World War II was the last war in which whole populations were engaged in the struggle. Because the military required a large part of the male population to fill the combat ranks, women were called on in large numbers to fill support positions and keep industry functioning. Most Americans are familiar with “Rosie the Riveter” and film clips of hundreds of women working in factories. But many do not realize the vital contributions made by women who worked primarily with their intellect.
I was reminded of the critical role of women in WWII while reading last Sunday’s Washington Post. The paper prominently featured the obituary of 92-year-old Mavis Batey nee Lever, one of the many women who worked at the “Government Code and Cipher School,” at Bletchley Park. Perhaps the best-kept secret of WWII, Bletchley Park was where Allied codebreakers deciphered and read the most secret radio signals of the German High Command. For most of the war, Allied leaders knew exactly what the Germans planned to do ahead of time. Some historians believe that victory in the Battle of Britain hinged on the fact that RAF commanders knew
Luftwaffe bombing targets and schedules the night before.
Mavis Lever was recruited directly out of university for this top-secret work. Her fluency with the nuisances of the German language proved a priceless asset not only in translation but also in the codebreaking itself. She is credited with predicting Italian naval movements in the Battle of Matapan, allowing Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet to savage Mussolini’s battle fleet. She also was instrumental in convincing Hitler that the Normandy Invasion was a feint.
The counterplot in my novel, Fall Eagle One, is set at Bletchley Park. The American protagonist is a German-speaking lawyer who performs essentially the same work as Ms. Lever. He works directly for an Englishwoman, an officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Somewhat like a police procedure novel, I explain how Bletchley Park functioned. The plans and orders of my German protagonist’s secret unit are laid bare to allied commanders, but they do not discern that the German mission is to kill FDR.
Intelligence was not the only field in which women worked with their brains. Both the RAF and Luftwaffe filled their air defense control centers with women. Those who have seen the movie, The Battle of Britain, will recall that WAAF personnel almost exclusively staffed the sector stations shown in the film. Nurses saved the lives of countless military combatants of all countries. Women also contributed in many logistics positions.
When we remember the “greatest Generation” and its achievements, we must always remember that not only the men beat the Axis. Countless women contributed their brains and their brawn to final victory.