Scots wartime codebreaker receives France’s highest civilian and military honour

A Scots languages student who became a wartime codebreaker because of her ability to see patterns in words and letters has received France’s highest civilian and military honour.

Helene Aldwinckle, 98, has been awarded the insignia of a Knight of the Légion d’honneur recognising her achievements helping to decipher encrypted messages sent by the German Army and Air Force on the Enigma machine during the Second World War.

The Aberdeen University graduate – who had studied French and English for three years and had a “great” memory for text – was recruited to work as part of a highly secretive team at Hut 6 at Bletchley Park. She was presented with the award by Colonel Armel Dirou in a moving ceremony at the French embassy in London last Friday – more than 75 years after her vital work helped pave the way for the successful Normandy landings and the defeat of the Nazis.

Responding to a question by Helene’s MP, Tom Brake, Prime Minister Theresa May, at her last Prime Minister’s Questions, said today: “Can I thank Helene for her work at Bletchley Park, and all those at Bletchley Park, unsung for some considerable time. They played an absolutely crucial role in our ability to defeat fascism in the Second World War, and we should be very proud of the work they did, and I am grateful for the opportunity he has given to this house to celebrate it.”

Jonathan Byrne, Bletchley Park’s Oral History Officer said: “It was a real privilege to see Helene receive the Légion d’honneur. I had the pleasure of interviewing her for the Bletchley Park Oral History Project a few years ago and her story has been of great value in understanding not just the work of Bletchley Park but also the beginnings of the enduring intelligence relationship between the UK and the USA.”

In 1942, the then Helene Taylor was recruited at the age of 21 from Aberdeen University. Leaving Scotland for only the third time in her life she travelled to a place she did not know, to live with complete strangers, to do work she could not be told about until she got there.

Helene had been chosen by a senior codebreaker, Stuart Milner-Barry, to work in Bletchley Park’s Hut 6, the department tasked with deciphering Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force.

After a year of working to register German Enigma-enciphered messages, she was asked to run a school to train US personnel on the procedures and secrets of codebreaking at Bletchley Park.

In doing so she played a small but important part in cementing the British-American intelligence sharing agreement which endures to this day. In 1944 until the end of the war, she worked in a section of Hut 6 called the ‘Quiet Room’, where she identified the various Enigma radio networks, and analysed radio signals’ preambles and sign-offs.  Hut 6 played a crucial role in the lead-up to the Normandy invasion.

Helene’s son Richard, daughters Diana, Linda and Pam, grandchildren Jack and Elena, staff of Ryelands care home, local MP Tom Brake, and representatives of the Bletchley Park Trust and GCHQ helped Helene celebrate this event.   

Very few wartime photos of Bletchley Park exist, but remarkably, Helen Aldwinkle can be seen in a photo of Block D, left, working alongside one of the Americans she had trained.

By 1945, the workforce at Bletchley Park had grown from a few hundred in 1939 to over 9,000, 75% of whom were women. After the end of the war with Germany, Helene stayed on at Bletchley Park for a short while to help write the official history of Hut 6’s work. This history was only made publicly available at The National Archives in 2006.

The French Republic has honoured Helene for her contribution towards D-Day and the liberation of France. In a short speech during the ceremony, Nicolas Wuest-Famose, First Secretary at the French Embassy said ‘The Légion d’honneur expresses righteousness, honour, heroism and excellence’.

Helene’s story can be found here as part of the Bletchley Park Oral History Project, from an interview conducted in December 2013.