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Mavis Batey file photo [29939]

Mavis Batey

Given NameMavis
Born5 May 1921
Died12 Nov 2013
CountryUnited Kingdom


ww2dbaseMavis Lilian Lever was born in May 1921 in Dulwich, South London in England, United Kingdom. Her father worked in the local postal sorting office and her mother was a seamstress. Despite her humble background Mavis was highly educated having won entry into the Coloma Convent School - a free but academically selective Grammar School in West Croydon where she studied German as one of her languages.

ww2dbaseThe family normally took their annual holiday in Bournemouth on the south coast, but during the 1930s Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler's propaganda minister, created a programme of cheap holidays in Germany under the title of Kraft durch Freude ("Strength through Joy") and in 1936, the fifteen-year-old Mavis persuaded her mother that this year they should go to the Rhineland. During this holiday they joined a crowd of happy German workers, largely indoctrinated into the myths and legends of German heroes. Mavis was enthralled by it all and resolved to study German literature in her sixth form.

ww2dbaseA little later Mavis earned a place at University College London (UCL) where she studied German Romanticism under Professor Leonard Willoughby; who had been one of Alfred Dillwyn "Dilly" Knox's (q.v.) codebreaking colleagues in the Admiralty during the First World War. She had planned to go to TĂĽbingen University in Germany for a term in 1938 but, with war increasingly likely, she switched to Zurich University instead. She returned to UCL when Germany manned the Siegfried Line of fortifications between France and Germany to find they were about to be evacuated to Aberystwyth. Wanting to do more for the war effort than simply read poetry in Wales, she briefly considered training as a nurse but was quickly told, that with her knowledge of German, she might be of more use to the Foreign Office.

ww2dbaseAfter an interview at the Foreign Office, Mavis was selected as a suitable candidate for a job in intelligence and sent over to the dingy Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) Headquarters at 54 Broadway, then opposite London's St. James's underground station. In her new job Mavis was employed to examine commercial codes and peruse the personal columns in The Times for coded spy messages. In May 1940, after showing promise with a piece of smart lateral thinking that uncovered the origin of an illegal shipment to Germany, Mavis was plucked out and sent to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park to become a German linguist in a new research team being set up by the eccentric codebreaker Dilly Knox.

ww2dbaseThe absent-minded Dilly Knox, who had broken the Spanish and Italian Enigma Machine (q.v.) codes before the war, had threatened to resign when his staff were hived off to Bletchley's Hut 6 (to examine intercepted German Army and Luftwaffe Enigma messages) or Hut 4's Naval Section. Commander Alistair Denniston, the head of GC&SC, stubbornly refused to accept Dilly's resignation, rightly telling him that he had unique qualities which were vital to the war effort. Instead his talents would be put to use breaking new codes, leaving Hut 6 to do the day-to-day breaking of intercepts. Commander Denniston reopened "The Cottage", a building adjoining the Park's mansion, and put Dilly in charge of a small research section looking into unbroken machine codes that Hut 6 (run by dynamic pipe-smoking Gordon Welchman with his former student, the Chess Master Stuart Milner-Barry as his deputy) didn't have time to deal with.

ww2dbaseWhen 19-year-old Mavis Lever arrived at Bletchley Park she was placed into Dilly's exclusively female section as one of several German linguists. She was billeted on a farm at Leighton Buzzard where the farmer's wife immediately recognized that her war work was of a secretive nature and did not ask any questions. She also appreciated the way that Mavis would help around the farm during her days off. Almost all of Bletchley's people were paid a pittance; Mavis initially earned thirty shillings a week from which she had to pay twenty-one shillings for her lodgings.

ww2dbaseDilly's unusual views on training left new recruits to either sink or swim, but ensured that Mavis and the other girls would develop an ability to think laterally. He encouraged his younger staff to look for patterns or predictability in the Enigma codes that might improve the chances of those codes being cracked. He soon recognized that Mavis had exactly the right mental approach towards the exhausting work, teaching her how to crack codes by hand – a system using a form of slide-rule known as "rodding".

