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Spencer Jones [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of Military History, plus the Military History podcast that looks at all aspects of military history and a little bit more as well. I’m Dr. Spencer Jones, and I’m joined, as always, by my friend and co-host.
Gary Sheffield [00:00:13] Gary Sheffield. Hello.
Spencer Jones [00:00:15] And today, we’re especially fortunate to be joined by a special guest. And that guest is Dr. Sara Louise Miller, who is an experienced historian, author and media consultant specialising in Second World War history. She works as a researcher and educator, and she’s currently based at the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford and is a tutor at the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. Welcome to the podcast, Sara.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:00:39] Hello, thanks for having me.
Spencer Jones [00:00:41] Well, thank you for coming on. And I believe that biography, biographies given to the listeners, bit of the flavour of your work and your background. Of course you wear many hats in this field are mostly appropriate for a historian of espionage. And so I wonder if you could tell Karen just a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you came to be in the position as a university lecturer?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:01:02] Yes, I do. I have fingers in lots of pies, actually. People ask me what I do. A fairly difficult time summing up in an in a short, cohesive way. But I, I started out as a historian, amazed during and and kind of decided what I was most interested in and went down that route and then discovered that it is kind of a a topic that isn’t super well known or done in a big way. So intelligence history is kind of still emerging in lots of ways. It’s fairly new kind of subfield of history, and that means lots of people are interested in it. And then the obvious, Oh, you do James Bond history comment. So it’s kind of trying to crack that egg wide open, which lots and lots of people want to know about because everybody loves James Bond. So it works really well to do it in lots of different arenas like, you know, publicly in terms of writing, lecturing. So I teach espionage and national security and intelligence and international relations and all of that kind of thing, as well as history, because they all go together really, really well.
Gary Sheffield [00:02:12] And currently, your splitting your time between Oxford and the Defence Studies Department at Shrivenham, I gather.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:02:19] Yes, I did my war studies at King’s College London, and I’m the.
Gary Sheffield [00:02:23] Place of many of us.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:02:25] Yes, I’m a traitor of going over to the other side, to Defence Studies department.
Gary Sheffield [00:02:30] You come out, you come out to the proper side, actually.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:02:33] Oh, well, yes. No comment. And then I am a visiting scholar at the Faculty of History, even here at Oxford, where I’m at Kellogg College, which is appropriate because Kellogg got some fairly good intelligence links and we have a Bletchley Park week every year, so it works really well in that way.
Spencer Jones [00:02:52] Fantastic. One thing that sort of jumps outs about this war wear many hats, which is something that a lot of story, especially in in the military field do something that we ask a lot of a lot of our guests is what got you interested in this subject to begin with? What led you to this path?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:03:10] Well, that’s funny. And also the funny question, the funny answer. I started out as a third year undergraduate doing my dissertation on the Boston Tea Party, and my husband said to me, I will give you $20 if you can get Captain America into your undergraduate dissertation. And I’m a bit of a sucker for a bet, but I knew even I knew there was no way to get Captain America into a dissertation on the Boston Tea Party. So I started. Wasn’t that interested in it too? It was kind of one of those idealistic things where you think, Oh, I’m going to do this. And actually it just wasn’t it didn’t kind of make me excited in the way that I hoped it would. So I started looking for other dissertation topics and went to the Imperial War Museum in London, and they had an exhibition called Secret War, and it had lots of things from kind of intelligence and espionage history. So, you know, enigma machines and things like that. But it also had a dress with a bullet hole in in the bottom half of it and a satchel with the bloodstain on it. And I started reading the information I saw, and it belonged to a woman called Yvonne Como, who had been in the special operations executive, which was this kind of old brainchild of Winston Churchill. It was sabotaged, essentially, but also carried out espionage. And I just got absolutely hooked. And it turned out that Captain America’s girlfriend in the in the comics had been an excellent agent. So I won my $20 book by doing my dissertation on the the female agents, by the way. And I not only got Captain America in or little picture of his girlfriend and into the dissertation, so I won my $20, but I then won pretty much lifelong I think career in intelligence and espionage history because one is kind of one of those things where once you start, you can’t stop. It’s a bit addictive.
Spencer Jones [00:05:01] But is without a doubt the best story I’ve ever heard for actually getting into a field so unconventional.
Gary Sheffield [00:05:09] I feel my professorial red pen coming out at this stage as an undergraduate essay talking about espionage in intelligence history. Right. Let’s define our terms. What do you what do you mean by espionage? Intelligence. Same thing.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:05:24] Yes. Well, this is a question I often ask my students when I teach. I teach espionage, intelligence and national security. And we go into it. The first thing we do is take James Bond and deconstruct that story and that kind of idea of what intelligence and espionage is. And I get them to kind of tear apart this idea so that we can build it from ground Zero the way that it actually should be. So the first thing we do is what’s the difference between intelligence and espionage? Because there is one big one intelligence being information and espionage being the kind of process of collecting that information. So it’s very, very important to make that distinction right from the get go. And then looking at espionage as the kind of processes that happen all over the world and lots of different services special, which was civilian and then service, which is military, and then looking at types of intelligence and information. So signals intelligence, communications, intelligence, open source intelligence and kind of rebuilding this idea, this definition of what and what it actually is without the kind of popular culture influence that we all know. Is everyone seeing James Bond of everybody knows that kind of version of the story. And it’s quite tricky to teach this without kind of deconstructing that.
