New book tells true stories of the WW2 women’s forces

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“An important and inspiring book about the girls who did so much for the war effort, both here and overseas” – Dame Vera Lynn

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By the summer of 1940, Britain stood alone against Germany, with an army just one third of its size. In the fight against Hitler, manpower alone was never going to be enough.

Mothballed after the First World War, the women’s forces were hastily remustered and a massive propaganda drive put into gear. More than half a million young women joined the Army, Navy and Air Force, lured by the opportunity for independence and adventure, and the prospect of doing something important for the war effort.

They came from all walks of life, from the Blitz-ravaged East End through to debutantes who worked their connections to get into the Women’s Royal Naval Service (“Wrens”) – and even the young Princess Elizabeth, who became a mechanic in the woman’s Army, the ATS. They left behind sheltered home lives for the rigours of drill practise and route marches, the humiliations of VD inspections and harsh military discipline, and the Spartan conditions of camp life. But along the way they found comradeship, freedom and a sense of purpose that they would otherwise never have known.

Working as parachute packers, searchlight operators, lorry drivers, accountants, cooks, wireless operators, armaments assistants and more, women became the backbone of the armed forces. As time went on they proved themselves capable of jobs the top brass had previously doubted they could do, from manning barrage balloons to repairing aircraft and even piloting Spitfires between British airfields. Some were captured by the Germans in the rush to Dunkirk, others were machine gunned by the Luftwaffe as they operated searchlights, while still more followed the D-Day invasion in air ambulances to bring back the injured. Many won medals for bravery and some 2,000 lost their lives – a sacrifice that is rarely remembered.

Published to tie in with the 70th anniversary of VE Day on May 8th, and including vivid descriptions of the celebrations in London and around the world, The Girls Who Went to War tells the remarkable true stories of three of those young women, and is informed by interviews with many more.

Jessie Denby went from a quiet country village to shooting down German planes in an ATS ack-ack battery, Margery Harley found herself working on an RAF base in the Egyptian desert, and Kathleen Skin toiled in the Land Army before winning her dream job as an armourer in the Wrens. Their personal stories are woven into a readable and evocative work of narrative non-fiction, providing a fascinating insight into the experience and contribution of a forgotten generation of women.

About the authors

In 2012, Duncan and Nuala’s book The Sugar Girls shot into the Sunday Times top-ten, spending eight weeks in the chart and finishing as the second highest history bestseller of the year. It was followed in 2013 by GI Brides, which was both a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. Both books are currently in development for television. The Girls Who Went to War is dedicated to their own relatives who were in the forces, who they interviewed as part of their research.

 

Praise for The Sugar Girls and GI Brides

“Apart from the strength of the individual stories, one of the richest things about this book is the detail … more life stories of their generation need to be recorded, because we owe them so much and can learn from their ethos of grit and hard work.” – Daily Mail on GI Brides

“An unlikely page-turner, synthesising a pacey narrative from what we assume must have been a bottomless well of memories and anecdotes. It reads like a novel. By the end, we half-wished we’d lived through those impoverished, crater-strewn days.” – Londonist on The Sugar Girls

“Be sure to read The Sugar Girls – top social and female history, beautifully researched and written.” – Heidi Thomas, screenwriter, Call the Midwife

 

The Girls Who Went to War is published on 7 May by HarperElement (£7.99). ISBN 9780007501229.

Authors Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi are available for interview, as are the women whose stories are told in the book. For review copies, features, event enquiries or further information, contact Sophie Mitchell on 020 8307 4545 or sophie.mitchell@harpercollins.co.uk.

For period photographs, audio clips and more visit the book’s official website: www.girlsatwar.com
Twitter: @womensforces.

Facts, quotes and stories from some of the girls who went to war

 

Drawn by glamorous propaganda posters showing girls in smart military uniforms and promising excitement and adventure, more than half a million young women answered the call to arms during World War Two. For girls whose lives had seemed mapped out by marriage and motherhood, joining up offered a chance for independence and excitement, as well as making a meaningful difference to the war effort.

“Girls at home led very sheltered lives in those days,” recalls Barbara Hunan, 89, who joined the women’s army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). “If you worked in the bank and you got married then you had to give up work.” Another former ATS girl, Margaret Goult, 92, echoes her sentiment. “We thought it was great fun,” she says. “Girls in those days had never been anywhere. Even going to the pictures once a week was a big thing.”

