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.
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