Jane Fawcett, British Decoder Who Helped Doom the Bismarck, Dies at 95
Jane Fawcett, British Decoder Who Helped Doom the Bismarck, Dies at 95By BRUCE WEBERMAY New York Times 5/28/2016Jane Fawcett, who was a reluctant London debutante when she went to work at Bletchley Park, the home of British code-breaking during World War II, and was credited with identifying a message that led to a great Allied naval success, the sinking of the battleship Bismarck, died on May 21 at her home in Oxford, England. She was 95.
The death was confirmed by her son, James Fawcett.
After the war, Ms. Fawcett had a career as a singer, and later as a preservationist. But she played her most significant historical role as an eagle-eyed decoder in British wartime intelligence.
In May 1941, the Bismarck, Germany’s mightiest warship, had become a prime target after it sank one of England’s most powerful vessels, the battle cruiser Hood, in the battle of the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland. Much of the British fleet was in search of the Bismarck, which was presumed to have withdrawn to the North Atlantic around Norway.
Ms. Fawcett, then known as Jane Hughes, had just turned 20 and had been working for a time at Bletchley Park, the Buckinghamshire estate north of London where the intelligence operation known as the Government Code and Cypher School was located.
Thousands of young women worked there during the war; many, like Ms. Fawcett, had been recruited and hired from the upper social strata. They performed a variety of tasks assisting the mostly male chess geniuses, linguists, mathematicians and rogue intellectuals struggling to unscramble German military communications written in the devilishly complex disguise generated by so-called Enigma machines.
Enigma generated new codes daily, and though by 1941 the Allies had achieved some success in decrypting German missives, it remained labor-intensive hit-or-miss work that required vigilance by a chain of operatives. At Bletchley, Ms. Fawcett worked in Hut 6, where the focus was on breaking codes emitted by the German Army and the German air force, the Luftwaffe.
As described in a 2015 book, The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories, by Michael Smith, her station was in the decoding room, where she sat with a machine called a Typex, which had been modified to replicate an Enigma. When a daily Enigma code was broken, the keys to the code were passed along to Ms. Fawcett or another young woman in the decoding room. She would then plug the keys into her own Typex machine and type out the encoded messages.
The Typex machines fed out a decoded script on strips of paper tape, and the first thing Ms. Fawcett and her colleagues needed to do was check to see that the decoded messages were in fact in recognizable German; she had spent time in Switzerland, where she learned the language. The German messages were passed along to Hut 3 next door, where they were featured in intelligence reports.
On May 25, 1941, Ms. Fawcett was among those in Hut 6 briefed on the search for the Bismarck.
“We all knew we’d got the fleet out in the Atlantic trying to locate her because she was the Germans’ most important, latest battleship and had better guns and so on than anybody else, and she’d already sunk the Hood,” Ms. Fawcett recalled in the book. “So it was vitally important to find where she was and try to get rid of her.”
She was just over an hour into her shift when she typed out a message from the main Luftwaffe Enigma. Reading the message, she recognized that a Luftwaffe general whose son was on the Bismarck had sought to find out if he was all right and had been informed that the ship, damaged in the previous battle, was on its way to France — to the port of Brest, in Brittany — for repair.
The message, passed instantly along the chain of command, was instrumental in finding the Bismarck, which was first spotted from the air by a seaplane and subsequently attacked by aircraft carrier torpedo bombers and swarmed by Royal Navy battleships and cruisers. It was sunk in the Atlantic west of Brest on May 27.
Janet Carolin Hughes was born on March 4, 1921 — probably in Cambridge, where her paternal grandmother lived, her son said, though her family lived in London. (There is some uncertainty about her middle name; Mr. Smith said that it was Caroline at birth and that Ms. Fawcett dropped the e later on, just as she dropped the t in Janet.) Her father, George Ravensworth Hughes, was a lawyer for the guild known as the Goldsmiths’ Company; her mother, the former Peggy Graham, did charitable work as a prison visitor.
As a girl, Jane aspired to be a ballet dancer and trained for a year at Sadler’s Wells, but at 17 she was deemed too tall for the company; as a consolation, her parents sent her to Switzerland, where she spent six months studying German. Her mother called her back for debutante season, insisting it was time for her to come out in society.
Resentful of this turn of events, she applied to work at Bletchley after receiving a letter from a school friend who was already there. It was the winter of 1940, and she was 18.
She signed the Official Secrets Act, compelling her to keep the nature of her work to herself, and was dispatched to Hut 6. She told her parents that she had joined the Foreign Office, the government agency supporting British interests abroad, though she was going only 50 miles or so from home.
“It was very bad accommodation,” she recalled in “The Debs of Bletchley Park.” “Very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. No insulation of any kind except for blackout curtains.
“We had horrid little trestle tables, which were very wobbly, and collapsible chairs, which were also very wobbly, very hard. There was very poor lighting; single light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling. So we were really in semidarkness, which I expect is what the authorities wanted, better security.”
After the war, Ms. Fawcett trained as a singer at the Royal Academy of Music, and through the early 1960s she toured as a recital and opera singer. She joined the Victorian Society, formed to protect Victorian-era buildings, and won a famous battle against British Railways — which denounced her as “the furious Mrs. Fawcett” — to save the St. Pancras train station in London and, alongside it, the Midland Grand Hotel. She later taught building preservation at the Architectural Association School of Architecture.
Ms. Fawcett met her future husband, Edward Fawcett, known as Ted, at a luncheon arranged for young naval officers to meet young women; they married just after the war. Mr. Fawcett worked as director of publicity for the National Trust, a British charity devoted to conservation and protection of historic sites. He died in 2013.
In addition to her son, Ms. Fawcett is survived by a daughter, Carolin Comberti, and five grandchildren.
When Kate Middleton, the duchess of Cambridge, whose grandmother worked at Bletchley Park, appeared at the opening of the new museum there in 2014, Mr. Smith, who is an adviser to the Bletchley Park Trust, showed her around Hut 6 and introduced her to some of the women who had worked there during the war.
“Jane, who was sat at a desk, was the first to be introduced,” Mr. Smith wrote in an email. When the duchess took her hand, to the horror of the chairman and the chief executive officer of the Bletchley Park Trust, Ms. Fawcett would not let go.
“She kept the duchess talking and talking and talking while the C.E.O. was urging me to move the duchess on to the next lady, fearing his carefully planned schedule would fall apart. I don’t think many people ever managed to get Jane Fawcett to budge when she was in a determined mood.”