BOZEMAN — At age 92, Dulcie Klusmann still walks without a cane. She still has her bright blue eyes and sunny smile, charming English accent and self-deprecating sense of humor.
“Dulcie is Spanish for sweet, Latin for gentle — I’m neither one,” she said and laughed, upon meeting a visitor to Bozeman’s Highgate Senior Living. “I’m a bull in a china shop.”
Her accent and age are clues to her role in a fascinating part of World War II history, when Great Britain was fighting for its survival and the survival of Western democracy against Hitler’s Germany.
Dulcie was a teenager when conscripted as a civilian to work at Bletchley Park, the top-secret center of England’s efforts to break Germany’s military communications codes.
“To me it was scary,” she recalled. “I was only barely 19. . We knew we could never tell people what we were doing. We had to make up a bunch of lies.”
England faced its greatest threat since the defeat of the Spanish Armada 350 years before. Germany was attacking Britain with bombers and V-1 rockets, blitzing English cities at night, in a campaign that lasted more than nine months. Some 40,000 were killed as Hitler sought to break the British people’s will to fight.
Winston Churchill valued Bletchley’s work so highly, the prime minister called it an “extreme priority” and diverted extra resources to the struggle to break Germany’s codes, including the famous Enigma code that let the Germans change codes daily.
“He felt the work done there was such a big part of winning the war,” Dulcie said. “Without Bletchley Park, we couldn’t have won it.”
Dulcie recalled Churchill visited Bletchley one day and spoke in a courtyard by the main house. Thousands of code breakers worked at Bletchley – the majority of them young women like her – all forbidden by the Official Secrets Act to tell anyone what they did.
“He said ‘You girls, remember, Bletchley is the place that laid the golden egg,'” Dulcie said, struggling to recall the quote. According to news reports, Churchill called Bletchley “the geese that laid the golden eggs — but never cackled.”
“He was a funny little character to look at,” Dulcie said, but added, “He was a mastermind.”
Her father was an engineer with the Great Western Railroad and his trains were bombed several times. He won a commendation for saving lives, as Dulcie’s son, Dan Klusmann, wrote in a brief biography of her life.
Her parents lived in Aperton, Wembley, on the outskirts of London. One day when she came home, her mother said, “‘Don’t go in the backyard, you’ll have a shock.'”
“There was no backyard, no garden – it was bombed,” she said.
The bomb had made a huge crater where they grew flowers, cabbage, peas and onions. Her family had to call the bomb squad and spend many nights in air raid shelters.
Why Dulcie was chosen to work at Bletchley isn’t clear. Son Dan believes it was based on her school test scores in math and logic.
To maintain secrecy at Bletchley, tasks were highly compartmentalized. Dulcie Olive May worked as a technical advisor in Hut 14, Block E, from 1942 to 1945, according to Bletchley Park’s “Roll of Honour,” which lists 10,000 people who worked at the center.
She never knew what was going on in other rooms, though she did sometimes see the elaborate machines, precursors to computers, where Navy women, known as Wrens, worked at decoding.
Dulcie’s job was to take typed papers with German messages, which “our British boys intercepted,” and decode the preamble, just enough to determine whether each message should be directed to the Royal Air Force, Army or Navy for further decoding.
She remembers using an alphabet code to decipher the preambles and putting the messages into pneumatic tubes that whooshed over the rafters to a main building.
“We had to get it to the right place as soon as we could because time was precious – the war was on,” she said.
When conscripted, she had to leave a “lovely” job at a Guinness beer factory to go work at Bletchley in a spare concrete hut. She worked six days a week, with three weeks on day shift, three weeks on evening shift and three weeks on the midnight to 9 a.m. shift. That was a “long hard shift,” she said.
Wages were low, the work was often tedious and she was required to live in a billet with strangers, a New Bradwell couple and their two children, Dan wrote.
But, Dulcie said, “it mattered.”
According to The Churchill Centre, breaking the Enigma codes provided crucial intelligence on German troop movements, targets, supplies and Hitler’s preparations to invade England. The intelligence allowed ship convoys crossing the Atlantic, England’s lifeline of food and war materials, to avoid attacks by packs of German submarines.
Churchill went to elaborate lengths to hide England’s code-breaking successes, inventing fake spies as the supposed source of British information. He even decided against protecting some areas from attack if it would have revealed to the Germans that Enigma codes had been broken.
British code-breakers also provided critical intelligence as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower prepared for the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, reassuring planners that German commanders believed the Allies’ disinformation campaign. The Germans were fooled into thinking the invasion would attack further north at the Pas de Calais and that Normandy was just a decoy.
BOZEMAN WAR BRIDE
Dulcie was engaged to a Royal Air Force pilot who was shot down and killed in Northern Africa, her son wrote.
Some time after that, she went to London on a day off to go shopping and dancing at the Covent Garden Dance Hall. From a staircase, an American Army Air Force man in uniform, William Klusmann, spotted her dancing. He asked her to dance and told her he was heading to Scotland and planned to get a kilt.
“He was great, big, handsome — he looked like Bing Crosby,” Dulcie said.
Bill asked for her address. Shortly after, her mother was surprised to receive a letter with a photo of an American in a kilt. That led to more letters, more dances and their decision at the end of the war to get married.
In 1946, Dulcie boarded the ship Mauritania to New York, and then took a train out to Bozeman, Montana. There she posed smiling for a photo with nine other Bozeman “war brides.”
Bill, originally from a North Dakota farm family, had worked during the Depression for his uncle at the Bozeman Creamery. After the war, he worked for Bozeman’s Bon Ton Bakery and later for Eddy’s Bread in Billings.
Dulcie raised their two boys, Dan and Neil. After Bill was promoted to a job in Billings, she worked at the Hart-Albin department store in the “field and fireside” department, selling sweaters and skiwear.
For decades the work done at Bletchley remained an official secret. In recent years its stories have started to come out, inspiring movies and a BBC series, including “Enigma” in 2001 with Kate Winslet and the 2015 Oscar best-picture nominee “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch, highlighting the role of Alan Turing. Turing played a key role in developing a computing machine to break the Enigma codes, yet after the war he was prosecuted for homosexuality, chemically castrated and committed suicide.
Dulcie didn’t share with family or friends what she did in the war for almost 50 years, her son wrote. He said she did get to see “The Imitation Game,” which brought back memories of Bletchley.
“Dulcie is a firecracker,” said Montee Kerr, life enhancement coordinator at Highgate Senior Living. “She’s a really, really neat lady, always laughing. Wonderful, positive attitude.”
Despite losing her husband Bill and son Neil, she stays positive. She said her motto is: “‘Yesterday’s troubles are over and done. Don’t think of tomorrow because it hasn’t begun. Just make the best of each day.'”
Jim Karas, a retired whitewater rafting guide from Three Forks, met Dulcie when he and his English girlfriend, Jane Ripley, stopped at Highgate while riding motorcycles on a fundraiser for Alzheimer’s and Guardians of the Children charities. The women started chatting because of their shared accent. Since learning Dulcie’s story, Karas has been trying to get it out to the wider community.
Dulcie said she’s proud of her part in the war effort. Asked if she felt she was a member of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” she said she didn’t think so, though now that the secret is out, “you get a little bit of a swollen chest.”
Her older brother Fred May, age 95, is still living in England. Asked her secret for longevity and fitness, she smiled.
“I’m wicked,” she said, laughing. When she sometimes played hooky from school, she recalled, “My mother used to say, ‘Oh, Dulcie, you are a naughty girl.'”
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