Spencer Jones [00:06:50] Really a deep a deep and interesting subject. And that sort of leads me to my next question, which is, again, Stuart Broad grew into this subject originally. So we’ve gone it’s it’s a story worthy of spy novels that we’ve gone from the Boston Tea Party to Captain America to the Imperial War Museum. And it’s it’s sort of leading us to a core. But what was the next stage for you? What prompted you to go into research degrees and what was your research subject?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:07:17] Well, I finished my undergraduate dissertation on these 39 women who who had been deployed in occupied France as spies and saboteurs. And I, I was kind of heartbroken that at that point nobody really knew about them. They weren’t part of our common knowledge of the Second World War. And it kind of just irked me. And I was fortunate to have a really good supervisory team on my undergraduate dissertation who urged me to keep going. And I did, because I found during the course of that research that a number of those women had actually been in military auxiliaries. So the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force being one of them. And I thought, okay, well there’s probably more to find them. And my supervisors were very, very keen for us to continue that research. So I did. I carried on with an mphil in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force’s subject, and that specifically their role in intelligence, in air intelligence in the Second World War behind the RAAF. So I did that and I ended up with about 66,000 words and dissertation. So I had to get permission to be a because I just didn’t want to cut anything. It was also interesting and important and significant to our understanding of the air war and then the wider war. And so I thought, okay, what I find it with the war is probably there with the other women services decided that I just couldn’t leave it. I didn’t want this history to to remain hidden and blocked when it was so important in lots of different ways. So I decided to do a Ph.D. on the Women’s Royal Naval Service and Naval Intelligence. So that was looking at women in the US and the UK attached to the Royal and US Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic in the Pacific Naval War, doing espionage and intelligence work. And honestly that just every time you pull a thread there about six more that that crop up and it’s just so big this subject and it’s going to take a lot of people and a lot of time to do it justice. And I like to think of lifted the lid on it in some way.
Gary Sheffield [00:09:22] Oh, that’s fascinating How how many other people are actually working in this specific field of women? It doesn’t strike me as being a very, very big.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:09:32] It’s not huge. There’s kind of a small group of us. You’ve got Helen Fry who’s who’s got a book coming out soon. Dr. Claire Habito, who was actually my Ph.D. external examiner, is doing a book as well. She’s doing some fantastic work with women in civilian intelligence, and it’s not very big. And I’m hoping to kind of inspire more people to carry on with it because there’s so many elements of it as well. And you kind of need a lot of passion and a lot of time brought to it.
Gary Sheffield [00:09:59] I. Actually chaired Helen Fry twice at my local literary festival. She giving talks and obviously I did something, something like she’s asked me back to chair her a third time this time. But actually the whole took place in a slightly larger context because, you know, the what you’re saying women in intelligence in the Second World War is a small field, but actually intelligence history itself is is not exactly enormous, is it, compared at least compared to some.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:10:25] Yeah. And it’s it’s one of those fields that’s still kind of in a way emerging, say, Christopher Andrew over at MSU, Cambridge. He kind of did some founding work there in terms of establishing it as a proper kind of subfield of history, which is still kind of uncomfortably fit in that in that way.
Gary Sheffield [00:10:45] Right. Speaking as a military historian, I’m sure Spencer will agree with this. Little bit of prejudice sometimes creeps in about military history from historians who are not historians. Do you find anything like that being an intelligence historian?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:10:58] Yeah, there’s definitely some tension, and I kind of make pretty consistent arguments that knowledge of intelligence and espionage in the Second World War has to change our understanding of the Second World War, of especially of military operations. And then hardcore historians of military history in military operations don’t always like that. And there is some tension there actually, you know, with with how can we really quantify how much influence intelligence had and what things might have looked like without it. And there’s definitely.
Gary Sheffield [00:11:32] A lot really, because I must say, being one of these, what part of me does Operation Military History? Not not all of it. I actually really have come across. Obviously you can’t name names unless you want to, but so guts does strike me as being a slightly strange attitude on behalf of military historians. I mean I mean so I’m Jim Beaches work you must know from the first war and that has really transformed our knowledge of some of the command decisions made, made, made on the Western front by Hagan. Not that that’s a restraint is very interesting as well.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:12:06] There’s a particular argument over the back of the Atlantic scene, a.
Gary Sheffield [00:12:10] Naval historian, Oh, well.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:12:13] It’s Harry Harry Hensley saying, oh, it’s a certain amount of time off of the Battle of the Atlantic. And then other people saying, well, we can’t really quantify that. Maybe it was nowhere near as much time as that. It didn’t actually do as much good as people say, which I if you look at the statistics, know the enigma. When we start breaking into Enigma, the number of losses on the on the Allied side dips and the number of U-boat losses increases. So I just I don’t see how you can argue that didn’t have any effect.
Gary Sheffield [00:12:48] All right. So actually, I’m I’m always a bit queasy about the idea that Ultra took two years or whatever, something you simply can’t quantify.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:12:57] But no.
Gary Sheffield [00:12:58] But yeah, sure. Well, I would have thought from my migrant point of view that that intelligence, you know, ultra particulate and.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:13:05] I don’t think it’s really about quantifying it. I think it’s about being able to state that it did save lives. And when with one way of defining success, I think the saving of lives has to be up there in terms of what success means. And we don’t know that’s the truth. We don’t know how much difference it made in terms of quantifying it. But we do know that lives were saved and they had some impact. And I think I think personally for why I do that, to.
Gary Sheffield [00:13:34] Show absolutely.
