Alan Judd

An exhausting mixture of boredom and concentration

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The Secret Listeners

Sinclair McKay

Aurum, pp. 354, £

The wartime code-breaking successes of Bletchley Park are deservedly well known.  The story of how they decrypted German and Japanese codes, most famously the Enigma, has been the subject of histories, novels and films, so much so that Bletchley is glamour. Much less well known, however, and much less glamorous — rarely even thought about — is the story of how those clever cryptologists got the coded radio signals they worked on. Where did their daily and nightly fodder come from?  It certainly wasn’t from sticking an aerial in the attic and waiting to see what came out of it.

The signals Bletchley decoded came from the Y Service (Y for wireless, a useful wartime confusion), a worldwide network of listening stations manned mostly by very young men and women who manually transcribed enemy signals and sent them back to Bletchley. Many were still in their teens, having been recruited via IQ and aptitude tests from schools, the armed forces and the ranks of amateur radio enthusiasts. You had to be young to transcribe German or Japanese high speed morse at 28 words per minute in 8-12-hour-shifts day and night for months on end, often without leave for long periods and in very uncomfortable conditions.

Operators in mobile field units often had to write with one hand while keeping the other on the tuning knob as the set would drift off frequency; some could handle two sets at once. As with high pressure screen and keyboard skills today, at 30 most people were past it.

Although focusing little on how and by whom the Y Service was run, McKay pays welcome tribute to the formative work of MI6’s Richard Gambier-Parry, an overlooked figure who designed, established and effectively ran the high-level communications networks on which military commanders and government depended, including Bletchley (also run by MI6).  McKay’s focus is rather on the personal experiences of the individual Y Service operators, hence his book is largely anecdotal — but none the worse for it, since it brings home not only the reality of what these people were doing but also the daily privations endured with remarkable resilience by so many in that war.

For the girls and boys from ordinary homes throughout the country, it was a life-changing experience.  Many of the girls were recruited from or into the Navy’s Wrens, regarded as socially a cut above the Army’s ATS or the RAF’s WAAFS and continuing an MI6 tradition of association with the Senior Service.  But their actual social composition varied widely, ranging from the bookish upper class such as Barbara Skelton to the working-class young who would never otherwise have left Warrington or Glasgow or Bangor, and now found themselves scattered over Ceylon, Rangoon, Italy, Cairo, Murmansk, New Zealand, Cornwall, Scarborough or unlikely-sounding naval shore stations in Hampshire.

The job was pretty much the same everywhere, although in some stations they decoded signals as well as transcribing them and passing them back to Bletchley, or concentrated on direction-finding. The work was generally unremitting: day and night shifts, clamped into headphones in front of your crackling and hissing receiver, an exhausting mixture of boredom and concentration during which you couldn’t read or knit or gossip in quiet periods in case you missed that sudden burst of dots and dashes that meant a U-Boat was closing on a convoy, or that Malta was about to get another air-raid, or that an assault was imminent on the Anzio bridgehead.

In your tiny hut in the Far East the sweat ran down into your shoes, in your cramped army lorry in the North African desert the sand and flies got everywhere, on the Murmansk convoys your eyes froze over, at RAF Chicksands in Bedfordshire (where morale was uncharacteristically low) nobody even told you why you were doing it.

What these people did helped determine the fates of battles, saved ships and lives and enabled Allied assaults, but their sustained contribution to the war effort remained hidden. They couldn’t talk about it, even to their families, and there was no glamour, and no medals.

As with those at Bletchley, the silence of that generation, their disciplined restraint for decades afterwards, is as impressive as their achievements. They felt the powerful pull of common cause and (mostly) had the privilege of knowing that their contribution was significant. Awful as it was for much of the time, for many nothing that followed ever quite lived up to it. We should be grateful that the survivors are talking now.