The women who went to war

Al­though it was men who were sent to the front line, the role of women who served dur­ing WW2 should not be for­got­ten, says

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Dun­can Bar­rett

Man­power sim­ply wasn’t enough in the fight against Hitler. By the sum­mer of 1940, most of Europe was un­der Nazi con­trol and the United States and the Soviet Union were yet to join the war. Bri­tain stood alone, with an Army just a third of the size of its Ger­man equiv­a­lent and a pop­u­la­tion only half the size of the en­emy’s.

Women were the key to im­prov­ing the odds. All three branches of the mil­i­tary had formed a fe­male aux­il­iary ser­vice dur­ing the First World War, and now they were re­mus­tered like never be­fore.

An in­tense pro­pa­ganda drive saw posters plas­tered up and down the land, promis­ing ex­cite­ment and ad­ven­ture to girls whose lives had pre­vi­ously seemed lim­ited to mar­riage and moth­er­hood. The new re­cruits signed up filled with ex­cite­ment. “We thought it was great fun,” re­calls Mar­garet Goult, who served in the women’s Army, the Aux­il­iary Ter­ri­to­rial Ser­vice or ATS. “Girls in those days hadn’t been any­where. There wasn’t tele­vi­sion or any­thing. To go to the pic­tures once a week was a big thing.”

Stylish and stream­lined

The forces also of­fered a chance to make new friends. “The best thing about it was the com­pan­ion­ship,” re­mem­bers Winifred Arm­strong, who worked as a driver in the Women’s Aux­il­iary Air Force ( WAAF). “We were all there to do what­ever we could to end the war.”

And then there was the ap­peal of the uni­forms – par­tic­u­larly in the case of the Women’s Royal Naval Ser­vice ( WRNS, or ‘Wrens’), who sported an out­fit de­signed by the fa­mous cou­turier Ed­ward Molyneux. While the Army and Air Force girls had to put up with un­flat­ter­ing pleated pock­ets and belted waists, the WRNS jacket was stylish and stream­lined.

Best of all, the Navy girls were per­mit­ted to wear black silk stock­ings. As the First Lord of the Ad­mi­ralty com­mented cheek­ily, when asked why he had agreed to such

ex­trav­a­gance: “The Wrens like the feel of them, and so do my sailors.”

The dis­tin­guished ATS

Al­though the WRNS, as the fe­male coun­ter­part to the Navy, was con­sid­ered the ‘se­nior’ women’s ser­vice, and was by far the hard­est of the three to get into, it was the ATS that re­ally dis­tin­guished it­self in the early days of the war. Fe­male am­bu­lance driv­ers ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force to France found them­selves caught up in the des­per­ate rush to evac­u­ate at Dunkirk – some girls en­dured ter­ri­fy­ing dive-bomb­ing by the en­emy planes while oth­ers, cap­tured and held pris­oner by the Ger­mans, man­aged to es­cape and make it back to Eng­land. Their brave ex­am­ple saw the ranks of the ser­vice swell as more young women rushed to vol­un­teer.

As in­creas­ing num­bers of girls signed up for all three forces, the list of jobs to which they might be as­signed grew longer. Ini­tially, the WAAF of­fered only six pos­si­ble ‘trades’, but as the war went on women be­gan to be em­ployed in roles rang­ing from para­chute pack­ers to mo­tor trans­port driv­ers, from ad­min clerks to bal­loon re­pair­ers, and from cinema pro­jec­tion­ists to den­tal hy­gien­ists.

Grad­u­ally, more and more tech­ni­cal trades opened up to women, too, and in time they were re­pair­ing planes and ser­vic­ing radar equip­ment.

Al­though no WAAFs were ac­tu­ally al­lowed to work as air crew, more than 100 re­ceived a trans­fer to the Air Trans­port Aux­il­iary – and th­ese so-called ‘Ata Girls’ were soon pi­lot­ing Spit­fires and Hur­ri­canes be­tween Air Force bases around Bri­tain.

In the ATS, mean­while, a num­ber of women were posted to mixed-sex an­ti­air­craft bat­ter­ies – a con­tro­ver­sial ex­per­i­ment at the time, but one that had the back­ing of the Prime Min­is­ter, whose own daugh­ter, Mary Churchill, was one of the first Army girls to vol­un­teer. Since a Royal Procla­ma­tion specif­i­cally for­bade women from em­ploy­ing deadly weapons, men were still re­quired to load and fire the gi­ant guns, but the “Ack-Ack girls” pro­vided all the mea­sure­ments and cal­cu­la­tions re­quired to en­sure that they hit their tar­gets.

