Magazine article The Spectator

An Exhausting Mixture of Boredom and Concentration

Magazine article The Spectator

An Exhausting Mixture of Boredom and Concentration

Article excerpt

The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay Aurum, £20, pp. 354, ISBN 9781845137632

The wartime code-breaking successes of Bletchley Park are deservedly well known.

The story of how they decrypted German and Japanese codes, most famously the Enigma, has been the subject of histories, novels and films, so much so that Bletchley is glamour. Much less well known, however, and much less glamorous - rarely even thought about - is the story of how those clever cryptologists got the coded radio signals they worked on. Where did their daily and nightly fodder come from? It certainly wasn't from sticking an aerial in the attic and waiting to see what came out of it.

The signals Bletchley decoded came from the Y Service (Y for wireless, a useful wartime confusion), a worldwide network of listening stations manned mostly by very young men and women who manually transcribed enemy signals and sent them back to Bletchley. Many were still in their teens, having been recruited via IQ and aptitude tests from schools, the armed forces and the ranks of amateur radio enthusiasts. You had to be young to transcribe German or Japanese high speed morse at 28 words per minute in 8-12-hour-shifts day and night for months on end, often without leave for long periods and in very uncomfortable conditions.

Operators in mobile field units often had to write with one hand while keeping the other on the tuning knob as the set would drift off frequency; some could handle two sets at once. As with high pressure screen and keyboard skills today, at 30 most people were past it.

Although focusing little on how and by whom the Y Service was run, McKay pays welcome tribute to the formative work of MI6's Richard Gambier-Parry, an overlooked figure who designed, established and effectively ran the high-level communications networks on which military commanders and government depended, including Bletchley (also run by MI6). McKay's focus is rather on the personal experiences of the individual Y Service operators, hence his book is largely anecdotal - but none the worse for it, since it brings home not only the reality of what these people were doing but also the daily privations endured with remarkable resilience by so many in that war.

For the girls and boys from ordinary homes throughout the country, it was a lifechanging experience. …

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