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Bletchley's Secret Source: The Wrens and the Y-Service in World War II

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The World War II codebreaking station at Bletchley is well known and its activities documented in detail. Its decryption capabilities were vital to the war effort, significantly aiding Allied victory. But where did the messages being deciphered come from in the first place?

This is the extraordinary untold story of the Y-Service, a secret even more closely guarded than Bletchley Park. The Y-Service was the code for the chain of wireless intercept stations around Britain and all over the world. Hundreds of wireless operators, many of them who were civilians, listened to German, Italian and Japanese radio networks and meticulously logged everything they heard. Some messages were then used tactically but most were sent on to Station X - Bletchley Park - where they were deciphered, translated and consolidated to build a comprehensive overview of the enemy's movements and intentions.

Peter Hore delves into the fascinating history of the Y-service, with particular reference to the girls of the Women's Royal Naval Service: Wrens who escaped from Singapore to Colombo as the war raged, only to be torpedoed in the Atlantic on their way back to Britain; the woman who had a devastatingly true premonition that disaster would strike on her way to Gibraltar; the Australian who went from being captain of the English Women's Cricket team to a WWII Wren to the head of Abbotleigh girls school in Sydney; how the Y-service helped to hunt the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic, and how it helped to torpedo a Japanese cruiser in the Indian Ocean. Together, these incredible stories build a picture of World War II as it has never been viewed before.

240 pages, Hardcover

Published May 30, 2021

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Peter Hore

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Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews
311 reviews
March 12, 2021
Peter Hore, Secret Source Churchill’s Wrens and the Y Service in World War 11, Greenhill Books, 2021

Thank you, Net Galley, for this copy for review.

I am not a reader of war books and before reading Secret Source my knowledge of women’s contribution to this aspect of the war was through novels; my research on Barbara Pym who was a Wren, but in a far more peaceful job than the wrens in the Y Service, in Bristol; and a visit to Bletchley Park. I cannot recall whether the historical records on display at the latter included any reference to the women Peter Hore writes about in Secret Source, but they should. As Hore finishes his book, he acknowledges the lack of publicity and recognition given to the women about whom he writes. He also gives some of them the opportunity to air some anger at their treatment, particularly after their work was completed. But, at the same time, Hore also gives the women voice to say, ‘We all loved our part in it’.
Hore’s commitment to giving women a voice shines throughout this book. So many names, so many activities, so many anecdotes, so many thoughts: and they belong to women. How grateful I am that I chose this book to review. I began on the basis that I would like to improve my knowledge beyond that of the novel and ended having done so. What I could not imagine was having so much enjoyment while reading about women whose stories are usually open ended, with only glimpses into their work and social occasions. They begin with their similar ability to speak German which result in their induction into the Y Service, some marry, some die, some are bereaved, but these events are a small part of their story. Usually the women appear, demonstrate some of the activities with which the Wrens were associated, and then another takes her place: there is little of the satisfying resolution offered by fictional interpretations. However, resolved (as some were) or not, the women’s stories resonate. The glimpses through their words and the context provided by Hore are satisfying in their own way. Hore’s clever juxtaposition of context, the role of male protagonists in the training and recruitment, and the women’s voices, together with action and events is worthy of any fiction lover’s attention. The women’s stories, while vignettes of their lives, make a satisfying whole. This is indeed a history of a group of women with special abilities who as individuals and part of a group made an important contribution to the more well-known Bletchley successes.
Hore has also written a book that will satisfy the academic historian. He gives the women their voices, but where there is the possibility that there is an alternative interpretation of events it is included. His attention to the importance of memory, interpretation, and exaggeration, while never dismissing what he is told by the women involved is the work of a historian for whom the reader is also important. Some of the comments he makes in this context are delightful – both illuminating and sympathetic to the underlying motivations of the speaker. In the context of the academic reader, there are citations for each speaker and event, a strong bibliography, and an index. The last section of the book comprises well captioned photographs.
Peter Hore has written an account of the way in which many women contributed to the war effort as part of the Y Service, and in some cases, after hostilities with Germany ended. It is both academic and accessible to a wider audience. I enjoyed both aspects of the book, wearing both my historian and fiction lover hats very happily as I read this genuinely satisfying account.
1,091 reviews10 followers
March 10, 2021
Decoding is a compelling subject and this book describes it in meticulous detail, often in the words of those women who did it. In WWII the women decoders, Wrens (many specialties of Wrens), were responsible for so much yet their stories are rarely acknowledged and told and far less common than others who were involved in war efforts. In fact, they often saw more action than many. Some of the duties must have been incredibly difficult (forcing alertness on night shifts) and safety but others thrilling according to documentation. Wrens only numbered in the hundreds so the job was prestigious and highly secret and the women were justifiably proud. Training was tough so only the best were successful. Bletchley Park (Station X) was at the hub and where messages were deciphered. Talk about a fascinating process!

The author describes the experiences of several women throughout the book and what happened to some after the war. He describes the (mostly awful) uniforms, samples of actual codes (one incorrect/missing word could make ALL the difference), who was sought (linguists), the history of Morse code, Churchill's involvement and scary night watch stories. One of my favourite night watch stories was that of a woman who had to go to a tower to take bearings at night. Between her and the tower was no lighting at all (she couldn't use a torch outside, either) and ditches with wires she had to navigate on her hands and knees. In daylight she saw just how dangerous of a mission it was. Another woman sometimes got back to her accommodations to find her bed was warm, obviously slept in.

