During the Second World War many people carried out roles that required great bravery, courage and determination. Some people played their part on the front line while others fought for freedom on the home front. Many of these hidden heroes are forgotten today, with little mention of the important roles they played repeated in our history books or on our television screens. One such hidden hero is Joan Clarke, not only did she contribute to the British war effort in a monumental way, she overcame discrimination and inequality on her home turf every step of the way.

Who was Joan Clarke?

Born in 1917 in London, England, Joan Clarke attended Cambridge University as a student of mathematics in 1936. Joan graduated Cambridge with a double first in her studies, but as she was a woman she was not awarded a degree. Cambridge University only began to award females degrees after the Second World War. Due to her mathematical prowess Ms Clarke became one of the most senior women working as a crypt-analysts during the war.

St John's College, Cambridge - Mihnea Maftei (Flickr)
St John’s College, Cambridge

What did she do?

Alan Turing

Joan worked in Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, the epicenter of anti-German code breaking analysis during the war. Due to her intelligent mind and hard work Joan quickly moved up the ranks and was eventually assigned to work in Hut 8 with Mr. Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who conducted top secret work deciphering military codes used by the Nazi’s and their allies. What made their work difficult was the method of enciphering that the Germans used, known as the Enigma method, which allowed the Nazi’s to send their military signals securely to their allies. If Hut 8 could crack this code the British forces would be able to
pre-empt the Nazi attacks and thwart them which would be a huge advantage to the war effort.

In the company of men

Despite receiving less pay then her male counterparts Joan worked on one of the most stressful jobs at Bletchley. Mr. Michael Smith, author of many books on the Enigma code, noted that Ms. Clarke was responsible for decoding German messages that would prevent thousands of lives being lost during the war. However despite being the only female in Hut 8, ‘It was a tribute to her ability that her equality with the men was never in question, even in those unenlightened days’, writes Rolf Noskwith,  a member of the code breaking team in Bletchley, in his commentary on the code breakers of Hut 8. In 1941 Turing’s team in Hut 8 cracked the Enigma code and their readings were of huge benefit to the British victory in World War Two from then on.

A lasting legacy

Clarke worked in Hut 8 until the end of the war and continued working for the British Government in their communications department until her retirement. Clarke was appointed Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1947 as recognition of her outstanding contribution to the war effort resulting in the Nazi’s defeat and the saving of thousands of lives.

Bletchley Park - Draco2008 (flickr)

Bletchley Park