Before Bletchley Park could break the German war machine’s code, its daily military communications had to be monitored and recording by "the Listening Service" - the wartime department whose bases moved with every theatre of war: Cairo, Malta, Gibraltar, Iraq, Cyprus, as well as having listening stations along the eastern coast of Britain to intercept radio traffic in the European theatre. This is the story of the - usually very young - men and women sent out to far-flung outposts to listen in for Bletchley Park, an oral history of exotic locations and ordinary lives turned upside down by a sudden remote posting - the heady nightlife in Cairo, filing cabinets full of snakes in North Africa, and flights out to Delhi by luxurious flying boat.
©2012 Sinclair McKay (P)2012 Audible Ltd
I found this book to be especially interesting because it covers so much that I never had an inkling about before. I should have, but it just never occurred to me. Common sense should have told me that the program had to have had existed. I read about Enigma and the Benchley code breakers practically ad nauseam and never once wondered how they came by all those codes they were breaking in the first place.
The book gives a fascinating insight into the critical information-gathering role women played in both the European and Far Eastern theatres of war, many of them barely out of their teens - were frequently located at various, and generally extremely isolated, locations in the UK. But many of them were also shipped off to exotic overseas locations which, occasionally, were dangerously close to the front line. It was inevitable that many of the girls had to put up with decidedly chauvinistic comments from both troops and officers who, completely ignorant of what the girls were doing, considered the battlefield no place for women. The feminist in me loves the fact that in the 1940's women in this program managed by sheer ability to overcome the "don't worry your pretty little head" or the "just hand me the bullets honey while I fire the gun" myth.
The story of the people who monitored enemy radio traffic for the Brits and passed it on to Bletchley Park for crypt-analysis consists of long periods of boredom punctuated with occasional episodes of excitement. The book credits the essential but un-glamorous work of the people who collected the raw material for the boffins to work on.
Unfortunately, the book is much longer than it needs to be. Most people's entire careers can be summed up as "we sat at a radio every night for 5 years and one time something interesting happened."
The author correctly wants to acknowledge the risks and sacrifices these people made for the war effort, but the plain truth is that the work was not terribly exciting and dwelling on the details does not make it more interesting. The book mostly chronicles bureaucratic pettiness and occasional brushes with danger.
Many of these people never told their families about the hours they spent at this important work and they do deserve to be honored for their labor. But there is not enough material to sustain 12 hours of reading.
"Well read and informative"
This is not an aspect of the Second World War that many know much about. Largely compiled from verbatim accounts of servicemen and women and civilians, there is much here that fleshes out a more general appreciation of the various campaigns and phases of the war. Special people, but all very much individuals with whom the reader can identify.
"The Wartime "Listeners" for the Codebreakers"
This is a series of 'biographies' from ordinary people whose lives were changed, and often enhanced, by the urgency and drama of their vital information gathering work leading up to and during World War II.
I enjoyed the descriptions of life for the, often very young, 'listeners' as they were posted all over the world; to Cairo, Gibraltar, Iraq, Cyprus, North Africa, Delhi. But I also enjoyed the descriptions of the unusual 'listening centres' in the British Isles, mainly along the east coast. The people of all ranks in the service came to adjust, each in their own way, to their new assignments.
One of the 'listening centres' was based at Wormwood Scrubs. There is a charming account of how Hugh Trevor-Roper, then a research fellow in Oxford, had to 'endure' working in east Acton and, oh dear, having to live in nearby Ealing.
I found many of the individual stories very moving, particularly in view of how young the men and women 'listeners' were.
I am pleased that, after the recent attention given to the 'codebreakers' of Bletchley Park, recognition has now been given to these numbers of individual information gatherers. Without their work of monitoring and recording the daily German military communications, the team at Bletchley would not have been able to break the German war machine's code.
"An amazing story of the unsong heroes"
So much is made of station x and the decryption team at Bletchley Park yet their work would have been nothing for the men and women on the front line Y-Stations.
This is their story, a story of danger, love and secrecy which is beautifully narrated. A must for anyone with an interest in the Bletchley Park story which is incomplete without the Y-Station girls.
"Only for the enthusiast."
Would not be interested in another work by Sinclair McKay but would consider listening to Gordon Griffin.
A Man called Intrepid, heavily connected to Bletchley Park
I could relate to the content, having spent 26 years as a military crypto trained Radio Telegraphist.
A most engaging account of the exploits and conditions of those doing vital work at Bletchley. Learning how closely the secrets were guarded was most enlightening.
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