Spencer Jones [00:13:35] I’m district building on on the sort of academic side. One thing that I find particularly interesting is your role as a public facing historian as well. And I know all academics to an extent to public basis, but of course you you’ve recently had a TV appearance on TV documentary, for example. Do you find that there’s a particular interest from public facing institutions in espionage history, or is it something that you’ve, you know, you think more could be done on? I’ll just be interested in your experiences in presenting these stories to a wider audience.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:14:08] It’s been very interesting. I’ve been doing TV work for about a year now, lots of documentaries with various channels, and I absolutely love it. And I think it’s very, very important. You know, a lot of people in my own family, a dyslexic, so they don’t enjoy reading. And actually people are quite shocked when I say I don’t particularly enjoy reading as I’m an academic. It’s my job literally to read, but it’s not something that comes completely naturally to me. And I just don’t think that that should be a barrier to who would be able to enjoy history and being able to learn. So, you know, my grandfather, he didn’t go to school past the age of 14 because he went to work on the land in Norfolk. But he loves World War Two documentaries. He loves learning about history. And that’s one thing that I find really fires me up to do this. Public history is just so important in that way. And then I started doing it and I discovered that again, there is this kind of tension. As an academic, you’re always concerned with historical accuracy, with telling the full story, and you want to tell everything and leave no facts out. And then when you realise you’ve got an hour on TV, you can’t do that. You have to kind of choose what’s important. And that has been a very interesting thing. How do we pick what we include in a short documentary that will ultimately get someone the knowledge of a story that they don’t already know? And that’s a really big responsibility, actually. And then there’s the tension between how do we present because as academics, we’re always dealing with theories. We don’t we don’t always have the answer. We have theories, we have ideas, we have arguments. How do we present those in public history in a way that it’s clear that that’s exactly what they are, that they’re not that? And sometimes that goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. But I do think it’s very important to try and with public history.
Gary Sheffield [00:16:07] I’ve had a bit of experience doing television history, not recently, because I was quite rude about the BBC’s coverage of the first of all centenary, and I simply crossed off that Christmas Day. So one of the tensions I came up with sometimes. You had the people who were making the programmes had a very fixed idea about what they wanted the programme to say, and that didn’t always accord with my interpretation. Have you had any of those sort of senses, also sources of tension in programmes you’ve made?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:16:35] Yeah, there’s definitely. They want soundbites which can sometimes unhelpfully skew a truth essentially. But I’m pretty firm and I’ll argue my point and I won’t say something that I don’t believe is true on television, because I think, you know, being an academic and being a public historian is quite difficult. You’re walking to different path and you have to do both well. You can’t neglect one for the other. And I’m very, very insistent that I will not say something that I don’t believe is 100% true or present it in a way that’s true of it’s a theory. Something like that. I just have to be very kind of insistent and not cave to pressure in that way, which is difficult sometimes not.
Gary Sheffield [00:17:25] Absolutely it is. And this is not entirely nostalgia, but my sense is it’s going to be more difficult to put forward a nuanced view on television, if only because, well, so much popular television popular history that I’ve watched recently is involved, you know, flashbacks and out of work, actors acting out roles and stuff like that. Less and less. Fewer and fewer slots for actual historians saying stuff. Am I being unfair?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:17:51] I’m not sure, because I don’t know. I feel like there is a certain kind of insatiable demand for a certain type of presentation of history. I haven’t actually done any of that yet, which I’m sure I will at some point. I’m sure it’s coming. It’s it’s tricky. It’s really tricky because you’ve got you’ve got to cater for what people want and what they’re interested in. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? TV have different aims to what we have as academics, and they’re aiming to get people to watch. And I think I personally I want people to watch. I want people to learn because I see every day the danger and the harm of people who don’t understand history. And it is dangerous to not have understanding of history. So I’m on one hand, I’m very keen that people do watch this stuff, so we have to make it interesting in that way. But in the other way I’m like, Yeah, but, but it does have to be accurate because it’s equally as dangerous to what I think is true and it’s not. So it’s really hard.
Gary Sheffield [00:18:55] Do you have any particular role model as television presenters or having to step in to carve out your own persona?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:19:02] I like to think I’m carving out my own way of doing things. I’m still very early on in the process, but I absolutely loved working with Professor Alice Roberts, and I love Janina Ramirez as well. Dr. Janina Ramirez partly because watching them both off camera, how they conduct themselves as public historians, I think they just do a really good job because, yeah, just to throw it in there as a woman is different. And I think I’ve certainly noticed being a woman in and in military and war history, it can be very tricky. So it’s nice to have those two ladies to watch way ahead of me in their career and how they deal with public criticism, even down to, you know, women, women historians tend to have to deal with things like criticism of your appearance, the way you speak, your even your hand gestures, anything really. And it and it’s it’s good to have that there good example to. Watch how you deal with that, because you don’t have the luxury of just hitting back the way that you want to. You have to conduct yourself in a kind of acceptable manner, which is not what comes naturally in those situations.
Gary Sheffield [00:20:11] Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s something I was going to mention a bit later. But, you know, elephant in the room, is it still relatively rare for a woman to be doing military or at least military related history? Speaking as someone who organises quite a lot of conferences and things, I’m always looking for female speakers to get a different perspective, and it’s simply very many out there. So how have you been able to adjust to being a minority figure within a minority?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:20:42] It was scary to begin with and B being, I mean, having a book out and doing TV work. I am urged to use Twitter to use social media, which was very scary. And in the beginning it would take me, you know, 40 minutes to draft a tweet because I was so paranoid about all the angles at which someone could come at me over criticising. Nowadays, much less so. I think you just have to try and get used to it. But that is made infinitely easier when you find your allies in this field. So, you know, I am very fortunate and very blessed to know people like Dr. Victoria Taylor and lots of other fantastic people, women who are working in this field. But you also have some incredibly kind and wonderful male colleagues and you really just have to find your tribe, as it were, find your people. And we’re all in touch off of Twitter. And if we see something’s happened on Twitter, which it does quite frequently, that looks upsetting, just fire off the message. I saw what happened to you. Okay. And supporting each other kind of offline, as it were. It’s just critically important. And that builds confidence. And I think just kind of every time you do something, that kind of imposter syndrome, the devil on your show to telling you you shouldn’t be that or you’re not worthy having people in your life to tell you who you are and that you do deserve to be there, that you have earned the right to speak on this topic and kind of building your confidence as you go. And that’s certainly something that was true for me. It built as time went on.
