Women of Intelligence: Winning the Second World War with Air Photos (2012)

Women of Intelligence: Winning the Second World War with Air Photos (2012) is a remarkable book and for that reason I have decided to write this post.

I have discussed the topic of women of intelligence in previous posts including:

Women’s roles in Special Operations during the Second World War

The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes: Blog post by Elinor Florence regarding Constance Babington Smith – Second World War aerial photography specialist

My interest in the wartime work of women is driven by a fact-checking project that grew out of a media event that I attended at the Small Arms Building in Mississauga, namely a Sledgehammer Ceremony on April 6, 2015.

A narrative that was a key part of the April 6, 2015 media event that I attended concerned the work of women in Canadian war industries during the Second World War, and the workplace careers of women during the postwar years.

Special Operations Executive

That narrative prompted me to learn about the wartime and postwar careers of women in Canada and elsewhere. I have read several books about the role of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War.

Many women were involved in the work of the SOE. Among the key points that come to mind concerns the strategies employed in the choosing of SOE agents who would be dropped in to France and elsewhere to assist the Allied war effort in key projects.

When you choose an agent, you have to make sure all standard criteria are met, and finally, the recruiter must ask, “Is this a prudent person or not?” In some wartime work, prudence is not helpful. For an agent, prudence is required.

Photographic Interpretation

Another key point, that I recall from reading about the Special Operations Executive – a topic I find of much interest because I’m aware from my study of military history that strategic thinking is a key consideration in warfare – is that when staff were chose for Photographic Interpretation (PI) work, you had to look for certain qualities in the candidate.

It was helpful to note, for example, whether a person has a strong interest in exploring a topic from a wide range of angles. Many of the PI staff were from backgrounds such as archaeology, geography, and the like. People with art school backgrounds also figured prominently.

I was most interested to come across the recent study entitled Women of Intelligence: Winning the Second World War with Air Photo (2012).

Scale models of bombing targets

One passage (p. 130) concerns building of models of bombing targets:

“Ordering models was usually one of the first actions to be taken when planning an operation; consequently the model makers would know when and where it would take place months or even years before it did. Despite the relaxed working atmosphere prevailing in the Model-Making Section, security rules were strict and there was not one breach or inadvertent slip of the tongue.

“Obviously there could be no personal attribution or signature on any of the models sent out from the unit, but at least one small mark of individualism was made. Bill O’Neill, an American who later married Pat Peat, did manage to incorporate the initials ‘US’ into a tree pattern on one model of a Romanian target. Mary [Harrison] also remembered working on models for the Pacific invasions, which were planned to start once Europe was liberated. There was great concern about the landing craft to be used due to the strength of the waves breaking on Pacific shores, so a model of the beaches was constructed. When this was uncovered for a large number of admirals to inspect, sitting on a rock was a tiny mer­maid, made by one of the model makers. No comment was made but at the end of their discussion the admirals thanked the Section and asked that the mermaid remain in place when the model was delivered to them.”

[End of excerpt]


A June 2, 2015 CBC The Current article is entitled: “How Winston Churchill came on board Pyke’s ice aircraft carrier.”

A Nov. 20, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “WWII Hero Credits Luck and Chance in Foiling Hitler’s Nuclear Ambitions.”


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