Sunday, 19 October 2014

The WOYGians of Beaumanor

I'm currently reading The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay, which is about the operations of War Office Y Group (known as WOYG) during the 2nd World War. The department were wireless interceptors who listened in on German (and other enemy) radio transmissions and took down coded messages for deciphering. Mostly these transmissions were sent to Bletchley Park. The story of the code breakers at Bletchley Park and their cracking of the Enigma machine codes is now very well known, but the wireless interceptors are still mostly unknown. If you don't know about Bletchley Park you can read about it here.

The wireless interceptors had the less glamorous job of working long shifts writing down morse code messages. The messages would be difficult to hear over crackly transmissions and would be seemingly random batches of letters. Despite this, accuracy was extremely important if the codes were to be broken. Other times the interceptor would be sat listening to static for hours on end waiting for transmissions.

There were a number of more psychological difficulties with the job as well. Due to the top secret nature of the work, mostly the interceptors didn't know whether the information they were passing on was of any use. Was it being deciphered? Did it say anything helpful? The monotony of the work without obvious results would have been hard. Also, for the young men who were serving as civilians at WOYG, they also had the societal pressure of the secrecy. They couldn't tell anyone what they were doing (even their families) and the sight of healthy young men out of uniform was generally met with disapproval. In actual fact, the members of WOYG were specifically selected for the service based on certain skills they had such as knowing morse code or being an amateur radio enthusiast. Even after the war had ended they couldn't talk about what they had done. It now seems to be generally accepted by historians that the code breakers shortened the war by approximately two years, but many of the staff will have received little or no recognition of this during their lifetimes.

My grandfather was one of these interceptors and was based at the largest of the sites in Beaumanor, a country house in Leicestershire. It seems he was actually quite lucky. In McKay's book he describes Beaumanor as having lots of gossip about romances, but that it was very rare any of these relationships lasted and ended in marriage. My grandfather was an exception. My grandma worked as a runner at Beaumanor, taking messages from the huts in the grounds up to the main site to be sent to Bletchley Park. They were married in 1945 and this must have made things much easier for my grandfather as he continued working for the department after the war as well. Whilst he wouldn't have been able to tell my grandma exactly what he was doing, she would at least have understood why and had a general idea of the importance of it - something that many of the interceptors' spouses would not have had.

Beaumanor seems to have been one of the happier sites with a wealth of activities and clubs and a sense of belonging amongst the staff, who referred to themselves as WOYGians. I know that after the war, when my grandfather was posted to Famagusta in Cyprus, my dad remembers there being a lot of parties and socialising - especially fancy dress parties, which my grandfather excelled at, coming up with spectacularly creative costumes.

There is another book which is specifically about Beaumanor (the McKay book covers bases all over the world) which I would really like to read but it's out of print and I can't find a copy of it under £100! Hopefully I will stumble across a cheaper copy somewhere. It's called England Needs You by Joan Nicholls.

Another great source of information is the Garats Hay website which has information about the Y Services including photographs and histories.

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