Friday, September 26, 2014

Communications in Wartime: Between the Lines, a guest essay by Deborah Lawrenson

I'm pleased to welcome Deborah Lawrenson here today.  Several years ago I reviewed her first US release, The Lantern, a Gothic mystery steeped in the atmosphere of rural Provence, and enjoyed it very much.  Her new novel The Sea Garden was published by HarperCollins this June, and while readers will recognize one of the characters from The Lantern, it also stands alone.  The Sea Garden contains three stories in one; one strand is present-day, while the others take place during WWII.  She has contributed an informed, sobering essay about the secret activities and immense courage of wireless operators in wartime.


Communications in Wartime: Between the Lines
Deborah Lawrenson

By 1943, the life expectancy of a wireless operator working for the French resistance and the British agents on the ground in Nazi-occupied France was down to six weeks. Sending and receiving vital messages between the sharp end and London to organize secret drops of agents and weapons, and provide the link between sabotage operations, was dangerous work.

Wireless signals were highly susceptible to detection, as were the aerials that had to be disguised as washing lines, or hoisted into trees. Hidden away, the operator tapped out messages in Morse and then waited for responses. This might take hours, but twenty minutes on air was enough to provide a signal that could be pinpointed by the enemy. Each transmission required sheer dogged bravery.

SOE wireless set, disguised in suitcase

Communication, or the lack of it, is the unifying theme in my novel based on these events, The Sea Garden: coded wireless messages; torch signals; lighthouse beams; braille; the human senses, especially that of smell; information withheld; misinformation; differences in language; subconscious understanding.

The book is structured as a triptych so that the three distinct parts mirror the oblique connections between underground cells during wartime, when security was paramount and the best defence was limited knowledge of the activities of others in the organization. If you were captured, you had no knowledge that could endanger others. Different stories overlap but none are known to all those involved. It is only afterwards, sometimes many years later, that connections can be made.

Each section of The Sea Garden focuses on a strong, resourceful young woman being tested. In the title story, Ellie is a landscape gardener commissioned to work on a memorial garden on an island off the south coast of France, caught up in a history she has never known. In The Lavender Field, blind Marthe has to find new ways of communicating during wartime, and changes her life in the process. A Shadow Life follows Iris in bomb-blasted London, as she works behind the scenes recruiting and preparing the agents for their missions in France, and evaluating their wireless messages from enemy territory.

The starting point for Iris’s story was the real-life figure of Vera Atkins, the senior woman officer at SOE’s French Section in London (Mavis Acton, in my novel). A strong woman who provoked strong reactions, Vera Atkins was recruiting women for these risky operations, a fact that would have horrified the public, had it been known at the time.

What also seems inconceivable now is that despite the part women were playing in these do-or-die missions, the opinions and instincts of the women who worked in the secret London office were routinely disregarded as being of little value – a misjudgment that was to have grave consequences.

Silk scarf map and receiver

In the closing months of 1943, several of the wireless operators on the ground in France were becoming slapdash. Their messages back to London were missing their security checks, innocuous words like “Salut” and “Adieu” that had been agreed would show all was well. It was clear to London that operations were progressing to plan, so the only explanation was that the signalers were lax. Head of French Section, Maurice Buckmaster shot back furious volleys of Morse across the Channel, and the next messages settled down, carefully following instructions.

But some of the backroom women on the SOE staff were concerned. They compared notes as they met in the ladies’ washroom, and soon pieced together a worrying picture. Other sections – dealing with agents in Holland and Belgium – had also noticed irregularities which had been dismissed as unimportant. In some instances, personal questions had been asked of the wireless operators to ascertain if there was a problem, and the clumsy replies had been unsatisfactory but excused by the necessity of transmitting as quickly as possible.

SOE wireless set

Call it women’s intuition, or more potently, a subconscious understanding of nuance in language, but the young women joining the dots in the washroom were not convinced. The obvious explanation – that these transmissions carried warnings – was being dismissed. Yet no one in authority wanted to hear their protests. It was not their place to question or make waves; the men were in charge, and they knew what they were doing. 

Many months later came a message from France that made the blood run cold. It thanked London for the large deliveries of arms and ammunition and the invaluable help with insight into British intentions. It was signed: The Gestapo.

French resistants and radio operator on the ground

Many of the wireless operators had in fact been captured, several picked up from the landing grounds of secret flights organized by signals that had come in to radio sets that were already in the hands of the Germans. They were being held at Gestapo headquarters in Paris and forced to send and receive transmissions from there – London had been communicating directly with the Nazis in what became known with grim irony as “The Radio Game”.

When the radio operators were no longer useful they were executed or sent to concentrations camps. Few survived. It only made it worse that the linguistic signals that all was not well had indeed been picked up – but had gone unheeded.


Deborah Lawrenson spent her childhood moving around the world with diplomatic service parents, from Kuwait to China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore. She graduated from Cambridge University and worked as a journalist in London.

She is the author of six previous novels, including The Art of Falling and Songs of Blue and Gold, inspired by the life of writer-traveller Lawrence Durrell, though The Lantern was the first to be published in the USA.

Deborah is married with a daughter, and spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in Provence, France.


  1. Deborah's detailed research always provides interesting stories that add colour and greater understanding about the history of France.

  2. Fascinating post. This book is going on the wish list.

  3. Thanks for a great post. Can't wait to read the book. "Sisterhood of Spies" is also a great book that talks about times when the "guys" should have paid attention to what the women said.

  4. Thanks for all the comments and for the info on Sisterhood of Spies. Not a book I've heard of before - it sounds like worthwhile reading.

  5. Anonymous12:13 PM

    I guessed "who" Mavis Acton was right away, because I have read A LIFE IN SECRETS, a biography of Vera Atkins by Sarah Helm. Parts of it were hard going. There is no way I could have done this job. It is also maddening to learn that the women codebreakers were basically ignored, thus leading to many operators' deaths. THE SEA GARDEN was quite an absorbing read!

    Sarah OL