Sarah Norton, the only daughter of the Richard Henry Brinsley Norton, 6th Lord Grantley and his wife Jean Kinloch, was born on 20th January, 1920. Her godfather was Lord Louis Mountbatten. She was educated by a succession of European governesses before being sent to Munich to learn German.
In 1937, while she was in Nazi Germany she claims that she and her girlfriend saw Adolf Hitler in the Carlton Tea Rooms: "I would sit at a neighbouring table and pull faces at him. They knew us by sight and knew we were English, so they just pretended we weren’t there. We weren’t arrested, because at that stage the Germans were still being frightfully nice to us. All over the city there was a terrible feeling of fear - you could feel it, sense it, almost smell it." (1)
In 1939 Sarah Norton found employment with Vogue Magazine. She also wrote articles for the Baltimore Sun and worked as a model for Cecil Beaton. On the outbreak of the Second World War she signed up as a telephonist at an Air Raid Precautions Centre. Along with her friend, Osla Benning, she went to work at the Hawker-Siddeley aircraft factory in Slough. (2) "When the war started, me and a great friend of mine, Osla Benning (Henniker-Major), decided we wanted to do something really important. And we thought: making aeroplanes.... We had to learn how to cut Durol, which the planes were made of. We did that for a while, and then Osla and I felt we weren't really doing enough." (3)
The women both spoke German and this brought them to the attention of Alastair Denniston, the head of the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS). Keith Batey later recalled that Denniston liked appointing young women from upper-class families: "The first two girls (employed at GCCS) were the daughters of two chaps that Denniston played golf with at Ashtead. Denniston knew the family, he knew that they were nice people and... well, that their daughters wouldn't go around opening their mouths and saying what was going on. The background was so important if they were the sort of people who were not going to go around telling everyone what they were doing." (4)
Sarah Norton and her friend, Osla Henniker-Major, received a letter from the Foreign Office in 1941 stating: "You are to report to Station X at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, in four days time." (5) Sarah later recalled: "Then suddenly, through the post, came a letter, God knows who from, asking us to report to the head of Bletchley - forthwith. That was all. So we thought: Anything's better than making aeroplanes at the moment." It seems that Lord Louis Mountbatten had put her name forward. Norton had never heard of Bletchley Park and was shocked when she arrived at her destination. "We decanted ourselves from the train at Bletchley station and then, weighed down by our luggage, we staggered up a rutted narrow path. On the side of the tracks, there was an eight foot high chained fence. It was topped by a roll of barbed wire.... It was a bit of a shock. We thought the house was perfectly monstrous." (6)
Sarah and Osla were both assigned to Hut 4. “Nobody explained anything. You were merely told that pieces of paper in German would come through and you had to take out any salient information, put it all on to a filing card with the coordinates, and index it. The information we were dealing with was obviously decrypted. Even then we didn’t know the whole picture. We just did what we were told.” (7) "The people I worked with in Hut 4, we could talk between each other. We were doing the same thing. I'd be translating, another friend would be doing something else. So we could talk. But only within your hut. You never talked outside your hut." (8)
Sara and Osla were given lodgings in Bletchley: "We were very lucky, my friend Osla and I, we were billeted with a lovely old couple... We used to be driven backwards and forwards to work from the billet. And it was a nice house, a very pretty house near Woburn Sands. I think it was the manor house of the village... We hardly spent any time there. We were either sleeping, or eating, or going off to work again. So we didn't really get to know the village very much. But our landlords were very good to us, very kind. They never complained, they just fed us, which was very decent of them. They had extra rations of course." (9)
"Perhaps before the war, debutantes were never asked to do anything serious. When you land yourself in a place like that, it's pretty overpowering. There were people from all walks of life. There were Wrens, there were girls like me, people in uniform, army, navy, air force and later on, of course, Americans. All classes were represented. Especially among the Wrens... I presume that they must have done a little bit of work on one's background. Make sure that you weren't a Nazi. Because there were a lot of young girls at that time who were mad about going to Germany and thought that Hitler was really rather wonderful. Silly girls. I think they probably wanted to know that we weren't like that... In terms of class tension, there was absolutely no trouble about that whatsoever." (10)
Sarah Norton then moved to Hut 8 where she worked under Alan Turing. Over the next few months she worked on the Naval Section index, helping to provide details of German U-boats. “He (Turing) was immensely shy, especially of girls... I once offered him a cup of tea, (and) he shrank back as if I’d got measles or something. He was wonderful. We were all very proud of him.” (11) "Of course the cryptographers were all brilliant mathematicians. And they were a class apart. Quite mad, some of them, quite potty, but very very sweet." (12)
One day Lord Louis Mountbatten arrived to see her: "One morning, I was working as usual in the Index Room when I heard many footsteps outside. The door opened and in walked my godfather. At the time, he was Vice Admiral, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations and naturally privy to Ultra. He was accompanied by a lot of top brass and harrassed looking Bletchley staff." She exclaimed: "Uncle Dickie, what are you doing here?". He replied: "I knew you were here and thought I would see how you're getting on; show me the system of your cross reference index." (13)
In March 1942 the Germans managed to crack Naval Cipher 3, which they dubbed the Convoy Cipher. The breach in British intelligence was not discovered for five months, even though the Admiralty's Operational Intelligence Centre had set up a special division to protect the security of British naval ciphers. Iit is estimated that during this period the German Navy sank 1,100 ships in the Atlantic in 1942, causing 10,000 deaths.
