’s University in Modern Languages, French and German, and I volunteered for the ATS (auxiliary territorial service) in other words, the women’s army corp. And I volunteered along with a friend of mine from university and we were never asked if we wanted to go to Bletchley beforehand we were just called up in the usual way, sent to a training camp in Guildford and then told we would be going to Bletchley, which of course didn’t mean anything to us at that time, no one knew what happened at Bletchley. We were then sent on a course in Hampstead, staying in army conditions in these great big multimillion houses in Fitzjohn Avenue. We were then, after we had signed the Official Secrets Act, let into the ‘enigma’ secret but only in very basic terms, we weren’t told much detail about it and the course included things like the German army ranks and chain of command and so on, so we knew a little bit about that.
AW: So when did you first know you’d been selected for secret work
RS: Really when we went on the Hampstead course we knew were going to somewhere special but we weren’t told anything more about it until we got there and had signed the Official Secrets Act.
AW: And what was the secret work?
RS: Well in Bletchley I was typing in German the decrypts which came in which were in a form that was not very easy to read and of course there were some corrupt groups in the morse that had come through and so you had to know German and we were typing in German. It was called the German book room, because they were then made into a kind of book form so that people could read them more easily. They were useful for people who didn’t know the ‘enigma’ secret because there was no immediate evidence of where the information has come from. And also it was easier for the intelligence corps people to work on long-term projects. Mostly decrypts had been looked through by intelligence corps people so they could see immediately if there was something urgent that needed to be dealt with.
AW: For those that don’t know what enigma is, what is enigma, what is it all about?
RS: Well it was a machine for encoding secret messages. Basically it looked like a typewriter in fact in had a qwerty keyboard and you pressed one key and what came out was a different letter. I don’t know the technical term for it or anything but the wheels inside this thing operated and they were changed every day and the German’s thought it was basically an unbreakable code but Bletchley managed to break it with the help of machines that were devised by Alan Turing and others.
AW: And when did you get to Bletchley? When would this have been?
RS: We arrived there in January ’44.
AW: And by the enigma had been broken, code breaking had been a success?
RS: Yes. Of course it is not quite as simple as that, because the Germans then, I think they must have had some kind of inkling that things weren’t quite as secure as they thought. And they made the machines more complicated and there was in fact a period I believe in 1942 when the codes weren’t broken, they had to kind of start again from scratch. And of course towards the end of the war - there was a programme on television about it, which wasn’t the same as enigma at all. I never did discover what the meaning of it was.
AW: And what was Bletchley like? What was the building like? What were the surroundings like?
RS Well the park itself where we worked, the main building there, we called it the mansion and it was an Edwardian style which had been built by a financier who wanted to include every possible style of architecture into it. It was a perfect mess. But where we worked, we were in huts and it was quite a big estate and had huts all over the place and in fact I never set foot into the mansion in all the time I was there. We were in a military camp adjoining the park and we just walked down there to our hut and back again and never went anywhere near the mansion.
AW: What was the mood like among those working there? There must have been quite a lot of youngsters such as yourself.
RS: Well yes. It wasn’t all army people by any means in fact most of the women were in the naval service. And there were a lot of civilians and in the park the mood was quite free and easy actually. Of course we had crises when everybody was working around the clock and it was stressful and so on. But on the whole Bletchley Park never took account of ranks, it was just ignored. In fact we, my friends and I, never got any further than sergeant and there was WAAF air force officers, who were junior to us and that happened all over the place in Bletchley. You’d have a corporal giving orders to a major and things like that.
AW: Was it exciting?
RS: Very exciting, yes. The actual work was quite hard. It varied of course, some of the messages were quite dull, we would get ones with lots of figures in them, returns of ammunition and things like that - of great interest to the intelligence people but not of great interest to read. But I think the most interesting thing I ever got to type was an events code going directly to Hitler from Field Marshal von Kesselring - and all the military areas, that was absolutely fascinating.
AW: Can you remember how you felt when you realised this was a really important secret message?
RS: Yes I was very excited! And just wished all the messages were as interesting as that.
AW: Can you remember what it said?
RS: I don’t, no. It was very detailed, each region being given a tour d’horizon.
AW Did you sense at the time how important Bletchley was to Britain winning the war?
RS: Oh yes, that was drilled into us and you know that if we spilt the beans in any way we were in endangering people’s lives and also the outcome of the war. For instance we were told that if anybody tried to guess what we were doing we weren’t to say ‘no it’s not that’ because by process of elimination you could get to the secret. And we could only go to our own offices; we couldn’t go to people in other offices.
AW: So what did your parents think you were doing?
RS: I don’t think they wondered very much to be quite honest because people didn’t. You told them you were doing secret work and that was it, they didn’t expect you to say anymore.
