Woman whose work saved a British convoy

Mavis Lever was studying German at University College London when war broke out. She decided that her thesis on the German romantics would have to wait, and promptly offered her services to the Foreign Office as a spy.

She had little idea of what spies did, she now admits. She thought it had something to do with "seducing Prussian officers". Instead, she found herself ensconced in what had been a labourer's cottage in Bletchley Park, breaking codes and changing the course of the Second World War.

At one point, she was given an intercepted message from the Italian high command to decode. She worked out that it said: "Today's the day minus three." With the code broken, Dilly Knox's team was able to deduce the complete battle order of an Italian fleet that was moving in to attack a British convoy in the eastern Mediterranean. To guard Bletchley's secret, a reconnaissance plane was sent out before the battle to "spot" the oncoming fleet. The Italian fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Matapan, after which the Italian navy stayed out of the eastern Mediterranean for the duration of the war.

But, like everyone else at Bletchley, she received no public recognition until the late 1970s. Neither did her husband, Keith Batey, who was recruited to Bletchley as soon as he had graduated from Cambridge. When Mrs Batey gave a talk recently at her granddaughter's school, one of the girls remarked in amazement: "You kept quiet for 30 years? I couldn't have kept quiet for 30 minutes."

But she says: "Actually, I was lucky, because I married a mathematician from Hut 6, so although we never talked to the family or anyone else, we have talked about it to each other.

"Other people had to force it so far down that they have forgotten it all and it's very difficult to collect oral history. It was the way to do it. Nobody talked to anybody outside their own unit, because if the Germans had ever found out that we had broken their codes, that would have been the crown jewels gone."

The years of collective silence, she fears, means that the contribution of a few well known figures, such as Alan Turing, is over-emphasised at the expense of all the others.

To her, Turing was an aloof eccentric, very difficult to talk to. When he joined the team in cottage No 2, he shut himself away in the loft to concentrate on breaking the German naval code.

She said: "One should never forget the Poles who first uncovered Enigma. And Dilly Knox arrived absolutely on day one. He was the pioneer. He was an absolutely wonderful character and very easy to work with, but he was odd, just like someone out of Alice in Wonderland."

Mrs Batey, who is now 87, also plays down her own extraordinary contribution towards taking the Italian navy out of the war.

"I must absolutely emphasise that I take absolutely no credit for this. I was the one who happened to get the message to decode" she said.

"Most of the time, we never knew what it was that we broke because once we had worked out the crib, we passed it to a machinist to decode the whole message. Matapan was one of the very few occasions when we knew what happened next.

"When my local paper came to interview me, I told that I don't want to see a headline saying 'Bognor Regis Woman Won the War'."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future