Bletchley Park veteran

Born: February 16, 1919'

Died: June 7, 2017

IRENE Brown, who has died aged 98, was a Scot who became of one the code-breaking heroines who were stationed at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.

The secret decoding at Bletchley played an instrumental part in winning the Second World War – the young inmates lived under challenging conditions, worked long and intense hours yet found time for amateur dramatics and evenings of Scottish Country dancing. They broke the German Enigma code which meant that Winston Churchill and the Allies often knew Hitler’s plans before the German High Command in the field.

Mrs Brown, an exceptional linguist, was employed in 1942 as a translator at Bletchley Park. She worked in Room 82 of Hut 6 and although there was much clerical work she was also involved in detailed work plotting times of intercepts on graphs.

Her son, Dr Iain Brown, told The Herald: “She was a brave and resolute lady. She gained the nickname Mouse after the war and everyone called her by that name – even me. It so suited her. She was always neat and bright as a button. She had the gift of putting everyone at their ease, was totally sincere and capable of immense kindness.

“Mouse was always immaculately and brightly dressed and retained her glamour and sense of fun into her nineties – her eyes sparkled and her smile glowed.”

Irene Jessie Brown (nee Young) was the daughter of an Edinburgh banker who worked in the British Linen Bank where he was head of the securities department. She attended Esdaile School in the capital and was a prize pupil in French, English literature and Latin. She read English at Edinburgh University and was awarded an honours degree. In 1942 she joined the Government Code & Cypher School at Bletchley Park.

Mrs Brown had early experience of the disappointments of war. She had broken off her engagement to a young officer, Leslie Cairns, but they were reconciled and soon after D-Day they got married – their last night together was spent in a hotel in Glasgow’s George Square. As he was in the SAS and she was at Bletchley neither could talk of their war work. Sadly, he was killed in a plane accident while serving with the SAS.

On arrival at Bletchley Mrs Brown was not greatly impressed by the surroundings. In her book, Enigma Variations: a Memoir of Love and War, she wrote of her time at Bletchley from the standpoint of the workers – in her own words “one of the cogs in the wheel.” Initially she thought Bletchley “seemed downright depressing.” For all its quaint charms Mrs Brown commented, “The house was irretrievably ugly in the style of lavatory Gothic.” Worse, the food was poor – pastry fruit pies were nicknamed, “cardboard tarts.”

Mrs Brown was assigned to Hut 6 and was tasked principally with the solution of German Army and Air Force messages and interpreting the readings on the Enigma machines. The importance of the work done in Hut 6 is highlighted by the expansion of the workforce - within a year of Mrs Brown’s arrival the numbers working at Hut 6 were 450. The work was arduous and total accuracy in translation and decoding was vital. Mrs Brown and her colleagues were involved in highly secret work carried out in the Machine Room, the Decoding Room and the Registration Room.

Other code breakers working elsewhere at Bletchley were forbidden to enter Hut 6. Bletchley’s official history quotes a member of the Hut 6 team, “It was like a water-tight compartment.”

In 2005 the National Library of Scotland (where Dr Brown was principal curator) mounted an exhibition called Scotland’s Secret War. While it also commemorated VE Day it featured the work done at Bletchley. It featured a large photograph (seen here) of Mrs Brown and at the opening she delighted everyone with her memories of Hut 6.

After the war she attended secretarial college and went to work in Durban. There she met and married in 1948 Reginald Brown who was an accountant and had seen distinguished service in the Western Desert and Italy during the war. They decided not to make their home in South Africa but came to Scotland where they settled in Edinburgh and Mr Brown had to requalify. He rose to become a partner with the well-known firm of Graham, Smart and Annan. He died shortly after retiring in 1982.

Mrs Brown, a lady of much resolve, energy and charm, remained as active as ever. She wrote poetry and her autobiography, devoted much time to local events and became, for 27 years, a guide at the Georgian House in Charlotte Square. She was an avid supporter of various organisations – principally the Scottish Arts Club and the Westerlea Special School in Murrayfield.

Irene Brown is survived by her only son, Dr Iain Brown.