She was part of the UK’s wartime intelligence network.

When Nazis schemed, she was listening. Alison Robins was a self-taught spy whose job was intercepting messages transmitted to the German U-boats that surrounded Britain during World War II, and passing them on to the expert codebreakers at the Bletchley Park cryptanalysis headquarters. 

Robins, one of the last surviving members of the group who came to be known as the UK’s secret listeners, died Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, following a lengthy battle with dementia, according to several news sources. She was 97. 

Early in the war, Robins joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service and worked at the Royal Navy College. During her down time, she sat in on Morse code classes and learned the system. This initiative was rewarded with assignment to a series of isolated coastal listening stations. Robins continued to develop her skills, teaching herself the German language as she spent long hours monitoring German fleet chatter during the Battle of the Atlantic. 

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“She used to say, ‘Anyone who thinks black coffee keeps you awake is wrong. The only thing that keeps you awake is the thought that, if you fall asleep, people will die,’” her daughter Jill Hazell told the British media. 

During World War II, the UK was reliant on Allied convoys to supply the nation with food and war material. German submarines were an existential threat, and top priority was given to breaking the codes of the German Navy.

The codebreakers working at Bletchley Park have become legendary, not only for their wartime efforts, but also for breakthroughs in computer science that had broader application after the war. In recent years, their exploits have become better known in popular culture thanks to movies like “The Imitation Game.” 

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