Morse Code Wrens of Station X by Anne Glyn-Jones

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Morse Code Wrens of Station X by Anne Glyn-Jones

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: We now know what went on at Bletchley Park but the story of how a lot of the info got there to be decoded is still largely untold. This is one woman’s recollection of her role in the latter days of the war intercepting chatter from the airways – and a light-hearted look at life in the service.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 180 Date: January 2017
Publisher: Amphora Press
ISBN: 978-1845409081

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Bletchley Park is probably now the least secret of all the secret ops that went on during World War II. I for one am pleased about that: technology has moved on so far that there can't be anything that happened back then on the communications front that is worth continuing to shroud in mystery. With most of the participants either departed or at least in the departure lounge, the more recollections we can still gather the better. What remained secret far longer however, is the work of the telegraphers that served Station X: those posted to the Y-stations. There are few of them left to tell their tales, so I applaud those who finally saw fit (a) to release them from their life-long bonds of secrecy and (b) encourage them to write it down, tell us what it was really like.

One such memoirist is Anne Glyn-Jones. She first tried to tell her story back in the seventies when the first 'thirty-year-rule' releases about war-time surveillance were making it into the public domain. She was refused consent. She'd actually written most of it much earlier, but at each attempt to get it out to the wider world she was knocked back by the secretive forces in Parliament and Whitehall. Fortunately she didn't throw away her scribblings and have to start over with her 94 year old memory when permission was finally granted. As a result the story she tells is as fresh and vibrant as the gaggle of girls she joined up with, as stroppy as they became when promotions and back-pay were denied on the flimsiest of grounds and as solid in its innocent patriotism as could be expected of that generation back then, but probably of none of here and now.

If anyone of those she had approached earlier had bothered to read the book, it would have been released much sooner. There is little in here that would have been of national security relevance probably by the end of the sixties, let alone the end of the nineties, when restrictions were still being mooted.

This isn't about the discovery of secrets. It is only in passing about operational methods. It is primarily a social history document: this is what it was like, what it felt like, for one of the girls involved. Even now, she is quite circumspect in some regards: a feature of her generation, no doubt.

Anne Glynn-Jones first ran away to sea when she was seven years old. The cook had scolded me for being under her feet in the kitchen. Mother was busy entertaining visitors in the drawing room. There followed a scrap with her sister, for which she was blamed, and so a paper bag was filled with cake and away she ran. She got less than two miles. This opening to the story is important though. For one it sets the tone of the whole narrative. G-J is self-deprecating through-out but never in a measure that makes you think she under-estimates herself. This lightness of touch, gentleness of humour is sustained, leading to many smiles and the occasional laugh-out-loud moment. I particularly loved her being saluted by a senior officer that she had inadvertently failed to salute, and the notion of a babary ape skulking out of the wireless office on the back of an "I-dare-you" look from a fellow operator.

Secondly, though, it obliquely makes a point that the author makes more explicit further on in the story: background and class. The notion of class in the UK is an increasingly confused area these days. G-J freely says that it would be 'cosy' to say they came from all walks of life and confirms that they didn't. She then talks of all her Wren colleagues as being 'middle class'. This is a notion of middle class that has clearly shifted. These were girls who were being educated at a time when secondary education for girls wasn't the norm even here – certainly not in the kind of boarding school scenario (with a choice of finishing school or Oxbridge thereafter) that was her upbringing.

These are the kind of hinterland details that make her read so fascinating. The things that to her are obvious but to this reader (two generations or thereabouts down the line) are illuminating just how radical the change has been.

Back to the story: having failed to run away to sea at the age of 7, our heroine is still fixated. While her schoolmates might have been swooning over the film stars of the day, she was trawling the library for naval heroes. Like many at the time she collected cigarette cards, but her album of 'Modern Naval Craft' did double duty as a diary as to what happened to those noble vessels, especially was war had broken out. She noted which went down, how many lives were lost. She decided to join up and help.

A deal struck with her parents meant that she completed her exams and hoped to defer any University offer until after the war, but it was clear that one way or another she was going into the newly formed WRNS. She hadn't really thought any further than that. The rest was a mixture of accident and luck and circumstance.

Like all Wrens she did her share of "scrubbing" as she unceremoniously puts it – some of it literal, some metaphorical – but doesn't seem to have minded so much (at least in the beginning). Then she is trained as telegraphist. This is one of those posts that we've all seen in the war movies…the girls in the background, mostly…and not really thought about. Without what these women did – and they were increasingly women and men were commandeered for more active service – the work of the legendary Station X (Bletchley Park) and possibly others that are still not discussed so widely – would not have been possible.

The telegraphers staffed the Y-stations. Y for WI – W.I. – Wireless Intelligence. Their role was to listen for hour after hour. To trawl the airwaves for something that might be morse code. In German. Or Japanese. And take it town, write it up – still in its encoded form – and send it on its way to the code-breakers. They were intelligent women, they'd soon work out whose transmissions they were likely picking up…they'd maybe have ideas about its importance…but their job was not to know what the message meant, merely to take it down and send it out.

G-J doesn't play on this, but that's the bit I find phenomenal in their skill. The ability to transcribe a meaningless message, but be confident that you'd got it right. I often take a step back and ponder the magic of being able to read and write. That from a bunch of squiggles on a page you make sounds, which you know to be words, which have a meaning. Or you do it the other way, a sound becomes that squiggle on a page. I find that mind-blowing on the every-day level. Taking it to that next level of encoded sounds dits and dahs, dots and dashes, being letters, being combined into nonsense sequences… on one level, it's just another language, but on another…it's something more than that. If you think about it: it is awesome. That's not really what the book's about though. That's just background. It's really a simple little memoir about someone who wanted to serve, and did so. It talks about training, and deployment – first to Scarborough on the English north east coast, and then to Gibraltar. The former had more to recommend it than the latter.

It's about what it was like for a few women in what was then a very male-dominated environment – with all that implies – but at a time when most men were still gentlemen – with all that implies.

It's a snapshot in time about the morals and manners of the age.

It's an indictment of the hierarchy. And a celebration of camaraderie.

Above all it's a picture of one of the small battles fought in getting a tiny bit more equality for women.

Does this book add to the general knowledge of how the war was fought and won? Maybe a tiny bit – don't read it for that. It's real contribution is in understanding the social impact of the war, even for those serving in a relatively protected environment. It is a salute to the WRNS whose contribution is often overlooked. But mostly, like many personal memoirs, it is a tiny slice of history that is only important because of all the tiny insights that glitter in the detail.

Beyond all of that…it does have a touch of the 'jolly hockey sticks' tone about it which, in context, I loved!

And like all of the best life-writing, it left me wanting more… I want to know what Anne Glyn-Jones went on to do after the war…

For more secret stuff about “the War” we can recommend The Double Cross System by J C Masterman or for a look at the naval history from the other side, check out Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn J Prince

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