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- March 2022 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THE WRENS OF WORLD WAR II. By Peter Hore, a paperback of 240 pages, published by Big Sky Publishing, Moss Vale, NSW, in 2021. Available at most booksellers from $24.75.
Women’s footprints in the sands of history are sometimes hard to discern because historians – mainly male historians – have unfairly overlooked women and their importance in the tide of events. This book is about a highly secret group of women who helped win the second world war. They are the Wrens of the Y Service – Y meaning wireless intercept. The work of these women, mostly in their late teens or early twenties, has rarely been described. Their work for naval intelligence consisted of listening to and recording German, Italian and Japanese radio transmissions as well as taking direction findings. As the war grew in intensity Y service was ‘fingerprinting’ enemy transmissions whilst recording noises associated with enemy radar and navigation beams. Most of the women had a good knowledge of spoken German.
The information which the young women plucked from the ether was fed directly to tactical operations and the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park. Here transcribed coded messages were deciphered. Without the data gathered by the Y Service Bletchley Park would not have had the raw material upon which to work its magic and its miracles of decoding. The women proudly called themselves ‘Freddie’s Fairies’ after Freddie Marshall, an RNVR officer who was a leading light in their selection and training. Freddie married First Officer Elizabeth Agar and they came to Australia after the war. Elizabeth, born in Glasgow, had earlier come to Australia with her father when he was appointed Professor of Zoology at the University of Melbourne.
Another member of the Wrens was Helen Elizabeth (Betty) Archdale, who captained the English women’s cricket team in their pre-war tour of Australia. Betty was among the first ten women to be subsequently admitted as Honorary Life Members of the Marylebone Cricket Club. She also returned to Australia to become Principal of Sydney University Women’s College in 1946, a Member of the Sydney University Senate and later Headmistress of the private girls’ school Abbotsleigh, in Wahroonga, for 12 years from 1958. Vera Laughton Mathews was the wartime deputy and later Director, WRNS (1946-1950). The Commandant of the WRNS during WWII was HRH Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent.
The Y service ran a chain of wireless intercept stations around Britain and all over the world. Hundreds of operators, many of them from the women’s military services, monitored enemy radio networks in voice and in Morse. The results gave Britain’s military and political leaders vital information to create their plans. In the north and west Y network of Britain D/F or direction finding became a capability. Direction finding towers were built adjacent to the Y station where the Persky and Marconi cathode ray tubes became vital for direction finding. DF was capable of an accuracy of plus or minus three degrees, greater than had been anticipated. DF was an art, not a science, and a good operator was a valuable asset. These operators were frequently PO or CPO Wrens.
In the late 1930s the Admiralty realised an organisation for Operational Intelligence should be developed. This was done with Paymaster-LCDR N.E. Denning (later VADM Sir Norman Denning, KCB, CB) as the initial head of the Navy Operational Intelligence Centre (OIC). Denning, a born intelligence officer, soon realised the necessity for the closest communication between OIC, the Y stations and Station X or Bletchley Park. To do this a teleprinter was installed at VADM Dover’s intelligence centre. Local networks were integrated by March 1941.
Listening for U-boat transmissions was an important task. A U-boat signal was immediately recognised and remained unchanged throughout the war as dah di di di dah twice. At the same time the wireless operator was taking the signal group for the U-boat to be sent off to Bletchley Park. In December 1941 when Japan declared war Japanese Morse was intercepted in ‘Kana’ or Japanese alphabet. Japanese Morse used nearly twice as many characters as western Morse. In 1941 special duties Wrens were working with Mr. Bainbridge-Bell MC and Mr Watson Watt who worked with the cathode ray tube. Watson Watt was subsequently knighted for his role in the development of radar.
In the late 1940s volunteer Wrens were selected for passage to Singapore in convoy OB294. At that time, the German battleships Scharnhost and Gneisenau were loose in the Atlantic with Admiral Gunther Lutjens in command. Scharnhostsank five ships from convoys OB285, OB286 and several outliers from convoy OB294. In two months Lutjens had sunk 22 ships of 113,690 grt. In Singapore the Wrens were based at RN wireless station Kranji. They were there on December 7th when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and were part of the welcome in Singapore for HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. Both of these ships were sunk by the Japanese on December 10th. On December 21st the Wrens were evacuated to Ceylon.
In late March 1941, Y service intercepted Italian signals which gave specific details of the immediate movements of the Regia Marina in the Mediterranean. In the subsequent battle of Cape Matapan the RN task force inflicted severe punishment on the Italian fleet. The Italians lost three cruisers and up to 2,300 sailors. Prince Philip‘s control of searchlight operations on the battleship HMS Valiant during the battle was mentioned in dispatches to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham.
Y station at Flowerdown was involved in the hunt for the Bismarck in the Atlantic. In May 1941 Flowerdown was able to identify the Bismarck’s radio direction finding. Meanwhile code breakers at Bletchley Park were able to decipher Luftwaffe Enigma signals to the Bismarck under the command of Admiral Lutjens. Initially with her steering damaged by a Swordfish torpedo strike from HMS Ark Royal, Bismarck was brought to bay by the British home fleet’s HMS King George V and HMS Rodney under the command of Admiral John Tovey. After an intense sea battle lasting two hours Bismarck was finished off by torpedoes from HMS Dorsetshire. The First Sea Lord indicated the Y service and code breakers had initiated a series of operations which led to the sinking of Bismarck.
Prior to D Day at Abbbotscliff, the nearest Y station to France, one of the Wrens waived a cheery ‘good morning’ to Winston Churchill and General Bernard Montgomery who were walking close to her. Churchill’s presence was part of ‘Operation Fortitude’ a deception plan to convince the Germans that invasion would come in the Calais area. At the same Y station Wrens heard Admiral Doenitz announce Hitler’s death. After VE Day some Wrens were required in Germany at a cost of 4d per hour to assist at the Nuremburg trials!
In the war against Japan, Wrens at Flowerdown intercepted Japanese cypher signals disclosing the location of the Japanese cruiser Haguro. Subsequently in the battle of the Malacca Strait Haguro was sunk by a British destroyer flotilla in a textbook night time torpedo attack. At the height of the war Y stations sent more than 3000 messages a day to Bletchley Park.
The book is written by Captain Peter Hore, RN (Rtd) a Navy logistician who served as such during the Falklands War and subsequently with NATO. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society who has developed a great and justified reputation as a naval historian and obituarist for the Daily Telegraph. Although Hore pays particular attention to the personal stories of many of the young Wrens’ service details Allied and British strategy, especially RN strategy, is clearly portrayed in the book with reference to several key naval battles of WWII. The detailed references, chapter notes and index prove why Peter Hore is a readers’ choice for the quality and depth of his work. With the Wrens story explained, the jigsaw puzzle behind Bletchley is now completed. The naval reader will find much in the book of intense and absorbing interest.
Reviewed by Kevin Rickard