Gary Sheffield [00:22:13] Without a warrior. I’ve had an academic job since 1985 and I still regularly get imposter syndrome big time.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:22:22] As the Comfort.
Gary Sheffield [00:22:24] Goes away. I mean, Spence, I mean, I know you have views on on Twitter. You saw the history.
Spencer Jones [00:22:30] Absolutely. And I couldn’t agree more with you. Sara and I used to be the same. My Twitter is a festival of blindness with the occasional silly picture because I just found putting my head above the parapet just just wasn’t worth the effort. And, you know, people with usernames that were things like strawberry five seven want I’ll try to remember the name of the Catalina from the Battle of Midway through Strawberry PBI five or something. That’s a fringe military history film joke for those who are listening, but people with just a name and loads of numbers would just turn up. And by the early days of Twitter, I try and sort of reason with them. And these people are have some serious social issues and you can’t you can’t deal with them on just your comment about having your appearance assessed that just from my experience with YouTube videos and some TV appearances, I was completely unprepared for that aspect and I would have people who took the time and effort to not just treat me but email me to tell me that I in one case, somebody accused me of shaving my upper arms and that it looks strange. I’m not really sure that they know how human body hair works, but those kind of things, certainly when I was younger, they do rock your confidence. And as we say, when it’s easy to deal with it, it’s not easy. It’s difficult to deal with. Imposter syndrome is guidance just said. And then you’ve got somebody writing in and criticising the most by night minute detail. So I think that’s something that for listeners who might not be aware of that this is something that historians in the public eye have to deal with all the time. And of course you’ve got first hand experience of it.
Gary Sheffield [00:24:05] Well, I should point out that Spencer has a reputation as the best dressed man in military history.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:24:11] Well.
Spencer Jones [00:24:12] I’ve even had critics comments on the fact that my tidying up was correct or things like that. So, you know, people find that both my new things to criticise and. Well, well.
Gary Sheffield [00:24:25] I just I mean the, the broader point I think is that historians are people too, and we can get upset, we can get rattled when people come up with very unfair personal comments. But I can only imagine your bad as it is, you know, to be a bloke, it must be far, far worse.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:24:41] It does appear so. And I’ve I’ve watched Janina Ramirez very closely on how she’s dealt with some of these issues, and she’s done so like an absolute queen and, and you know, pointing out not being afraid to point out that it’s not okay and that it is deeply personal. We are human beings. It’s not like you go on television and suddenly you have no feelings and just to exercise common courtesy toward each other, which, you know, people hiding behind silly usernames or lots of numbers is very easy to fire off these comments and not have to deal with the consequences. But pointing out that there are consequences and that it does affect people I think is really quite important. My my style in the beginning was to just let it go and ignore it. And then there were a couple of comments that were made, and I just pushed my buttons and I thought, No, I can’t. I need to stand up for myself here, but also for lots of other people in my role who who might be slightly, you know, not behind me, but one step further back on the ladder who haven’t built that confidence yet. And I think there is a certain amount of solidarity. I think there is in most things that women do in the public realm, and there has to be a sense of solidarity. And that’s certainly something that gets me through every day when there are problems.
Gary Sheffield [00:25:55] Well, I must say I have been really impressed by some of the female military historians coming coming on the scene was to encourage more people to come forward and take the risk. And it’s just it’s just horrible. There isn’t a difference that really should shouldn’t be. So in many ways, I’m a big fan of it’s you know, it’s I think there’s a lot of there’s a lot of positives. We just can’t ignore the just giving people the ability to be rude and to be destructive, you know, without having any of the really bad side.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:26:25] Yeah, I love I love Twitter. Like just the other day. I need to find an expert in post-war Russian radar, which is not very easy to do. And I fire off a tweet and within, you know, ten, 15 minutes I found one I think is a very powerful tool. We can share theories. We can share our ideas, we can share our expertise. We can encourage one another. There are so many good things about it. And I think it is sad that we have that negative stuff and it’s just about finding a way to deal with it and develop a thick skin. You shouldn’t have to, but the sad truth is that you do, and if you can find your way of dealing with it, it will be a very useful tool and just trying to do it from the positives. That’s what I’ve learnt, but I have only been using it just over a year and it does kind of. There’s definitely those days where you have to step away, where you have to say, okay, I can’t, I can’t. I’ve been known to take it off my phone for a couple of days if I just need some headspace. And I think that’s quite healthy as well, you know, knowing when to step away and not getting bogged down in how many people would like to post. And because it’s so it’s almost a bit addictive in that way. And you have to kind of remember that it is not the real world.
Gary Sheffield [00:27:35] I mean, I actually agree. I have regular Twitter gripes sometimes, and sometimes I just don’t touch it for a few days.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:27:43] Yeah, it’s good for you.
