Codebreaking sisters kept their war secrets for 75 years; Pat worked with Bletchley Park on Enigma messages and Jean helped spies behind enemy lines. Now in their 90s, they tell their incredible story to RACHAEL BLETCHLY.
SAILING home to Blighty from the Far East in 1945, Colonel Cary Owtram couldn't wait to see his family again. Thinking about wife Bunty, son Bobby and daughters, Pat and Jean, had helped him endure three brutal years in a Japanese POW camp.
He would visualise them in the grounds of their home, Newland
Hall, playing tennis, rowing on the lake or pruning the rhododendrons. So, when a nurse on the troop ship returning from Singapore insisted she'd met his youngest daughter Jean in Italy, he found it most peculiar.
"Daddy told the nurse she must be mistaken," recalls Jean, 75 years on. "Why on earth would I have been in Italy? In our father's mind, Pat and I were still young girls safe at home in Lancashire.
"He had no idea I was a code and cipher officer with the Special Operations Executive, sending and receiving messages for Allied agents embedded with resistance groups.
"And he had no clue that Pat had spent the war intercepting Enigma coded messages from the German Kriegsmarine and sending them on to Bletchley Park."
Remarkably, Colonel Owtram and his wife never discovered how their two plucky daughters had served in the Second World War. It wasn't for another 30-odd years that Pat and Jean even told each other what they'd been up to as they had both signed the Official Secrets Act and believed they must "keep mum until the grave".
Thankfully, when the Bletchley Park codebreakers began writing memoirs attitudes changed, and now Pat Davies, 97, and Jean Argles, 95, have detailed their own exploits in a fascinating joint memoir called Codebreaking Sisters: Our Secret War. With extracts from their evocative letters and diaries, it charts their excitement at swapping a comfortable middle-class existence for a life of derring do.
Pat and Jean grew up in Lancashire where their father, a First World War veteran, ran the family cotton mill. In the 1930s the family employed Lily, an Austrian-Jewish cook who fled the Nazis, and she taught the girls to speak German.
Pat was at secretarial college when war broke out, while Jean and Bobby were at boarding school. Two years later they all went on holiday with their parents, before their father joined the 137th Field Regiment to fight in the Far East.
"We thought the British army would defeat the Japanese and everything would be fine," says Pat who now lives in Chiswick, west London. "But in February 1942 my father was captured after the fall of
Singapore. He was transported to Chungkai, one of the largest prisoner-of-war camps, to help build the infamous Burma railway."
In August 1942, Pat left school and joined the Women's Royal Naval Service. Thanks to her German language skills, she was sent for training as a special duties linguist, and vividly remembers the moment she signed the Official Secrets Act.
"I remember hovering my pen over the paper and thinking of the ramifications," she says. "I really wouldn't be able to breathe a word to anyone about what I'd be doing.
"We were warned that there was no release from the Act and if we breached it in any way the penalties were harsh - up to and including death. It all sounded so serious and hush-hush in a way I'd only ever seen in films. So when I finally scribbled my name, I was worried I might have accidentally signed up to be a spy. Thankfully my role was a little less dramatic, though still important."
She became an interceptor with the "Y" service, monitoring enemy messages from coastal listening stations.
"Some of the messages we intercepted were in plain language and those were passed to the Royal Navy," she says. "But anything that involved Enigma coding went straight to Bletchley Park - Station X. We also had to take bearings to identify the location of enemy ships."
In spring 1944, Pat was stationed near Dover. One morning after a long night shift she saw a group of army officers walking towards her.
"I did a double take," she says.
"The man in the middle was Winston Churchill - flanked by Field Marshal Montgomery. The rule was that you only saluted senior officers when wearing a hat and, because I'd been on a night shift, I wasn't. So I gave them a cheery wave and said 'Good morning!' and they replied before walking on."
Jean had to wait until her 18th birthday in 1943 to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. As with Pat, her knowledge of German brought her to the attention of the top brass and she was sent for an interview with the Special Operations Executive.
"They asked me if I did crosswords.
I assumed they'd run out of sensible questions to ask! As it happened we used to do crosswords with Mother from a very young age and I was rather good at puzzles."
Jean was sent to work with the famous cryptographer Leo Marks in his Baker Street HQ in London, where spies were trained and then planted in occupied Europe. Working behind enemy lines, she decoded and transmitted messages to spies and the resistance.
"It was tremendously exciting," she recalls.
Jean was posted to Cairo to support agents and local partisans fighting the Nazis. Then she went to Bari on the Italian coast helping resistance fighters across the Adriatic in the Balkans.
In May 1945, Jean was nearly killed in a cliff fall. "I'd been playing tennis on a cliff overlooking the sea," she says. "Then I saw some friends heading out in a motor boat and jumped up to wave.
"Unfortunately I lost my balance and plunged straight over the cliff. Somehow I missed the rocks and landed in the water. My friends hauled me onto their boat and I felt fine. But later the shock hit me and my friends found a nurse who looked after me. We chatted about family and she said she was off to the Far East."
After D-Day Jean was going to be posted there too - but her mother insisted she return home to welcome her father when he was liberated.
When that reunion happened, Colonel Owtram discovered his girls had served in the forces, but never asked what they did.
"Pat and I met up with him in London for dinner once," says Jean.
"And he was extremely shocked when we ordered whisky, not sherry.
"But we weren't the demure girls he'd left behind. I'd been an Ensign and Pat a Chief Petty Officer and we'd both experienced too much to be delicate creatures. We were grown women - and grown women could drink whisky!"
Their father wrote his own memoirs from notes he'd scribbled on scraps of paper and hidden in bamboo poles in the PoW camp. But he couldn't find a publisher for "1,000 Days on the River Kwai". Colonel Owtram died in 1993, aged 93, having received an OBE for his service. Then, in 2017 his daughters did publish his book and the world learnt of his bravery. Now their own story can be told too.
After the war, Pat went to university here, then Harvard in the USA, before becoming a reporter in Manchester. She later moved to the BBC, where she met her husband, Ray Davies, and devised the TV quiz, Ask the Family. She was also a producer on University Challenge and travelled the world with Patrick Moore as producer of The Sky at Night.
Jean moved from codebreaking to helping refugees. After becoming a social worker she was made careers officer at the newly opened Lancaster University, where she met her husband, Michael Argles.
One evening in the 1970s, the sisters were having dinner when Pat asked: "What exactly were you doing in Egypt, Jean?"
Jean recalls: "She listened with interest as I told her about the agents whose messages I had coded in Cairo, in Italy and at the SOE. Then Pat told me about the Y service and I felt very proud of my big sister.
"We'd never even thought about discussing our war service before that," says Pat. "But now I think that it's important that everything about the Second World War is documented and explained.
"I've shared my experiences with younger generations through school visits. And it usually raises a laugh when I tell them that I may be the only old lady in Chiswick who knows how to use a Sten gun!"
Jean smiles: "Were I to have my life over again, I would sign up in a heartbeat. Girls from our class were destined to live a very narrow existence, focused on husbands and children. But the war gave us broader horizons and bigger adventures and I believe that we've both been more useful to the world because of it."
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Pat, left, and Jean proudly wearing their service medals
Ordinary uniforms, extraordinary lives: Pat, left, and Jean in 1943
Young Lancashire ladies destined for remarkable things: Pat, left, and Jean