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Patricia Barry: WWII decoder cracked spy messages called ‘indecipherables’

By on April 15, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments

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As part of an elite unit of decoders, Patricia Barry spent most of the Second World War deciphering messages from spies operating in France, Belgium, Norway, Poland and other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. Mrs. Barry, who has died in Port Credit, Ont., at the age of 94, belonged to a group nicknamed “the indecipherables,” which meant they read garbled messages from agents who had either forgotten the secret code or were so nervous about being caught that they made errors, rendering their messages all but impossible to read.

After leading a life involving espionage and secrecy, Mrs. Barry was always reticent about revealing the details of her wartime experiences. She lived a quiet domestic life, the last half of it in Canada, where she moved with her family in 1963. She spent many years as the assistant to the headmaster at Lower Canada College (LCC), a private boys’ school in Montreal.

Hilda Patricia Rawlinson (she disliked her first name and always went by Patricia) was born in Walthamstow in the east end of London on Aug. 21, 1921. Her father, Percy, was a cabinet maker. Her mother, Hilda, was a French polisher, an occupation related to that of her husband. When Patricia was young, the family moved to the west London district of Ealing and she went to school there. A clever girl, she won a scholarship to a grammar school, the British equivalent of a pre-college high school, but she couldn’t go because her family was short of money during the Depression.

Her first job was as a waitress at a Lyons tea house, part of a chain of restaurants for the masses where the staff wore white aprons over a black dress and caps, reminiscent of the maids in an episode of Downton Abbey. Patricia went to night school and became a first-rate stenographer, a quick typist able to take shorthand as fast as anyone could speak.

When the war started, she worked for a government department and then joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, though her work had nothing to do with nursing. FANY was the acronym, and among other things it was a cover organization for female agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and for the decoders such as the 20-year-old Patricia Rawlinson,

Her daughter, Ailsa, said her mother was spotted for cryptography work because a boyfriend of hers was a Polish exile who was training to be an agent. After training at Bletchley Park, of Enigma fame, and nearby Chicheley Hall, she was sent to the building where she would work under code maker Leo Marks, who wrote about the inauguration of the FANY decoders in his book Between Silk and Cyanide. First the recruits, all young women, were kept for an hour in a cold basement room with no chairs. Unknown to them the room was bugged, and most of the conversations were pretty racy.

“To realize that it was their own voices they were listening to, it became clear that we had a most promising intake [with] their free-flowing language, scatological humour and picturesque imagery,” Mr. Marks wrote. He told them the recording showed them how dangerous it was to talk about their work outside the building. He ended his pep talk with: “Good luck and good coding and remember you’re the only hope that agent’s got.”

Miss Rawlinson and her fellow decoders had to be clever and able to recognize patterns that strayed from the code books that matched those being used by agents in the field. They used relatively simple approaches such as a substitution square, which lays out a system whereby certain symbols take the place of letters in the alphabet. Mr. Marks said this kind of square “looks complicated but couldn’t be simpler.”

Agents in the field carried a copy of the coded square printed on silk; they also carried cyanide capsules in case they were captured, thus the title of Mr. Marks’s book.

Miss Rawlinson worked in the French section, in a building on Baker Street in London. Her unit was also known as the Baker Street Irregulars, after the boys who worked for the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, who also lived and worked on Baker Street. The FANYs in the indecipherable room had to figure out just what mistakes the agents in the field made. They also had to be able to tell if the agent had been captured and whether it was the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, mimicking the agent. Each agent had a kind of fingerprint when sending a message, not something that easy to spot.

After the Canadian, American and British forces retook France in 1944, there were fewer agents in the field, so Miss Rawlinson and other decoding FANYs were sent to the Far East. On the troop ship’s voyage over there was some problem with fraternization between the men and women on the ship.

“My mother was a stunner, tall and willowy with striking green eyes, and an RAF [Royal Air Force] officer tried to chat her up on the ship and she told him to buzz off,” said Ailsa Barry from her home in Ottawa. “That officer was my father, and he persisted.”

Miss Rawlinson was based in Colombo, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, working for the SOE, decoding messages from agents across Asia. Frank Barry was stationed in Calcutta. He, too, worked in intelligence, debriefing pilots and assessing aerial photography.

Miss Rawlinson would hitch rides in RAF planes to visit him on leave. She picked up a lifelong fear of snakes after she was startled by a king cobra wrapped around a toilet seat in her bathroom.

A gregarious woman, she organized and performed in stage reviews for the troops. “My mother was a great dancer, and she put on reviews with the other FANYs. One of them was for Lord Mountbatten, [Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia and later the last Viceroy of India],” Ailsa Barry said.

Frank and Patricia Barry were married in India in 1945. Mrs. Barry was a bit taller than her husband and he insisted she wear flat Indian sandals at their wedding.

When they returned to England, Mr. Barry went to art school and they moved to the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England, where he taught. It was in many ways an idyllic life, but by the early 1960s they were bored, experiencing a kind of midlife crisis, and they started looking around for new places to live. They chose Canada and moved to Montreal in 1963. Frank Barry found work with the Montreal Protestant School Board, teaching art in high school. Mrs. Barry worked at LCC.

“She was secretary to two headmasters. The students dreaded being sent to the headmaster’s office, but my mother always made them feel at ease before any ordeal,” her son, Christopher Barry, said.

In 1984, Patricia and Frank Barry retired to Port Credit, Ont., just outside Toronto. She kept busy with volunteer work, gardening, hooking rugs and cooking. Her children said she was “well known for her lemon cake and her incredible sweaters.” Frank Barry died in 2013 at the age of 100.

True to her decoding roots, Mrs. Barry played a game of Scrabble with her son a week before she died, in Port Credit on March 12. She is survived by her son, Christopher; daughter, Ailsa; and three grandchildren.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts.

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