Spencer Jones [00:27:44] I think to just say that reminds me a little bit of that very, very good book on on the sort of philosophy of social media called The Twittering Machine by journalist Richard Seymour, and the way that social media incentivises you to post and receive those likes. And it creates an idea in our heads. And I think we can be vulnerable in this way as historians that it’s it’s really producing something of tremendous value because we get 50 likes. And I think perhaps sometimes that takes away from the fact that the work that we do is this long term. You know, it’s it’s spans a very long time. But but just moving away from the negativity of social media, I just wanted to ask about what positives a bit more about positive interactions you’ve had with it. Do you find that it serves as a gateway to engagement for people with your work or have used it with your students, for example?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:28:33] Yeah, I mean there I could talk all day long about the positive social media, which maybe people don’t say that very often nowadays, but I think it’s been absolutely brilliant for some elements in my work. It’s been fantastic to be able to share my work with a wider audience because when when you’re doing something that is kind of minority or still emerging, it’s a really good way of bringing it into the mainstream and it’s a good way of of getting people to think differently, sharing new perspectives. I often have people post on something I’ve written and say, Oh, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Oh, that’s a really, really different angle. And I love that. I love that it’s opening people’s minds. Hopefully. One of my favourite things is when you post something and you’ll get someone say, Oh, my father worked in intelligence and then you can share personal experiences. And I’ve actually had a lot of so personal testimony that I use in academic work and from Twitter interactions, people will reach out to me on Twitter and say, Oh, that thing you posted when my relative was involved, would you be interested in reading my diary or looking at something they wrote? And I think that is just really cool because I can spend two weeks in the National Archives and not find anything as valuable as that. So I think it’s really valuable in a practical sense as well. And then kind of. Seeing people. I mean, it’s quite funny when you post something and then a massive argument ensues and seeing people thinking like while they’re talking to each other, hopefully in a respectful manner, not always. And seeing that that’s something you posted is it has inspired like a a conversation. Getting conversations going about topics that might not otherwise have made any airtime, which I think is really powerful thing.
Spencer Jones [00:30:26] Absolutely. I think that’s one of the things that that there is, as we can all gripe, is about social media, but it’s got a. It does have its advantages and it’s fun as well. I have to say on a good day it’s it’s a tremendous amount of fun. Yeah. An interesting way it was sort of engaging and we all have to be, I think, aware of of the fact that the way people engage with information has changed. You mentioned earlier in this podcast about, you know, obviously dyslexia, if you look at the subject, but I find dense volumes offputting. And of course with social media, you can also reach a huge audience. The first language isn’t necessarily English, who won’t be put off by an academic work. But but I see brings balance my my next question about how do you how do you balance with your work the the need to produce rigorously researched academic works for your university posts with but also it’s early it’s come across very strongly your enthusiasm for public history or how do you balance those two because those of course, one informs the other. They are rather different beasts.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:31:25] It’s actually quite difficult and I often feel like I’m wearing two hats or I’m living in two camps and I’m sort of a traitor to both. I don’t know. It’s quite tricky, but it and it takes work and it takes attention. You can’t just not pay attention to it. You can’t assume that they’re both going to cohabit really well. And there are I would say there are definitely days where I’m much more in one camp than I am in the other. And then you have to be careful not to neglect the other. So when I’ve got say so this month, I’ve got three different documentaries I’m filming for, say my academic stuff has taken a backseat, but I’m aware of that and it’s just about kind of keeping tabs on yourself. So time management is really, really useful and I’ve got all sorts of calendars and diaries and lists and things that I kind of try and keep myself in check with. But it’s also useful if you can tie up what you’re doing. So obviously most of my TV work is, well, go to base and I’ll try and kind of make sure that I rigorously academically research for a TV documentary and not just go on and say what I think is true. I do a lot of research behind the scenes and then that knowledge is there for when I need it for what I’m writing academically or for publication. So it’s kind of trying to get them to cross over where I can doing the same, not lowering my standards. I won’t lower my standards for public history just because it’s different for him. I’ll I’ll do the same kind of academic, rigorous research for for a TV documentary, because then we have a higher chance of it being factual and and full of the truth, essentially.
Spencer Jones [00:33:07] Absolutely. I know. And I’m done at work for a long time, but I used to be absolutely paranoid about getting something wrong. Yes. Say accidentally dropping an incorrect fact. And so and I think for listeners, it’s really worth emphasising as well as the fact that military historians are people, too. It’s also that a lot of 30 seconds talking heads on a documentary often is involved. I was not because of my preparatory work and also for any TV producers out there. That’s why we asked for fees when we so passionately.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:33:39] Yeah.
Gary Sheffield [00:33:40] Well, we’ve talked about you being a historian story, how you go about practising history. So we say something about your your work. So do you have a big project coming up? If not, what would you like to do?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:33:55] I have several. I my attention is split lots of ways at the moment, so I just published my first book about six weeks ago. It came out, but I’ve got two more and contracts of publication with deadlines looming. So I’ve got my PhD being published with Bloomsbury Academic and I want to say spring manuscript is due this year, so I’m trying to work away at that. And then I have a third book with Pegasus in the States on Ways Women at War. So that one is a personal kind of passion project of mine. I was in Hawaii during my Ph.D. research looking at Navy women at Pearl Harbour. Sorry.
