Born Lorna Fitch in Palmers Green in London, she was the third of 5 children. Her father Bernard was a partner in Beard & Fitch, a company who made clock gears and other heavy industrial machinery.
But her father died when she was just 11. Separated from her siblings, her father’s business partner, Mr. Beard, and his wife, became her legal guardians until she was 21.
She went to Ashford School, although it was moved to Devon for the war years. After completing her schooling, Lorna did a Domestic Science course in Reading.
And then she decided to join up, even though she was still a teenager. She joined the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) because she liked the uniform.
Her initial training was in Scotland where all they did was cleaning and scrubbing floors for two weeks, but then she was suddenly transferred – to Bletchley Park.
Lorna remembered arriving at Bletchley Park. She, and other girls, were given a quick introductory talk about the importance of their work, were made to sign the Official Secrets Act and were then told they had to decipher codes. She asked how were they to do that and was merely told ‘just watch others and learn as you go along’.
She was billeted at nearby Woburn Abbey, along with 600 other Wrens. They were put up in the attics. There were no carpets and no heating. Everything froze in winter, including the toilets.
And the work was hard too – eight-hour shifts, seven days a week. The girls worked a three-week rota, morning to afternoon, then afternoon to midnight the next week, and then from midnight to morning the third week. This meant the machines worked 24 hours a day. Lorna said, “Each day when I started, the machines were still going. In fact, they never stopped – and neither did we”.
Throughout her three years at Bletchley Park, Lorna did the same job. She worked on the Colossus machine, the first electrical digital computer, as part of a group known as ‘C Watch’. The Colossus wasn’t designed by Alan Turing, although he advised on it. It was built by a GPO Engineer named Tommy Flowers. There were 8 Colossus machines at Bletchley, all based in the room where Lorna worked. There were no windows opened and all light was blacked out and the heat from the machines was immense.
It was Lorna’s job to manually feed data into the machine. These were intercepted messages from the Nazis. The machine searched for repetitions, overlaps, mistakes etc – anything to break the German’s coded messages. When the information came out of Colossus it was her friend, fellow WREN Pam Minto who took the information out.
The codes and ciphers were on tapes and were delivered to her hut in tins, so each one was nicknamed after a tinned fish, e.g. ‘haddock’, ‘pollock’ and the most important of all, ‘tunny’.
Tunny was the attempt to break the ‘Lorenz’ code, the one used by Adolf Hitler to send and receive messages from his front-line generals. Lorna joked, “Often we were reading the messages before Hitler”.
Lorna’s job, putting the tapes into Colossus, was not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it was a highly skilled operation. “If you put them on too tight, they tore down the centre and required to be replaced. If you put them on too loose, they fell off. So, a great deal of accuracy and precision was required in placing them just so the tension was good enough to keep them on the machine but not so tight they tore”.
She never knew what happened to the information once it left the hut. “Nobody told us, except that we were trying to get the messages through. No, we didn’t know what we were doing, but that was security – if you don’t know, you can’t tell anybody”.
She did not realise the information she was decoding made a crucial contribution to the success of D-Day.
The Colossus machine was made up of hundreds of valves and vacuum tubes, which would frequently heat up and break down. Engineer Tommy Flowers was a regular visitor to her hut – but there was no rest for the girls if one broke down as the other 7 kept going.
As well as very hard work, the food at Bletchley Park was awful. Lorna used to occasionally sneak off site and down to the railway station where there was an all-night café. But she got caught and was disciplined. She was confined to barracks for 2 weeks. “Considering there was nowhere to go anyway, it didn’t make any difference”.
She felt she was able to cope with the discipline better than most as it was very similar to that she had ‘suffered’ at boarding school.
The only break in the boredom was the occasional ‘hop’ (dance) at a local school hall – which she could only attend if she was not on duty.
There she met Reg Cockayne and they became dance partners.
At the end of the war, Lorna was told she was being transferred to Leeds. She was just able to go to one last hop. There, she suggested to Reg they meet up again sometime in the future. He suggested 10 years. She said, “make it 5”.
They agreed to place an advert in the Daily Telegraph and then meet up under the clock in Waterloo Station.
Lorna was demobbed in 1947 after turning down an offer to sign up for another 5 years in the WRENS. Instead, she joined the Emergency Teacher’s Training Course and soon qualified.
Her first teaching job was in a high school in Harlow where she taught English, Maths and Domestic Science. Pretty soon she just taught the last of the three – although she preferred it when she was called a Home Economics teacher. She did this job for the rest of her career.
The meeting at Waterloo with Reg never happened. He realised he missed her too much and tried to chase her down. But he had no information about her, other than she had an account with Barclays Bank.
Reg wrote to Barclays and asked if they would trace her and deliver a letter he had written to her. This they duly did, passing it from branch to branch.
Reg and Lorna did meet up again and were married in 1950 (when they were scheduled to meet up again). They were to have three children, a daughter, Diana, and two sons, Anthony and Stephen.
But for many, many years, neither told the other what they had done in the war, still believing in the Official Secrets Act. In fact, Reg had worked for the Foreign Office in the Radio Security Service (part of the Secret Intelligence Service). He was a wireless interceptor.
When they finally discussed their respective war service, they were stunned to find it was Reg who was sending those coded messages to Lorna’s hut.
In married life, with Reg still working for the security services, they had one posting abroad, to Ankara. When they came back to Britain, they settled in Christchurch, Dorset, and Lorna resumed her teaching career.
Reg died in 1965, aged just 48. Lorna moved the family to Lymington in Hampshire, where her brother lived, for a bit of extra support.
In later years, Lorna was delighted that the contribution women made to the war effort, began to receive greater acclaim – and similarly the role of those at Bletchley Park came out into the open. She was very proud of what she had done. However, in interviews, she never mentioned Reg, because she felt his Secret Service career had to remain secret.
For the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the French government decided to award the Legion d’honneur to anybody who had contributed to their war effort. Lorna was not an immediate recipient as her contribution was not largely known and she didn’t want any ‘fuss’.
However, her youngest son Steve encouraged her to accept the medal in 2021. He said, “I feel immensely proud. She is very humble about all of this and really didn’t want a big show, but I persuaded her to accept the medal on behalf of all the WRENS who can’t be here, because they all did tremendous work at Bletchley Park”.
Her medal was presented to her by Jude Terry, the highest ranked woman in the Royal Navy (who had just been promoted to Rear Admiral – the first female of such rank in British history). Jude told Lorna, “I am incredibly grateful to people like you who paved the way for me to join the Navy”.
In her final years her eyesight began to fail so she joined the Blind Veterans Association who gave her a lot of help. They also organised tours of Bletchley Park where she met up with other surviving WRENS who worked there. She loved those tours.
When Lorna died, a Royal Navy Association spokesperson said, “Lorna Cockayne was one of the last surviving people who ran the first computers in the world – the Colossus computers at Bletchley Park. At the time, women could join the WRENS but not the Royal Navy itself, offering administrative support to the war effort but not allowed to go to sea. As a member of ‘C Watch’ she played a pivotal role in defeating the Germans”.
RIP – Royalnavy’s Inspiring Pioneer