I usually try to read and then write about something on a Remembrance theme in early November, and this year, quite unintentionally, I realised I had been browsing a pile of books specifically about women and war, so a selection of shorter posts to follow each day this week and your reading suggestions to add to any of these would be very welcome.
Women in War - From Home Front to Front Line is a collection of 'perceptive and thought-provoking' essays on the changing role of women in warfare. Examining how women have been increasingly mobilized both at home and in the theatre of war, the range of the book is extensive...from the Indian Mutiny of 1857 right through to the Cold War via the Western Front, the Blitzkrieg of 1940, the RAF ferry pilots, secret agents and the Siege of Leningrad to name but a few.
I particularly enjoyed 'Station X: The Women at Bletchley Park' by John Lee. Whenever we feel news-weary from watching so much war and death and destruction, we flick through the Freeview channels and always seem to end up watching, well...yes... a war programme on Yesterday. More of the same in a way, but they are invariably fascinating and recently there have been several on Bletchley Park, which Bookhound and I have now put on our list of places we would like to visit.
John Lee elaborates on the foresight of Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair who, sensing the likelihood of war, reputedly paid £7,500 of his own money in 1938 to buy the secluded manor farm of Bletchley Park for the use of MI6, the British secret intelligence service. It was apparently in August 1939 that 'Captain Ridley's shooting party' took up residence, a code name (start as you mean to go on etc) for the advance party of the Government Code and Cypher School that was to take over the house and grounds. So secret were the goings on at Bletchley Park that it is said a husband and wife went out to work every day not knowing that they were in different huts at the same facility. But it was the women, thousands of them (three eight hour shifts of 2,500 each plus another 2,500 to cover leave and shift changes) who did the copy-typing and worked on the machines where the coded messages were decrypted; highly repetitive but no less demanding work that required absolute concentration.
The recent programme had Bookhound and I incredulous as the calculation was made about the possible number of code permutations achievable by the Lorenz. Whilst many will know of the Enigma coding machine, I had never heard of the Lorenz, which had fifteen wheels and the number of start patterns was ...ready with the calculators...
Even more amazing was the degree of secrecy maintained... just let anyone suggest women can't keep a secret, so much so that in 1941 Winston Churchill let it be known how much he valued the work at Bletchley...
'The geese that laid the golden eggs, but never cackled.'
And it was many many years before those 'geese' did cackle too. Only in recent times has the information about the full extent of the work at Bletchley been revealed. Interestingly too I had no idea that after the war the computers were broken up and the British failed to take out a patent leaving huge rewards to be reaped by American company IBM.
In danger of demolition and falling into a sad state of disrepair, Bletchley Park is now in the safe care of a trust, and with a growing museum safely established, and an ever-increasing interest in these more secret aspects of the war, its future looks assured.
A really fascinating book and my thanks to editor Celia Lee who arranged to send me a copy many moons ago now and has been waiting very patiently for me to write about it. I have more books coming up through the week on women in war...fiction, diaries, and poetry but today please do share any suggestions for other non-fiction reads on a similar theme.
Staring at me from my shelves I have Millions Like Us Women's Live in War and Peace 1939-1949 by Virginia Nicholson and A Train in Winter - A Story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival by Caroline Moorehead, both look very enticing and I wrote about How The Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton some time ago here...
Tomorrow it will be women in war in fiction, I have both a recently published and a republished book to suggest, so please do have your thinking caps on ready for more recommends.