Gary Sheffield [00:34:39] Okay. Researching it.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:34:40] I know, I know. For me and I unfortunately have to go back in January for six weeks, which I think is a massive perk of what I do. So I just fell in love with the topic while I was out there. There were if we think women in military and intelligence. History in Europe and in the US is underdone. Then the Pacific is a whole different story. It is very, very underdone in terms of women’s vote, because we look in the Pacific War and we think because because of the nature of it being for the sea and in the jungle there are no women in boat because women were non-combatant and couldn’t do those things. That’s just not true. They’re there. They’re all over the place. And I found all of the files at the University of Hawaii in the War Depository of Women, who had been in integrated air defence systems in Hawaii and who had been working with all of the military services and the Red Cross, people who had, you know, Pacific Islanders and Polynesian islanders who would come from Samoa and Guam and Fiji and Tonga to learn how to treat wounded troops because they fully expected to be invaded by the Japanese so much there. So I am balancing trying to work on those two books to deadlines. And my kind of my research that I’m doing here at Oxford as a visiting scholar lined up with that is looking at women in the Pacific in a Second World War, say, there we go, tie tying things up wherever you can. That’s always useful.
Spencer Jones [00:36:14] Oh, your music there.
Gary Sheffield [00:36:15] Thank you. No, that’s really interesting. How much how much legs do you think that women intelligence history occupies? Is this something you can see pursuing for next ten, 20 years, or do you have a burning desire at some stage to go off in a different direction?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:36:32] Well, I’m glad you asked that. I personally at the moment find myself fighting a lot for women in intelligence history to be mainstreamed. I don’t think it should be a separate topic, and I don’t think we do it justice by separating it. I am at the moment on a bit of a bandwagon for the inclusion of this topic in the wider topic of intelligence history in military history and war history. This is not women’s history, it’s just history. And I think by separating it, we are we are making an unhelpful, divisive point by by kind of making it separate and making it look like what they did was separate and therefore sometimes not as important as as it actually was. So I actually want to move into kind of mainstream intelligence and military history, which I’m about to do with the inclusion. So, you know, that’s write books about D-Day in the Battle of Britain, where 50% of that book is on, you know, troops from the Empire Treaty, from the Commonwealth, women, people of colour, all the people who haven’t traditionally made it into the narrative that we have. Because I have read books on the Battle of the Atlantic 600 page books that have full pages dedicated to the Women’s Royal Naval Service. And that’s just not enough. It’s not an accurate depiction of what they did or the importance and significance of their work. So I think it’s about, you know, writing this history with reassessment of what certain groups of people did and how important it was. And that’s kind of what I plan to do. So I don’t plan to stay in this little field of women’s intelligence history or a plan to sort of absorb it into wider military history.
Gary Sheffield [00:38:21] That’s really interesting because I’ve I’ve read a book recently which took a conscious decision not to deal with women as a separate subject in the context of war, but basically to integrate them with everything else. In other words, a sense that the field is now mature enough. You don’t need to have a separate thought to have a woman sexual, whatever, whatever.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:38:39] Absolutely.
Gary Sheffield [00:38:40] Can you ever see yourself going doing something other than intelligence? I mean, do you have any other burning interests in history which is rather different?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:38:52] I don’t I every time I look at something else, which I do, I do Often, whether it’s marking an essay or reading a book, I find myself constantly thinking, Oh, I wonder what was happening behind the scenes. I wonder what the intelligence was that led to that decision, or I wonder what the military was doing behind that operation. And it kind of for me, it always comes back to that. And I have a have just a huge interest in it. A lot of people say, come to me and say I need some advice on what I should do for my Ph.D. or my undergrad dissertation. I always say, do do what you love because you’ll do it better. You’ll have the the energy and the passion to keep going on those days where you think, What on earth is I done? What am I daring to just go and get a job and not have to exist on the measly allowance that academics live on? And I think there is that passion and energy that will carry you through on those days, but it will also make you much better at what you do. It will make the writing better and that passion. Always comes through when you can, when you can tell, when you read an essay that someone’s written on something they really care about or that they’ve been made to write it on. And I think love, I know what I love, why would I move away from it, you know? I mean, I have to sometimes I have to do two pieces on non intelligence, but I always find ways to sort of infiltrate and with intelligence history where I can.
Spencer Jones [00:40:22] Do it just just like any good espionage agent so that we use the people traits. That’s your what is it exactly?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:40:29] It does make people distrustful actually being an intelligence historian, it does make you quite distrustful and utterly curious and suspicious all the time.
Spencer Jones [00:40:42] Just just all about and this is going a little bit a few steps back about your work in this field. First trip to Hawaii for six weeks. And it’s absolutely fantastic to see what kind of archival sources do you actually make use of for this, because as a complete novice in this field, I have a vision of lots of files with top secret stamped on the front or so on. But what’s your method, your methodology for building up this picture of these underrepresented women?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:41:08] Yeah, it’s I love methodology. I’m a bit of a methodology freak because that’s usually the part where students really don’t want to do or don’t want to write it. They want to read it to be published. So they might be take that section out the best space it not everybody wants to read it. I have found that to be one of the most interesting elements of what I do. You do get those files. I love the thrill of going to the National Archives and being handed a file that’s been recently declassified with top secret stamped on it. Sometimes it’s slightly frustrating if they’ve been redacted and you have to settle yourself with the fact that you will never know the things you want to know. So there’s definitely those pitfalls with Intel history in terms of sources, you’ll get sometimes scant sources because they’re all still classified or they don’t exist in the first place. So in the Second World War, obviously the first half of it, we’re dealing with worries about invasion. So lots of stuff just wasn’t written down, wasn’t kept, or you’ll get issues with confusing acronyms or code so you can read something and still not really understand what it means because they’ve written it in a way where they didn’t want it to be clear to the enemy. If the file fell into enemy hands where women are concerned. Christopher Andrew calls it the missing dimension within the missing dimension. So the world of intelligence and espionage is the missing dimension in history. Inside of it, there’s another missing dimension, because when we look at women in history, they don’t get recorded the same way as men. So you’ve got lots of references to special duties clerks, which makes them sound like the superior secretaries when actually they are radar personnel or plotters or codebreakers or something really critically important in the world of intelligence. So this kind of mixed understanding of women in official records, which has perpetuated myths that what they did was not important. So that’s something you have to deal with. But I think also with women and with intelligence and espionage, it’s about getting creative. You can’t just go to the National Archives and leave it at that because you will not you’ll have the bare bones of the story, but it won’t be enough. So for me, it was about looking at alternate types of sources. And what that largely came down to was personal testimony and diaries where they weren’t supposed to keep diaries that you can deduce things from what was kept and words from Royal Naval officers, officers about how they benefited from having intelligence personnel on their stations and trying to kind of weave it together and piece it together. From what you do have says a certain amount of creativity. There’s a certain amount of letting go of the reluctance a lot of historians have with dealing with oral history. We have concerns about the usefulness of oral history, and I think you just have to kind of not be as wary as as you would be when you realise it’s all we’ve got in some cases and trying to kind of look for the gems and that can be pretty tricky. It’s like detective work, but I have never found that it’s a barrier. I have never found a lack of sources to be a barrier to writing intelligence history. And I think part of that is because I always went with a quite intersectional approach, quite interdisciplinary in some way. So I’ve used war history, military history, intelligence history, cultural, social, women’s, gender, lots of different types of methodology. And that means lots of different types of sources. So that’s always brought me quite interesting results. And then sometimes you can bring in stuff like psychology, military psychology, looking at emotional reactions to warfare and intelligence work, or you can use social. In some ways it’s quite. I think if you’re just not too precious about how you do this, you can get some really interesting results.
