BLETCHLEY PARK’S SECRET SOURCE: CHURCHILL’S WRENS AND THE Y SERVICE IN WORLD WAR II
Reviewed by: ROBERT MUDDYSLEY
Of the names almost gratuitously inserted in book titles ‘Bletchley Park’ and ‘Churchill’ are presumably guaranteed to increase sales. In this one, the former is appropriate, the latter (in a sub-title that one guesses was added by the publisher) only achieves walk on parts (one literally, albeit accompanied by General Montgomery).
That said, this is a very valuable contribution to the historiography of the Second World War. Not only is it a history of the naval ‘Y’ service (and not just the Wrens) but it abounds in intriguing facts and anecdotes; your reviewer had always thought that the ‘Y’ was almost selected at random, but in fact in WW1 ‘Wireless Intelligence’ was abbreviated as ‘WI’ pronounced ‘why’ which was abbreviated in turn to ‘Y’.
The Y service had continued between the wars, but underwent rapid expansion and newly inducted Wrens were rapidly trained to take over from male ratings and civilians. The early part of the book covers the recruitment and training of a number of individuals. Mainly German speakers (later Italian and Japanese speakers) were sought and initially they became Chief Wrens on completion of training, being designated as ‘Special Duties’. They were trained as either R/T (voice) or W/T (morse) reflecting the two ‘streams’ of the Y service. The latter inevitably fed Bletchley Park and enormous volumes of traffic were handled, up to 3,000 signals a day. The R/T was essentially tactical. Both are covered in some detail, based on personal experiences. Some provide interesting further information about some key episodes. While the Y service contribution to the hunt for the Bismarck adds some detail to the account in the official history, the account of the ‘Channel Dash’ by Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen actually sheds some interesting light on some tactical intelligence failures, not least a failure to recognise that a junior rating, and female to boot, might have a useful contribution to the picture. In passing, your reviewer was surprised that the post debacle recriminations were less inter service than intra service, between the various RAF commands. There is also some indication that without the Y service, the Battle of Matapan might not have happened and the Japanese cruiser Haguro probably would not have been sunk.
If the book has a recurring theme, it is lack of knowledge. While the R/T wrens, engaged in the ‘Battle of the Narrow Seas’ supporting coastal forces, could sometimes even see and hear the results of their work, the W/T wrens most times had absolutely no idea of what they were achieving, and why. Their daily labours initially went by courier and then by teleprinter to ‘Station X’ (Bletchley Park), they had no idea what or where that was, and they did not find out until many years after the war. This worked in both directions, the rest of the service mostly had no idea what they did, even when they worked physically quite close to them. One incident is recorded which showed the lack of understanding. A senior officer “managed to penetrate the watchroom where an operator was listening to a German message…. partly lost by interference. ‘I am afraid I missed most of that’ a junior wren said, frustrated. ‘Never mind’ boomed the chief officer briskly, ‘you can always ask them to repeat it back’”.
Captain Hore is to be congratulated on an excellent book; it shines a light on a seldom covered part of the naval history of the Second World War, and does so both as a rigorous history, but also at the individual level. It is very strongly recommended.