Heartbreakingly, ships and boats were torpedoed and sank, including the sinking of the Empress of Canada. Stories are told of men who swallowed too much oil in the water, others clinging together and some jumping off ships and swimming away as quickly as they could to avoid being sucked under. So many harrowing experiences, all real.

Read this book told from a completely different perspective. The amount of information I learned is unreal. The photographs are great!

My sincere thank you to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the privilege of reading the early ARC of this exceptional book.
Profile Image for Terence Eden.
90 reviews8 followers
March 26, 2021
Meticulously researched, drawing on lots of interviews with those who survived. This book aims to be the definitive history of the women who helped win the war.

The first part of the book, somewhat oddly, focuses on the men who set up the Y Service. While the background is important – I’m not sure there needs to be quite so much of the thrilling-adventures-of-manly-men.

There are amazing tales of high adventure and low skulduggery. But what interested me most was the way that sexism almost completely collapsed the war effort. From refusing to accept women, to preventing them from having uniforms, it seems like the British military did everything in its power to reduce its strength by 50%. When women travelled overseas to help the war effort, some were simply shipped back!

Frankly, it seems improbably that the British won the war. Everything was done on a shoestring budget, there was very little co-ordination, and it was led by lots of posh men who couldn’t see past their own blinkered existence.

There are some lovely personal stories tales in the book. From women falling in love, to single-handedly delivering crucial signals intercepts – it really is a glorious romp.

It does descend slightly into a list of events – battles, telegrams, and executive orders. And some of the military terminology – and outmoded British slang – is a bit dense to wade through. But, overall, it’s a great retelling of the experiences of a group of people who have been overlooked for too long.

At its core is a story of the power of appreciation.

Even in wartime, the SD Wrens were under-appreciated, and it is a common theme in their memoirs that they were kept in the dark, Rosemary Lyster joining the chorus of women who grumbled ‘No one, of course, told us if our work was valuable – we did not need to know!’

How do you keep up morale when you never tell people how vital their work has been? How do you encourage the next generation if you can never tell the story of success? How do you honour people when their existence is both sacred and scandalous?

This book goes some way to setting the record straight.
Profile Image for Lucy-Bookworm.
667 reviews8 followers
April 4, 2021
The book tells the story of the women in the WRNS (WRENS) who worked in the Y Service during WWII. Everyone has heard of Bletchley Park – Station X - & the role it played in the code-breaking activities, but less well known are the activities of the Y stations. The Y stations, staffed by young Wrens, were the one who listened for & intercepted the messages which were then passed over to station X for decryption.
The book starts with the establishment of the Y service, and moves quickly on to how the Wrens were recruited (fluent German speakers, linguists, mathematicians – not uneducated young women!) and trained. It mentions the difficulties with uniform, the difficulties of not being able to explain what you were doing and the realities of the accommodation.
The book does jump around a bit, a result of the way it is compiled from a number of biographical/autobiographical sources and documentation. However the personal stories do make it very real and easy to read. So many stories of what women did during the war have never been told. It is often thought to have been menial work, secretarial etc, and it is important that we continue to uncover the role they played – which was often highly skilled, even if their training had to be done at night because the men were being trained during the day!
The stories are varied, at times heartbreaking. The story of the sinking of the Empress of Canada ship is sensitively written but harrowing.

I am very glad that I read this book, but was slightly disappointed to find that this was only focussed on the Naval station Y’s in the south & east – there was a number of others that are rarely mentioned especially those in the Midlands!

Disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of this book free via NetGalley. Whilst thanks go to the publisher for the opportunity to read it, all opinions are my own.
#BookReview #BletchleyParksSecretSource #NetGalley
Profile Image for Heather.
181 reviews2 followers
March 28, 2021
I would imagine many hours of research, fact finding combined with first hand accounts of what happened during the years of listening in on radio messages made this book a labour of love. Promoting the work of women during the war, often disregarded as menial work this book really explains the sacrifice and study required to ensure this vital work is reported accurately. Explained the structure of the Y stations and global network of radio signals used during the famous war battles. Named individual Wrens whose secret efforts went unnoticed by senior hierarchy, and gave good descriptions of life at the time. This book will be wonderful for the families of those women who served their country, to understand what their previous generation achieved in what was a male world. Thankfully things have moved on and girls can aspire to be who they want to be. Thank you #NetGalley for the advanced copy.
28 reviews1 follower
March 2, 2021
For anyone who likes historical fiction this is a must read. Bletchley Park code breaking activities are well recorded. This read is about the Y service, one of the biggest guarded secrets. It is both fascinating and captivating to read the story of the wireless operators, many of whom were civilians, and how they passed what they heard to intercept stations across the world. An enjoyable and insightful account of how some messages were decoded and used to track the enemy. The individual stories are moving and emotional, the strength and bravery of individuals is palpable across the pages. Well written, enjoyable and informative.
Profile Image for Derek Nudd.
Author 4 books8 followers
April 27, 2022
Peter Hore successfully blends the personal stories of some of the remarkable women who captured enemy wireless transmissions with the wider strategic and tactical framework in which they operated. The book is readable and well produced, containing some insights that I for one found surprising. A solid four-star read.
Profile Image for Heather.
1,068 reviews3 followers
October 17, 2022
I want to thank Netgalley and the author for gifting me the ebook. A great historical novel. Highly recommend
Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews

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