Staff and students were left amazed and eager to hear more when we welcomed back a very special Old Girl to the School last term. Gabrielle Kingaby (94) attended St Katharine’s School in Wantage for five years until it closed in 1938. After a brief period away with her family, she returned to the recently merged St Helen and St Katharine for her final five terms where she gained her School Certificate and went on to study music in Oxford before later joining the WRNS and working as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.
We were delighted to welcome Gabrielle back to the School to hear about her memories and the important part she played in the war effort.
A group of students had eagerly prepared questions for Gabrielle to answer. Head Girl Alice wanted to know 'How did you feel about being asked to work in secret?' referring to her work as a bombe operator. Gabrielle explained that as they were all working in secret "it wasn’t really much of an issue at the time" although she did confess that her first husband and her mother died never knowing exactly the vital role she had undertaken in the war.
When asked how the bombes actually worked, Gabrielle explained that they were electro-mechanical devices which helped to decipher German Enigma-machine-encrypted secret messages. She recalled: "There were two operators to each bombe, one on the bombe itself and the other checking, and there were about nine machines. It was very noisy and smelly, with the hot oil and machinery. The bombes often broke down and we had to get an RAF mechanic to fix them. As soon as you got the information from the bombe, you wrote it down and handed it through the hatch to your checker. Your checker was your permanent partner and you alternated on each watch.
The importance of what we were doing was drummed into us, though we didn’t know what it was about. There was one occasion when we were told a lot of ships were being torpedoed and we had messages which if we could break would save endless lives. We were told that some jobs we had were really urgent, please make sure you don’t make any mistakes, they’ve got to be cracked as fast as possible."
When the war came to an end Gabrielle spent two months taking all the machines to pieces: "Every drum, which had hundreds of bits of wire, had to be unscrewed, every bit of wire had to be saved and put in a box, these machines were so secret that everyone had to be completely dismantled. It was monotonous sitting eight hours at a time unscrewing these bits."
Gabrielle was married in October 1945, demobbed a week later then travelled to Africa with her husband where they stayed for five years, raising their children before heading back to England for a better standard of living after losing one of her sons to malaria. Gabrielle has since lived a very active and well-travelled life. Up until ten years ago she regularly travelled for two months every year visiting different countries around the world.
On a tour of the School, Gabrielle clearly recalled many of the classrooms and lessons which took place in them. She was delighted to see herself and many of her peers in the whole school photographs from the late 1930s and was able to pick out the star Junior Wimbledon Tournament tennis players from the St Helen and St Katharine sports team photos.
During her discussions with students and staff, her love of life and enthusiasm for learning shone through. Gabrielle is delighted that our new fully funded bursary for Sixth Form Computer Science is named in recognition of pioneering female computer scientists.