Secret messages, ciphers and cryptic codes were all part and parcel of a “life in the shadows” for Marion Walshaw.

Throughout her career she lived a clandestine existence, unable to talk about her work for the UK’s spymasters and intelligence chiefs.

As personal assistant to the director of GCHQ – a role akin to Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond films - virtually everything she handled was marked “top secret.”

Having just turned 100, it is only now that she is speaking in detail about her remarkable life at the core of British intelligence and security services during the Cold War.

Small ships

From her coastal home in North Norfolk, Marion also reflected on her time as a WREN and her role in rebuilding post-war Germany, as well as life within the secretive world of spies, espionage and national security.

Born in Teddington on September 16, 1922, she was brought up in Bournemouth, where she vividly remembers the flotilla of small ships heading to evacuate troops from the Dunkirk beaches in 1940, and how the resort became filled with rescued French soldiers.

“Anyone who had a boat went over,” said Marion, who was only 17 when World War II started.

Educated at a convent school near Salisbury, she learned shorthand and typing at college and became a secretary to an optician in Bournemouth.

Fresh underwear

As the war dragged on, Marion volunteered for the Women’s Royal Naval Reserve (the WRENS), and joined the Fleet Air Arm at HMS Daedalus at Lee-on-the-Solent.

Frequently bombed by the Luftwaffe, she recalled how they worked all day and spent nights in the air raid shelter.

“We were supposed to take a little attache case to the shelter with washing items and a change of underwear but I had a friend who filled her case with Elizabeth Arden make-up and lipstick.

“She used to say ‘they will always get me fresh underwear but they’ll never replace my make-up’,” said Marion.

“I remember when they bombed Haslar Hospital and all the glass came in at our office. A Petty Officer threw himself on top of me to protect me; in those days men were very gallant. But it was interesting because you met people from all walks of life. I loved it in the WRENS.”

Third officer

Sharing a cabin with six other girls, she remembered one friend in particular, Elizabeth van den Bogarde.

“She told me her brother Dirk was an actor but I had never heard of him at the time; I think he was in the army then and not yet famous.”

Appointed third officer, she moved into signals and the beginning of a long career deciphering secret messages.

“All my life, I have done ciphering, deciphering and been involved in secret work,” added Marion, who also recalled the activity in the run up to D-Day in June 1944.

In the latter phases of the war, she was posted to Aden, where she was stationed for VE and VJ Day.

“We worked hard and the climate was bad. We did have cooling systems in the office, though the minute you went outside it was a like stepping into an oven, but we also had fun too with cocktail parties and excursions to Eritrea,” she said.

Rebuilding Germany

In the post-war years, she joined the Foreign Office’s CCG (Control Commission for Germany) to rebuild a shattered Germany and was posted to Hamburg for what was to become a formative part of her life.

“It was quite dreadful,” she said. “There was very little food, and people were living any old how because everything was bombed for miles. I was told that in one week 600 children in Hamburg died of malnutrition and cold.

“It was the winter of 1946-47 and I know people say that the winter of ‘63 was awful, but that was a doddle in comparison. The river Elbe was frozen.”

Issued with British Armed Forces Special Vouchers for currency, the reality was that “money was useless” and “everything ran on the black market.”

“If you wanted something,” she continued, “you paid for it with coffee or cigarettes. It was an extraordinary time because money had no value at all.”

Most immediate

Marion spent six-and-a-half years in Hamburg, to encipher, or decipher intercepted messages.

Her work, she said, basically involved “anything that was not in the public interest to be known.”

“We all worked terribly hard, and so did the Germans; for me, it was nothing to work all day and then at 3am in the morning I would get a phone call to say a ‘most immediate’ message had come in. At times it could be very tiring.

“It could also be tricky because the wireless operator might not have quite got it right and then of course you had to try and make sense of a garbled message, but it was so important that you did get it right,” said Marion, who speaks German.

“It was not all doom and gloom, there were dances at offices club at Blankenese in Hamburg and after the initial years, things got a great deal better.

“We were not supposed to fraternise with the Germans but that was only for a short period. I have a lot of German friends - they were just people like you and me, and only 10 per cent belonged to the Nazi party, the rest were all called up the way we were.”

Papal blessing

Marion lived in a mess with girls from Luxembourg, Austria, France and Holland, before finding a flat as Hamburg was gradually being rebuilt. In those post-war years she and her friends regularly went to Italy.

She recalls wandering around the Uffizi gallery in Florence and seeing art treasures with barely another tourist in sight, and having an audience with the Pope on a visit to Rome in 1948, the result of a member of her party “knowing the Pope’s sister”.

Finding themselves at the Vatican in a group with two German nuns and three other men, they were greeted by Swiss Guards and taken to an ante-room.

Moments later, Pope Pius XII entered wearing all white and a skull cap and after talking to the nuns, he asked Marion where she was from.

“I kissed his papal ring and then he placed his hands on my head and gave me a special blessing,” she said.

