Anne Langton, 1925-2017

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We are very sad to hear of the passing of Anne Langton (nee Paton), one of the first Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service) to work in the Newmanry on the Heath Robinson machine and on Colossus.

Early in the war, Anne had been evacuated to America, but feeling that she wanted to contribute to the war effort she returned in 1943 to sign up as a Wren. At first, she worked on the Bombes, helping to decipher the Enigma ciphers, at Eastcote, but after two months, in November 1943, she was moved to Bletchley Park to work in the fledgling Newmanry, the unit that had been set up by Max Newman to try to automate code-breaking with machines.

In an interview with The National Museum of Computing in 2014, Anne recalled that she was one of the first four Wrens to work with Max Newman and was immediately set to work in the tape room. At that stage of the war, she said the Wrens would switch jobs quite frequently and she was soon working on the Heath Robinson machines in an attempt to try to find the wheel settings of the (unseen) Lorenz encryption machine used in German High Command communications.

With the arrival of first Colossus in February 1944 to improve on the Heath Robinson machines, she was immediately allocated a job with this brand-new computer. She remembers that the start wheels of the Lorenz machines which Colossus was designed to find were niot changed by the enemy quite so frequently in those days. They seemed to be changed about once a week, rather than the daily change which was to become routine – and which of course increased the workload.

When Colossus had found the start-wheel positions, she would check them by hand before taking them to the nearby Testery where she clearly remembered handing them over to the codebreakers and linguist including Colonel Tester (head of the Testery), Captain Jerry Roberts (Testery shift leader) and Roy Jenkins (later to become Home Secretary). From reports from other Wrens, the fact that Anne moved between huts was actually quite unusual at Bletchley, where activities were highly compartmentalised.

The messages meant little to Anne as she didn’t speak German and they were rarely told message contents anyway. But she did recall being told about an extremely important German High Command message, about the time of the Battle of Arnhem, which revealed the number of German troops waiting by Arnhem Bridge. “We were very worried about that. It was always a rush against time.” She continued working in Block H until 8 May 1945, “when no more messages appeared”.

Anne’s recall of the detail and events of her time at Bletchley park were astonishing and she was due to meet a researcher in the next few months. Anyone listening to this gentle, softly-spoken and highly articulate Wren could be in no doubt about her intellect and why she was chosen to work on the most important code-breaking machines of the war.

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