Sarah Norton later blamed the Admiralty for this intelligence disaster: "We all admired Commander Travis very much. I think it would have been out of character for him not to have picked up the telephone and talked to the First Sea Lord, with whom he had direct access. I am not defending Bletchley just because I worked there. But in my experience this was very unlikely, whereas the Admiralty was a shambles at first. The admirals really didn't want to believe any information we told them. They found it very, very difficult to accept Ultra because we couldn't tell them where or how we got the information. They didn't care for that very much." (14)
At the beginning of 1944 she was seconded to the Operational Intelligence Centre at the Admiralty and worked "under the forty feet of reinforced concrete, known as the Citadel". (15) This was a time when London was being bombarded by V-1 rockets. "It was horrible sitting in my flat alone with these bloody rockets crashing down. And the short walk to the safety of the Citadel... was too tempting to resist... it may have looked like Lenin's tomb to some people. But I got to love the old dump and was amused to notice on bad nights the portly figure of the First Lord of the Treasury prowling the corridors in his bright red silk dragon-patterned dressing gown." (16)
In 1945 she married William Waldorf Astor, the eldest son of Waldof Astor and Nancy Astor. “He was about to stand in a general election, and thought he’d have a better chance if he had a wife. I adored Nancy, his mother, who treated me like a daughter. When we got married I hardly knew Bill, though I liked him very much. He was very generous, but the age difference between us was too great (he was 37, she 25) and, after the restrictions of the war, I needed to break loose. Our son was born in 1951 and sadly, two years later, we were amicably divorced. Nancy said to me: 'I think you’re a goose to leave a millionaire!’ She was never unkind to me, though she did want the family jewels back, which I gave her, of course.” (17)
Sarah married Lt-Col Thomas Michael Baring, a former officer with the 10th Royal Hussars and polo player who later worked as a fine art consultant. They divorced in 1965. She later wrote The Road to Station X (2000). Her son, the 4th Viscount Astor, is the the stepfather of Samantha Cameron.
Sarah Baring died on 4th February, 2013.
Perhaps before the war, debutantes were never asked to do anything serious. When you land yourself in a place like that, it's pretty overpowering. There were people from all walks of life. There were Wrens, there were girls like me, people in uniform, army, navy, air force and later on, of course, Americans. All classes were represented. Especially among the Wrens....
I presume that they must have done a little bit of work on one's background. Make sure that you weren't a Nazi. Because there were a lot of young girls at that time who were mad about going to Germany and thought that Hitler was really rather wonderful. Silly girls. I think they probably wanted to know that we weren't like that...
In terms of class tension, there was absolutely no trouble about that whatsoever. I'd been there about a year and a half at least when it got out that I was an Honourable. And I was frightfully embarrassed about this. Somebody came up to me and said: "Sarah! You're an Honourable!" I said, "No, I'm not really, I'm very dishonourable."
We thought a lot about food. Night watches were especially vulnerable to rumbling tummies and usually forced us to go down to the canteen at 3 a.m., where the food was indescribably awful. It is a well-known fact that to cater for so many people is difficult, and particularly in wartime ... but our canteen outshone any sleazy restaurant in producing sludge and the smell of watery cabbage and stale fat regularly afflicted the nostrils to the point of nausea.
One night I found a cooked cockroach nestling in my meat, if you can dignify it by that name, the meat not the beetle. I was about to return it to the catering manageress when my friend Osla, who had the appetite of a lioness with cubs, snatched the plate and said: `What a waste - I'll eat it!' How she managed to eat so much - minus the insect - and stay so slim I never knew, because any leftovers on any nearby plate were gobbled up by her in a flash.
By February 1942 the Germans had added a fourth wheel to the machine and changed to a new cipher, Shark. And in March the Germans managed to crack Naval Cipher 3, which they dubbed the Convoy Cipher.
The breach in British intelligence was not discovered for five months, even though the Admiralty's Operational Intelligence Centre had set up a special division to protect the security of British naval ciphers. Its 10 staff were totally reliant on Bletchley Park for their expertise yet Bletchley assigned only two people to the task, one the head of GCCS, Commander Edward Travis, who had little spare time for the role. It took the two codebreakers five months to discover that the Germans had cracked Cipher 3. Even then it was not changed until June 1943.
The delay cost lives. At its worst 80 per cent of the messages were read by the Germans, who sank a staggering 1,100 ships in the Atlantic in 1942, causing 10,000 deaths and forcing 30,000 seamen into lifeboats.
