Great-great-grandmother from Enfield recognised for Second World War code-breaking work

Barbara Southerland, aged 97, has received a certificate from the prime minister recognising her role cracking codes and helping to defeat the Nazis

Barbara Southerland
Barbara Southerland with her certificate

Nearly 80 years after the end of the Second World War, great-great-grandmother Barbara Southerland has finally been officially acknowledged for the code-breaking work she undertook.

Barbara Southerland, who is now 97 and lives in Enfield, was just 18 years old and serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) when she was recruited to intercept German-coded messages at the Forest Moor listening station near Harrogate.

Working round-the-clock with other colleagues from the ATS, Barbara picked-up increasingly panicked enemy ‘chatter’ towards the end of the war as the Allies began to re-take Europe. The codes were then passed to world-famous Bletchley Park for analysis.

“We were never told exactly what information we were getting but I knew it was important,” said Barbara. “Because of all the secrecy I had to keep quiet about it for a long time. I think my husband always suspected, but my one regret is that I could never tell my father. He died without knowing.

“But now I feel very proud that my part in the code-breaking has been officially recognised.”

Barbara now has a certificate signed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with the citation: “The government wishes to express to you its deepest gratitude for the vital service you performed during World War 2.”

She was also awarded a gold-plated badge, inscribed: “We also served.” Barbara’s name will now be added to the role of honour at Bletchley Park.

The official recognition came after Barbara talked about some of her war-time experiences at the free monthly Enfield and Southagte tea parties she attends, which are organised by charity Re-engage, which helps those aged 75 and over experiencing loneliness.

One of the older people there suggested she should attend a local talk on the Enigma enciphering machine, which was cracked by British code-breakers, and from there she was put in contact with an author who, in turn, spoke to Bletchley Park about Barbara.

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“There were several listening stations which intercepted the German codes and passed them to Bletchley,” added Barbara. “Forest Moor was one. But not all of our names had been stored for whatever reason, which was why it’s taken so long for me to be recognised.”

“I’m very glad it’s happened, not just for me, but because all of us in the ATS were looked down on somewhat. We weren’t as glamorous as other units but we were doing a vital job.

“Every morning at 6am we were collected from our billet in Harrogate and driven in ten-ton lorries to Forest Moor. We had no idea where we were going. It was always dark and there were no signs nor lights.

“It was 1945 and we were picking up messages from German air force stations or army bases which became increasingly frantic. Then it went very quiet and we knew something stupendous was about to happen. That was all around the time of our victory in Europe.

“I never knew exactly what was going on. I have no idea why I was chosen to be a wireless interceptor. I had been a girl guide and in the Home Guard and knew morse code and semaphore so that probably helped. I was also interested in solving puzzles.”

Barbara did her basic army training at Guildford Barracks in Surrey, before being sent to the Isle of Man for more intense wireless work. After the war she spent a year in Egypt before being discharged and retraining as a switchboard operator.

As the war came to an end she met husband Peter, who was also in the Royal Signals. They were married for 67 years before he died some years ago. They had four children, six grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-granddaughter.

“After Peter died I became very isolated,” said Barbara. “Then someone told me about Re-engage, so I joined and it’s been a real life-saver. I really look forward to Sundays. Everyone in the group is very friendly and we have so much fun.

“I love going to the tea parties and next year if I’m well enough I’ll also go to Bletchley Park to see what all the fuss has been about!”

Over-75s are welcome to join a Re-engage tea party or volunteer. For more information:

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