Top secret

Marion left Hamburg in 1953. The plan was to move into a job with MI6 but instead she was asked to take a role, primarily because of her ciphering expertise, with the top-secret organisation GCHQ, which today is the UK’s intelligence, security and cyber agency based in Cheltenham with a mission to “keep the country safe.”

“I was never to mention the organisation to anyone because all the time I worked in it, no-one in the country was aware of it,” she explained.

“GCHQ was only known to certain members of the Cabinet Office; no MP knew anything about it, it was totally secret.”

Originally established in 1919 and called the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), it was based at Bletchley Park in World War II. Renamed GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in 1946, the main establishment moved from northwest London to Cheltenham in 1951.

Few knew the location, or the role of GCHQ’s London office where Marion worked, but it was retained for 66 years after the main establishment moved to Cheltenham for handling of secret paperwork and as a regular base in the capital for its director.

Marrying Tom

At one point, she was due to be assigned to Washington, but “somebody called Tom Walshaw”, who she had worked with in Hamburg and had known for many years, intervened.

“He wanted to get married,” she said. “I met him for lunch and he said he was not going to hang about any longer; I could either go to Washington or marry him. By that time, I was about 33-34, so I got married instead.”

The wedding in 1957 was at the famous Caxton Hall register office in Westminster as Tom lived nearby in a mews flat.

Because of the secrecy and sensitivity of her work, Tom also had to be vetted, but was cleared. He worked at the Foreign Office with the diplomatic wireless service and during the war had fought at the Battle of Crete in 1941, in deserts, and at Monte Cassino.

“He had been in all theatres of war and had six medals,” said Marion. “I only ended up with the one that I sent for about two years ago – the War Medal – to say that I had actually served in the forces.”

Personal Assistant

Soon after her marriage, she was appointed personal assistant to the director of GCHQ, who split his time between Cheltenham and London, when he attended weekly meetings at the Cabinet Office with the heads of MI6, MI5 and other security officials.

Acutely aware that she knew so much secret and sensitive information, Marion’s job was to prepare a full brief so the GCHQ director had every relevant paper at his fingertips for the weekly meetings in London.

“Somebody said I ran his life while he was in that job,” said Marion. “He would come back from the meetings with details that I would type up because nobody else was allowed to see it. That was all put together as intelligence for the Prime Minister to see.”

Working out of what was an unremarkable red-brick building on Palmer Street opposite St James’s Park tube station in Westminster, she was eventually to work for five successive GCHQ directors, in a career spanning almost 30 years, covering the Suez Crisis and the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

“I knew all the top-level people – some were quite eccentric characters but they were quite brilliant too.”

Moving to Norfolk

Marion left GCHQ and moved from Surrey up to Norfolk just before 1980 with her husband, who had also recently retired, and settled into their new home.

She became a founder member of the WI in Brancaster Staithe and would regularly go out to lunch with her husband and friends in the area.

“He was also very keen on architecture, so we were members of the National Trust and Historic Houses Association,” said Marion who also holidayed with her close friend Joanna Lieven, who was married to Prince Alexander Lieven, who worked at GCHQ.

“We went to Scotland, Wales, and back to Germany, and I also went to France too,” she added, “but I liked Germany very much.”

Tom died in 2004, aged 88. They had no family but were married for 47 years and had known each other for 10 years before their wedding.

Listening posts

She looks back with affection on her career and her time in Aden and Germany, but said: “It was all pretty good because I had a most interesting job with GCHQ, I never had a job that was dull.”

It placed her at the heart of British intelligence as major global events unfolded, with GCHQ intercepting signals from listening posts all over the world.

“It was to get as much information as possible to use it to protect the people of this country,” said Marion, who has lived through the reigns of five monarchs, and recalls mingling with the crowds in London for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. She also met US President George Bush senior, when he was head of the CIA.

There were moments that she looks back on as being “very dicey”, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“But as I’d done it for most of my life it was just part of the job,” she said. “Tom was in the same business and though we did not discuss things as such when I got home, it makes it easier if you are both doing the same sort of thing. When you do it all the time, it does not disturb you, you get another skin, basically it is just a job.”

Miss Moneypenny

Today Marion remains active with local friends, and enjoys lunch out at Blakeney Hotel and the Duck Inn at Stanhoe.

“I do the Daily Telegraph crossword every day,” said Marion, who concedes her brain may be attuned to crosswords after a lifetime decoding and ciphering.

An avid reader of ‘whodunnits’, she enjoys the novels of Ruth Rendell, PD James, and particularly Elly Griffiths, who sets a number of her books in Norfolk.

“I love her books,” added Marion, “and I liked Hilary Mantel. I was very distressed to hear about her death.”

For Marion, it has been a long and fascinating life, setting her at the heart of world events during many of the major crises of the 20th century.

“When you did a job like I have, living in the shadows all your life, people would ask me what I did, so I simply told them I was a civil servant. They never asked much else after that, but somebody did say to me, ‘you are Miss Moneypenny’.”

With a polite smile, Marion does little to deny that.