Spencer Jones [00:45:05] I think military history plus in a nutshell there, I think with you, with so many different approaches and just I think one thing your description that just does is sort of show the complexity, the richness, the vibrancy of the field as well. This is a really vibrant, complex field as well. So having never done any espionage research or intelligence work, research really in my life. You certainly what’s my appetite to think, well, can I do something on the ball war in this respects?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:45:32] It’s good fun. It is good.
Gary Sheffield [00:45:34] Fun. Just to pick up your point about oral history. I think oral histories had a bad name because of how she put it. Various books have been assembled from from oral histories which have not been subjected to a historian’s proper scrutiny. I mean, actually use of abuse or oral history. Going back to my very early days as a as a as a postgrad and I absolutely support your view can be extremely valuable when used properly. But too often it isn’t.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:46:04] Yeah, you definitely have to be subjected to the proper scrutiny and use and I think corroboration is something I use a lot. So I would like an account, an oral history account or an interview that I’ve conducted and then I’ll look at other ones and see where they match and where they don’t. And then I’ll look at the official files and see what they match and what they don’t. And if I’m if someone has said something and I’m not sure I’ll say they said it, but we need to be careful and kind of encourage a reader to think about it that way as well. Cleaning is valuable in and of itself that they said it. But it’s important to point out the kind of pitfalls.
Gary Sheffield [00:46:42] Yeah. One notorious example I came across in a book by a very successful historian female who relied on oral interviews and so on, and it was an account of a Calvary charge on the Somme in 1916. And the version has appeared in this particular book ended with, you know, mass disaster and horses dying everywhere. Then it was it actually was a successful cavalry cavalry charge. And it’s also quite clearly this this, this, this this guy over the 50 years since the First World War has got into his head, something which either he didn’t see at all or he misremembered anyway. But it’s it’s it’s the standard is the gold standard of how not to do impotence.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:47:25] Now, I’ve had some really interesting examples where a woman has been responsible for the sinking of a ship, for instance, in the Pacific War, and she’s very aware of that, which is an interesting thing because thinking about subjective perspectives, being aware of the fact that you were responsible for the sinking of a ship, even though you didn’t pull the trigger, the kind of kill chain argument. And then she’s told her daughter about it quite recently for the first time. And her daughter, she’s really proud of it. Oh, yeah, I helped to sink this Japanese ship and her daughter’s gone. That’s horrendous, Mother. You kill people, you essentially kill people. And she’s going, Oh, yeah, I suppose I did. And those kind of different perspectives. So even if you can’t corroborate what she said, basically the perspective is interesting, the way that she looked at it and the way that, you know, the influence of time and popular memory. I think even if you can’t verify what the facts are or whether or not that’s true, that’s still the perspective issue, which is really quite interesting.
Spencer Jones [00:48:29] Highly relevant, I imagine, for the present day as well with the changing nature of warfare and, you know, with the conflicts that are ongoing at the moment. That’s one of the thing I wanted to comment on is do you find that your work with in terms of intelligence research, is it connected at all to the current British military or you had she work at the Defence Department at King’s A do you have an opportunity to sort of share some of this information with the military?
Sarah Louise Miller [00:48:59] All the time? I have taught conflict and international history at the DSD, which is obviously dealing with the past, but the students are dealing with the present. And in the DSD, that’s often what’s what’s the case. I often get asked about legacy. So people always want to think that change was immediate and long lasting because of basically contingencies in the Second World War. So we came out the Second World War and women was suddenly accepted into the intelligence world, or intelligence was accepted as being incredibly useful. And that’s just not always the case with women. Certainly not so then took decades for that to be any semblance of equality in the military, which arguably still is not. That’s an ongoing fight. I think in 2018, 20, less than 25% of the of the higher ranking members of MI6 were female. So I often get asked and I think this is really. Critically important to look at historical examples, first of all, to understand issues that we deal with today, like equality and inclusion, but also to learn. So we learned in the Second World War that even though we were wary of including certain people in the espionage and intelligence world, we had no reason to be fearful because they were incredibly useful and effective in that work and of keeping secrets. So we need to learn that our hesitancy and our lack of inclusion is just unfounded. It doesn’t need to be that way. So I’m often asked, what can we learn from history? And the answer is so much we need to learn so much, and it’s very dangerous if we don’t. And I am always very heartened and encouraged when when students of foreign policy and military studies and war want to know about the past and are interested in history, some of them are not, but many of them are. And I think that that can only be a good thing.
