Autumn Voices first heard of code-breaking sisters, Jean and Pat Owtram, through an episode of the Guilty Feminist podcast. We knew their book sounded very special and very entertaining and we couldn’t wait to include them in one of our monthly content themes.
We’re thrilled to feature this book, published last year, and Mirror Books has very kindly given us a copy to offer as a flash memoir prize for submissions on our War & Remembrance theme. Jean and Pat are both in their 90s, so this book is a huge achievement, and if we are very, very lucky, we might just have an extra special Quick and Quirky Questions to bring you soon…
Codebreaking Sisters: Our Secret War
The remarkable story of Patricia & Jean Owtram, possibly the only living sisters to have both signed the Official Secrets Act 1939.
Raised in a Lancashire country house in the 1920s, by the late 1930s the family took in two Austrian Jewish refugees and the sisters quickly become fluent in German – which would go on to shape their lives forever.
When war broke out in 1939, Patricia was keen to leave school and join the war effort, arriving in London at the height of the Blitz, following her 18th birthday and now able to speak German she was snapped up by the Wrens and posted to top-secret listening stations along the British coastline. As a young Petty Officer secretly intercepting German shipping radio, she supplied Bletchley Park with the Enigma code it so desperately needed and any plain language messages heard to the Royal Navy.
Jean’s quick brain for crossword solving landed her a secretive role as Code & Cipher Officer in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. At just 18 years of age, she was posted to Cairo, before moving on to Italy to support allied agents and aid Partisan efforts against the Nazis.
With their father Colonel Owtram captured and held in a POW camp in Thailand, the severe lack of communication with the girls heightened their anxiety, never truly certain if he was still alive.
As the sisters continued to demonstrate their outstanding intelligence and resilience, the tide of war gradually began to turn in Britain’s favour.
Drawing on their diaries and letters of the time Patricia and Jean have pieced together the story of their secret war, a story of persistence, comradeship and fighting spirit shown by the everyday British people fiercely determined to bring down the Nazis.
Now in their 90s, both sisters remain active and give lively talks and share entertaining reminiscences from a vanished world.
Pat Davies (née Owtram) lives in London. After obtaining degrees at St Andrews, Oxford and Harvard and spending time as a journalist, she became a television producer for Granada then the BBC until her retirement. In 2019, Pat was awarded the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit.
Jean Argles (née Owtram) lives in Lancashire. She worked with refugees after the war and then became a social worker in the 1950s until becoming Lancaster Universities first careers adviser. Jean has worked and travelled all over the world.
Throughout November we’re inviting our beloved Autumn Voices members to submit any short piece of writing about War & Remembrance. It should be no longer than 300 words and can take any form you wish. At the end of November, we’ll pick our favourite and the author will receive a copy of Codebreaking Sisters by Patricia and Jean Owtram. The publisher, Mirror Books has very kindly given us a copy to offer as a prize.
Entries are closed.