Some Army men were sus­pi­cious about girls tak­ing over their jobs, and ques­tioned whether they were up to the task. When Jessie Denby and her col­leagues in the 518 mixed Ack-Ack bat­tery re­lieved an all-male con­tin­gent who had been de­fend­ing Hull, the de­part­ing men didn’t rate their chances. “They’d never had girls there be­fore,” Jessie re­calls, “and the blokes said, ‘You wait. Give it three weeks and you’ll be howl­ing to go home.’ But we were there for a year.” As women in the forces in­creas­ingly took on ‘male’ re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, al­low­ing men to be sent for ac­tive ser­vice abroad, the need for new re­cruits only grew.

In 1941, the Na­tional Ser­vice Act in­tro­duced con­scrip­tion for women, and many rushed to join up for the mil­i­tary rather than en­dure more pun­ish­ing con­di­tions else­where. “I couldn’t bear the thought of get­ting up at six in the morn­ing and dig­ging pota­toes in the Land Army,” re­calls Jane Bekhor, “so I vol­un­teered for the WAAF.” Other girls were only too happy to sign up for the ATS or WRNS if it meant avoid­ing be­ing sent to a mu­ni­tions fac­tory.

But not ev­ery­one was pleased at the sight of girls in uni­form. One vet­eran RAF of­fi­cer told the BBC of his hor­ror at the thought of “pet­ti­coats” on his Air Base.

Civil­ian hos­til­ity

If any­thing, hos­til­ity to women in uni­form ran even deeper among the gen­eral pub­lic than it did within the mil­i­tary. “We were looked down upon some­times,” re­calls for­mer WAAF Betty Turner. “They didn’t think much of us.”

Many civil­ian men were hor­ri­fied at the sight of groups of girls in pubs, and felt

In time, women were re­pair­ing planes and ser­vic­ing radar equip­ment

un­com­fort­able wit­ness­ing the self­con­fi­dence that be­ing part of the mil­i­tary gave them.

When the Daily Mail ran a sur­vey of what its read­ers hated most about the war, ‘women in uni­form’ was top of the list.

Soon hos­til­ity to­wards the women’s forces found ex­pres­sion in sex­ual in­nu­endo. Girls in the forces were dis­missed as ei­ther les­bians or pros­ti­tutes, with some civil­ians as­sum­ing that they would sleep with any male su­pe­rior who ap­proached them.

In pop­u­lar slang, the let­ters ‘ATS’ were said to stand for ‘Any time, sergeant’ or ‘Amer­i­can Tail Sup­ply’. The Army girls were re­ferred to as ‘of­fi­cers’ ground­sheets’, the WAAFs even more shock­ingly as ‘pi­lots’ cock­pits’, and the WRNS were the butt of a com­mon joke: ‘Up with the lark and to bed with a Wren’.

The govern­ment, in fact, was so con­cerned at the po­ten­tial im­pact of such prej­u­dices that it com­mis­sioned a re­port into the sex­ual health – and pro­pri­ety – of the women’s ser­vices.

In Au­gust 1942, the so­cial re­former Vi­o­let Markham re­ported to Par­lia­ment that the rate of il­le­git­i­mate preg­nan­cies in the forces was lower than in the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, and the in­ci­dence of vene­real dis­ease for fe­male re­cruits was half that among their male col­leagues.

The hos­til­ity and in­nu­endo that was di­rected at the women’s forces ran the risk of ob­scur­ing the very im­por­tant work they were do­ing to help win the war. Girls from all three ser­vices worked at Bletch­ley Park, and Win­ston Churchill later sin­gled them out for spe­cial praise – he called them “the geese that laid the golden eggs but never clucked”.

Some women’s jobs, inevitably, were more dan­ger­ous than oth­ers. Mar­garet Goult has never for­got­ten the ter­ror she felt as a search­light op­er­a­tor dur­ing her first Ger­man Air Raid.

“To this day I can re­mem­ber the first Ger­man plane I got in my beam,” she says. “They killed a lot of girls that way – they used to fire down the beam. I thank God it never hap­pened to me.”