Gary Sheffield [00:50:58] One of the many good things I got out of teaching in D.C. and before that at the Wall Street Department, is that I had to become an applied historian. Yes, because the military don’t employ the likes of us. Because history is fascinating, though. It is. It’s because they see a direct benefit from us teaching military personnel. And it made me rethink the way I do history, knowing that actually how I grew up.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:51:29] Yeah. Yeah. You sometimes get people say to you or your historian that has no application to today or no relevance there. I think it’s completely incorrect. It absolutely does. And that’s why it’s so shocking and awful when you see funding cut for humanities departments and a lack of attention paid. I mean, even just down to training history teachers in high schools, there are government bursaries for geographers and mathematicians, modern languages. But history students are still expected to pay for their own pieces. So we’re going to run out of history teachers because no one wants to live on beans on toast for a year, all that training. And I think that that is just shocking and that something really needs to be done about that.
Spencer Jones [00:52:11] I could not agree more and they were in danger of getting into the weeds a little bit there. I think many of the sort of the bad history takes that I’ve seen actually, I worked with that. The British Army, too, is the World Series story. And occasionally you see some really appalling history takes from people who should know better. And I sometimes think, you know, it just proves the value of studying history for a particular just in present day military problems. But that’s probably a topic for another podcast. So probably about one doctor, that one shot.
Gary Sheffield [00:52:44] Well, I guess we ought to be coming to a close because we’ve we’ve, we’ve been talking to you for an hour or just a stray thought in ten or 20 years time. Where would you like yourself to be in terms of historian? What would you like to have done by then? What influence would you hope that you and your field would have had? So projections for future.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:53:06] I don’t ever want to do anything other than what I do. We don’t do this for the money. I’m sure all three of us would agree that we.
Gary Sheffield [00:53:13] Are going to have to have a real job, I tell you.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:53:16] And I think I think you only do this if you love what you do. And I don’t want to ever do anything else if I can help it. I am very fortunate to have a very supportive husband and family, and I think that I would like to be further along in this field. I definitely have gotten the sense that it’s a ladder you have to climb and I’m very happy to climb it. I would love to see in 20 years time that history had been not rewritten but re represented with women and minority groups and intelligence and espionage as just part of it, with no kind of argument that it needs to be the just accepted as being that I’d like to see history done in that way, in a way that’s much more inclusive, much more equal, and that that isn’t an argument that has to be had anymore. I’d really like to be able to write that kind of history without having to argue why I need to write it that way.
Gary Sheffield [00:54:13] I mean, the dreaded word woke is in the background. It strikes me that inclusive and equal, that’s really what we’re talking about. And surely nobody could object to that. I mean, history has just been enriched by having a more inclusive view, showing greater equality to the subject in a sense. I mean, lots of people do that very many years, and it’s a really good thing it’s been pushed to stage further.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:54:40] Yeah, I hope so. And I also hope to see lots of different kinds of people writing it. I’d like to see a lot more female military and war historians and and different kind of perspectives coming through because we have talked about women in war today, but there are also lots of other groups. LGBTQ, A-plus community, people of colour. There are so many stories to be told that we don’t tell. I just recently learned there were 400 Caribbean women in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and people like that belong in our history books, but they’re not always there. And I would like to see them there. But their stories being written by lots of types of historian and people as well.
Gary Sheffield [00:55:22] I’ve been to that.
Spencer Jones [00:55:23] I meant that indeed. Just to conclude, sir, I just wonder if you could let our listeners know where they can find out more about your work and what things to look out for. If you could reiterate the titles, your performing volumes, for example, that would be wonderful.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:55:36] Yes, I can’t always remember the titles because they’re quite long and convoluted, but the the place to find out and keep an eye on is my website because it’s quite frequently updated, which if you just talk industry these matters should come up first on Google. I have pages on there with updates on TV, stuff that’s coming out and lots of podcasts, which I really love. Podcasts. Books. There’s a books page on there and magazine articles. Newspapers, lots of different publications. I think that there is also we’ve been working on a YouTube channel, so doing some kind of more accessible history there with which is called Secret History, and that’s got visits to some locations where secret work was carried out in the Second World War. Lots of really cool places like the headquarters of Fighter Command, the Downing system. So that’s also a really kind of interesting and fun way of doing history. And that should all be findable quite easily on the Internet.
Spencer Jones [00:56:38] Fantastic. Well, thank you very much for your time today, sir. It’s been absolutely fascinating. The time’s absolutely flown by. So thank you for coming on the podcast. I look forward to you and I look forward to seeing your future work. The Descendants, A postcard from Hawaii when you’re out.
Sarah Louise Miller [00:56:54] I will. It’ll take a while to get here, but I will.
Gary Sheffield [00:56:57] Thanks, Sarah. That was really, really interesting. Thank you.
Spencer Jones [00:57:00] Thank you. Well, thank you, everybody, for tuning in today. This is the end of our podcast, and all that remains is for me to say goodbye. And that’s Spence Jones. And so goodbye from me and.
Gary Sheffield [00:57:10] By for me. Professor Gary Sheffield.
Spencer Jones [00:57:12] Thank you very much.
Gary Sheffield [00:57:13] Goodbye.