Jane Fawcett was a young woman from London. After the war, she pursued a career in singing and, later on, a heritage preserver. But, despite her seemingly innocent and gentle appearance, Fawcett was credited with an action that would make her outstanding and worthy of admiration: identifying the message that led to the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. Here’s how she did it.

Before There Was Jane Fawcett

Before she became the Jane Fawcett, she was Janet Carolin Hughes, born and raised in London on March 4, 1921. She attended Miss Ironside’s School for Girls in Kensington as a kid. She also trained as a ballet dancer and enrolled at the Royal Ballet School. She wanted to pursue a ballet career. However, when she was 17, she was told she was too tall to be a professional dancer. This remark put a period on her career as a ballet dancer.

She was then sent to Zurich to learn how to read and write in German, a skill that would be useful later in her life. Finally, after six months, her parents asked her to return home for her debut — a formal celebration when a young woman, the debutante, from an upper-class family, has reached maturity and presented to society as a new adult. For Jane, the event was unnecessary and a waste of time. Thankfully for her, a friend invited her to apply to the Bletchley Park Project.

Government Code and Cipher Schools

During World War II, Bletchley Park was the main center of Allied code-breaking. It was an English country house and estate in Bletchley, Milton Keynes. It was constructed after 1883 for Sir Herbert Leon in the Victorian Gothic, Tudor, and Dutch Baroque styles.

The estate became the headquarters of the Government Code and Cypher School, where codebreakers like Alan Turing, Bill Tutte, Gordon Welchman, Stuart Milner-Barry, and Hugh Alexander were all members. Its members penetrated the Axis Powers’ secret communications like the Enigma and Lorenz ciphers.

Women dutifully worked in Bletchley Park. (UK GovernmentCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The work of these codebreakers was highly essential, as the intelligence they produced at Bletchley Park shortened the war by about two to four years. It was also there that automatic decryption machinery that led to the development of Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer.

Finding Bismarck

Fawcett was 20 years old when she was recruited to work at Bletchley Park. Like her, thousands of young women from the upper strata of the British society were recruited to assist the male team members who were finding it difficult to decode the German military missives written by code machines. Fawcett was working at a Typex cipher tweaked to replicate an Enigma machine. Once the Enigma’s daily code was broken, she or another woman would receive the keys and type out the encoded messages. The Typex would then print out the decoded message that she or another person would have to check to see if the message was in German. These German messages would be passed to Hut 3, where they would include the notes in intelligence reports.

Battleship Bismarck is not completed yet. (Unverified, Photo # NH 59671, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On May 25, 1941, Fawcett typed a message she got from a main Luftwaffe Enigma machine. The decoded message was a response to an inquiry sent by a German general asking about his son’s health aboard Bismarck. The response said the battleship was damaged and was en route to the port of Brest in France for repairs. Bismarck was Germany’s most essential and latest battleship at that time. Moreover, it had guns better than other existing battleships. Because of that, it became an important British target, too.