As we were choosing the books for the 2020 reading list, Vel asked me to suggest a book, in which the focus rested on the role of women in society throughout the decades. To make it even more interesting, I pitched her the idea of comparing the lives and roles of women in the 40s in the UK and in Bulgaria. I decided to go with the 40s, because it was a time of great turmoil and uncertainty. Hardship brings out a person’s character and in the 40s, women in society suddenly became more active and their contribution was more visible.
Anne Glyn-Jones’ Morse Code Wrens of Station X is an autobiographical account of her life as a Royal Navy Wren and an interceptor during WWII. Although WWII is a serious topic and much has been written about it, only very recently historians touch upon the subject of Station X. Even fewer focus on the day-to-day life of those stationed in Bletchley Park or those who helped them intercept enemy intel. Anne Glyn-Jones’ account is light-hearted and peppered with humour at times. She reminisces about school life, her choice to become a Wren and the responsibilities she had as part of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).
What Does a WWII Wren Do?
There was a certain point in time when even those who have enrolled in the WRNS weren’t sure what was in the scope of their duties and responsibilities. Most of the girls who applied had a very romantic view of the navy life. That is, until it was time to be drafted. Along with many of the “luxuries” one might enjoy at home, such as fresh drinking water, soap and even sanitary products, the Wrens also had to deal with bedbugs and rats on top of not getting detected and/or killed. Just like any other commissioned service person. Eventually those who were stationed at home also had to deal with the realities of bomb raids and leaving everything behind just to get to a shelter as quickly as possible. Having to adjust your daily routine to the sounds you might hear of a bomb flying overhead or waiting to hear for the complete silence, once its engine shuts off, so that the bomb can fall on its target, is something most of us find unfathomable. However, this is a reality for many around the world who still suffer the consequences of someone else’s war.
Wrens could choose from different appointments and in Anne Glyn-Jones’ case, she followed the path of the telegraphist. Her job was primarily to intercept and record enemy chat transmissions. I found it quite interesting how Wrens differentiated signals from various countries, and even vessels, depending on how the operators started their transmission. Reading about the Wrens’ struggles to translate Japanese hiragana through Japanese Morse code and then Latin Morse code brought me back to my university days, when I studied interpretation for a few semesters. I feel that a telegraphist’s job is similar to an interpreter – you have to listen to specific sound patterns and jot down/vocalise your understanding of the transmission without much delay. Both jobs are very taxing on the mind and the body. That’s why I can’t imagine doing what Glyn-Jones did because war would add another dimension of fear and anxiety to an already stressful task.
Some Interesting Points
There were a few things, which popped up in my mind while I was reading, that I would like to share. It was refreshing to see Glyn-Jones’ family was supportive of her decision to join the WRNS, despite “all the effort people had made” for Anne. Her father was a forward thinker who respected her wishes and supported her in any way possible. Not only because she was an only child, but because as a Royal Service man himself, he understood her sense of duty. Ultimately, Glyn-Jones returned to Oxford to continue her studies, but her Wren life had equipped her with knowledge and experience most universities cannot provide.
Glyn-Jones’ narrative also reminded me of Catch 22, especially when it came to communication with the upper levels of the Admiralty. Everyone knows how infuriating bureaucracy can be, but only selected people know how hard it is to prove that two statements are true at the same time. Basically, Schrödinger’s administration. In the author’s case, she had to prove she is an existing and active member of the WRNS, and her contributions to the war effort have more than earned her a promotion. But what first made me think of Catch 22 was, non-surprisingly, the mention of drills and parades.
Morse Code Wrens of Station X is an enjoyable, easy and informative read, which I feel more people should read. Much details are yet to be uncovered about the work done by Station X and Station Y members. However, stories about their day-to-day life also shed light on how ordinary and service people coped with the horrors of WWII. I would recommend the book to anyone who is interested in first-person war accounts, which do not focus so much on the war itself, but rather on the personal experiences and memories of that time.
Morse Code Wrens of Station X is the recount of Anne Glyn-Jones’ service in the British Royal Navy in the early 1940s as a telegraphist tasked with intercepting enemy morse code messages with the aim to aid the location of the feared and elusive German U-Boats. As she explains, for years she wanted to leave an account of what life was like for a Wren, and after multiple enquiries to lift some of the restrictions placed upon her by the government which bind her to silence in order to avoid the divulgence of military secrets to the open public and political enemies. At long last, Glyn-Jones was allowed to write down her memories and share them with whoever was there to read them. Throughout the account, there is little she shares in terms of actual messages she has intercepted and transcribed, the few she does share are of little consequence, yet provide a glimpse into the wider world at the time.
