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Kathleen Cuthbert, modest heroine who was part of code-breaking team that helped defeat the Nazis

Revealed, remarkable story of Co Antrim woman who served as a translator at Bletchley Park but never spoke of top secret wartime role

By Rebecca Black

Published 25/11/2016

Kathleen Cuthbert in later years
Kathleen Cuthbert in later years
Kathleen Cuthbert in the 1940s
Bletchley Park

Kathleen Cuthbert never spoke about the top secret work she did at Bletchley Park.

The Co Antrim woman was headhunted to join the elite team of code-breakers tasked with cracking the Nazi Enigma code.

Only now, after her death earlier this month, can her remarkable story be told.

Born in October 1920 to farmer James Milliken Ferguson and his wife Sara (nee Foster), she spent her childhood with her siblings at the family home near Doagh.

Kathleen attended Londonderry High School for Girls and became head girl, before studying French and German literature at Queen's University, Belfast.

Around this time her family moved to Portstewart, where she met her husband Norman Cuthbert, a teacher.

They were married on New Year's Day 1943.

Kathleen spoke German fluently and on her graduation in 1942 she was asked to be a translator at Bletchley Park, the top secret wartime Government department tasked with deciphering coded enemy communications.

After the war she and her colleagues were told to forget all about Bletchley Park and never talk about it to anyone. Only in recent years have some admitted they worked at the top secret establishment, although Kathleen never spoke of it.

In the summer of 1945 she was awarded a Master's degree at Queen's.

Her thesis was on the maritime vocabulary in a very obscure German poem, and it is highly probable that she wrote some of it during her time at Bletchley.

Recently a family member researching the code-breaking station discovered that she had also taken a course in Japanese while there, despite the demanding wartime translating work she was undertaking at the time.

At the end of the war Kathleen - as required by her first degree - went to Bernaville in northern France on an exchange visit for practical language experience.

By this time her daughter had been born. She was fortunate to have a loving grandmother, mother, aunt and husband to look after the girl.

Norman was appointed junior lecturer in the economics department at Queen's University and the couple moved into a flat on Lisburn Road. Activities at that time included a short membership of a Beagle hunt.

On one memorable occasion Kathleen, jumping a ditch and grasping an unsatisfactory fence post, fell backwards into the ditch, much to the delight of her daughter.

They enjoyed sailing on Strangford Lough in a little yawl called Theresa 2. Kathleen also read to friends who had lost their sight, including Professor Alan Milne, a paratrooper during the war who had been blinded at Arnhem.

She became a tutor in the French department, and was an active member of the University Wives' Club and Derry High School Old Girls, and she gave a lot of time to the Citizens' Advice Bureau.

She continued to explore more languages.

With Norman she travelled widely, and always took the trouble to get at least a smattering of the local language.

Her many accomplishments included being a talented seamstress.

For each outfit she ran up there was a matching hat created by Belfast milliner John Green, frequently made of specially dyed fine straw or felt.

She was also an accomplished cook who could whip up a meal for 20 in half-an-hour.

Indeed, for some time during the 1960s - and under a male pseudonym - she wrote a recipe column and reviewed cookery books for the Belfast Telegraph.

Following Norman's retirement from Queen's in 1975 he took up an appointment at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, where they lived for a year.

After returning to Belfast, travel continued with visits to the Far East, Australia, Africa, Russia, East Germany and other parts of Europe.

At the age of 60 she took part as navigator in the Monte Carlo Dash, a women-only rally event in which the object was to get to Monaco by the shortest route from a given starting point.

In 1991 she was widowed. She then became an Advanced Motorist, and learned how to use a computer with great success.

She was a whizz on the internet and kept in touch with her many friends worldwide by email.

To the last she watched YouTube videos of her favourite singers. Her true love was her cottage at Rosbeg in Donegal, built by her and Norman in 1966 with the proceeds of her tutoring work at Queen's. She visited annually, albeit with pain and difficulty in her latter years.

In 2010 Kathleen moved to Bristol to be nearer to her immediate family, and since then had the pleasure of three great-granddaughters and a grandson.

Although she never got over the loss of Norman, she nonetheless made a new life. Indomitable as ever, this summer, and ignoring failing health, she was still asking when she could next be taken to the cottage at Rosbeg.

On her 96th birthday six weeks ago she was able to blow out the candles on her cake. She died on November 1, and is survived by her daughter Christine, her granddaughter and grandson, and four great-grandchildren.

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