Firm's vital role in Enigma project is revealed at last
The little-known part played by a small Gloucestershire town in cracking Germany's wartime Enigma code is at last done justice in a new book.
It's a history of the Mawdsley engineering factory, which operated on the outskirts of Dursley for 93 years from 1907.
The author is Lionel Jones of Cam, who worked for Mawdsley's for half of its history at the site, from 1942 to 1988.
And now, at the age of 86, he still has vivid memories of the fenced-off, tucked-away corner of the works where vital components of code-busting Cobra Bombe machines were produced under strictest secrecy.
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"We were flat-out with conventional war work in our newly rebuilt factory, and from when I started in 1942 until 1945 I worked in the assembly shop," he says.
"Our electric motors and dynamos were in high demand, and we also produced anti-mine equipment, both magnetic and acoustic.
"I wasn't allowed anywhere near that fenced-off building; hardly any of us were. But like everyone else I knew that something top secret was going on there.
"It was only when the company was leaving the Dursley site, after I'd retired, that I saw what was going on in there for the first time.
"An ex-colleague of mine, knowing my interest in heritage, rang me and told me that everything connected with the history of the works was going to be put in skips and thrown away.
"We took along cardboard boxes and filled eight of them, just chucking everything in.
"We rescued the firm's first order book, from 1907. And then I was surprised to find some pictures of these partly assembled decoding machines.
"I can't believe the authorities would have allowed photography in there, but I suppose one of the bosses must have taken his camera in there one day."
Not that the images would have meant much to most people, since it was only when the veil was raised on the Enigma code-breakers at Bletchley Park that these obscure looking machines would have made any sense.
Several variations of code-breaking devices were produced, and Mawdsley's contribution was part of the high-speed four-wheel 36 Enigma (GPO/BTM) Cobra Bombe.
They were destined not for Bletchley Park but the team's outstation at Eastcote, West London, though they were first delivered to the other outstation at Stanmore.
The project was code-named WW after the machine's inventor, Dr C E Wynn-Williams of the Telegraph Research Establishment at Malvern.
In the Mawdsley units, commutators and carbon brushes acted as a fourth, very fast wheel.
The cable that carried some 2,000 connections from one end of the 16 ft long equipment to the other grew increasingly wide and snake-like towards its end, giving it its Cobra nickname.
The project leader at Mawdsley's, A J Parsons, was later told that it was the company's machines at Eastcote that helped first decode the four- wheel U-Boat Enigma code.
But he and others were always dismayed by the fact that the Dursley factory and its workers received so little recognition, with several apparently authoritative books on Britain's secret war making no mention of Wynn-Williams' important contribution.
It is certainly a fact that once their work at Eastcote was done, his machines were unceremoniously dismantled and scrapped,
"After the war, the works engineer Sam Hinder told me of the cloak-and-dagger operation to take the 12 machines to Stanmore early in 1943," says Mr Jones.
"The lorries were loaded at midnight and the drivers were changed in darkened lay-bys to keep the final destination as secret as possible.
"One night there was a fire at the building, and they had to get ladders to scale the fence and put it out."
Mr Jones spent his last 20 years at the company, until 1988, as its chief AC design engineer. In its heyday it employed 700 people on a site that has now made way for houses.
"I must admit that in the end I was happy to retire," he reflects.
"The Eighties were a difficult time for manufacturing, with so many engineering works closing down.
"The whole scene had changed, a fact that hit me more when I started to write about it than I realised at the time.
"The beginning of the 1970s was the peak of the expansion period; we'd built a brand new office block, Britain had just gone into Europe and everybody thought the business would really take off.
"And then came the computer age, and when DC machines were no longer viable, the company struggled."
It was not the first time an industrial revolution had played its part in the destiny of the Rivers Mill site.
The collapse of the woollen hand-weaving industry in this part of Gloucestershire in the first half of the 19th century prompted Yorkshireman George Lister to build weaving machinery there.
As time went on, the Listers tanned leather there to make drive belts and other industrial products, but by the turn of the century the then recently invented electric motors and dynamos had become the factory's main products.
The building became redundant when Robert Ashton Lister founded his ultimately world-famous business elsewhere in Dursley, freeing it to be taken over by the young electrical engineer and inventor John Herbert St Hill Mawdsley.
The firm moved to Quedgeley in 2000, and though it was later taken over by the American conglomerate Ward Leonard, the Mawdsley name lives on in a design team in Stonehouse.
Lionel Jones's book is profusely illustrated and thorough in its telling of the history of the company while there are still people around with first-hand memories of it.
But its most significant function by far is to establish Mawdsley's and Gloucestershire's role in a covert operation that was central to Britain's survival as a nation.
The Mawdsley Story, by L H Jones, is available at £15 from the Woodcock Press, 8 Woodcock Lane, Stonehouse, Gloucestershire. GL10 2EE. Phone: 01453 824459.