I expected this book to be a much heavier read than it proved to be. Instead, it was a recount of the author’s life and daily going-ons during her service, which provided a big insight into British society and the navy at the time. As I was reading through I felt as if I had sat down with Glyn-Jones and she was recounting her story for me over a cup of coffee – like old friends would. She would mention the smallest things – how her bell trousers felt, or how sitting on the deck of a ship with no chairs in sight was, but at the same time she kept things brief – no overly long explanations of scenery or people, no philosophical or moral debates, but an open retelling of how things were.
This mixture of details and brevity, of forwardness and leaving things unsaid, along with the author’s jovial and personable tone pulled me close and kept me engaged, wanting to learn more about her and from her. I could sense something I think of as detachment from the events which she was writing about, though I would attribute that to her writing her account years after the events took place, and there was an unmistakable fondness in her memories.
Many things left an impression on me as I was reading, one of which was the way the author saw her role as a woman both in the navy and in society. Glyn-Jones is raised with the knowledge she will one day be a mother and look after a home and a family, that she will have duties towards a man, just like she has duties towards her country. This is an inevitability she does not even question – society has a role for her, and she fulfils it with barely a thought. I remember thinking how such an acceptance of a predetermined course must alleviate much of the angst I have felt growing up trying to figure out how I view myself and where I fit in.
The chasm between her mindset and mine grew deeper and wider when Duncan was introduced – a close friend and a romantic interest for her during her service in Gibraltar. The differences in their class and religion prove to be too much for her family to accept, and needless to say, I found the very consideration of such trivialities (to me) over her happiness with him confounding. We are both products of our generations, and reading through this book awarded me with many insights into what was lost and gained over the years.
Mentions of equal rights and equal pay were dotted throughout the book as something external – in the papers, word of mouth, and were not something I was left with the impression the author concerned herself with much. In a similar vein, Glyn-Jones mentions that when she was stationed in Gibraltar she felt profound tiredness and dissatisfaction in her role. Still, her friends and herself continued to go to dance with the soldiers, because if they didn’t go, who would boost their morale? It puzzled me how comfortable she was to be used and use herself in such a way, and don’t get me wrong – I find nothing shameful in her actions at all. I am merely saying, that had I been in her place, some well earned rest would be my bigger priority.
After a few years on land, Glyn-Jones is deployed to Gibraltar. Her voyage there seemed like the stuff of nightmares to me – firstly, she describes the small room packed with bunk beds and a mattress on the floor as swarming with cockroaches, so that when you sleep on the mattress, they swarm all over you. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to deal with cockroaches in your bedroom, but I can assure you, it is revolting. I could never trust myself to fall asleep after I’d seen one for the fear of having one on me, or, gods forbid, enter my ear or nose, was just too great.
Glyn-Jones further confesses that later on in their journey, they had to sleep under guard, as some of the men would get way too drunk to behave properly. This she takes in her stride, much like she does with the cockroaches mentioned above. A truly strong spirited person, and I admire her just for that.
There was another threat during their voyage, which I initially struggled to comprehend fully, and I don’t think I ever will feel it the way someone who has been in such a situation can. Every day and night, they were under the constant fear of the U-boats. For me, U-boats are some distant, almost fictional evil monster – and yes, I have seen pictures and read about the devastation they can cause, but that didn’t make them anything other than abstract tools of war for me. When I was reading the author’s recount of her journey though, the concept of an enemy you cannot see, hear or detect before it’s too late being right underneath you became a lot more clear in my mind. Worse, the knowledge that there is nothing you can personally do to prevent a potential attack would have almost crippled me.
Vermin, leery soldiers, U-boats? And that doesn’t even begin to cover the horrors of more modern warfare. *shivers*
During her deployment, and during the time until her release from active duty, Glyn-Jones takes off her rose-tinted glasses; bitterness and cynicism start to creep up in her outlook towards the Royal Navy and its bureaucratic ways. After extended problems with wages, lost paychecks, skipped promotions, and others, she finally resorts to writing a letter, in a typical British fashion.
Morse Code Wrens of Station X was a greatly enjoyable read for me. I loved the frank and forward writing style, which painted a clear and complex picture of what life was like for Glyn-Jones in her time with the British Royal Navy. I rarely read literature outside fiction, as I find documentaries heavy and cumbersome, somehow making the subject less interesting than before I started reading, but this was not the case with this book. Quite the opposite – it has made me want to read further about what life was like in previous decades in the words of people who have been there, rather than historians or researchers.