Book Preview: Bletchley’s Secret Source – Churchill’s Wrens and the Y Service in World War Ⅱ by Peter Hore

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Young female officers in a black and white photo.

This is the extraordinary untold story of the Y-Service, a secret even more closely guarded than Bletchley Park. The Y-Service was the code for the chain of wireless intercept stations around Britain and all over the world. Hundreds of wireless operators, many of them who were civilians, listened to German, Italian and Japanese radio networks and meticulously logged everything they heard. Some messages were then used tactically but most were sent on to Station X – Bletchley Park – where they were deciphered, translated and consolidated to build a comprehensive overview of the enemy’s movements and intentions.

Meticulously researched, drawing on lots of interviews with those who survived. This book aims to be the definitive history of the women who helped win the war.

The first part of the book, somewhat oddly, focuses on the men who set up the Y Service. While the background is important – I’m not sure there needs to be quite so much of the thrilling-adventures-of-manly-men.

There are amazing tales of high adventure and low skulduggery. But what interested me most was the way that sexism almost completely collapsed the war effort. From refusing to accept women, to preventing them from having uniforms, it seems like the British military did everything in its power to reduce its strength by 50%. When women travelled overseas to help the war effort, some were simply shipped back!

Frankly, it seems improbably that the British won the war. Everything was done on a shoestring budget, there was very little co-ordination, and it was led by lots of posh men who couldn’t see past their own blinkered existence.

There are some lovely personal stories tales in the book. From women falling in love, to single-handedly delivering crucial signals intercepts – it really is a glorious romp.

It does descend slightly into a list of events – battles, telegrams, and executive orders. And some of the military terminology – and outmoded British slang – is a bit dense to wade through. But, overall, it’s a great retelling of the experiences of a group of people who have been overlooked for too long.

At its core is a story of the power of appreciation.

Even in wartime, the SD Wrens were under-appreciated, and it is a common theme in their memoirs that they were kept in the dark, Rosemary Lyster joining the chorus of women who grumbled ‘No one, of course, told us if our work was valuable – we did not need to know!’

How do you keep up morale when you never tell people how vital their work has been? How do you encourage the next generation if you can never tell the story of success? How do you honour people when their existence is both sacred and scandalous?

This book goes some way to setting the record straight.

Thanks to NetGalley for the preview copy. The book is published later this year and is available to pre-order from the links below.

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