During the Second World War Jane Eldridge was a Cypher Officer, travelling with Winston Churchill to Canada.
In 1940 I was a civilian, trained to drive an ambulance.
The only ambulance we had in Newport on the Isle of Wight was one that had been given to us by America in the First World War, so you can imagine it was just like a tin with a bench and stretcher on it.
In my spare time I was on night duty and I used to help the farmer next door. He wanted a field of hay gathered up. A Messerschmitt came over and buzzed the local town. It didn’t buzz us, but the horse took fright and took off.
I was so fed up that I thought, “I’m not going to do this,” and I joined the Wrens.
During my years with them, I spent time as a secretary and driver for an old Admiral from Folkestone who had been dug up from the First World War, then went off to Greenwich in December 1942 to do a course at the Naval College there.
Becoming a Cypher
After I had finished I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so they suggested I become a Cypher Officer. After some time, a signal came through telling me to take a fortnight’s leave, collect some tropical kit and report to the Rail Transportation Officer at King’s Cross station.
I couldn’t think why I was doing all this. Nobody knew anything about it. And when I got into the first coach – meaning you’re the lower class – there were several others and none of us knew what we were doing.
On board with Churchill
We were given sleepers and when we woke up in the morning we were in the Firth of Clyde. There was the Queen Mary, out in the mouth of the firth, so we went out into a little hull somewhere in the water line and then, when we got on board, there were notices in Dutch all along the corridors, which we thought were extraordinary.
I went straight on watch, and I was as sick as a dog, but that didn’t make any difference – you went on watch and you were given a ship’s biscuit, which was like a dog’s biscuit. By the time you’d chewed this and tried to do your work, you had forgotten you were sick in the first place.
It turned out that we were on board with Prime Minister Churchill and his Chief of Staff going over to a conference in Quebec.
Adventure in Canada
Freedom when we were off duty was the ballroom, which had been completely stripped of absolutely everything. We all sat on the floor – there was no furniture.
We finally got off at Halifax and there was a train waiting for us, where we had the most wonderful dinner because they weren’t suffering from rationing. We went on a sleeper train to Quebec, to Le Château Frontenac, an enormous Canadian hotel that is very beautiful on the St Lawrence river. And then President Roosevelt arrived and they had the Chief of Staff conference, for which we ciphered up all the messages going out and deciphered all the messages coming in between Chiefs of Staff and the rest of the world.
We had a wonderful time, because when we were off duty we were expected to be social, and so we were. Another girl and I were given the most beautiful bedroom in a turret, and we lay in bed and a butler came in every morning with a trolley bearing halves of grapefruit with a cherry in the middle – that was the height of luxury at that time.
Egypt and Malta
A few months later I had another signal saying this time I had to report to Paddington station – no request for tropical kit, but a very small suitcase. I reported to the station and the same girls were there again, so we wondered what was going to happen this time.
Going down from Paddington in those days, there were no names on stations anywhere – it was all blotted out, so we didn’t really know where we were going, but we ended up in Plymouth in the middle of the night. Because of the blackout we had to find our way with tiny little torches to the launch, which took us out to the battle cruiser HMS Renown.
Once again, it was the Chiefs of Staff and Churchill on board, and we set off for the Egyptian port of Alexandria, stopping off in Malta en route, where there was an announcement that the Captain was having a bathing party at 1500 hours, launch would leave at 1430 and everybody off duty was expected to attend.
Of course we didn’t have bathing costumes, as we didn’t know anything about it, so we borrowed midshipmen’s swimming trunks and used jumpers for our top halves. The water was absolutely gorgeous, but once you came out of the water the jumpers were skin tight – and this was before it was fashionable to do that.
After Malta our route took us all along North Africa, where all of us women had to stay down below deck because if anybody had sighted a woman on a battleship, they would have thought it unusual and guessed that something was going on.
Once we arrived in Alexandria, we went by train to Cairo and worked as cyphers in the Middle East headquarters for the duration of the conference there.