The men and women listening in to the enemy from all around the globe.
For some years the world has been aware of the astonishing part that Bletchley Park played in World War II by breaking the supposedly unbreakable German Enigma code and thus enabling our high command to listen into the enemy – an invaluable advantage in battle. What is perhaps less well known is the part played by those doing the actual listening. And yet, at the height of the war thousands of Allied men and women were glued to radio sets day and night, taking down both the Morse code and ‘en clair’ broadcasts of Germans, Italians and Japanese to feed the code-breaking machine and get into the minds of the Axis forces.
What’s even more amazing is that wireless technology was still relatively new. It was less than
fifty years before World War II that Marconi, fed up of not being taken seriously in his native Italy, had come to Britain and successfully demonstrated the transmission of a message via the airwaves.
The possibilities of such a mobile means of communication, however, had been rapidly absorbed not just by entertainers but by warmongers – and above all by the Nazis. The key to Hitler’s huge initial successes in Poland and France in 1939 was Blitzkrieg, a brutal new method of warfare that involved sending in heavy-duty Panzer tanks with air support, to ‘blitz’
an area and weaken it before the infantry came tramping through to secure the field. It was horribly effective but it only worked if the communications between air, tanks and infantry were sharp. This is why the Germans embraced radio in the build-up to the second world war, why they were so keen on a clever encryption system like enigma, and why, once the Allies had cracked it, it provided such a rich vein of information. Never before in warfare had communications been so multiple, so vital, or so eminently exploitable.
But we had to pick up the messages to read them and that meant finding radio operators.
Initially for its Y (Wireless) service, the British government tapped into the band of amateur radio enthusiasts that were building sets in bedrooms and sitting rooms all around the country. Many were snapped up and sent into the forces as official operators. Quite a few were too young to be recruited into full service, but still re-tuned their dials away from Radio Luxembourg and into Nazi frequencies to provide Bletchley Park with the volume of messages needed to allow the codebreakers a chance of cracking the fiendish enigma codes.
Already, though, the services were testing the capabilities of new recruits – volunteers and conscripts - for working in Morse and any promising candidates were sent on for training. The large majority of these were women, who could not be assigned to active battle duty so were perfect for the ancillary roles – and often very talented at it. A number became so proficient that they were sent all over the world to train others in Y-stations across the Empire.
Although there were many operators working in listening stations around the UK - mainly in
coastal areas like Scarborough, Southwold and Dorset - new recruits also found themselves sent far further afield. They were shipped out to Gibraltar, Algiers and Athens, to Cairo, Khartoum and Mombasa, and as far east as Singapore, Saigon, Colombo and the tiny Cocos islands in the middle of the Indian ocean. From all over the globe, the people of Britain and her Empire nations tapped into the airwaves to listen to the enemy. It changed the course of the war and it also changed the course of their lives. Most of the people in the far-flung stations had been uprooted from Yorkshire, Somerset or Kent to find themselves in tropical climes with food, cultures and climates they would never have otherwise known.
In Colombo, recruits could swim on the beautiful Mount Lavinia beach, eating pineapples
fresh from the tree, and in Mombasa they lived in a rococo building on the rocky shore and used their time off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. In Algiers they were cooked for on wood fires on the roof of a turreted castle, had to carry their own water up every day in four-gallon cans, and got the chance to eat fresh pasta made by Italian POWs. In Cairo, operators experienced the dying glamour of colonial life with the grand Gezira club, full of polo, tennis and cocktails, or the unrestrained belly dancing at the KitKat club in an old steam ship on the river Nile. Less glamorously, they suffered an epidemic of streptococcal sore throats for which, interestingly in these post-COVID times, the wearing of surgical masks was considered but dismissed as they got in the way of smoking…! The work of the radio operators was often dangerous, especially in the first half of the war as the German frontier expanded. Those in Athens had to flee when Greece was evacuated in the face of a Nazi advance, a small group of them escaping to Crete in a rowing boat, only to have to flee again a few weeks later. The team in Singapore had to run for their lives when, to everyone’s great shock, the island fell in February 1942 and they only made it out a day before the Germans took 60,000 Allied personnel prisoner. Their flight was made even more dangerous by the radio equipment they were carrying which would have seen them denied POW status and treated as spies, who were usually tortured and eventually executed.