To begin with the new recruits were all willing volunteers, but with the National Service Act of 1941, women could be conscripted from the age of 20. There was a rush to join the armed forces before the act came in, rather than face the prospect of being sent to a munitions factory or the Land Army.

“I remember thinking I must join up now or I would be called up,” recalled Jane Bekhor, the great aunt of author Nuala Calvi, before her death last year. “I was terrified of being called up into the Land Army. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting up at six in the morning and digging potatoes, so I volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).”

But the period of initial training wasn’t easy, and there were plenty of tears. “If your hair was too long it had to be chopped off straight away,” Margaret Goult remembers. “The girls used to cry and cry and cry.” New recruits were subjected to humiliating Free From Infection inspections for VD, and those with nits had their hair slathered in tar. Then there were the rigours of daily drill, otherwise known as “square-bashing”, punishing route marches, and harsh military discipline. The girls slept in large dormitories, with mattresses made of three hard ‘biscuits’ that had a tendency to separate in the night, and straw bolsters for pillows.

Once the girls had passed their basic training, they waited anxiously to find out what trade they would be assigned. Some were disappointed to learn that they were destined to be cooks and orderlies, enduring among the longest working hours in the forces. Others heard they would be working as admin clerks, teleprinter operators, nursing orderlies, mechanical transport drivers, parachute packers, balloon repairers, dental hygienists, wireless telegraphy slip readers, film projectionists and armament assistants, amongst other roles.

As the war progressed, technical trades began opening up to women, as shortages in manpower compelled the military to experiment with a larger female workforce. Among the new roles on offer were those of instrument repairers, sparkplug testers and charging-board operators, and in time women would be repairing planes and servicing radar equipment too. Although girls in the WAAF were never actually allowed to serve as aircrew, a small number were lucky enough to receive a transfer to the Air Transport Auxiliary, where more than 100 ‘Attagirls’ got the chance to pilot repaired Spitfires and Hurricanes from factories and maintenance units to airfields around Britain.

Nonetheless, many women felt that civilians didn’t really respect girls in uniform. “We were looked down upon sometimes,” former WAAF Betty Turner, 90, recalls. ATS girl Jessie Denby, 92, overheard a man on a train warning his friend to avoid her carriage. “I wouldn’t go in there,” he said, “it’s full of those bloody ATS tarts.” Jessie was initially shocked, but she and her friends were soon jokingly referring to themselves as “ATS tarts”.

There was an assumption among many members of the public that girls in uniform must have loose morals. The letters “ATS” were said to stand for “Any time, Sergeant” and the Army girls were known colloquially as “officers’ groundsheets”, while girls in the WAAF were referred to dismissively as “pilots’ cockpits”. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS or “Wrens”), meanwhile, became the subject of a popular saying: “Up with the lark and to bed with a Wren.”

The government took such attitudes seriously enough to launch an investigation into the women’s forces. It revealed that the rate of VD was relatively low and the illegitimate birth-rate was also lower than among the civilian population.

Hostility towards the women’s forces – one Daily Mail poll listed “girls in uniform” as the thing readers hated most about the war – was surprising, given the range of important jobs the girls were doing, often at considerable risk to themselves.

Although a Royal Proclamation specifically forbade women from firing deadly weapons, that did not mean they were always kept out of harm’s way. A number of ATS ambulance workers were with the British Expeditionary Force in France when they began the frantic retreat to Dunkirk. Some suffered dive-bombing from enemy planes, while others were captured by the Germans and managed a daring escape, fleeing for the Channel in their ambulances. Their heroism and strength under fire was a major boost to the status of the women’s services.

Margaret Goult was working on a searchlight, and well aware that this made her a sitting duck for the Luftwaffe. “To this day I can remember the first German plane I got in my beam,” she recalls. “I was absolutely petrified. They killed a lot of girls that way. They used to fire right down the beam you see. I thank God it never happened to me.”

Jessie Denby had grown used to the dangers of working on an anti-aircraft gun-site, but when her battery received a visit from some American soldiers stationed nearby it threw the girls’ bravery into perspective. “The GIs were green as grass,” she recalls. “There was a dance in progress and suddenly the alarm went off, so we all ran like hell for the gun-site. The Americans said, ‘Where’s the shelters?’ and someone told them, ‘We haven’t got any.’ They said, ‘We’re getting out of here, this is too darn dangerous!’ They got into their Studebaker and cleared off, shouting, ‘You’re all mad!’”

