Celebrating International Day of Women in Science
The 11th of February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. A day dedicated to recognising the critical role women and girls had, and continue to have, in science and technology. This day provides us with the opportunity to highlight a groundbreaking unit that was formed in the final stages of the Second World War, and was the first time that female Cable & Wireless employees were permitted to be stationed overseas.
The Second World War was fought at a far greater speed than any previous war. Thanks to improvements in technology, commanders could communicate directly with their officers from great distances and coordinate campaigns hundreds of miles apart. Secrecy, espionage and the manipulation of information became both easier and more important. The use of cables was imperative to the war effort and keeping communication lines open.
Telcom unit formed in 1944
As the allied forces needed efficient and reliable communications, a new Cable & Wireless unit called Telcom was formed. Telcom operatives travelled behind the allied armies, reopening telegraph stations as they went. Working from mobile transmitters known as the Blue Train, they sent war news back home and to Britain’s allies abroad. The first people to join Cable & Wireless’s Telcom organisation were women, and became known as the ‘Telcom Girls’.
The ‘Telcom Girls’
They were a ground-breaking division of telegraphy operatives as they were the first female employees of Cable & Wireless to be stationed overseas. The Telcom Girls were based in the Mediterranean, where they provided communications for the Allied Forces as they advanced into enemy occupied territory. There were around 650 Telcom Girls, who helped to relay government and press communications, as well as social telegrams between the troops and their families at home.
The attitude of Cable & Wireless towards its 650 ‘Girls’ was still rather paternalistic, however, as Edward Wilshaw’s speech to them in June 1944 reveals:
“You are going abroad as officers and much depends upon your behaviour and upon the way in which you live up to your status. Not only does your own position depend upon your conduct, but the whole future of Telcom and the traditions and reputation of this Company is in your hands since a bad beginning might jeopardise all the privileges which we have won for you.”
From the Archives
Black and white photograph of a group of Telcom girls who are to serve in Malta, from left to right have R. Manners, M. Wilson, E. P. Cooke, S. E. Blowes, T. L. M. Hodson, B. A. Harrington, and R. Mackenzie, Telcom was a new non-combatant force with its own uniform, it consisted of men and women from the UK on the staff of Cable & Wireless serving in certain operational zones, their task was to carry the cable-heads and advanced wireless stations of the Britain’s telecommunications network into enemy occupied territory, close on the heels of the advancing armies.
Dated September 1944
Telcom transmits 83,000 words in 48 hours
In August 1945, during the Japanese surrender in Rangoon, Telcom dealt with 83,000 words filed by 30 war correspondents in 48 hours. When prisoners of war arrived in Rangoon on their way home from prison camps, the Telcom unit was also responsible for sending their telegrams home free of charge. By 31 August 1945, over 1,000 messages had been sent and received by the relatives of released prisoners.
Telcom continued to operate in warzones until 1959.
Header photograph: Black and white group photograph of the first contingent of Telcom personnel to wear the uniform, the photograph shows twenty-two of the female volunteers from the operating staff of the Central Telegraph Station in London with Sir Edward Wilshaw (Chairman of Cable and Wireless) on the roof of Electra House (Victoria Embankment), those in the photograph are I. C. Arrowsmith, L. Adams, A. W. Green, E. M. Blanchard, M. L. Evans, I. I. E. Langton, Waterfield, J. Watchorn, M. M. Curran, E. D. Davey, P. P. Mahoney, E. M. Turner, B. I. Livingstone, F. E. M. Read, G. E. Brown, J. Walker, P. J. Cory, D. Cullen, G. E. Fitzgerald, K. S. West, Espeut, and H. M. Slade. Dated June 1944