Our codebreaker grand aunt, Ruth Harris, had an important role in the success of the D-Day Normandy landings – as a secret Enigma operator at Bletchley Park during World War Two.
WRNS Petty Officer Ruth Alison Harris was recruited to work in ‘Station X’ and was a supervisor in the famed Hut 11 which housed Alan Turing’s ‘bombe’ machines. By cracking the codes of intercepted Nazi signals, the bombes and their operators are credited with saving countless thousands of lives and shaving years off the war.
Bletchley Park compiled vital intelligence for Allied commanders in the 18 months leading up to D-Day then, critically, throughout the invasion as they monitored threats to the fleet at sea, the Germans’ reactions and troop movements.
Aunt Ruth and her many colleagues were decrypting 5000 messages a day.
In those tense final days before the invasion, Bletchley Park gave the Combined Chiefs of Staff extraordinary detailed reports of German deployments in Normandy, including numbers of troops, vehicles and tanks – even serviceability and maintenance information.
The codebreakers also confirmed that the Enemy High Command had swallowed the deception structured in Operation Fortitude – that the Germans belief was complete in an expected invasion in the Pas de Calais area… not Normandy.
Ruth was a favourite aunt of our mother, Mary Louise Harris ,and the closest in age.
She was the youngest sister of our grandfather Gordon Harris, pictured far right in wedding photo.
In that photo you see teenage Mum (second from left) as part of Ruth’s bridal party when she married Peter Gell.
Ruth is listed as being a supervisor in Hut 11 and a brick bearing her name has been unveiled in a commemorative Codebreakers’ Wall.
Ruth was among a select group of WRENS – more formally the Women’s Royal Naval Service(WRNS) – brought into Bletchley to work on the bombes in 1941.
They intercepted all sorts of German messages – too many to list here – but notably those to and from the U-boats. It’s estimated Enigma saved one and half million tonnes of Allied shipping (350 ships) and turned the tide of the war after several years of massive and demoralising losses to U-boat wolf packs.
Because of the Official Secrets Act, Bletchley operators until recently never talked about their critical role.
Winston Churchill had visited Bletchley in September 1941 and dubbed the codebreakers “…the geese that laid the golden eggs ..but never cackled.” The women of Bletchley Park were unsung heroes of the war. They took their vow of secrecy so seriously that more than half a century went by before a few spoke publicly of their experiences.Ruth died without doing so. I was lucky enough to meet this lovely lady in England in the early 1990s but unlucky not to then know her incredible war service
Aunt Ruth didn’t even discuss it with her son Paul who recently visited Bletchley Park to see his mum’s commemorative brick.
Ruth lost one of her brothers, secret service (SOE) agent Bob Harris when he was assassinated serving in Persia. Another brother Paul was a medic hero at Dunkirk assisting wounded before his own evacuation. Her oldest brother, our grandfather Gordon, ran guns to the Free French and briefly was also in SOE. Other siblings also served.
Mum loved her Aunt Ruth dearly and it was wonderful they were able to catch up every now and then over the years when Mum visited the land of her birth.