Women of Intelligence

Title:                      Women of Intelligence

Author:                 Christine Halsall

Halsall Christine (2012). Women of Intelligence: Winning the Second World War with Air Photos. Stroud: Spellmount

OCLC:    775028379

D810 .S7 H35 2012


Date Updated:  February 17, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

There were no photo interpreters (PIs) in the US Navy in early 1941. When the US naval attaché in London learned of the extensive British capabilities in this area, he arranged for LCDR (later admiral) Robert Quackenbush to come over and observe the British PI program. He returned three months later and established the Naval School of Photographic Interpretation in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC. His model was the British program at R.AF Medmenham. Women of Intelligence tells the story of Medmenham and the allied personnel—men and women—that made the British effort a success.

Author Christine Halsall, BBC consultant and curator of today’s Medmenham collection of photo-graphs, used archival records and interviews to document her story. She chose the book’s title to emphasize the precedent-setting role that women played during WWII as PIs, target plotters and analysts. She quotes one former female PI as recalling; “I do not remember any tinge of the ‘old boy network’ at Wembley [the first location for PI work] or Medmenham … man or woman it didn’t matter.” (p. 20) Sometimes this was hard for the Americans eventually assigned there to accept, but they adjusted.

But it wasn’t that way in the beginning, when women were hired as clerks and secretaries, regardless of their qualifications. The story of their rapid transition to equal-status PIs and managers is a major theme of the book. Ability was the key. Prior experience was not a major consideration. There were actresses-and one male actor Dirk Bogarde—university graduates, draftees, former MIS officers, journalists, photographers, balloonists and pilots. At least one, Sarah Churchill, had political connections. Getting through introductory training was all that mattered.

Women PIs did the preparatory terrain analysis for Operation TORCH, the amphibious landing in North Africa; Operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily; and OVERLORD, the D-Day invasion. Perhaps the best known PI was Flight Officer Constance Babington-Smith, who headed the team that found the V2—quickly labeled Doodlebug—launching sites. PIs were also crucial to bomb damage assessment, the results of which caused controversy when PI results contradicted initial pilot reports.

Halsall also provides background and insights into the personal lives of many of the PIs. Some married while at Medmenham. Nearly all disliked the government-issue stockings. And from time to time there was interservice rivalry and a struggle to get preferred assignment—women PIs eventually served in all war zones.

Women of Intelligence tells an inspiring story of accomplishment, where the job came first and doing it well was everyone’s objective.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, p.. 135). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov.

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