The Last Codebreaker: the Life of Mavis Batey
Written by Allison Barrows
Multiple major news sites such as The Daily Beast, BBC News and The Washington Post announced that on November 17th, Mavis Batey, age 92, had died. Batey was a woman who had witnessed the world’s turn towards hell during World War II and had survived the cold, destructive, assertions of two superpowers. She had witnessed the world heal and hurt itself through multiple cycles of war. Batey, who took up a job as a garden historian after the war, was later revealed to be one of the top code breakers where she worked alongside some of the smartest minds during WWII.
Batey’s work contributed to breaking the Enigma Machine and was mostly based in Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret cryptography institution that, at various times, housed the brilliant minds of Alan Turning and Dilly Knox. Winston Churchill himself described the cryptographers at Bletchley Park as being the “geese that laid the golden eggs but never cackled.” Batey was only 19 and had studied German Romanticism while in college, but she dropped out in order to help as a nurse when the war broke out. When her expertise in the German language and obvious skill for language puzzles were deemed too important to waste, she was recruited into the secret cryptography world.
Batey described the prospect of the job as captivating, stating to the London Daily Mail, “I think what clinched it for me, was that during my assessment they told me they had been puzzling over what the letters STGOCH stood for. While they wondered if there might possibly be a saint called Goch, I had the idea that the answer might be Santiago, Chile, which it was.”
After she was sent off to work in the top secret cryptography center, Batey described her first report to duty as being, “thrown in at the deep end.” At her job, Batey met Knox, whom she described as “an eccentric genius,” as well as Keith Batey, her future husband and mathematician, who was working at breaking wartime cryptography, also.
Mavis Batey’s major contribution during her cryptography job came during March of 1941, when she aided in crippling the Italian navy by deciphering their naval communications, which revealed a looming attack on British ships transporting supplies from Egypt to the crucial location of Greece. The Italian plan was foiled after the British primitively struck their navy, destroying the Italian naval capabilities for the rest of the war. The battle came to be known as the Battle of Cape Matapan, and was determined to be a crucial victory for the Allied war effort, thanks in part to Batey’s code breaking. Batey recalled in an interview that after the Battle of Cape Matapan, the codebreakers shared two bottles of wine as a celebration. Bletchely trustee and historian stated to BBC News that Batey was “something special” as well as being “…the last of the top female codebreakers.”
Mavis Batey is outlived by her three children: Elizabeth, Deborah and Christopher.