REVIEW BY COLIN POMEROY
With The Women Behind the Few, Sarah-Louise Miller has produced a truly excellent book telling the story of women in multiple roles during the Second World War. The book actually begins with the Great War, with Miller showing how the then-widespread male prejudice against employing women on duties that involved intellect and secrecy was totally incorrect.
As she does throughout the book, the author quotes men in senior positions making disparaging comments on the ability of women to undertake secret work in a variety of fields, only to be proved completely wrong, and often apologising later.
Miller begins by telling of the formation of the women’s services – the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), and the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) during the 1914-1918 conflict. Women in these organisations progressed, mainly by necessity, from carrying out domestic tasks to those of a more technical nature. She describes the individual bravery of the nurse Edith Cavell and others, and the compelling story of women in the foreign intelligence agencies SIS (later MI6) and the domestic MI5.
But the majority of the book focuses on the Second World War. As the Battle of Britain approached in the summer of 1940, the Dowding System of radar-sites, the Fighter Command Filter rooms, and Group and Sector Operations Rooms, augmented by visual reports from the Observer Corps (later Royal Observer Corps), proved an efficient organisation ready to battle the Luftwaffe in the skies over the English Channel. Its victory was seminal in the cancellation of Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s planned invasion of Great Britain.
Miller reminds readers of how extremely useful the WAAFs were throughout the Battle of Britain (‘far more dexterous and speedy than the men’), often working at radar-sites and at fighter airfields, where they were at great risk from enemy action. Even when under attack, they continued to work courageously. Many WAAFs were subsequently promoted to senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) status, while some were even commissioned. In other words, women were very much part of Britain’s ‘finest hour’.
Next, the book covers women’s involvement in the highly secret Y Service, the organisation tasked with obtaining both short- and long-term intelligence by the monitoring of enemy radio transmissions in plain language and code.
The WAAFs carrying out this vital work toiled in cramped conditions, which in turn were often in vulnerable locations. They once again overcame the sexist bias against them to prove their merit as they passed on information to the Dowding System and the Government Code and Cypher School, the cover name for Bletchley Park. Sadly, many of the records of the Y Service no longer exist.
When thinking of the war-winning work of Bletchley, the names of mathematical geniuses such as Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman immediately spring to mind. But their work would not have been possible without the support of the members of all three women’s services, with the WRNS filling the largest number of posts. As in the Y Service, Miller tells us that 75% of the staff were female, and subject to the very strictest secrecy arrangements.
The Bomber Command offensive became a more integral part of the nation’s war effort as the war years passed, and here the female support staff were again a truly vital element of its success, working in intelligence, briefings and debriefings, chart-processing, photographic interpretation, and other fields.
All these activities supported the brave aircrews on operations, including the ‘thousand-bomber’ raids on German cities in the summer of 1942, and the legendary Operation Chastise, or ‘Dambuster’ attack, in May the following year.
Again, the levels of secrecy (especially with regards to Chastise) were extreme, and placed a heavy load on the shoulders of the young WAAFs. But it was imperative work. As the author states, ‘the collection and dissemination of information and its incorporation into Bomber Command’s operational planning proved critical to the war effort and eventual Allied victory in 1945’.
In the chapter entitled ‘A Bird’s Eye View’, Miller goes into fascinating detail on the topic of photographic reconnaissance, where the obtaining and interpretation of photographs was very similar in nature to the work of the Y Service, with women again at the forefront of the highly skilled labour undertaken. Unusually, at the Central Intelligence Unit (CIU) at RAF Medmenham there was no sexual bias against the women photographic interpreters, known as PIs. For once they were accepted as equals.
Miller tells of the model-making section at the CIU, and its importance in producing detailed scale replicas as planning aids before attacks such as on the Bruneval radar station in February 1942 (Operation Biting), the Allied invasion of French North Africa in November the same year, and in the attempts to sink the German battleship Tirpitz. The Medmenham PIs also played a major role in the lead-up to D-Day, with more than 8.5 million photographs analysed as part of the preparations.
Another achievement of the PIs at Medmenham, particularly credited to Constance Babington Smith, was the recognition of the V-1 rocket-launching sites at Peenemünde on the Baltic Coast and later near to Calais. These discoveries enabled Bomber Command successfully to damage these sites and reduce the number of V-1s fired at the United Kingdom.
Later in the book, Miller moves away from the uniformed world to discuss the presence of women from all three services in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), relating their magnificent bravery in clandestine operations on the mainland of Europe as wireless operators, couriers, and agents. The individual stories quoted truly bring home their valour and effectiveness, and are very moving to read, especially as many of these heroines were killed by the Gestapo after being captured.
The Women Behind the Few is a tribute to those who devoted their wartime years – and youth – to serving the nation and who overcame, as Miller puts it, ‘prejudice, endured social ostracism and sexism on a daily basis and [who] smashed stereotypes with a clear ability to do what was required but not expected of them’. Well said. This book is a great read, and I highly commend it.
The Women Behind the Few: the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and British Intelligence during the Second World War
Biteback Publishing, hbk (£25)