ww2dbaseThe month after Mavis arrived at Bletchley Park, Italy entered the war and, despite having only the scantiest knowledge of the language, she was put to work on the Italian Navy's Enigma code, trying out likely forms of words to see if she could identify set formulae across multiple messages. Mavis soon proved particularly adept at making up in intuition what she lacked in experience and, at one point, recognized that one enemy cryptographer had a girlfriend called Rosa, whose name he habitually used when creating his codes.

ww2dbaseDilly Knox was keen to learn if the Italian codes he had broken during the Spanish Civil War were still in use, but it soon became apparent that the messages were completely different and none of his "cribs" (an intelligent guess by looking for patterns in the coded text) were of any use. Then, alone one night in September 1940, Mavis made a crucial breakthrough. When Dilly arrived on the next morning he was so delighted when shown her decrypted text that he immediately went to Commander Denniston to insist that Mavis be given a promotion and wage rise. He also took her out to dinner to celebrate. In the months that followed Mavis would become ever more familiar with the styles of individual enemy Enigma operators, eventually being able to determine that, in fact, two of them had girlfriends called Rosa. Based on what she learned, Mavis was able to build up a comprehensive picture of the current Italian code and soon she and her colleagues at Bletchley Park were routinely reading Italian messages.

ww2dbaseWorking as one of Dilly's assistants could be demanding but also very exhilarating. Mavis and her colleague, mathematician Margaret Rock, frequently found it difficult to keep up with his constant flow of brilliant ideas of ways into the enemy's codes. Then on one night shift she noticed something wrong with a message. There did not appear to be a single letter "L" in the message. This, she concluded, was from a mistake made by the Enigma machine operator which might, she hoped, permit the codebreakers to break into the code. Dashing across to Hut 6 she found one of the mathematicians who volunteered to help her. Together they sat drinking coffee through the night trying to work out the wiring of that Enigma machine's rotors. The helpful mathematician was Keith Batey, her future husband. Thanks to Mavis, with a bit of help from Keith, the Admiralty were now able to keep on top of the Italian Navy's communications and, in so doing, brought about one of the Royal Navy's greatest victories during the Second World War.

ww2dbaseIn late March 1941 Mavis decoded a message which suggested that the Italian Fleet was preparing to put to sea in three days. The Italian Navy's plan, subsequently revealed from other decrypted messages, was to attack British troopships and their token escorts off the Greek coast. This discovery was passed to the Mediterranean Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, in Alexandria, Egypt, via the Operational Intelligence Centre deep under the Admiralty. Admiral Cunningham was, at first, sceptical about the intelligence (known collectively as "Ultra"), but pressure from above finally convinced him that the intelligence was reliable. The outcome resulted in the defeat of Admiral Angelo Iachino's Fleet at the Battle of Cape Matapan (28-29 March 1941). Outnumbered, outgunned and without radar, the Italians, in a running fight during the night, lost three well-armed armoured cruisers, the Zara, Pola and Fiume together with two destroyers and the loss of 2,400 Italian sailors. Additionally the modern battleship Vittorio Veneto was damaged by a torpedo-bomber from HMS Formidable which holed the hull, damaged a propeller and brought the battleship to a halt. After several hours of frantic pumping and hasty repair work, the Vittorio Veneto was on the move again making her way slowly back to Taranto. For the loss of only one British torpedo bomber the Italian's Regia Marina was effectively put out of the war, making only one more appearance before surrendering to Admiral Cunningham in 1943.

ww2dbaseMavis married Keith Batey in November 1942 at Marylebone Registry Office just before Keith was about to depart to Canada to undertake flying training. Peter Twinn, who worked with Alan Turing, served as the best man. Keith Batey had been studying mathematics at Trinity College, Oxford, when recruited by his lecturer, Gordon Welchman, and brought into Bletchley Park to bolster the codebreaking capability of Knox's ISK section. But, like many young men, he felt that he should be playing a more active part in the war instead of having a safe job in the English countryside. Not surprisingly his superiors were not enthusiastic about risking the potential capture one of their experts, and he was therefore refused entry into the RAF (although permitted to train as a Fleet Air Arm pilot where, they expected, should he be shot down he would very likely drown in the sea).