Some girls found the strain of life in the services began to get to them after a while. Jean Robinson, 93, was working on an ATS ambulance when a plane crashed nearby. “The pilot was smashed to bits,” she remembers. “That’s when I said, I don’t want to be here anymore – but you couldn’t do as you liked. My dad said to me, ‘I can’t buy you out, there’s a war on!’”

Other women had to carry on with demanding jobs despite facing terrible losses, as sweethearts or family members were killed in the war. Jessie Denby lost her beloved husband Jim, an Army cook, after just three weeks of married life together, when he was killed in an attack on his convoy in Tunisia. Her mother had advised her against a wartime wedding, but with no idea how long the conflict would go on for, the young couple hadn’t wanted to wait. Jessie never regretted her decision, and still lays a poppy down for Jim every year on Remembrance Day.

Many of the women in the forces were doing top-secret war work, and were not allowed to tell their families about it. Wren Pam Harding, 93, worked at an outstation of Bletchley Park, intercepting German naval communications. “It was sent to what we knew as Station X,” she recalls, “although we’d never heard of Bletchley at that time. I can still see myself at the teleprinter, typing in ‘STN-X’, but I hadn’t a clue what it was.”

Years later, Pam and her daughter paid a visit to Bletchley Park for a tour. “There was a big map at the entrance,” she recalls, “and a guide was saying, ‘This is where the dispatch riders came in with messages intercepted at the outstations. And my daughter said, ‘My mother used to work at those places.’ And of course all these people turned and gawped at me!”

Wren Fanny Hugill, 95, worked as a personal assistant to Admiral Tennant, who was involved with planning the D-Day landings. The admiral was in charge of the top-secret operation to build artificial ‘Mulberry’ harbours that could be shipped over to Normandy. 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. Everyone knew the second front was coming, and she said, ‘The real key to a second front will be the harbours.’ I could so easily have said something, but I didn’t.”

Exactly three months after D-Day, Fanny went over to France herself, landing on one of the Mulberries. She spent nine months working in Paris. “It was a very good time,” she recalls. “Paris hadn’t been bombed, so it was pristine compared to poor old London. 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. He was brilliant.”

After D-Day many servicewomen moved across to Europe, helping to support the Allied Expeditionary Force as it marched onwards towards Berlin. Jessie Denby’s ack-ack battery was transferred to a site in Belgium, defending Antwerp from V1 attacks. By the time the Germans finally surrendered, women were stationed all over the world, and they celebrated VE day in a variety of exotic locations, from Sri Lanka to the Egyptian desert.

Author Duncan Barrett’s great-aunt Cathleen Alexander, 94, was in Paris at the time, based with the ATS at Versailles. “I remember seeing a huge crowd,” she says, “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. It was quite a celebration. I’ll never forget the sight of a British Tommy carrying a teapot down the Champs Elysees.”

Wren Geraldine Wells, 91, was working on a naval base at Scapa Flow, where she witnessed the surrender of the German U-boat fleet. “They were all lined up, about 20 of them,” she remembers. “We saw the crews being marched away and were allowed to go on board one. It was very strange to think, they nearly starved us out during the Battle of the Atlantic. So many merchantmen lost, keeping the country supplied with food. That was a strange experience.”

With the war over, many women continued to be sent abroad, and some ended up in Germany. Pam Harding went to Frankfurt. “I lived behind barbed wire, and was only allowed out with an armed escort,” she remembers. “I had known bomb damage in Bristol, London and Dover, but I had never seen anything like the damage in Frankfurt. It was absolutely levelled, so there was not much point in going out.”

Eventually, girls in uniform all over the world began to be called back to Britain for demobbing. It was a swift and efficient procedure, and by the time they left, with nothing but a railway warrant home and a few coupons to buy civilian clothes, there were plenty of tears. Many girls felt like fish out of water back in ‘Civvy Street’ and were unsure how to readjust to civilian life. Margery Harley, 94, continued to wear her WAAF uniform for two months after she was demobbed, while Jessie Denby went out and bought the next best thing – a brown blouse and skirt that could almost have passed for ATS issue.

But many left the forces having made friends for life, and those who still survive meet up regularly through local branches of the WAAF, WRNS and ATS associations that still exist all around Britain.

Nearly all of the women interviewed for the book look back on their time in the forces as one of the happiest of their lives. As WAAF driver Winifred Armstrong puts it: “The best thing about it was the companionship. Everybody was pulling the same way. We were all there to do whatever we could to end the war.”

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