Those operators sent to Malta found themselves stranded on an island that was under siege
for most of 1941-2. Valletta was, at one point in 1942, bombed at least five times a day for a straight 117 days, with far greater loss of buildings and life than even the blitz in London. The people there suffered such hardships that they were given a George Cross, the only nation ever to have received a bravery medal. Throughout it all the radio operators kept on listening, providing vital information about German movements in Africa that helped us take that continent at the start of 1943, providing a vital jumping off point to attack Sicily and Italy, Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe. Despite the fancy locations and tricky situations, operating a radio was not essentially a glamorous job. Shifts were long, so an operator had to concentrate for hours on end to take down an endless stream of Morse code. Making mistakes could be the difference between a garrison, ship or plane’s success and its annihilation so there was no excuse for sloppy work. Most stations ran around the clock too so many people would find themselves having to stay awake in the small hours, all alone with soporific dots and dashes in their ears.
And it wasn’t just taking down enemy messages either. The other half of the radio operators’
job was to broadcast the decrypts of the messages that had been intercepted from the enemy out of Bletchley Park to the command centres on the ground. As the war progressed and the frontline moved fast, this was increasingly done via SLUs – Special Liaison Units – which were nothing more than a van, kitted out with aerials and receivers, that could be driven close to the commanders’ field HQs to receive intel as fast as was humanly possible in battle situations. These would be operated by a driver, a lookout in a tiny turret and the operator, desperately trying to tune his delicate equipment as he bounced across track, field or desert in a rattly, worn-out old vehicle. It was hot, cramped and dangerously close to the action but the ability to relay information on enemy movements to commanders was huge and made a real difference, first in Africa, then in Italy and finally in Normandy. SLUs were operational within 48 hours of men landing on the beaches on D-day and made a crucial contribution to the Allied advance on Paris and, eventually, on Berlin. World War II was a war of terrible new weaponry – huge guns, tanks and planes dominated this horrific style of warfare. Command of the land, the seas and the skies was vital – but so too was command of the airwaves. It’s thanks to the many patient, dogged radio operators working far from home in unimaginable conditions, that we could achieve this and I hope this article has explained a little of their bravery, hard work and skill in listening to the enemy to win the unseen battle of the airwaves.
I wanted to be an author from the moment I could pick up a pen and was writing boarding-school novels by the age of nine. I made the early mistake of thinking I ought to get a ‘proper job’ and went into Factory Planning – a career that gave me some wonderful experiences, amazing friends and even a fantastic husband, but didn’t offer much creative scope. So when I stopped to have children I took the chance to start the ‘improper job’ of writing. It's not been easy but I love it and can't see myself ever stopping.
The Berlin Zookeeper is the first in my new series of WW2 novels. It's a dual timeline novel set in Berlin Zoo in the present day and at the climax of the war, as the keepers battle to save the lives of both their animals and themselves in the face of terrible hardships. Coming this August is The Secret Diary, exploring the troubles facing a bold group of young women trying to integrate back into 'normal' society after life as a tight-knit team of 'gunner girls' - and trying to hide the secret that binds them...
I also write medieval fiction as Joanna Courtney.
I'd love to hear from you via my website - @annastuartbooks.com, on Twitter - @annastuartbooks,or on Facebook - @annastuartauthor
1940, Bletchley Park: I stand alone outside the gates, with no idea what lies ahead. It’s cold and dark. All I have are my suitcases and a handful of letters from my fiancé. Every day, the bombs have been getting closer. I’m only an ordinary civilian, but I was asked to come here in secret, and I’m determined to fight in whatever way I can for freedom and for love…
Inspired by the unforgettable true story of the women of Bletchley Park, this utterly gripping novel of secrets, love and courage shines a light on the incredible wartime work that changed the course of history.
When Stefania Carmichael steps into the mysterious world of Bletchley Park, she immediately finds herself signing the Official Secrets Act. In whispers, she is told that she’s been recruited because of her talent for languages. Before the war ripped Europe apart, Steffie was living in Rome, charming everyone she met with her quick wit and sharp mind, and engaged to the man of her dreams, handsome and brave Matteo. Now everything has changed.
With secrets swirling around the building, Steffie finds it hard to know who to trust, until she forms a close bond with two other new recruits. Ailsa is a gifted radio operator and Fran a logistics genius, and the two women help Steffie navigate her new world of codebreaking. But even though Steffie’s skills are crucial to the war effort, her position is put in jeopardy when Italy joins the opposite side of the battle – and her beloved fiancé becomes the enemy.
Her heart belongs to Matteo, but Steffie knows she must do whatever it takes to help England win the war. So when she is asked to go on a classified mission, she jumps at the chance. But it soon becomes clear there’s a traitor in their midst, and all eyes turn to her…
With her life at stake, can she prove herself innocent and save the man she loves? Or will Steffie lose everything?
An absolutely addictive World War Two novel of friendship, betrayal and heartbreak. Perfect for fans of The Rose Code, The Alice Network and The Nightingale.