Families of the Code and Cypher School veterans end their visits at Bletchley Park with a better idea of the World War 2 codebreaking operation that shaped the lives of their relatives. Suddenly a picture appears from the tales of the veterans’ hard relentless work in hastily built wooden huts, lasting friendships forged in concrete buildings filled with noisy bombe machines, and let’s not forget the occasional eccentric. The tales told of that time have a clear anchor and there is suddenly an ‘ah-ha’ moment of understanding when families can share in a secret life.
For Nigel Nelson, the Sunday People’s political editor, a visit to Bletchley Park left him with the distinct feeling that he did not know his enigmatic mother as well as he thought.
Iris May Phillips told her son that she worked in a boring job for the Foreign Office and was seconded to Bletchley Park in about 1943.
What Nigel Nelson found out at Bletchley was that young Iris worked for the Secret Intelligence Service – MI6.
“The news hit me as if James Bond had just thrown a martini in my face, “ he wrote in his article for the Mirror on 9 November 2013 titled ‘I knew my mum worked at Bletchley Park but not that she was in MI6’.
‘I was both shaken and stirred to be confronted with a truth my long-dead mother spent her life concealing from me.’
Since writing that article Nigel’s efforts to track down more information about his mother has led him to the formidable blast proof walls of MI6’s policy on releasing data about past employees. Despite the lack of official data, he has pieced together memories of his mother and the guarded details she did share with him and written a recent article titled ‘I visited a tourist attraction and ended up finding out my mother was a World War 2 spy’.
The article hints at Iris’s work in Hut 4 at Bletchley Park plotting the location of predatory U-Boats in the Atlantic and her role in post war Germany tracking down scientists to recruit, witnessing the horrors of the concentration camps and the echoes of justice in Nuremberg.
What exactly was she recruited to do. What was she doing for MI6 before her transfer to Bletchley Park? I hope their are photograph albums, old letters that can be revisited for clues.
For a man who has spent his journalistic career revealing secrets rather than guard them Nigel has, quite literally, found the biggest secret story of his life.
“The mother I will remember is no longer the one I thought I knew.” Nigel Nelson
The story of Iris’s war is a tantalising mystery suited for the women of the Bletchley Circle. It appears that there won’t be any further official information from direct channels anytime soon but I can’t help think of all the National Archives and its miles of shelves stuffed with the documents of other services and departments who have connections with wartime MI6. Their documents are not classified and there may just be something in a transfer paper, a finance document, a wartime memoir.
It can work. It is the exact approach taken by Professor Aldrich when piecing together his 600 page book on GCHQ without any access to official post war documents.
So there is a chance that there is more of this story alluringly hidden between the papers of a musty brown manilla file. It makes my research obsessive fingers tingle at the possibility. Like Susan from The Bletchley Circle it’s time to share the secrets with the family.
We just need Jean, who always looks after her own, to dig through files, think outside the box and find the way in to the papers that will breathe life this fascinating story.
My thanks to Nigel for letting me share his story.
Nigel Nelson is Sunday People political columnist and Fleet Street’s longest serving national newspaper political editor. You can follow him on Twitter @NigelNelson.