Jane Fawcett was born as Janet Carolin Hughes on March 4, 1921. She was raised in London and attended Miss Ironside's School for Girls in Kensington. She trained as a ballet dancer and was admitted to the Royal Ballet School. As a young woman of 17, she was told she was "too tall" to be a professional dancer and her ballet career ended.
She was then sent to Zurich to learn German. After six months, she was told by her parents to return home to come out as a debutante. She found that lifestyle boring, "a complete waste of time" and was relieved when invited by a friend to apply to the Bletchley Park project.
Fluent in German and driven by curiosity, Jane Hughes (she dropped the t in her first name) found work at Britain’s top-secret code-breaking facility at Bletchley Park, about 50 miles northwest of London. Of the 12,000 people who worked there, about 8,000 were women.
They performed a variety of tasks assisting the chess geniuses, linguists, mathematicians and intellectuals struggling to unscramble German military communications written in the 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, Fawcett worked in Hut 6, where the focus was on breaking codes emitted by the German Army and the German air force, the Luftwaffe.
“It was just horrid; there were very leaky windows, so it was very cold with just a frightful old stove in the middle of the room that let out lots of fumes but not much heat, and just one electric bulb hanging on a string, which was quite inadequate. We were always working against time, there was always a crisis, a lot of stress and a lot of excitement.”
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 Fawcett 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 Fawcett needed to do was check to see that the decoded messages were in fact in recognizable German. 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. 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.
The sinking of the Bismarck marked the first time that British code-breakers had decrypted a message that led directly to a victory in battle. Her work was not made public for decades. Along with everyone else at Bletchley Park, she agreed to comply with Britain’s Official Secrets Act, which imposed a lifetime prohibition on revealing any code-breaking activities.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that her role in the sinking of the Bismarck began to come to light.
“My husband had been in the navy and done all these heroic things in every quarter, so of course we all talked about him and those brilliant young adventurers who saved Britain — well, saved the world."
“So when everything we had done, which we knew had been very hard work and incredibly demanding, suddenly showed its head and we were being asked to talk about it, it felt quite overwhelming. I’d never told a soul, not even my husband. My grandchildren were very surprised.”
Jane Fawcett died on May 21, 2016 at her home in Oxford, England. She was 95.