Jean Watters (right) and the complex devices at Bletchley Park that helped crack the code (left)
Jean Watters, aged 92, was buried this week with full military honours as befits one of the unsung heroines of the Second World War, whose actions saved thousands and helped bring the war to an end.
For decades she was a housewife and mother in America’s corn belt, the secret of her wartime exploits known only to herself.
Not even her husband, the American airman who swept her off her feet to a life in the States, was aware of her dramatic past.
But at the age of 19 Watters was among the youngest of the mathematical savants recruited to Britain’s secret war effort to crack the Nazi Enigma Code.
Her work has been immortalised in films such as 2014’s Oscar-winning The Imitation Game and a number of TV series, including The Bletchley Circle, yet Watters remained in the shadows – exactly where she preferred to be.
“She kept her secret for 30 years after the war, until it was finally declassified,” says her son Peter Watters, aged 58, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“When she told my father he was stunned. He said, ‘We’ve had six kids together, we’ve travelled the world together – you could have told me!’
“But she’d had it beaten into her that her wartime codebreaking work was a secret never to be told. She knew lives could be lost if she made a mistake.
“She recalled one girl who worked alongside her on the Nazi codes who would talk a little too much when she’d had a few drinks. One day the girl was just gone – nobody knew what happened to her.
“For her cover, my mother told everyone that she was a military driver, which seems ridiculous because she never drove in her life.”
He adds: “She had to lie to her own father about what she was doing throughout the war and sometimes it was hard on her. A man she worked with was berated and shamed by his father, who thought he should be out fighting the war at the front. The man couldn’t tell his father that he was fighting the Nazis in a top-secret project.”
In Watters’ case, her father died never knowing the role his daughter had played in the conflict. Jean Annette Briggs was born in 1925 in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, the eldest of three sisters, and attended art school in Cambridge.
Jean Watters with her husband, US airman John Watters, in 1945
But when war broke out she took a deferment to join the Royal Navy, becoming a Wren. Before long her talents were recognised and the beautiful 5ft 3in brunette was recruited by the Ultra programme, sworn in under the Official Secrets Act, and became a member of the team decoding German messages under master codebreaker Alan Turing.
She was part of the Ultra effort to break the German’s Enigma code, running a “bombe” machine that decrypted intercepted signals, working in London and at Bletchley Park. About three-quarters of the codebreaking team were women.
“Though my mother wasn’t at the front lines, the war touched her personally,” says Peter. “Her father’s business partner was a Jew who was killed trying to escape Germany early in the war and that had an effect on her.
“And one day she was walking her bicycle down a country road when a Nazi plane came down low directly toward her, so close that she could clearly see the pilot’s face. Years later she said she would still recognise him if she saw him.
“My mother watched as the pilot moved his hand across to his machine gun, and stared at her for a few moments before moving back to the controls and pulling away, flying on to raid a nearby barracks.”
Jean was “proper and a bit aloof”, says her youngest sister Pamela Smith, and she was initially reluctant when wooed by a young Yankee airman stationed near her home.
“He had to pursue her,” says their son, retired US Navy rear admiral Robin Watters. “It wasn’t easy.”
US Army Air Corps pilot John Watters was a large, imposing man with a personality to match and his romantic entreaties wore down Jean’s defences. He was fortunate to survive the war, flying more than 25 death-defying missions over Europe as a B-17 bombardier and navigator.
“He was a tough, wound-up guy – but, heart of gold, generous to a fault,” says Robin.
Jean and John wed soon after the war ended in 1945 and left for America – and a life stationed at US military bases across the world.
“My parents travelled the globe,” says Peter. “They were stationed in Guam and went to Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Taiwan, Pakistan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Greece and Germany. They even visited Vietnam during the war there and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.”
The visit to the USSR was all the more extraordinary since John Watters rose to work with Strategic Air Command, developing the ballistic missiles that could rain destruction on Russia. Jean became a mother to five sons and a daughter, eventually having eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
After her husband retired in 1969 they settled in Bellevue, Nebraska, where Jean volunteered as a school librarian and tutor and continued her love of painting, often winning awards at art shows.
“She rarely spoke of her codebreaking work during the war,” says Peter. “She’d had it beaten into her for so long that she couldn’t talk about it, that even after it was declassified in 1975 she was still reluctant to discuss it. When she did, she spoke most about the pressure she’d been under to keep her secret.”
In 2009 Jean finally received a medal and citation from British prime minister Gordon Brown – “in deepest gratitude for the vital service you performed during World War II” – and her name is etched in a commemorative brick at Bletchley Park.
Her casket was laid to rest on Monday at the Omaha National Cemetery beside John, her husband of 72 years, who died in June at the age of 101.
British Royal Navy officers gave Jean a final salute and a kilted bagpiper played Amazing Grace as she was interred with full British military honours – a rarity in an American military cemetery.
As Peter says: “It was a touching tribute from the homeland she loved.”