Non-fiction Review: Codebreaker Girls, by Jan Slimming

book coverOverview

“What would it be like to keep a secret for fifty years? Never telling your parents, your children, or even your husband?”

Codebreaker Girls: A Secret Life at Bletchley Park tells the true story of Daisy Lawrence. Following extensive research, the author uses snippets of information, unpublished photographs and her own recollections to describe scenes from her mother’s poor, but happy, upbringing in London, and the disruptions caused by the outbreak of the Second World War to a young woman in the prime of her life.

The author asks why, and how, Daisy was chosen to work at the Government war station, as well as the clandestine operation she experienced with others, deep in the British countryside, during a time when the effects of the war were felt by everyone. In addition, the author examines her mother’s personal emotions and relationships as she searches for her young fiancée, who was missing in action overseas. The three years at Bletchley Park were Daisy’s university, but having closed the door in 1945 on her hidden role of national importance — dealing with Germany, Italy and Japan — this significant period in her life was camouflaged for decades in the filing cabinet of her mind. Now her story comes alive with descriptions, original letters, documents, newspaper cuttings and unique photographs, together with a rare and powerful account of what happened to her after the war.

Review

Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own.

There are two good reasons why I wanted to read this book. Firstly, I became interested in Bletchley Park (BP) when I learned that my grandfather had apparently worked there during the war. This is a man I know little about because he died before I was born. Secondly, I recently finished a fiction series set during World War One at the forerunner to BP; Room 40 at the Old Admiralty Building in London. Because Codebreaker Girls is about the women who were at BP, the author’s mother in particular, I didn’t expect it to reveal much about my grandfather’s life, but it promised to tell me something about the people who did work there.

Codebreaker Girls starts with Daisy’s early years in south London, leaving at school at 14 to go to work wasn’t unusual. She had a good grasp of mathematics, which enabled her to move from a shop floor job to a clerical one. Since the other side of my family is also from south London, this gave me an insight into how their lives might’ve been like in the time between the two wars. Readers learn how she met her fiancée and how he proposed to her. From there, we read how both became involved in the war. Stan joined up to fight, and she found herself at Bletchley Park and signing the Official Secrets Act.

Mixed in with the story of BP – and the processes involved with breaking codes, much of which went over my head – is the story of how Daisy and thousands of other people attempted to discover what happened to their friends and family members after the fall of Singapore. The Japanese offered little, if any, information about the soldiers they captured, and Stan’s daughter offers an explanation that the Japanese didn’t understand the notion of surrender and how families might want to have news of those who did so. There’s also information about rationing, and a short section on how Daisy’s nieces and nephew were evacuated away from the capital.

The most harrowing part of the book, however, looks at Daisy’s life post war. Trapped by secrets she couldn’t share, and a husband who didn’t know – and could never know – what she did while he was trapped behind enemy lines, her mental state changed. Because of the secrecy, those who worked at Bletchley Park weren’t properly acknowledged. They couldn’t receive the medals and accolades that those in uniform were rightly awarded. Daisy received recommendation letters stating she’d done important war work, but she couldn’t explain to any employer what she’d done. This is perhaps the crux of the book. Her daughter shares how there was no support for British non-military after the war, and how it took over 50 years for these vital workers received acknowledgement. Even now, only those still living received that when it came in 2009. That excluded Daisy, who’d died a couple of years previously.

It also excluded my grandfather, who died in 1975 aged 51. And this is where Codebreaker Girls hit me personally, and I began to understand the man a little more. I’ve heard that he was a drinker, that he could be abusive, and that he died of a heart attack. Other members of his family state that he was a kind man, who took great care of his younger siblings. They looked to him as a hero. What was the truth? I know the answer was probably a bit of both. But this book asked questions that I hadn’t thought about before. If Daisy suffered through not being able to share, how much more so my grandfather? He couldn’t have explained how he, a young man, never wore a uniform and never fought alongside his peers. Did he feel the pressure, and the guilt of not being on the front lines, of surviving when other men didn’t? How did others treat him? Did he lose respect once it was known that he was a civilian? Add in a rough home life, both before and after the war, and I’m beginning to understand him. It doesn’t excuse some of his behavior as described to me, but it does explain some of it.

I didn’t go looking for my grandfather in this book, but Jan Slimming’s book was an eye-opening experience. I think it’s vital reading for not only the children or grandchildren who did work of importance during the war, but for everyone. Our culture places a high sense of importance on our veterans, and rightly so in most cases, but we can’t ignore the civilians who worked behind the scenes. When we offer discounts at restaurants and other places for those who served in uniform, are we doing a disservice to those who worked just as hard to ensure that those in the military had all they needed to fight? My other grandfather was exempt from fighting as well: not only was he diabetic, but he was in a protected occupation and made lenses (which are useful for gun sights). Should he also be ignored? Without the likes of Daisy and my grandfathers, would the outcome of World War Two have been the same?

Rating

5/5

Product Information

Publisher: Pen & Sword Books

Publication Date: 03 March 2021

Information

Pages: 352

About Sally M

I'm all about books, history, rail trails, craft beer and wine, and dogs! I'm a Partner with Trades of Hope: my paid job empowers women around the world out of poverty, helping them raise their families, and rebuild their lives after abuse and human trafficking.
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