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Women of Intelligence

By Taylor Downing | Posted 13th November 2012, 10:52
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Women of Intelligence: Winning the Second World War with Air Photos
Christine Halsall
The History Press   192 pp   £14.99

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The photo-interpreters based at RAF Medmenham during the Second World War are the unsung heroes of the immensely successful intelligence war. The code breakers at Bletchley Park have taken most of the limelight. Amazon lists 588 books on Bletchley and the unquestionably important work performed there. It lists only four books about Medmenham and the arguably even more important day-to-day intelligence work carried out there. So this new book focusing for the first time on the women who worked at Medmenham is much to be welcomed.

In April 1941, when a large country house on the Thames between Henley and Marlow was requisitioned for photo-intelligence work, about one third of the photo interpreters stationed there were women. When it closed at the end of the war a little over half were women. All photo-interpreters were officers, reflecting the importance of the tasks they were given and their status in intelligence; by comparison, German photo-interpreters were never given officer rank. The women were mostly from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). These WAAF officers not only did identical work to the RAF officers working alongside them, but frequently were put in charge of sections. So male officers had to report to their female bosses. There was complete equality in the work, unique in wartime Britain. Only when it came to pay did this equality break down. WAAF officers, according to Halsall, were paid only two thirds of what their male equivalents were paid.

The work these women did contributed towards every aspect of the war. Photo-interpreters spotted the battleship Bismarck, tracked the construction of every U-boat in German shipyards, analysed and counted the number of aircraft on every Luftwaffe airfield, studied the layout of new war factories, located enemy radar stations along the Atlantic Wall before D-Day and assessed the damage after every bombing raid. The team led by Constance Babington Smith performed one of the greatest intelligence coups of the war in being first to identify the tiny V1 jet propelled missile at Peenemünde on the Baltic.

Women of Intelligence includes a great deal of individual testimony, from written memoirs or oral histories conducted over the years, or from correspondence or interviews with the author. Much of the colour of the book comes from these first hand accounts. Life for women in a military establishment was just as hard as for the men. Pat Peat remembers sharing a Quonset hut heated by a single stove with 15 other women. She was allowed two inches of water in a bath each week and found four other girls to share with so they could pool their supply and enjoy a ‘heavenly’ ten inches of bathwater. Several remarkable characters appear in these pages, such as Dorothy Garrod, the Cambridge archaeologist who before the war had been the first ever female Oxbridge professor. She was particularly good in piecing together the mysteries of what the enemy were up to from only a few fragments of photographic evidence.

But the real heroines of this book are the quiet, hard working and impressive young women from so many varied backgrounds who, when called upon, achieved great success in the intelligence war. Without seeking to stand out in any way, these women of Medmenham made a huge contribution to the Allied success in the Second World War. At last their story has been told.

Taylor Downing is author of Spies in the Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence in World War II (Little, Brown, 2011).


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