Can you keep a secret?
Published in the Majorca Daily Bulletin
Sunday 4th January 2015
This is the story of a five year adventure or maybe it is more than that. The Official Secrets Act rears it head as does all the intrigue of war that took place over 60 years ago. Our heroine Veronica More lives in Fornalutx and she granted me a look at a period in her life when everything was not quite what it seemed. Veronica is 95 and has had a house in Fornalutx since 1956. The price of the house was equivalent to 250 pounds and was paid out of the war gratuities that she and her husband Tom received at the end of their active service. Veronica still lives in that house and it was there surrounded by paintings and family pictures that she told me her war story.
Veronica lived in Edinburgh with her family and enjoyed an upper middle class life. She attended St Monica’s private school in Edinburgh before being sent off to The Mount School in York to board. Veronica was the youngest child of the family and was used to getting her own way. The custom at the time at the end of formal education was to send the girls off to be ‘finished’ somewhere in Europe with a little cachet. Paris was a favoured city as were many places in Italy but our girl was having none of that – she wanted to go to Germany . The news in 1937 was worrying but after making enquiries of family connections working in Berlin it was deemed safe to send this 17 year old alone on the Orient Express to land herself in Stuttgart to meet her host family. Her months of living with that family taught her German and allowed her an observation into the world that was gearing itself up for war.
War was declared in 1939 and our intrepid young lady beat a path to the recruiting office’s door to sign up. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and started training to drive ambulances and other military vehicles. Seconded to the Balloon Barrage Squadron in the Firth of Forth she drove lorries and vans and became a very useful mechanic. She was billeted with the families of miners in Dalmeny and spent a winter carrying cans of petrol out of the frozen mud to fill up her engines. Petrol was in short supply and had to be hidden so that’s why cans were used to fill the military vehicles.
Life plodded on and Veronica’s war was progressing along in a very useful way when the call came that she was to attend a ‘secret interview’ in London . The night train to London was taken and then transport arranged for her to go to a country house in Buckinghamshire. Bear in mind that the backdrop to this was her age – a mere 19 years old and called to a secret meeting by the Air Ministry top brass. The interview was all about her time in Germany and the fact that she could speak and write in that language. As the interview concluded she was sent back to Scotland not really knowing what she was being interviewed for. She had answered questions and not been allowed to ask any and returned from whence she came none the wiser.
Two weeks passed and then the message came that she had been promoted to Sergeant and was to transfer to the Air Ministry in London . Then it was off to another country house for more training and officer preparation and then the Ministry’s plans for her became clear. She was being attached to the ‘Air Intelligence’ division and working out of a central London location in Victoria . From then on her’s was a very different war she was a ‘listener’ and spent her shifts listening in to the communication between aircraft and their controls. She learnt to interpret morse code and understand the significance of changes in patterns. She was in London for the worst of the bombing raids and experienced the war from the London sharp end. Her contribution to the war effort and that of her colleagues was surrounded by secrecy and the signing of the Official Secrets Act was a very important action that sealed their lips for years. The ability to spot changes in the messages and understand the spoken inflections was a fine skill and considering that this was all done in German is deserving of nothing but maximum respect.
The listening posts were being set up in significant places all over theatres of war depending on the battle progress. After the battle of El Alamain when Montgomery pushed through North Africa the listening posts of Egypt became important and so in 1942 Veronica found herself in Heliodopolis near Cairo . Her office was in the Museum of Flora and Fauna and the sun shone every day. The work was the same though – hours of listening in and recording on index cards conversations and changes. Code breaking was added to her skills here and there is no doubt that young Veronica was a significant member of the team.
I have to digress a little here because the love story comes in at this point when Veronica fell in love with her own English soldier Tom Weedon. Their two years in Egypt were full of hard, sensitive work and a joyous love affair – tinged only by the fact that he was already married and had left a young bride back in the UK . The complications of wartime and relationships are the subject of another article but significant here in that this was the place this young couple met and only history would know at that stage whether they had a long term future with each other.
The travels around Egypt and the adventures of youth were part of off duty life and it was living there that made Veronica realise that when this was all over she could never settle for living in a place without sunshine. The seeds were planted for a long term move to the Mediterranean at that time which was later fulfilled in the family relocation to Fornalutx.
The war had its own momentum and a posting to Southern Italy was next to Fasano near Brindisi. The code breaking work was in full throttle on this assignment and the six months of the secondment were very important in the outcome of the war at that stage. Then the call came that Bletchley wanted Veronica More and she was to return post haste to the UK and report for duty at Bletchley Park .
cartoon by BIBI of the Majorca Daily Bulletin
This was no joyous homecoming for Veronica as she didn’t know how life was going to end with Tom now that he was back home with his wife. She hated the drabness of England after the years of sunshine and although a posting to Bletchley was seen as a great honour she found it difficult to get too excited. War fatigue was setting in and she had had enough of the military life by then. Nevertheless these private thoughts were not allowed to get in the way of the war effort so she duly presented herself at Bletchley Park .
Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes was a country house built round a lake. There were many huts in the grounds and the staff was divided up between military and civilian personal. Their role was to break the codes that existed and enable the decision makers to have access to the intelligence they gathered on a 24 hour basis. This was shift work in conditions of the utmost secrecy. The reason for the huts was to keep groups of people separate so that they couldn’t share information if they were tempted to do so. Bletchley was very important before Veronica got there and was credited with all the success that you can learn about in the film just released ‘The Imitation Game’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. This award winning film tells the story of the code breakers of Bletchley and the world they inhabited.
The staff of Bletchley Park were bussed into the place from the billets in nearby villages. Sleeping on a camp bed in the house of a local lady who didn’t really have room for her was Veronica’s lot in life at that time. She remembers that the place had a plum tree in the garden and every day for dessert she was served plums and custard. This was the dish that summed up the war for her.
Bletchley was an important place to work and to be sent there was a great honour. This was a fitting end to Veronica’s war time endeavours to have served out her last posting at such a place. Her German language and written skills had served her country well through the war years. Her desire as a truculent teenager to do something different and head for Germany in her ‘gap year’ was a decision that would have a huge significance on her war effort and her early life. Veronica’s war was over in 1945 as the war ended. She returned to Scotland and waited for the rest of her life to begin. – she was twenty five years old.
Veronica married her Tom who became a famous photographer and a teacher of photography. They had four children and relocated with them to Majorca in 1959. Six months later Tom died and Veronica was a widow with four children to bring up. Her life and what she did next is just so fascinating and are told in these books she has written:
Letters to my Grandchildren by Veronica More
Intimations – Poems by Veronica More with photographs by Tom & Cordelia Weedon
Retirement in Mallorca by Veronica More
Veronica More is a code breaker, she has let me into her secrets – up to a point but I couldn’t possibly comment as to whether there is much more to her than meets the eye. All I know is that I had the best time talking to her and enjoying the story of a small part of her life when she helped Britain win the second world war.