Spycraft à la Femme


Amassing intelligence, breaking codes, shortening WWII by three years


For Americans, World War II is regarded as beginning in December 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese bombers, and ending in September 1945, when Japan formally surrendered.


For Europeans, the war many had thought impossible — after the horrors of 1914-1918 — had begun two years earlier than that, in September 1939, when Hitler Germany invaded Poland.


Either way, it was a long slog filled with atrocities, including the discovery of Hitler’s Final Solution and the Holocaust. But what if WWII had gone on longer in Europe? What if it had lasted until 1948?


That the war didn’t drag out three more prolonged years with soaring deaths and misery is due to the efforts of a collection of oddballs and eccentrics – Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “When I told you to leave no stone unturned recruiting for this place, I didn’t expect you to take me literally” – at the nest of spies called Bletchley Park, in England.


When we imagine the perfect spy, it’s James Bond. Cool, good-looking, seductive, cruel. Women falling at his feet. Martinis shaken, not stirred. Yet Bond, James Bond, is a fiction. The truth is that most spying is like most police work. Much of it involves simple drudgery, collecting information and connecting it. Finding links, breaking codes.


You don’t need to own a gun or be male to do that. Most of Bletchley Park’s spies did not. They were not.


That’s right, most of the people who helped end WWII three years early were female.


They were sworn to secrecy. None of the 12,000 people working in intelligence at Bletchley could tell families or friends what they were doing. Sometimes, this resulted in injustice. If a healthy man or woman was not obviously in uniform or doing identifiable work for the war effort, they must be shirking. Bletchley employees were hassled, harassed on public transport, insulted. Women working overnight at Bletchley contended with landladies’ opinions that ranged from “no better than she ought to be” to “she’s a tart”.


On they worked, examining codes, aerial photographs, maps. They looked for trends and patterns of language, troop movements, anniversaries. They made reports and suggestions and innumerable cups of tea.


After the war, the codebreakers and intelligence gatherers returned to life outside the Park gates. Some made a splash in their fields. Others led rather more ordinary lives. For some, the pressure cooker of Bletchley was welcome to stay in the past tense. Still others found post-War life too conventional, and its strictures – Britain still had rationing – confining.


In 2001, a film was made that used Bletchley Park as a setting. Enigma is a fine film. It does, however, concentrate on male codebreakers, even though women outnumbered them four-to-one.


Now, eleven years later, comes “The Bletchley Circle”. A televised series, it wonders what might have happened had some of the female codebreakers “dusted off their wartime intelligence skills to try to stop a serial killer” in 1951 Britain, according to the Telegraph.


Agatha Christie’s beloved Miss Marple made her discoveries using her extensive knowledge of human behavior and excellent guesswork. (Christie based Marple on her own mother and grandmother, both of whom possessed more than a tad of clairvoyance.) These women have those, but they also have skills and experience. They work together as a team, as well, and the ability to use and hone their wartime talents brings an exciting edge to lives that are, intellectually, relaxed.


Who would not welcome the chance to use whip-sharp abilities for good? Instead of battalions of thousands, there is one criminal – and a quartet of women who, outside the bounds of the traditional police force, are determined to track him down.


Imagine how such women, post-Bletchley, could have aided UK police forces. Instead, their skills were largely wasted. As are others’, today.


Memo to spymasters: After you spend your time and our money training people, make sure they can use their skills after they retire. Solving crimes, identifying wasted resources, examining trends. Just because they’re retired doesn’t mean they’re past it.

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Filed under Bletchley Park, Codebreaking, Spycraft, Telegraph

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