Ellie Woodbourne is a mother-wife-teacher-writer who read English and Art History at Nottingham University before turning to church youth work and teaching. Her writing (on the side) includes a seven-year stint on a monthly media and arts column, a published non-fiction title tackling the emotional and spiritual issues surrounding infertility and a YA novel, The Lion That Ate the Future, recently shortlisted for the national UK Creative Arts competition.
This piece is in memory of my great aunt Mary who worked for British Intelligence in Cairo during the North African Campaign of 1940-42, listening to the chatter of German airmen as they attacked Allied positions in Egypt’s Western desert.
Wars are not just fought by men with guns. Women often play significant and strategic roles using skills that can be overlooked in the medals and honours lists. They can be even more dangerous to the enemy than men. Take women like my great aunt Mary, for example. Practical, skilled in languages, fiercely intelligent and working for British Intelligence as a Wireless Listener during Rommel’s North African Campaign of 1940-43, she helped deal a death-blow to the German airmen, to Rommel’s plans as he retreated from Cairo and to Hitler’s ambitions of controlling the Suez Canal. Without her and other dangerous women working alongside her, the war could have proceeded very differently, affecting not just North Africa and Europe but the rest of the world.
There’s a glass of water on the worn wooden table but I don’t trust myself to pick it up. Not with my hands shaking like this.
All I can do is stare at the pale, upside-down, green triangle of the frequency monitor, waiting for the needle to leap into life. Willing it to shake into the patterns of a human voice – to tell me he’s alive.
I’ve not heard him scream before but I’m replaying it in my mind. And I’m sure it was him.
The Bosch chatter started up about fifteen minutes ago, as they took off from the Italian base and flew south. It was all logistics to start with, mostly coded, morse. The others listen for that – the Wireless Intelligence guys. I just cover the normal conversations. The things they say to pass the time.
Sure enough, their conversation broke down into everyday German with some congratulations over a prank someone had played back at base. Something about knocked-off cigarettes, a lady with a reputation and a rainy night. I’m still not familiar with all the dirty everyday slang – they didn’t cover it at college. Anyway, the allied attack must have come from above or below because none of them saw it coming – just BOOM.
He was praying and cursing at the same time. A sickening stream of terror-filled phrases about his sons, his wife. Was he burning? Had bones broken?
I couldn’t tell.
I haven’t heard a live attack like this before. They warned us, now I think about it. They called it ‘Listening For Victory’.
I strain to hear more. I need life but the radio gives me nothing. Just empty hissing, the sound of space. My ears ring, zoning me out, like when I fainted in the heat last summer.
This one was like one of the men in my village back home. He never stopped talking about his boys. The oldest, Lars, is sixteen and doing well at school. A good football player and very good-looking, apparently. The younger two are twins, Christian and Franz – their twelfth birthday has just passed. They send their father drawings of tanks, planes – German models of course. He boasts about them all the time. The accuracy of their markings! The light diffusion on the windscreens! He can’t wait to see them on his next leave.
Couldn’t, I mean. He won’t now, it seems.
I’ve found out a lot about him since I started listening. There is a red bird painted on the side of his Messerschmitt, under the cockpit. He does a unique kind of wing-wiggle to make the others laugh. He’s brought down over thirty enemy aircraft.
I can almost see her face crumpling at the sight of the telegram boy. He talked about her constant letters, the latest annoying thing his mother did, the vegetables she’s still getting from their garden, the difficulties getting new boots and overcoats now that the winter is on its way. He despaired of her tearstains on the writing paper, criticised the way she uses so much paper just to say how much she misses him.
Well, it’s over now.
I look around at the wireless posts around me. The other girls are bent over, bulbous headphones covering their ears, oblivious nuns at prayer. Their hands move quickly on notepads, scratching, taking notes, preparing information that could be useful, that could finish this war.
My own fingers stroke the fresh indentations that I have made, the grey strokes angular and feisty with the vigour and thrust of lively conversation. I’m not sure why but I want these words to continue – for his story to go on.
The static buzzes on, unbreaking. My hands are steady enough to hold the glass of water now. I drain it.
I should be moving on to my next frequency. Filing my notes for my supervisor to analyse and finding the next wave of planes. It’s a constant routine of listening, writing, posting, helping to create pictures and patterns of activity, recording discussion, picking up on the careless words spoken in the adrenaline rush of taking to the skies, seeking out anything that could bring them down.
We never find out how our notes are used but this is our part, our work.
There are other airmen who I like listening to. They are funny, sophisticated, brave. I imagine them talking to me, listening to me for a change. We haven’t got microphones or anything, I couldn’t ever communicate with them. But sometimes I just wish I could be in the same room as them, just to match their voices to a face.
I twist the black dial, trying to find someone else I recognise…