AW: What did you tell your friends, your friends from university, what you were doing?
RS: I didn’t tell them anything. If they tried to ask or wondered what you were doing, you changed the subject.
AW: Did you go to dances in nearby towns and things like that?
RS: No but we had quite a lot of social activity within the park itself. We had very good amateur dramatics society for instance which put on the most terrific revues and we did have dances. We also did Scottish dancing, played tennis - there were courts in the park. In fact the story is when Churchill came he saw the tennis courts, which were in disrepair, and he thought it would be a good idea for people doing such a good job to have time to play tennis and he ordered for them to be put right and made available for playing.
AW: Did you see any of the VIP visitors who came to Bletchley?
RS No, no we were very much confined to our own offices. And we just went home after we had finished our shift.
AW: But the German Book room, which is where you said you working, does sound as if it was absolutely in the heart of the decoding operation?
RS: Well I wouldn’t say that, because as I say the decrypting was examined beforehand to see if there was anything very urgent and I felt most of it had happened by the time it came to us.
AW: What did the decrypts look like when you got to see them?
RS: They were strips of paper stuck onto other strips of paper which had come straight from the morse.
AW: So they weren’t broken up into words?
RS: They were by the time we go them. Because the I-corps people had done that so they could be read before we got them.
AW: Are you proud of your time at Bletchley?
RS: I’m proud of having kept the secret shall we say. I don’t think I’m all that proud of the job I did.
AW: When you say you are proud of having kept the secret, how do you mean?
RS: Well I think you know it was quite a feat to be able to keep quiet about it and not be tempted to waft your self-importance and say what you were doing.
AW: When did you first mention to others that you had worked at Bletchley?
RS: Well I think that must have been the 1970s when Colonel Winterbottom’s book was first published.
AW: So you kept it secret for 30 years?
RS: Oh yes and in fact we were horrified when they started writing books about it, we couldn’t get over it.
AW Because the culture of ‘this must remain secret’ was so strong?
RS: Absolutely. We had nightmares about it and my particular nightmare was I was sitting in a railway carriage and suddenly started telling everybody about the ‘enigma’ code being broken.
AW: It is remarkable isn’t it?
RS: Well it certainly is in terms of how people see things now days. They must have thought we were very incurious about things because you didn’t ask what other people were doing you just accepted that it wasn’t known.
AW: And did you ever see the ‘enigma’ machine yourself?
RS: Not while I was working at Bletchley no.
AW: But you’ve seen it since?
RS: Yes, one time I had a cottage quite near Bletchley and I started going there from the very beginning of it being a museum when it was only open every second weekend or something like that. And so we saw the enigma machines then.
AW: So how did you make that jump of working at Bletchley to working in Germany?
RS: Well we were in the army and we had to wait to be demobbed and our demob was determined by our age and length of service. And of course none of us were very old and had been in the services very long. So they were left with a whole lot of ATS girls who knew German. So what did they do with them? Sent them to an intelligence outfit in Germany.
AW: So where did you end up?
RS: In a place called Bad Nenndorf near Hanover. It’s a spa town and that was the interrogation camp, the place where the prisoners were was the place where the baths had been when it was a spa and the whole camp was surrounded by 8ft fences with barbed wire. When we first went out there we were very, well we didn’t know what to expect. And neither did the authorities, they didn’t know if there was going to be any kind of uprising. And when we first got there, we were only allowed to go out in pairs and with a man with us. And it wasn’t until they realised there wasn’t going to be any kind of rebellion or anything we were able to move about more freely.
AW: And who were the prisoners?
RS: The people were mainly Abwehr people, you know the German intelligence service people. And we were quite amused in a way to discover that though the German reputation is of efficiency they really spent more time in fighting with the other intelligence outfits than they did on winning the war I suppose.
AW: And what would happen when the prisoners were being questioned?
RS: Now the people who were doing the questioning were all men and they were all, I think without exception, German Jewish refugees, because their native language was German. And they would carry out interrogations and prisoners were asked to submit written statements and we got the written statements. Officially we weren’t supposed to go into the camp where the prisoners were at all but I was there a couple of times. Well there was one time when the man who was interrogating in our section, one of the people who he was questioning was a Belgian who had definitely spied for the Nazis. He claimed to have been a double agent and spied for the British as well and I think the interrogator believed him and put in a request to the authorities that he should be released. And he got back the reply that no, he was going to be convicted of being a Nazi spy. And he asked me to come with him that day to break the news because he thought he might break into tears and that my presence might in some way inhibit that. But it didn’t.
AW: He burst into tears?
AW: Was that basically a death sentence?
RS: Well I think so, I never heard what actually happened to him in the end.
