A Family in Wartime

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On Monday I went to the newly re-opened Imperial War Museum on a top secret spy mission (well if you insist upon living in reality – a job interview). Afterwards I decided to take a look around some of the fabulous new galleries and exhibits. I was on quite a tight schedule and the queue for the First World War galleries was rather long, so I took a look in the A Family in Wartime section. The domestic aspects of the Second World War are something that I have always found fascinating and humbling. The changes on the Home Front that emerged as a result of war created a mesh across the country which conected everyone. I love the organisations that were proactive at this time such as the WVS and local community groups. However, I know it wasn’t all tea dances and victory rolls. I remember asking my grandmother if she ever went to any dances during the war and she just said, ‘no, we were all too tired’. I think this speaks volumes about the realities of war for some, beyond those aspects which are largely popularised by American representations of the 1940s.

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So, A Family in Wartime was right up my street (excuse the pun). The exhibit is centred on the Allpress family who lived in Stockwell during the war. There were ten children in the family, most of whom were adults by 1939, with some living away from the family home. All had different experiences of the war and these stories form the narrative of the exhibit. The centrepiece however is a beautiful model replica of their house, complete with furniture and soft furnishings and even an Anderson shelter in the back garden. This is a wonderful exhibition that really (again excuse the pun) brings home the realities of war for families in Britain at this time. There are several mock rooms displaying the paraphernalia of domestic life and the obviously labour intensive procedures many of them required. I overheard an older man describing to a boy, who I presume to be his grandson, what the mangle was and how he had one in his kitchen as a child.

There’s also an Anderson shelter that you can sit in and experience what would have assuredly have been the claustrophobia-inducing space.

SJKXFThe hoarding boards were decorated with pretty dress patterns.

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There’s much more to be discovered at the new IWM and I’ll certainly have to take a few trips down to take it all in. Then again if I get that job I’ll have all the time in the world, when I’m not doing my top secret spy stuff obviously.

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Archaeologists Assemble!

As some of you will be aware I am currently completing my MA in Archaeology. Adorning my department walls is an ever changing carnival of posters for multiple and varied conferences, lectures and projects covering a broad spectrum of historical and archaeological research interests. I’m not going to lie, most are pretty darn niche. However today I spotted one that I thought looked really interesting and was thoroughly deserving of a bit of a shout out.

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As we all know this year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. I have already mentioned the great ‘Letter to an Unknown Solider’ project that I took part in recently (and you can too!). However this year The Council for British Archaeology are also commemorating the War by launching a four year project (2014-2018) exploring the effects of the First World War in Britain through previously unrecorded sites. The Home Front Legacy Project is asking you to get involved by letting them know about sites in your area which are historically valuable to the story of the First World War in Britain. This is your chance to flex your archaeologist elbow. But don’t worry, you don’t need to be experienced in the field or even get muddy. Much of archaeological work, which isn’t for some reason documented in Indiana Jones, is recording evidence (like a detective I like to think, which is equally as cool). Archaeology is a destructive process and so we replace what we remove with accurate records to preserve the site for future study. This model of recording is what the CBA are asking us all to do. They provide all of the tools needed on their website (along with a much more thorough brief than I have sketched out). The website will also serve as a repository for the information and will develop a UK wide map plotting newly discovered sites. The data will also be shared across multiple archaeological agencies and submitted to local councils to ensure that First World War sites are considered in any future planning decisions. Very cool indeed.

The sites could be anything, from requisitioned buildings, military sites or even documentary evidence such as photographs and letters.

I think this is a fabulous opportunity to preserve our relatively recent local history in a synthesised way and to ensure it doesn’t disappear over time.

Also I just really love doing detective work.

Follow the project on Twitter too @homefrontlegacy

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A Tribute to Mavis Batey

I wanted to take a short break from the usual run of things on this blog to pay tribute to Mavis Batey who passed away on the 12th Nov, rather touchingly, during Remembrance Week.

