Editor’s note: In light of the movie blockbuster ‘The Imitation Game,’ now airing at local theaters, we repost this interview (first published in May 2013) with a local woman who worked with the Bletchley Park code-breaking team.
To listen to Sharon Litwin’s interview with Marigold McNealy on WWNO radio, click here.
For the past few weeks the Public Broadcasting Service has been airing a short detective series set in 1950s England featuring a group of British women who had served in a secret project during World War II. The group had worked together in a rural stately home called Bletchley Park. The PBS series had as its focus the mathematical abilities of the group in deducing and then finding a serial killer. The series was called the Bletchley Circle.
Now who would think that a PBS series set in post-WWII Britain would have any New Orleans connections? But it does. Not to a group of fictional Bletchley women. No, the connection is to a local person who was part of the original for-real group of Bletchley women.
The chances are that no one in the Lake Vista neighborhood of New Orleans in the ’70s and ’80s ever knew what Marigold McNealy did before she came to the United States. Known as Margo to most of her friends, she was, in fact, a member of a group of military women, stationed in Bletchley Park, one hour north of London. All were trained in maintaining Britain’s top secret code-busting effort – the Enigma Project. Breaking the German codes, many historians believe, significantly shortened the war in Europe which ended with the signing of the official documents in Berlin on May 8, 1945.
Marigold McNealy left her Lake Vista neighborhood several years ago, moving to the North Shore and the outskirts of Covington. Now 87 years old, (the same age as Queen Elizabeth II she says) she lives quietly with her husband, Richard, a New Orleans native and former river pilot, on a piece of farmland where she used to raise horses and her beloved Great Dane dogs.
“I grew up during the war in Burnham-on-Sea, in Somerset,” she says in her still very-British accent. Educated in a Sacred Heart Convent school by French nuns evacuated from Anjou, she knew that when she reached 18 years of age, she would have to enter military service, as did all English youth, male and female.
“I knew if you didn’t volunteer when you were 18, they could put you anywhere,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to go in the Army, so I volunteered for the Navy in what was called the WRNS, (pronounced wrens) the Women’s Royal Naval Service.”
“Wrens” were used for deck hand or for messenger duties, but were never sent to sea. “I joined when I was 17 and a half, and was sent to Scotland for basic training,” Marigold recalls. “They put me through a bunch of psychological tests and they decided I should go to Bletchley. I never did know why or what they were looking for.”
What they were looking for, above all else, was secrecy. For Marigold and her fellow Wrens were required to sign the Official Secrets Act, meaning that no one, not even her parents, could know what she was working on. And so her part in the war remained a secret for 30 years, and an untold one for many more.
Marigold and her fellow Wrens worked around the clock, eight hours on and eight hours off, programming the huge machines that the English scientist, Alan Turing, had created to decipher encrypted German messages. Every now and then they would get a weekend off. When possible, bombings or not, they would sneak up to London and “have a gay old time” Marigold recalls.
Bletchley Park and the gardens around it were beautiful. The officers, Marigold says, made every effort to make things as comfortable as possible. But the days were was stressful and noisy. And the rules were strict leading to some unpleasant punishment.
“I can remember the punishments if you were late,” Marigold says with a laugh. “There were two things you could do: peel hundreds of potatoes by hand or go sit on the roof with a stirrup pump and put out the incendiary bombs. Of course, I chose that. I didn’t want to peel potatoes because smell in the kitchen was awful.”
After the war, Marigold came to the United States for a visit. Her family had befriended an American soldier who lived in Houston and she was invited to stay with his family. Shortly after her arrival, Marigold’s mother became sick and she was required to return home, one of a very few passengers on a freighter sailing back to England.
The romantic ending to this story is that Richard McNealy, an engineer on that Lykes freighter ship, saw Marigold, wooed Marigold and in a very short time, married Marigold. They have lived happily ever after for almost 60 years. To learn more about Bletchley Park, and the Enigma Project , click here. To learn more about Marigold McNealy’s part in it, click here.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.