From Bletchley girls to Russian aces: the forgotten women at war

This is real feminist history - work which was unheralded not just because it was top secret, but because women did it.

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The Bletchley Girls
Tessa Dunlop
Hodder & Stoughton, 341pp, £20

Defending the Motherland: the Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler’s Aces
Lyuba Vinogradova; translated by Arch Tait
MacLehose Press, 349pp, £20

“It was astonishing what young women could be trained to do.” There is a note of surprise in the postwar review of the work that went on at Bletchley Park – for decades a site shrouded in secrecy but now known the world over as the place where the Nazis’ “unbreakable” Enigma code was cracked. That astonishment was found, Tessa Dunlop recounts in her lively history, The Bletchley Girls, in a section of the review entitled “Medium- or Low-Grade Labour”, which gives a good idea of the estimation in which most of the women who worked at Bletchley were held. But by 1944, there were three women for every man at Bletchley: women who were crucial to the success of the place but whose stories have barely been told.

This isn’t a book about the female crypt­analysts at Bletchley – and there were some, though the names of Hugh Alexander, Gordon Welchman, Harry Hinsley and Alan Turing have always eclipsed those of Joan Clarke (played by a skittery Keira Knightley in the dismal travesty that was The Imitation Game), Ruth Briggs, Margaret Rock and Mavis Lever. But those women are all dead now and Dunlop was determined to write a book full of living voices: an important task when we are, as far as the Second World War is concerned, approaching the limit of living memory. The youngest of her interviewees, Muriel Dindol, was 86; she was 14 when she went to work at Bletchley; Pamela Rose was 96, the oldest of the women Dunlop found to meet. There are 15 women in this book, their life stories ranging across the English social spectrum; women who worked behind the scenes, often with little idea of what it was exactly that they were doing. This is real feminist history. Their work, which helped win the war, was largely unsung and unheralded and not just because it was top secret. It was because they were women.

There is only one story in this book of the kind of discovery usually associated with code-breaking, in which, late one night in 1943, the young Rozanne Medhurst’s eyes were the first to see the news that Italian torpedo bombers and transport carriers were due to leave Tripoli and head across the Mediterranean into Sicily, in flight after the “desert war” in North Africa. “Imagine the thrill!” she says, looking back. Rozanne is the daughter of Charles Medhurst, a senior officer in the RAF who became air chief marshal after the war.

In September 1944, when it looked as though the Allies might be coming out on top of things, she learned that her brother, Dick, was missing, his plane shot down during “Operation Market Garden”, in which Field Marshal Montgomery attempted to force an entry into Germany across the Lower Rhine. Not long afterwards, she fell under the spell of a Czechoslovakian airman and planned to marry him – until her father discovered that he had a wife already. And she had shaken hands with Hitler, too, before the war, in Italy, when her father was there on a diplomatic mission.

The tales in this book are mostly far less glamorous, though no less fascinating. Cora Jarman worked to identify the settings of the Germans’ Lorenz machine, which was even more sophisticated than the Enigma – but she had no idea what she was doing at the time. Gwen Davies never heard of Enigma in all the time she worked at Bletchley. But in giving us the daily details of their lives – hard toil, bad food, long cycle rides in the dark – in these women’s own voices, Dunlop does them and us a fine service.

In the Soviet Union, on the surface at least, women had long enjoyed greater equality (a million women served in the Red Army on the Eastern Front during the Second World War) but that doesn’t make the stories of those who made up the 586th Fighter Regiment, the 587th Heavy-bomber Regiment and the 588th Regiment of light night bombers any less extraordinary.

As Lyuba Vinogradova recounts in Defending the Motherland, many were inspired and led by Marina Raskova, a beautiful aviatrix and Soviet heroine. Here are the flyers who rose to the defence of Russia during the Second World War: women who cut off their plaits, made lipstick from ground-up pencils and wax and soared through the skies as bravely as any man. In Britain, women did fly, but in the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying unarmed planes from one base to another, as Giles Whittell describes in Spitfire Women of World War II. Vinogradova, who has worked over the years with Antony Beevor (he provides an introduction to this volume), tells the stories of these Russian pilots with verve, even if her style comes across in translation as rather old-fashioned. (Anya Skorobogatova “was just 18 years old, a slip of a girl with a straight nose, thick black hair and lively eyes as blue as forget-me-nots”; Klava Blinova “had light hair, a sweet, young, rosy-cheeked face and big eyes”. There’s quite a lot of this.)

But the substance is remarkable: accounts of a group of women who saw terrible action and met it bravely. They met, too, the equally fearful risks of life in Stalin’s regime; for Raskova was also an agent of the NKVD, the notorious secret service. One of the young pilots here cites a remark by the statesman Nikolai Tikhonov and it’s an epitaph that could stand for all these women, from both Britain and Russia: “Nails should be made out of people like these; the world would not know any stronger.” 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!