ShireLiving tenant shares D-Day memories 80 years on

A Second World War veteran has shared his contribution to the D-Day landings 80 years ago.

100-year-old Claude Bell was an Apprentice Engineer who was part of the team that built Colossus - a set of computers developed by British codebreakers. The computers played a key role allowing Britain to read high-level German Army messages during the D-Day landings at Normandy.

Claude, who is a Wrekin Housing Group tenant, was an Apprentice Telephone Engineer for the Post Office at the start of the War.

Claude Said: “The War played on all our memories. I was an Apprentice Engineer but we weren’t called up until we were 20. Telephone Engineers were called a reserved occupation. However, I got a call one day saying go to London and report to our telephone headquarters at Dollis Hill, which I did, and found I was joining a little team building something top secret. It was called Colossus.”

‘Colossus’ was the world’s first electronic computer and was built solely to decipher the Lorenz Cipher, a code used by the German High Command. It reduced the time to work out the code, enabled more messages to be deciphered and accelerated the whole code-breaking operation. The information gained from the messages is widely considered to have shortened the War by many months, saving tens of thousands of lives.

Claude added: “Hitler thought it was so secure that he used it himself so our lads thought it would be good to crack it. Hitler thought it couldn’t be cracked but the British thought otherwise. We didn’t know at the time that we were building a machine to crack this code. The biggest job was wiring up all the thousands of radio valves. That was our role, there was just me and a lad for Yorkshire and a lad from Leicester. We finished them; the job got done. The thing worked and it was fitted in Bletchley Park.”

Claude was invited to work at Bletchley Park but decided to move back home to be near his girlfriend.

“They wanted me on the maintenance team. It sounded like shift work and I didn’t want that so I came back home. I was 20 by this time and due for call up. I hadn’t been home long before I was called up into the Royal Corps of Signals. I was a Signalman.”

The messages deciphered on Colossus provided the Allies with crucial intelligence on enemy movements. This intelligence enabled Operation Fortitude, a deception campaign to convince the enemy that the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 would be at Calais rather than Normandy. This gave the Allies a significant advantage.

D-Day was one of the most significant events in the Second World War. Tens of thousands of Allied troops landed on the beaches of northern France making it the largest seaborne invasion in history. It marked a turning point in the fight against Germany.

Claude said: “It was very successful, this machine. The British built a fake village near Dover to fool Hitler into thinking this was going to be the embarkation point. It had a field of blow-up rubber tanks and tents. They even had a duplicate American General walking around Dover and it worked. Colossus had Hitler thinking that we were going to come from Dover, not from further down the coast. Hitler had got all his armour at the top end of the coast.”

“The landings were a rough time. I wasn’t there but I was following it, being a soldier. I had four school friends who were killed at D-Day. We had all been at school together. One was called George, he rose up through the ranks of the Royal Marines. I think he became Captain. He was killed on the beaches. Another was killed flying in an aircraft.”

Claude’s first post after being called up was to the General Headquarters (GHQ) in New Delhi but he was soon sent to Singapore to work with the South East Asia Command (SEAC).

“When I was sailing to India the Americans dropped the atomic bomb. When I got to India it was all over.

“As soon as I got to India they said don’t unpack, you’re going to Singapore. They are having trouble there with the telephone exchange. We got to Singapore, went in and on the wall was a diagram that I knew very well. It had hung on the wall in the Telephone Exchange when I did my apprenticeship. I was the boss now – the Sergeants from London didn’t know what to do”.

It wasn’t long before work dried up in Singapore and Claude returned home. He went on to get married, have two children and six grandchildren and continued working as a Telephone Engineer. He moved into Beechwood, a ShireLiving Extra Care scheme operated by The Wrekin Housing Group, two years ago.

Colossus was kept secret until the mid-1970s. All but two machines were dismantled into such small parts that it could not be inferred. The last two machines were dismantled in the 1960s.

5th June 2024