A secret report written for the Admiralty after the war warned that the intelligence failure would have to be rectified "if disaster in a future war was to be avoided". The document, written by Commander Tighe of the Admiralty's Signals Division, was considered so "disturbing" that only three copies were ever made. A digest of the report by RT Barrett, stated: "Minor economies in this detail of code and cipher security not only cost us dearly in men and ships but very nearly lost us the war."
Mavis Batey, a Bletchley worker, said that there could have been a breakdown in communication between the codebreakers and administrators which delayed changing the cipher. "It's so much about personalities," she said. "The people who understood what to do and the people who were putting it over were on different wavelengths. The codebreakers were down-to-earth mathematicians and didn't talk the same language as the administrators, who probably didn't understand what they were saying."
But Sarah Baring, 82, who worked at Bletchley before being transferred to the Admiralty's Operational Intelligence Centre, laid the blame at the door of the Admiralty. "We all admired Commander Travis very much," she said. "I think it would have been out of character for him not to have picked up the telephone and talked to the First Sea Lord, with whom he had direct access.
"I am not defending Bletchley just because I worked there. But in my experience this was very unlikely, whereas the Admiralty was a shambles at first. The admirals really didn't want to believe any information we told them. They found it very, very difficult to accept Ultra because we couldn't tell them where or how we got the information. They didn't care for that very much."
In 1938 she did the Season. She had an 18½in waist and reputedly the best legs in London. Her godfather was Lord Louis Mountbatten, and the Mountbattens gave a dance for her at their home on Park Lane. In an interview in 2000, Sarah Baring insisted that in those days the girls in her circle who danced the night away at the 400 Club or the Café de Paris were paragons of virtue: “Nobody told us anything about the facts of life. We were all ignorant, and if we had known we’d have thought it disgusting. Certainly, I and all my close friends would have considered ourselves defiled if we hadn’t come to marriage as virgins. Even after you had become engaged, it made no difference. Virginity lasted right up until the wedding night.
“My mother had died before I got married, so my aunt, Kitty Brownlow, was supposed to tell me the facts of life. But all she said was: 'Don’t worry too much if it hurts - it gets better.’ I thought sex was just for procreation. At deb dances there were a few girls of whom we’d say 'They do it, you know!’ - though perhaps all they did was cuddle and kiss behind bushes. But even that was definitely disapproved of. I never heard of any pregnancies, and can remember no sex scandals at all. If boys tried to pounce, the word soon got around. They were described as NSIT - Not Safe In Taxis - and girls warned each other to avoid them. ”
After war was declared Sarah Norton worked briefly for Vogue magazine, writing captions for photographs of models for five shillings a week. She also wrote articles for the Baltimore Sun in America before signing up as a telephonist at an Air Raid Precautions Centre. She then helped to build Hurricanes at the Hawker Siddeley factory near Slough: “I hadn’t expected the work there to be quite as hard as it was, but we were fired up with the desire to make aeroplanes.”
At this time she was sharing a cottage with another Hawker Siddeley worker, Osla Benning, a Canadian-born beauty blessed, in Sarah’s words, with “dark hair, alabaster white skin, an exquisite figure and a gentle loving nature”. When Mountbatten suggested that his god-daughter might “find a nice girl” for his nephew, Prince Philip, to squire around London she immediately thought of Osla and introduced them.
After a few months at Hawker Siddeley, both Sarah and Osla received letters summoning them to a Labour Exchange in London, where they were tested in their skills in the German language (Osla had been at finishing school in Austria). They passed, and were ordered to report to “Station X” in Buckinghamshire.
Sarah Norton had never heard of Bletchley Park, and when they arrived they were assigned to Hut 4. “Nobody explained anything,” she recalled. “You were merely told that pieces of paper in German would come through and you had to take out any salient information, put it all on to a filing card with the coordinates, and index it. The information we were dealing with was obviously decrypted. Even then we didn’t know the whole picture. We just did what we were told.”
Sarah Norton worked on the Naval Section index, helping to provide details of the U-boats to Hut 8, run at that time by Alan Turing, of whom she once said: “(He) was immensely shy, especially of girls... I once offered him a cup of tea, (and) he shrank back as if I’d got measles or something. He was wonderful. We were all very proud of him.”The work was gruelling, and Sarah Norton and her colleagues took their pleasures where they could: “One afternoon, we decided to give Jean Campbell-Harris, who later became Baroness Trumpington, a ride in a large laundry basket on wheels that was normally used to move secret files. We launched it down the long corridor where it gathered momentum by the second. To our horror, Jean suddenly disappeared, basket and all, through some double swing doors, crashing to a halt in the men’s lavatories. A serious reprimand was administered and our watches were changed so we were distributed among a more sober group.”
She could not help but be struck by the eccentricities of the place: “There was one cryptographer with red hair and a red beard, and he studied Japanese in the evenings as a relief from his cryptography. But in the winter he wore a blue pixie hood on his beard. A pixie hood’s the thing you put on babies’ heads.”