When I was in Year 6, my school started a big project on World War Two, and for homework, we were asked to interview our grandparents about this time and find out what they did. (In fact, my niece has just been set the very same homework!) Aged 10, I interviewed both my grandfathers; my Birmingham grandfather was a paratrooper captured by the enemy and spent some of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp, escaping several times before being liberated. My Welsh grandfather was on the beaches in Normandy on D-Day; there’s a photograph of him in army uniform on his motorbike, looking glamorous and full of mischief. Both stories told very reluctantly to me, felt exciting and dramatic, like a film. But it’s only as an adult that I realised; I didn’t once ask my nan what she did during the war. Or any of my other female relatives. And now, of course, I wish I had because their unknown stories fascinate me, but sadly these people are no longer with us. It’s ironic to realise that the D-Day landings in 1944 wouldn’t have taken place without the vital intelligence provided by Bletchley Park.
I first visited Bletchley Park six or so years ago when my daughter was in primary school. We’d recently found out that my great-aunt, Audrey, had worked there during the war, although we initially knew little about the role she had played because she’d been made to sign the Official Secrets Act at only seventeen years of age. The importance of keeping her work a secret was drummed so dramatically into her that Audrey stayed a closed book about her time at Bletchley, only letting the odd secret slip out over the years. If she had broken her oath, she might have faced up to thirty years in prison, or worse. No wonder she considered herself bound to silence, even when wartime operations at Bletchley were declassified in the 1970s.
My research process took over two years. I interviewed my Aunty Pat, Audrey’s daughter, who shared everything she’d managed to find out from her mum. I listened to endless Bletchley Park podcasts, read interviews with veterans, and watched everything I could get my hands on. I visited Bletchley Park countless times with a notebook in my hand and found myself drawn to each exhibit or set, staged to look as if the staff had left the room for a moment. Here, women and girls were given a chance, perhaps for the very first time, to be treated as equals, valued for their brains and codebreaking skills.
When I discovered that a handful of children had lived on-site at Bletchley during the war, I knew I had the ingredients for brave characters living in the most exceptional circumstances, as well as the perfect setting for a story about secrecy and international espionage. My characters, Robyn, Mary, and Ned, are fictional, but there were young girls, like Mary, hurtling about the place on bicycles, delivering important messages. It was easy to picture my main character, Robyn, as the daughter of the chauffeur, enjoying the freedom Bletchley must have offered before her home and playground were effectively taken over and turned into the Government Code and Cypher School. And then everything changed, turning Bletchley Park into the home of the codebreakers and Britain’s best-kept secret.
As I looked through articles about Bletchley and read local newspapers from the war, I saw an advert for an undertaker and discovered that they’d been recruited to build the huts, and Ned popped into my head. I had a clear image of a boy skulking around a hearse, wishing he could be anywhere other than at Bletchley Park. And what if these three children, the only children on the park, noticed each other and became friends? What kind of adventures might they get up to? And what secrets could they uncover in one of the most secret places in the world?
Writing the main body of the book during lockdown was a surreal experience. Although I wasn’t suffering the terror of a world war, I was in the dark, living in limbo, and I could see first-hand how lockdown was affecting my children and was able to relate to Robyn’s predicament with authenticity. I vividly remember feeling frightened about the world we were living in, with no clear idea how this would all end, or when. Bletchley Park research team were on hand via email and the phone, generously helping me with my many questions to ensure my research was correct. Luckily, I’d visited Bletchley so many times, it didn’t matter that I no longer had access when it was forced to close. As I’m a writer, not a historian, I have taken some small creative liberties with the timeline of events at Bletchley for the purposes of my story.
I, SPY is my tribute to my great-aunt Audrey and the thousands of women and young girls who worked at Bletchley Park during the war, highlighting the significant role women played. My eyes and ears were once only tuned in to the heroes of the war, but now they’re seeking out the stories of the heroines too.
For more spy mysteries or nonfiction books about real wartime spies, take a look at our spies and codebreakers collection.