"This is a quietly important book. It should be recommended reading on a school history syllabus, because this is history as it was really lived. "
Memoir / WRENS
Anne Glyn- Jones opens up the secret world of the interceptors of German Morse Code signals during World War II. Leaving her girls' boarding school with romantic ideas about joining the navy as a Wren, Anne had no idea that she would be working for the mysterious 'Station X', which we now know to be Bletchley Park.
This is a quietly important book. It should be recommended reading on a school history syllabus, because this is history as it was really lived. The book is important to me, as well, in two other aspects: firstly, it helps explain why the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared ‘You’ve never had it so good’ towards the end of the 1950s; and why my parents’ generation, who were involved in the WWII as what we now call ‘teenagers’, became so annoyed with my hippy generation. Compared with what people during the 1940s, and by extension everyone, wherever they lived, had to contend with – truly, we don’t know how lucky we are.
Anne Glyn-Jones, now aged 94, has written a very personal memoir of her experiences of war time service. The book opens in a light-hearted manner with her schoolgirl attempts to join the Navy and see Action and the World. Joining the Wrens means losing a coveted place at Oxford, but she gets what she wanted: to do something useful in the war. We see her rude awakening to what it means to be in uniform as she and her fellow Wrens, many from equally sheltered backgrounds, discover some harsh realities. Not being allowed to wear nail varnish disappears from their list of complaints very quickly.
Within a very short time, they are on twelve-hour shifts, surviving on a constant diet of beetroot sandwiches (and not enough of them), then they are posted to Gibraltar, where shifts involve twenty-four hour turnarounds and being unable to sleep while off-duty because they are on floor pallets in a hut where other people are working, where rats run free, and where robber apes steal whatever they can lay their hands on. All this told with ironic humour so that despite being appalled at what they were asked to do – expected to do – one laughs at their experiences. Laughs with them, I should say, because it is impossible not to admire Anne Glyn-Jones and her fellow telegraphists.
Could I learn to understand German Morse code signals, then master the 70+ signals for Japanese? I seriously doubt it. And certainly not without a good night’s sleep.
As well as providing fascinating insights into the daily scramble for military intelligence, we learn that these Wrens were constantly overlooked and failed to get the promotion they deserved; that their pay was not only inadequate for their basic needs, they often didn’t get paid at all; that their essential part in helping to end the war in both Europe and the Far East was not recognised until 2009, when Gordon Brown sent them a certificate.
The final ‘good thing’ about this book, however, is the way it is written. I have never read such an absorbing, beautifully written memoir, which just adds to why I believe this book should be recommended reading.
© J.G. Harlond
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