AW: Did you have any sympathy for the prisoners?
RS: Um, yes - yes we did, not to - we didn’t really it, it didn’t really occur to us whether we did or not.
.. . [Rena asked for a section of the transcript to be deleted as she believes she misremembered details about the treatment of detainees at Bad Nenndorf] …
AW: And your main job was to translate the written statements?
RS: That’s right, yes
AW: But there was an occasion when you got another document to look and translate.
RS: Yes the major who was in charge of the unit come and looked very solemn and presented this document. There was two of us translating in this unit and he told us to drop everything we were doing and to work together and take as long as we liked as it had to be absolutely perfect. He handed over the document; he didn’t say what it was. But it was pretty soon apparent to us it was Hitler’s will, and I think there has been a news item about it having been discovered and it has come to light. So we set out, did as he said, took a long time over it -discussed each word more or less and we came to the word ‘kleinbuergerlich’ and we were very puzzled as to how to translate it. We didn’t think it was lower middle class, it didn’t have the right ring to it, it had a pejorative feel which we didn’t think the German had, maybe we were wrong. So we decided to translate it as petit bourgeois and we were a bit uneasy about translating a German phrase via French, so we put ‘kleinbuergerlich’ in brackets. A few years later Trevor Roper produced his book, ‘The Last Days of Hitler’ and of course I bought a copy and of course knew who Trevor Roper was - I think a colonel in Bad Oeynhausen, our headquarters. I started reading the book and when I came to the bit about Hitler’s will, I thought that sounds familiar I know where this came from and sure enough said ‘petit bourgeois / kleinbuergerlich’.
AW: So yours was the definitive version?
AW: What did the document look like?
RS: This is something and - I can’t remember, my feeling is it was hand written but I remember reading somewhere that Eva Braun had typed it. And why should anyone do a handwritten copy of a typed document. I don’t know, I may be misremembering.
AW: And was it signed by Hitler?
RS: I don’t think it was, it was a copy. They wouldn’t have given us the original. I can’t remember to be honest.
AW: How did you realise that this document was Hitler’s will?
RS: Just by the contents of it. And I can’t remember the details how we knew but we were pretty sure it couldn’t have been anything else.
AW: Did it start off – ‘I Adolf Hitler give my last will and testament’ or something like that?
RS: I don’t think so no, because then I think we would have known right away obviously if it said that. It was as we went though the document that we realised. And I think it the original may have had ‘I Adolf Hitler’ but it wasn’t on the document we had.
AW: What did you feel when you realised this was Hitler’s will?
RS: Amazed, you know, we couldn’t believe it at first and then we realised there was no other explanation.
AW: Did you feel excited or?
RS Oh yes
RS: Both! Actually, certainly all the more on us to get the translation absolutely right.
AW: And were there any phrases or sentences that linger in memory?
RS: Only the kleinbuergerlich one.
AW: So how long did it take you to translate it?
RS: Several hours.
AW: It was quite a long document?
RS: It was quite long and of course we were discussing every word and checking in dictionaries and so on.
AW: Why do you think the job came to you, because you were so clearly an accomplished linguist but you weren’t the most senior people that they would have turned to for translations?
RS: No and I never did understand that to be quite honest and then it was one of those things when you didn’t ask. The whole thing that was drummed into you at Bletchley was if you need to know something you will be told and if you don’t need to know, don’t ask.
AW: And did you ever discover how the will had been discovered and what use was made of the translation?
RS: No, apart from being used in Trevor Roper’s book.
AW: And you’re talking to me now about translating Hitler’s will, but how long did you keep it a secret after the war?
RS: I can’t remember, I think I told people once I found it in Trevor Roper’s book. Because it was in the public domain.
AW: But that was in the 60s or 70s? Or even later?
RS: Oh no, it was earlier, it was the 50’s I think.
AW: OK, so you kept it secret for a decade or so.
AW: But it’s quite a remarkable thing to have translated Hitler’s will.
RS: It is.
AW: And do you regard it as a particularly special moment?
RS: I do yes, one of the more interesting bits.
AW: I’m still intrigued about how you have responded when you realised you had got this document? I mean how did you and your friend make sure you both understood each other, did your blood run cold did you think ‘wow, this is exciting’, did you talk directly and think, ‘gosh this must be Hitler’s will’?
AW: What can you remember?
RS: Just that we were amazed at it, we could hardly believe it and double checked the contents of the document and sure it can’t be anything else.
AW: But can you remember which of you first realised it was Hitler’s?
RS: No I don’t.
AW: Or what sort of dialogue you had when you were translating it?
RS: Not really no. It was all very technical about the translation.
AW: And you were translating yourself in long hand or were you typing it?