ww2dbaseSince the beginning of the war every German spy sent to Britain had been captured and turned. They were now being used to transmit false information to the enemy through the "Double Cross" operation headed by Colonel Tommy "Tar" Robertson of MI5. What the Allied High Command needed to know urgently was whether these fake spy reports were being believed in Berlin. This required the Bletchley codebreakers to break into the sophisticated Abwehr Enigma, which many thought to be unbreakable. By now Dilly Knox was extremely ill with terminal stomach cancer and only made fleeting visits to the Park. Mavis, aged just twenty, would find herself in charge at "The Cottage". On 8 December, 1941, she successfully broke into an Abwehr coded message on a link between Belgrade and Berlin, thereby allowing the codebreakers to construct one of the machine's rotors. Commander Denniston wrote to Stewart Menzies, head of MI6, to let him know of the achievement. Later, she broke another Abwehr machine, the GGG which was used near the Spanish border. From then on, Bletchley was able to read all the high-level messages between the German Intelligence officers running the double agents.

ww2dbaseAn early success occurred during Operation Mincemeat (generally credited to have been devised by "James Bond" author Ian Fleming), a devious plan to convince the Germans that an Allied Invasion of southern Europe would be aimed at Greece and Sardinia, Italy rather than Sicily, Italy as was intended. Following the death of Dilly Knox his ISK research section had been taken over by codebreaker Peter Twinn with Mavis Lever as a key member of his team. The Abwehr officer in Madrid, Spain were anxious to find out if the documents washed ashore with the body of "Major Martin" were authentic. When, on 14 May 1943, the team decrypted a message from Berlin that indicated the Germans considered the documents to be genuine, the "Double Cross Committee" knew that the Germans had been completely taken in by the deception.

ww2dbaseThe knowledge that the Germans were accepting all the fake reports provided by their spies in England was absolutely critical for the success of Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. By June 1944, Hitler and his generals had been so convinced that the Allied invasion would come in Pas de Calais area that they kept most of their best troops there, expecting an invasion that was not going to come.

ww2dbaseAt the end of the war Bletchley Park was closed down. Mavis and a number of other girls (including Alan Turing's former fiancé, Joan Clarke) were redeployed to the new Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Eastcote in Middlesex (formerly RAF Eastcote which had been an outstation of BP) to work on Russian codes. Mavis left GCHQ in 1947 to start a family. When Keith was appointed to a post at the High Commission in Ottawa, Canada she went with him. With two young daughters and a son Mavis chose to become a stay-at-home parent. In the 1960s Keith became the Chief Financial Officer at Oxford University and the family moved to a house in the university grounds. It was here that Mavis began work on a restoration of the eighteenth-century gardens, which developed into a future career as an expert on garden history.

ww2dbaseMavis Batey would write many books on garden history including Jane Austen and the English Landscape and Alexander Pope: Thee poet and the landscape, plus an affectionate biography of her old boss, Dilly: The Man who broke Enigma. She was honoured with an MBE in 1985 for her work on protecting historic gardens, having received no recognition for her many remarkable achievements at Bletchley Park during the war. Keith Batey passed away in 2010 and Mavis died in 2013.

Michael Smith: The Debs of Bletchley Park (Aurum Press, 2015)
Michael Smith: The Secrets of Station X (Biteback Publishing, 2011)
Michael Kerrigan: How Bletchley Park Won World War II (Amber Books, 2018)
Charles Stuart: Ultra at the Battle of Matapan (War Monthly Magazine, August 1981)
Max Hastings: The Secret War (William Collins Publishers, 2015)
Sinclair McKay: Bletchley Park-The Secret Archives (Autum Press, 2016)
Katharine Marsh (Editor): Story of World War II (Future PLC, Bournemouth, 2018)

Last Major Revision: Jul 2020

Mavis Batey Timeline

5 May 1921 Mavis Lever was born in Dulwich, London, England, United Kingdom.
8 Dec 1941 Mavis Batey successfully broke into a German Abwehr coded message on a link between Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Berlin, Germany, thereby allowing the codebreakers to construct one of the Enigma Machine.
12 Nov 2013 Mavis Batey passed away.

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