THE BAKER STREET INDECIPHERABLE
Born Jean Owtram at Newland Hall, Dolphinholme, in rural Lancashire, her parents were Dorothy Daniel (known as ‘Bunty’) and Cary Owtram. She had two siblings, Patricia (Pat), who was older than her and Robert (Bobby) who was younger.
They had an idyllic, albeit privileged childhood with governesses, pony rides, tennis parties and regular shoots. The girls joked in later years that they were, “One step below aristocracy – the Squirearchy”.
Her father’s family owned a cotton mill in Bolton and he managed it. They employed some Jewish refugees from Austria who had fled from the Nazis. One of them called Lily, taught both girls to speak fluent German.
At the start of the Second World War her father joined the 137 Field Regiment Royal Artillery and was posted to the Far East in September 1941. Within 6 months he had been captured at Singapore and became a Prisoner of War.
He was initially held in Changi jail but was then transferred to a P-O-W camp at Chugkai in Thailand, close to the River Kwai, which held 8,000 allied prisoners. They were forced to build the Burma (‘Death’) Railway. He was the British camp commandant, responsible for maintaining morale, despite witnessing terrible things.
He kept a diary that he wrote in a notebook and hid up a bamboo pole, before burying it in a grave to avoid detection.
Meanwhile, Bunty became an ARP warden.
Jean was boarding at the time at Wroxall Abbey Girls School, but hated the constricted life. When her father was captured, Jean became determined to leave school early and join up. Her sister Pat had already joined the Women’s Royal Navy Service (the ‘Wrens’).
Pat was posted to London just in time for the Blitz. Because she was fluent in German she was employed at a ‘Listening Station’ (Station Y), sending German messages from the Enigma machine and other important information to Bletchley Park.
Jean was an accomplished pianist but was not the sporty type. She tried to follow Pat into the Wrens but they wanted more active types, so her application was turned down.
An aunt tipped Jean off about the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). They had been established in 1907 and had played a significant role in the First World War.
At Jean’s interview for the FANY, all she was asked about was her ability to do crosswords. “Oh, they’re my hobby. I do them with grandaddy”.
Jean joined up on her 18th birthday. 2,000 of the FANYs were signed up to work with the ‘Special Operations Executive’ (SOE). They supported the resistance behind the enemy lines – ‘housekeeping’ it was called.
Jean showed a particular aptitude for ciphers and codebreaking, being initially trained by master cryptographer Leo Marks. She just worked with a pen and pencil, deciphering messages from agents abroad. Her immediate boss was Colonel Colin Gubbins who stated he wanted, “Girls straight from higher education who had not lost the classroom.”
Jean was noted for her ability to break “indecipherables”, i.e. codes with mistakes (missing words or passages, spelling mistakes etc). She was quickly promoted to ‘Shift Leader’ at the SOE headquarters in Baker Street.
She couldn’t believe the responsibility she was given. “I felt more important than I had ever felt before.” She was told, if asked, to say she worked in personnel, which in a way was true. There was a big ethical debate going on in the country at the time as to whether women should be contributing to the war effort.
She had to attend the office in uniform but was told to get off the bus to work at different stops each day and walk the rest of the way so that nobody suspected where she worked. However, one day the bus conductor said to her, “Caught any more spies yet?” Jean wondered how secret the mission actually was.
And then Jean was transferred to Cairo to work with partisan communists in occupied Greece.
After that (in mid-1944) she went to Bari in the newly liberated Southern Italy where she co-ordinated with the Balkan Resistance, primarily Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. She organised ammunition, medical supplies and food drops. “There were casualties and they had to be brought out in a hurry. It was often very tense”.
With her position there came great pressure. Jean admitted there were great highs, but also terrible lows, and she began to suffer depression, deeply upset at the deaths of any agents she was running. She would discuss this in long letters to her sister Pat, whilst being careful not to reveal what she was actually doing for her work.
Years later she admitted many agents were killed. “When it goes silent you know something terrible has happened.”
As it became obvious the Allies were going to win the war, Jean began to worry about life after the war, after the excitement during it. “Being a FANY in England after this, would be grim but to sit in an office or in a bank somewhere would be hell.” She said she absolutely loved the social life in both Egypt and Italy.
At the end of the war the family waited for the release of her father. Pat said, “With our father being a prisoner of war, we were really longing for VJ Day and the news that he would be coming home. VE Day was wonderful but VJ Day was the one we were really waiting for.”
When he finally got released the whole family, including Jean, who had come back, were there to greet him. Cary had no idea what had happened to his daughters during the war. On a troop ship home from the Far East a nurse told him she had treated a young woman or the same unusual surname who had fallen off a cliff in Italy and nearly drowned. Cary said it couldn’t be either of his daughters as they were at home in Lancashire.
But it was Jean. She had been playing tennis on a court on a cliff top and had seen some friends in a boat below. She had gone to wave to them and had toppled over into the sea. Luckily, she missed the rocks and fell into the sea, being rescued by her friends. But shock set in later and she was treated by the same nurse.
Before long Jean was posted back to Italy to work for the ‘Allied Control Commission’ in Rome. Their job was to help displaced refugees in Austria.
She admitted she had so much excitement abroad in the war that she, “couldn’t wait to get back”.
After that she worked for UNESCO.
When she returned to the UK she became a Social Worker in Dumfries before becoming Lancaster University’s first ever Careers Advisor.
There she met the University’s librarian Michael Argles (known as Mike) and they married in 1968.
She had always wanted to be a published author and repeatedly submitted articles to ‘Country Life’ – always being rejected.
Meanwhile, Pat had gone to work for the BBC. There she met Ray Davies who she married. Together they created the TV show ‘Ask the Family’ and Pat became the producer on ‘University Challenge’ and ‘The Sky at Night’.
Jean and Mike retired at the same time in 1980. Jean remained very close to her sister Pat and in retirement they started to talk to each other about their wartime experiences. Because they had signed the Official Secrets Act, neither had ever told the other about their war. Pat said, “It was years after the war before I actually got round to saying ‘By the way Jean, what were you doing in Egypt and Italy?”
The sisters started giving lectures and talks about their war work. They became known as the ‘Codebreaking Sisters’. Jean used to joke in the talks, “I might be the only old lady in Chiswick who knows how to use a Sten Gun”. Pat was the more serious, Jean more lively and somewhat rebellious. They wrote a book together entitled ‘Our Secret War’. Finally, Jean had achieved her ambition of being a published author.
They also published their father’s diaries in a book entitled ‘1,000 days on the River Kwai’. The diaries were given to the Imperial War Museum.
Cary went on to become High Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire and was awarded an OBE. He died in 1993. He was remembered by his daughters, “with much love and gratitude”.
In 2020, painter Dan Llewelyn Hall did a portrait of them together, holding a telegram from their father in 1945, informing them of his release. Dan said, “The portrait explores the idea of how a shared secret is honoured”.
In an interview just before her death Jean said, “Girls from our class were destined to live a very narrow existence, focused on husband and children. The war gave us broader horizons and bigger adventures.”
Mike died in 1988 and her brother Bobby predeceased her as well, but Pat survives her.
They were the last surviving sisters to both sign the Official Secrets Act during the Second World War.
RIP – Running Italian Partisans