RS: We were typing it.
AW: And how long did you spend it Germany?
RS: We went there in September 45 and we were there until December 46.
AW: Did you enjoy your time there?
RS: In a way yes. It was to begin with pretty awful, the place was in ruins and you’d go down to Hanover and see buildings with these black crosses on which meant there were still dead bodies there. And there was one that said ‘and here lurks death’ and of course things got better and better and eventually the whole atmosphere was much more relaxed. Yes it was quite a nice time.
AW: Did you get to know any Germans?
RS: No, not really not. We had a run in with the local vet. We found a dog in the basement of the house were staying in, and the poor little dog it had obviously been taken, it was very soft and it’s bones deformed and we took it to the local vet to ask for it to be out to sleep and he was charging us in cigarettes, which was the currency at the time. And he pretended not to understand our German and gave us pills to give to the poor little beast. In the end we just had to get one of the soldiers to shoot it because he was not going to give up charging cigarettes for the drugs.
AW: He was on a racket?
RS: He was.
AW: And were there many people over there on rackets?
RS: Gosh yes, that business of using cigarettes as currency was actually affecting the British balance of payments and I forget how they resolved it exactly, but we got vouchers though how they managed to stop the cigarette traffic I don’t know. I never did discover who smoked these cigarettes!
AW: So anything you wanted, any services you wanted from the local population, it was cigarettes?
RS: Cigarettes yes.
AW: What was the official currency, there must have been an official currency?
RS Well there was a kind of, there wasn’t ordinary marks, something that was used by service personnel. Well I think we did have marks as well because actually there is a reference to the diary there.
AW: So you spent a little over a year in Germany, came back to London, started looking for a job, hugely well qualified because of all the things you had been doing -
RS: But I couldn’t tell anybody. But I didn’t come back to London I came back to Scotland.
AW: And could you find a job?
RS: Eventually. It took 4 months I think, applying for everything in sight, suitable and unsuitable. And eventually the chap I mentioned the one who was the interrogator in our unit who had a friend who worked in Bush House -
AW: In the BBC?
RS: - in the BBC , German service, and his friend wrote to me and said he thought I would enjoy working at Bush House and he advised me to write to the BBC and take any job that was offered, because that would give me access to internal advertisements. And that was exactly what I did and I started in Bush house as a clerk and eventually went on to become monthly paid staff and then eventually to the newsroom.
AW: Where you became a senior duty editor.
AW: But when you were applying for jobs after the war, what could you said about what you had done during the war.
RS: I could say that I was attached to the intelligence corps, full stop.
AW: Nothing about Bletchley?
AW: Nothing about working in Germans camps?
AW Nothing about the level of responsibility you had taken?
RS: No, nothing.
AW: Nothing about being entrusted with translating Hitler’s will?
AW It’s a bit unfair isn’t it?
RS: I suppose it is yes. However I managed to get on.
AW: Did you feel bad at the time when you perhaps saw people who were much less well qualified getting jobs ahead of you, because you couldn’t tell people what you had been doing?
RS: Yes I did and also you know all the civilians at Bletchley just walked out after the war and we were kept in for another 18 months.
AW: Because you were in uniform. Have you still got the uniform?
RS Oh no. I think we handed it in at the end of the war.
AW: Tell me of the journey there, this is the journey out to Germany.
RS: … We were taken to Ostend and that was not too bad, just the early start and having a lot of luggage to cart about. But that was very routine but in Ostend we had a couple of days there and we had a lovely time because everything in Belgium seemed to be much more luxurious than we were accustomed to in Britain and we had won the war. But the actual journey to Germany we left at 6 o’clock in the morning and we got on a very decrepit looking train which kept stopping and starting and we drove through Belgium first of all and we got to Holland they seemed to be much worse off than the Belgians had been and there were children standing at the side of the railway line waiting for us to throw out biscuits and sweets. We had already been advised to take things like that with us because there wasn’t going to be much food available on this journey. And we then got to the Rhine and the train went over a temporary bridge, all the other bridges in the area had been destroyed and it was, well I couldn’t say how long to get over but it was very slow. The bridge was shaking all the time and we looked down from the train windows straight into the Rhine and when we got to the German countryside it was part of the sector which had been fought over and there was hardly a building standing - and people living in the road. And as far as we were concerned of course we had breakfast before 6, a meal about half past two, and we didn’t see anything else until breakfast the following morning. And the train had no lights on it so when it got dark, we just had to go to sleep. So the whole journey took 24 hours and I think it could be done nowadays in 3 or 4 hours.
AW: Was this your first ever time outside the UK?
RS: Yes, because being from Scotland we had a long way to go before we even got to the continent.
ENDS - AW 2.1
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