Reviewed by Anton K. Smith
Too little is written about the roles and sacrifices of professional women contributing to the war effort in World War II. An established author, renowned historian, and former British sailor, Peter Hore works to correct the deficit in this new book about Britain’s Women’s Royal Navy Service, whose members quickly became known as “Wrens.” Gathering a wealth of information directly from the aging heroes who long kept their secrets, Hore focuses on those Wrens that contributed signals intelligence from an array of coastal listening posts around England’s southern approaches to “Station X,” the code name for Britain’s now famous, war-time center for code-breaking and intelligence. The “Y Service,” which provided much of the raw material for Bletchley Park, was initially staffed by men. As demand for maritime deployments increased many were quickly replaced by women colleagues who had the requisite German language and technical skills to conduct the wire intercepts, or W/I (eventually simply “Y”) that would feed into Bletchley Park’s analytical machinery. The program of replacing sailors with Wrens was led by Royal Navy officer Freddie Marshall, who by war’s end would marry Elizabeth Agar, one of the Wrens’ earliest recruits. Hore provides details of how the Wrens contributed to major successes, such as the sinking of the German behemoth Battleship Bismarck and preparations for the D-Day invasion within sight of some of their listening posts. The effectiveness of the Wrens in the Y Service eventually led the Royal Navy to deploy several of them to overseas locations in the Mediterranean and Pacific to relay Italian and Japanese transmissions as the war moved east. While domestic assignments for the women were relatively safe, overseas deployments led to significant loss of life among the few hundred who served as Wrens during the war. Most casualties were lost at sea as their ships were torpedoed by enemy submarines and aircraft, the most prominent incident being the sinking of the SS Aguila in August 1941 with all 22 Wrens aboard lost.
The author provides details of the service these women rendered that might otherwise have been lost with their passing but his gossipy delivery and generational propensities often undercut the significance of the role they played. For example, he spends a great deal of time in discussion of uniforms, hats, and the social lives of these young heroes, and far too little on how their signals intelligence fed Bletchley Park’s machinery to contribute to the war effort. Despite the book’s subtitle, apart from a couple of anecdotes, the author largely ignores Churchill’s interactions with the service. Hore’s text also lacks organization as he follows individual Wrens back and forth in time, failing to associate these details with a coherent, overarching narrative. He chronicles individual accounts at the expense of illuminating how the Y Service program contributed to the war effort. These flaws notwithstanding, Bletchley Park’s Secret Source will reward a patient reader with a remarkably intimate view into the lives and times of these hidden heroes.
Anton K. Smith works for the U.S. Department of State and is a member of the Civilian Faculty at the Joint Forces Staff College.
Bletchley Park’s Secret Source: Churchill’s Wrens and the Y Service in World War II (Peter Hore, Greenhill Books, United Kingdom, 2021)