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Mavis Lever was born in south London in 1921 and as a teenager managed to persuade her parents to take her on holiday to the Rhineland. From this experience she became interested in the German Romantic Poets and went on to study German at UCL. She was still there when war broke out and at the age of 19 she tried to become a nurse to help with the war effort. She was informed however that her German language skills could be of greater service to her country than her nursing. In a quote which sounds uncannily like something I would say Mavis describes her feelings about her new job…

‘So, I thought, great, this is going to be an interesting job, Mata Hari, seducing Prussian officers. But I don’t think either my legs or my German were good enough because they sent me to the Government Code & Cipher School’.

She worked in The Cottage of Bletchley Park with Dilly Knox, the genius if entirely unconventional cryptanalyst who had been breaking codes since WW1 and who now headed the team trying to crack the Italian Naval signal. Mavis credited Knox with encouraging her to think laterally and independently. There were no rules or guidebooks for the work they were doing, it was all new and as such ‘you had to work it all out for yourself from scratch’.

And work it out she did because in March 1941 Mavis broke into the Italian Naval system and read a message that stated, ‘today’s the day minus three’. In characteristically modest tones Batey later said, ‘why they had to say that I can’t imagine, it seems rather daft but they did’. They spent the next three days ceaselessly decoding messages trying desperately to gather more information. Mavis worked through the days and nights with no sleep and fuelled merely by tar-like black coffee. Eventually a message came in which described at length the details of a planned attack on a Royal Navy supply convoy in the Mediterranean. Cruisers and submarine numbers where passed directly to the Admiralty and as a result the Royal Navy where able to confront and surprise the Italian fleet at Matapan.

Batey would then go on to work with Knox and Margaret Rock to break the German Abwher Enigma cipher. It was through this success that the XX Committee, who were running German spies in double-cross intelligence missions, could send faked intelligence to the Abwher and know through the deciphered messages that the information was being believed. It was through this duplicitous intelligence exchange that Britain could pretend that allied forces would land at Pas de Calais and not Normandy as planned.

The work of the code breakers at Bletchley Park was integral to Allied success during the Second World War, and Mavis was unequivocally a fundamental part of that. Some have called her one of the best female code breakers of the war. I think this is an unsatisfactory title. Her gender has nothing to do with her work or her mind and she was one of the best code breakers of the war, period. She was intuitive and realised that the systems she was trying to break weren’t just inanimate machinery but also the people at the other end, the users of the equipment; it was these people she tried to break in to more than the systems themselves. In one example, she realised that an Italian dummy message which came through contained no L’s. The Enigma machines would never replicate a letter as itself and so she realised that the operator had simply and rather lazily sat with his finger on L to send the dummy message. It was this sort of inspired thinking which made her so important and successful.

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After the war ended Mavis and her new husband Keith, another Bletchley Park code breaker moved to Oxford and as Keith worked for the University Mavis devoted herself to the protection of historic gardens and parks. She worked with the Historic Buildings Council and served as president of the Garden History Society until her death. In 1987 she was appointed MBE for her efforts in this field.

Mavis’s practical yet humorous and self-deprecating accounts of her war work make up a large proportion of the first hand experiences in Ian Sinclair’s excellent ‘The Secret Life of Bletchley Park’. She was a popular speaker at various events, lectures and for interview after the veil was lifted on Bletchley during the late 1980s. I love listening to and reading her stories and am always inspired by her no-fuss attitude to life. As silly and sentimental as it may sound I do think of Mavis working in the freezing cold, hunched over a desk and fending off sleep with awful coffee for twelve hour shifts when I’m sitting up myself in the small hours and feeling totally overwhelmed by work (even though, it hardly needs to be said that the work she was doing was undoubtedly of much greater consequence than mine!)

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Mavis died on 12th November 2013 at the age of 92, inspiring, indomitable and totally and utterly brilliant.

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