The Enemy is Listening

Aileen Clayton’s The Enemy is Listening (1980) is part personal memoir and part history of the RAF Y Service in Great Britain and the Mediterranean. The Y Service was the RAF’s contribution to the interception of enemy radio signals, and Clayton was one of the first operators for the service’s program intercepting voice transmissions (in British parlance, voice transmissions were Radio Telephony, or R/T; Morse code transmissions were Wireless Telegraphy, or W/T). R/T intercepts were valuable during the Battle of Britain because they offered immediate information on German operations as or before they happened. But, as The Enemy is Listening describes, R/T interception overlapped with many other aspects of the intelligence war: Bletchley Park and the breaking of Enigma, radar and non-communication signals like guidance beams and navigational beacons, and communications security. Clayton makes it clear that Allied signals security was often lousy, and that her German counterparts must have been gathering an awful lot of information on Allied air activity.

The cover of my Ballantine edition tags Clayton as “the first woman in British history to be commissioned as an intelligence officer.” R/T interception in Great Britain was, from almost the first moment, almost exclusively staffed by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Clayton lavishes her WAAFs with praise from the very first, but she has very little good to say about the administrative staff of the service. Sent out from Great Britain to Egypt at the end of 1941 to help set up a R/T intercept network in the Middle East, she clashed time and time again with the service’s restrictions on how close to the front and how independently a WAAF could operate in the field.

Sadly, the book cuts off with the end of the Anzio landings and Clayton’s transfer back to Great Britain in 1944. Still it makes for an interesting read, and one that puts a remarkable amount of interesting context into a personal wartime story.

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