THE release of the new film about British computer pioneer Alan Turing starring Benedict Cumberbach is especially poignant for well-known Swindon figure Mary Ratcliffe.

Mary, 89, is a familiar face in the town thanks to her willingness to speak up for good causes and her years of public appearances dressed as Queen Victoria.

As a young woman in World War Two, though, she worked at a secret codebreaking base in Middlesex, helping to decipher messages intercepted from the Germans.

She used the Bombe machines invented by Turing, the genius who is played by Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game.

“Joining the Women’s Royal Naval Service at 19 was a defining moment for me,” she said.

“At the Mill Hill recruiting station in North London I was interviewed and assigned to a base.

“I was not told where I was going, or the nature of the work I would be doing.

“We were bundled into an Army lorry. The flap was pulled down. Our ‘secret’ destination was Eastcote, in Middlesex.

“We were immediately taken into a room where we were instructed to take the Oath of Allegiance to our God, King and country.

“Our vow of silence was absolute. We were not allowed to discuss our work with anybody. We were not allowed to wear a category badge; if asked, we were told to say we were recruits, which, of course, would not stimulate any further interest.

“The 30 years vow of silence was sacrosanct, even after the end of the war.”

Mrs Ratcliffe never met Alan Turing, but soon became acquainted with the Bombe, the machine he created and which shortened the war by helping decipher messages produced by German Enigma enciphering devices.

Many historians say Turing’s work and that of the people who operated his machines saved millions of lives.

The main base for codebreaking was at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, but Eastcote was one of several others established to ensure that if one was bombed or sabotaged, the rest would still be operational.

Bletchley Park is now a major heritage attraction which houses a refurbished Bombe, but Mrs Ratcliffe has clear memories of operating their banks of drums in earnest.

The work was constant and done in rolling eight-hour shifts.

Mrs Ratcliffe said: “Our task was to follow a menu that instructed the setting of each drum on which the letters of the alphabet were displayed.

“There were nine rows of coloured drums on every Bombe machine. Each time it stopped, the position of the drums was recorded on the checking machine before restarting the Bombe machine.

“A team of technicians was assigned to every bay. The daylight lighting was sometimes a strain.

“Many colleagues found the work boring, but for me, the rhythm of the drums stimulated my creative thoughts. Many amongst us were mavericks or eccentrics. Both apply to me!

“We were not told what we had achieved. All our successful decoding was immediately wired back to Bletchley Park.”

Social life for the young women included trips to London, where they enjoyed visiting the Stage Door Canteen. Based on an American idea, the canteen’s workers included celebrities doing their bit for morale by serving members of the armed forces.

Mrs Ratcliffe and her friends were served by stars of the day including actresses Margerat Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert and Patricia Roc.

She also has vivid memories of VE Day: “The atmosphere was euphoric. We made our way towards the Mall.”

The group were offered a lift by some young men who had a horse-dawn cart.

Mrs Ratcliffe added: “So, in style, we made our way towards Buckingham Palace where the Royal Family were on the balcony with Winston Churchill, who was then left alone so that we could loudly applaud him for his unique, inspiring leadership in defence of our precious core freedoms throughout six years of conflict, that had claimed so many lives who were the creme de la creme of our nation.”

Mrs Ratcliffe has visited Bletchley Park and written a tribute to Alan Turing in the form of a poem. Copies have been sent to Bletchley Park, GCHQ and the author of a book about Turing’s work.

She plans to see The Imitation Game and is delighted that Alan Turing is receiving recognition worthy of his role in history.

Turing died aged just 41 in 1954, in what is likely to have been a suicide. As a gay man in an era when sex between men was illegal, he was prosecuted, humiliated and ordered to go through degrading, debilitating hormone therapy.

The thought of his ordeal moves Mrs Ratcliffe profoundly.

She said of the film: “I’m very thrilled because back in those days we were conditioned to hate homosexuality, you see. I didn’t know anything about it then – I didn’t know anything about Alan Turing.

“But looking back, the whole country was conditioned. You can condition a country to do anything – anything – and I am relieved and delighted that we can now honour the most famous mathematician of all time.”