The secret life of a First World War codebreaker

Bertha Speir was pictured in the Sunday Post before being presented at court. Picture: comp
Bertha Speir was pictured in the Sunday Post before being presented at court. Picture: comp
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IT is June 1920, and the tradition of presenting young ladies to the royal court is a key event in the upper class social calendar.

A line of young girls from aristocratic families wait for their coming-of-age moment in front of King George and Queen Mary.

The newspapers enthuse about the occasion, dissecting the detail of the dresses on display, revelling in the relief of those early peacetime years.

But under the froth and frivolity, one girl in the excitable line-up had a secret. A secret she would take to her grave.

Unknown to those around her, Bertha Speir, the 21-year-old daughter of Lt Col Guy Speir of The Abbey, North 
Berwick, had already served the very same king to whom she was about to curtsy.

She had been one of a group of people recruited specially to work in Room 40, the First World War forerunner to the Second World War codebreakers of Bletchley Park.

Room 40 was set up in October 1914 in the Old Admiralty Building in London, to decode messages intercepted at sea from the enemy.

Certain people were made aware of the work itself after the war, however, little is known, even today, about many of the men and women who worked within the highly secret department.

Only in the 1950s was any information about them made available, and many records were lost or destroyed.

The few books published about Room 40 say little about its female members, whether codebreakers or secretaries.

Among them was Bettina, as Bertha was known there, who seems to have been the only Scot engaged in this crucial area.

Room 40 grew from improvements to Britain’s defence management.

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After Britain’s shortcomings in the Second Boer War, in 1902 the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) was formed.

Among its members were the prime minister, the first lord of the admiralty – who from 1911 to 1915 was Winston Churchill, the secretary of state for war, and the heads of naval and military intelligence.

The CID drew up war plans, one of which was that, in the event of war with Germany, its undersea cables should be destroyed. In August 1914, Germany’s trans-Atlantic cables and those running between Britain and Germany were severed.

Immediately there was an increase in messages sent via cables belonging to other countries and messages sent by wireless.

Although wireless messages could be intercepted by the navy, this was of little use without the means of decoding and interpreting.

However, Britain did not yet have an established organisation for this. When intercepted messages started arriving at the Admiralty Intelligence Division, Rear Admiral Henry Oliver appointed as an expert Alfred Ewing, director of naval 

Ewing had experience of codes and ciphers, and he recruited language teachers from Dartmouth Naval College to work as volunteer 

Progress was slow until two codebooks captured from the Germans fell into British hands, providing a vital breakthrough.

By October it was clear that this new organisation needed to be formalised and given a proper base.

The men moved to a cluster of rooms in a quiet part of the Old Admiralty Building, known as Room 40. With Churchill’s support, Room 40 grew.

As the war continued, different codes and message types emerged and wider skills were needed. The codebreakers were mostly men, an eclectic mix of academics, actors, aristocrats and authors, recruited for their often 
unorthodox intellectual skills.

In mid-1917 the Admiralty Intelligence Division realised Room 40 desperately needed special secretarial support, and started recruiting bright women from carefully chosen families.

Moving to London’s Cavendish Square, Bertha, aged 18, started in Room 40’s secretariat on March 9, 1918. Existing typing skills were not necessary: the job demanded more than that.

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Apart from intellect, a crucial factor in recruiting women was family background. It had always been important when recruiting men in the early secret service roles: they often came from wealthy families with long-standing government, military or commercial connections.

Women were also vetted through their male connections: men of status, integrity or patriotism made the women acceptable security risks.

Bettina was an excellent candidate. She was born in 1899 in Edinburgh, the eldest of five. Her father, whose family seat was Culdees Castle, played golf with Gerald and Arthur Balfour: when the latter was Prime Minister, Speir was Private Secretary to the Scottish Secretary of State.

In 1906, when Balfour became Leader of the Opposition, Speir was Chief Conservative Agent in Scotland.

During the war he saw action in the Territorial Army and was made Lieutenant Colonel.

Bettina was paid 50/- a week, plus a language allowance of 7/- from 1 September 1; a knowledge of languages was essential in translating and typing up the decoded messages, which were then passed to the naval experts for evaluation. By 1918 languages included Turkish, Bulgarian and Spanish.

Bettina would also have dealt with other documents, such as papers retrieved from U-boats and messages intercepted from neutral countries, and ensured the War Diary was updated and sent daily to the Commander-in-Chief Grand Fleet.

Having signed the Official Secrets Act, even in early November 1918, when Room 40 intercepted messages referring to courts martial and deserters, Bettina had to keep to herself the happy indication that hostilities were nearing an end.

After the armistice, Room 40 was still intercepting messages which showed how badly the war had ended for the German navy.

Bettina worked until December 19. When The Sunday Post in December 1920 published her photo with other girls under the patronising headline “Our Prettiest Society Girls: Winsome Personalities who are now in the Limelight”, they could not have known of her contribution to the war.

But unlike her brothers, the youngest of whom became politician Sir Rupert Speir, she returned, as was expected of girls of her class and era, to her pre-war status: a Society Girl.

She continued to live in North Berwick and in 1968 died, unmarried, her secret unknown.