Many girls dis­tin­guished them­selves with acts of self­less hero­ism and were re­warded with medals for their brav­ery.

Among them was Daphne Pear­son, who re­ceived the Ge­orge Cross for drag­ging a pi­lot out of a crashed plane just be­fore it ex­ploded and shield­ing his body with her

own. Over the course of the war, around 2,000 girls in uni­form lost their lives.

Ser­vice­women were also in­volved in some of the most im­por­tant Al­lied projects of the war. Few made as crit­i­cal a con­tri­bu­tion as Con­stance Babington Smith, the WAAF photo in­ter­preter who first lo­cated the launch sites of the V1 fly­ing bombs, but many oth­ers were privy to crit­i­cal state se­crets.

Wren Fanny Hugill worked as per­sonal as­sis­tant to Ad­mi­ral Ten­nant, who was in charge of the top-se­cret op­er­a­tion to build the ar­ti­fi­cial Mul­berry har­bours that would be shipped over to France on D-Day, mean­ing that the Al­lies could land on the beaches of Nor­mandy, rather than in Calais where the Ger­mans were ex­pect­ing them.

Fanny knew that se­crecy was ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal to the in­va­sion, even when it came to her own fam­ily. “My mother nearly caught me out one day,” she re­mem­bers. “Ev­ery­one knew the se­cond front was com­ing, and she said, ‘ The real key to a se­cond front will be the har­bours, they can’t op­er­ate with­out good har­bours.’ I thought, gosh, I could so eas­ily have said some­thing.”

Ex­actly three months af­ter D-Day, Fanny was on her way to France her­self, land­ing on one of the Mul­ber­ries be­fore un­der­tak­ing a nine-month post­ing in Paris. “The city hadn’t been bombed, so it was in pris­tine con­di­tion com­pared to poor old Lon­don,” she says.

“We used to go over to Ver­sailles and party there – and one evening Noel Coward came out and en­ter­tained us in a lit­tle theatre in the palace.”

By the time VE-Day came, there were women in uni­form all over Europe. My own great aunt Cath­leen Alexan­der was also in Paris, serv­ing with the ATS at Ver­sailles. “I re­mem­ber see­ing a huge crowd,” she told me, “and they were all shout­ing, ‘Les Anglais! Les Anglais!’ I thought for a mo­ment they were go­ing to at­tack us, but they all rushed over and em­braced us in­stead. I’ll never for­get the sight of a Bri­tish Tommy car­ry­ing a teapot down the Champs-Élysées.”

With the war’s end, the women in the forces grad­u­ally be­gan to be de­mobbed. The pro­ce­dure was swift and ef­fi­cient, but it was none­the­less emo­tional for girls who had given up a large chunk of their youth to serve their coun­try.

By the time that they were dis­charged, with lit­tle more than a rail­way war­rant home and a few coupons to buy civil­ian clothes, there were plenty of tears.

Just like their male com­rades, many girls strug­gled to adapt to life in Civvy Street, feel­ing like fish out of wa­ter. One for­mer WAAF, Margery Har­ley, felt so un­com­fort­able in civil­ian cloth­ing that she con­tin­ued to wear her WAAF uni­form for months af­ter she was de­mobbed.

But while the ad­just­ment to post-war life was a hard one, the women were aided by the as­so­ci­a­tions that sprung up all over the coun­try – and which still ex­ist to­day – en­abling for­mer ser­vice­women to meet up, rem­i­nisce and share sto­ries of the im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion they made to win­ning the war.

Margery Har­ley (third from left) marches with fel­low mem­bers of the Women’s Aux­il­iary Air Force ( WAAF) from RAF Titch­fi­field in Hamp­shire

Two Aux­il­iary Ter­ri­to­rial Ser­vice (ATS) women use a kinetheodo­lite at Manor­bier, Pem­brokeshire, in 1940 to record bursts of anti-air­craft shells on film

An ad­vance party of Wrens on the quay­side at Portsmouth bound for France in Au­gust 1944

Jane Tre­fu­sis- Forbes, di­rec­tor of the Women’s Aux­il­iary Air Force ( WAAF)

Who Do You Think You Are?

Women from the ATS in full bat­tle uni­form in 1941

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