PAT Brown, née Hills, went to war at the age of 20 – and now, to coincide with her 90th birthday, she has finally been rewarded for her top secret, code-cracking work.
After volunteering for the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Birkenhead-born Pat, now a great-grandmother, was selected for work at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshre, where she intercepted enemy signals.
Winston Churchill called Bletchley’s staff “My geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled.”
Now suffering from dementia and living in the Homecrest Residential Care Home in Wallasey, Pat has been formally acknowledged by the government.
In a presentation by Margaret and Walter Mullin, secretary and chairman of the West Cheshire branch of the Royal British Legion, she was awarded a GC&CS badge, a Freedom of Bletchley Park certificate, a Bletchley Park Veterans lapel badge and a birthday card from the Bletchley Park Trust.
Paying his own tribute, former head of MI6 Sir John Scarlett, now chairman of the Bletchley Park Trust, said in a message to the family: “Pat Hills has a remarkable story – one of those young women who, often far from home, operated the Bombe machines and made an essential contribution to the success of Bletchley Park during the War. Working long, unsociable hours and knowing how mistakes cost lives, their discipline and dedication was remarkable.”
Pat’s proud son, Tony, says: “My mother told me ‘I had no idea that it would be such a big day. I never actually thought something like this would happen. I just thought they’d forgotten all about us. It was so long ago. But this was just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!’.”
Tony, himself, who lives in Southsea, Hampshire, says: “This has been one of the most important occasions of my life. My mother never talked about her war service until about 20 years ago when it was finally alright to do so.
“I find it quite emotional to think of my mum going off to do her bit to help her country at the age of 20. However, I think it’s a scandal that it took so long for a government to get round to acknowledging the work that these people did for their country (it wasn’t until 2009 that the government said Bletchley Park veterans would be recognised).
“This is compounded by the fact that the majority of those deserving recognition died without receiving it. They ought to have been honoured 30 or 40 years ago when they could have fully enjoyed it. My mother has been given the freedom of Bletchley Park, but she’s unable to travel and so she’ll never be able to avail herself of that.”
Pat, who attended Holt Hill Convent School in Birkenhead, was the daughter of a well-known Wirral dignatory, Sidney Hills. A former pupil of Wallasey Grammar School, Sidney was an alderman in Birkenhead (among his civic duties, he opened Upton Library). In 1936, the family moved to the North East where Sidney continued in politics.
A leading trade unionist and an industrial consultant, he was awarded an MBE in 1949 for his work in helping to set up the welfare state and in 1956 an OBE for his charity work.
Pat had remained in Upton, living with an aunt, to complete her education. She then rejoined her family – and later joined up.
While working at an out-station, Pat, who served at Bletchley Park from December 1943 until October 1944, was injured in an air raid and spent several months in a military hospital.
Tony reveals: “During another air raid it wasn’t possible to move Pat in time so a doctor threw several mattresses on top of her and dived for cover himself. Moments later the ceiling fell in and Pat was saved by the mattresses. A year later, the same doctor was working in a military hospital in Alexandria, Egypt, where he saved the life of Lieutenant William “Bill” Brown of the Royal Navy.
“In 1946, Pat met Bill and they married. Only much later did it emerge that both their lives had been saved by the same doctor. They attempted to trace him, but learned he had died in 1947.”
As a result of the injuries she received, Pat was invalided out of the WRNS and is one of the few people still receiving a War Disability Pension from World War II. Her record of character is recorded as “Very Good”.
Pat and Bill Brown settled in the North East where they brought up three children, with Pat later working as a teacher.
Bill died in a road accident in 1975 and Pat eventually returned to Merseyside to live in Upton, near her sister, Dorothy. Pat, who has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, suffered a stroke in 1997, and in 2008 Dorothy died. Pat’s health deteriorated and she moved into the care home.
“Mum may well be the last one to receive this award,” says son Tony, who adds: “Her dementia is getting worse but I can’t stress too much just how wonderful the care is she receives at Homecrest. The work that the staff do for the residents is remarkable in its kindness and compassion.”
Tony’s nephew, Seth Edwards, says: “I haven’t seen my grandmother this happy in years. Look at all the hard work Bletchley did to get the awards ready on time for her birthday and look at the brilliant work Homecrest is now doing for her.”
And Tony’s son, Philip, says: “To me it’s of great importance but Nana was so modest and unassuming about what she did. She just said ‘All I did was press the right buttons’.”