Women in War: from Home Front to Front Line – now out in paperback edition, a tribute to the courageous fair sex
By James Brewer
“You didn’t think about being a woman at that time.” Thus, unassumingly, remarked one of the British secret agents on the deadly risks she had taken daily under the noses of the Nazis during World War Two.
Every line in a 237-page book newly published in paperback is packed with startling insight and incident based on the experiences of women, both combatants and non-combatants, in modern wartime. The remarkable Women in War, from Home Front to Front Line shines awe-inspiring light on the huge and expanding variety of roles that were gallantly taken up by what some used to call “the gentle sex.”
The book is bursting with gripping personal stories that illustrate the courage of women amid the merciless and cruel sweep of war. International conflict ripped apart the culturally received notions of the female’s place in society. Participants deemed to be heroes were hitherto in the vast majority, men. Such a motif was to be dramatically undercut.
One of the messages of the book is that nations which recognised the value of mobilising the whole adult population – not just half of it — had a priceless strategic and economic advantage over those with a more limited vision of what women could contribute.
It is in her chapter on British agents during the Second World War that Dr Juliette Pattinson of Kent University School of History tells of the ‘ordinary’ young women who were recruited by Special Operations Executive (SOE), a clandestine UK organisation that worked with the Resistance to Nazism. For these volunteers, this was an enormous physical and mental challenge.
Despite some women rarely stopping to think that their gender was relevant, Dr Pattinson’s research shows that it could be. For instance, being an attractive young woman had its advantages when trying to fool German soldiers on the lookout for resisters.
This was proven by one of the Resistance couriers, the tenacious Jos Mulder Gemmeke, a British-trained Dutch national, who recalled later that as a young woman “you could change your hair, your clothes, you could charm a lot of people, flirt… when I arrived at a station if I had luggage which was heavy and dangerous, I looked for a German soldier and asked him to carry my luggage, and it always worked.”
Jos noted that being “a woman in that time was very important because they didn’t look so much for women as for men of course… As a girl you could do a lot more.”
Dr Pattinson is one of 17 contributors to Women in War, from Home Front to Front Line, edited by Celia Lee and Paul Edward Strong which was issued in hardback in 2012. It is well worth the reprint. Remedying a neglect in some quarters until recent years of the hugely important role of women amid hostilities, Ms Lee and Mr Strong set up a Women-in-War group within the British Commission for Military History, and the book is a tribute to their dedication.
Thanks to them and others, the presence of women in the field of action is better documented, but it would be a mistake to think that it was for centuries a “no woman’s land.” In tombs 2,400 years old dug by the nomadic Scythians, women were buried armed and dressed as though for battle – perhaps these were the ‘real’ Amazons, who according to the Greek historian Herodotus married into Scythian tribes. It could be that such horsewomen were left to defend the cattle while their men raided over long distances, but it seems that at the least they were doughty horse-warriors.
Unsurprisingly, much of the book in question deals with the second world war. In the struggle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, women were drawn into direct combat roles on an unprecedented level, although with depredations that left millions dead this is not an era that allows for neat conclusions.
Enlisting women into the British army was proposed by Sergeant Major Edward Baker in 1898, according to Imogen Corrigan, a freelance lecturer. She recounts that Baker was wounded while serving in Sudan and unkind critics said he must have been hallucinating when he came up with the idea that led to the formation of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) in 1907.
The mission of members of the FANY was to ride horses into the battlefield and carry off the wounded for medical help – which required astonishing courage. Confounding the sceptics, by the end of the war there were numerous organisations including the Women’s Emergency Corps, Women’s Legion and Women’s Defence Relief Corps. Many were eventually incorporated into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the forerunner of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) which was formed exactly a year before the outbreak of World War Two. The idea was to replace men in non-combatant roles, and the barriers were slow to come down. Even so, a firm basis was laid for women to work alongside men as part of recognised military units. Ms Corrigan is a noble product of this breakthrough: three generations of her family served in the forces. Now a freelance lecturer, who has a first-class degree in medieval history, Ms Corrigan served for 20 years in the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) and the Adjutant General’s Corps. Her grandmother, Gladys Brotherton, née Spencer, was a member of the Women’s Emergency Corps, Women’s Legion.
Mrs Mary Andrews (née Brotherton) believes that Princess Elizabeth chose to go into the ATS to try to improve the attitude of the public towards that branch of the service. Among examples of chauvinism, Ms Corrigan tells how an ATS officer tried to dissuade Mrs Joan Hill (née Hewitt) from working in a searchlight unit because she did not look strong enough. A woman convoy driver was turned away from a billet in Fleet, Hampshire, by local police who said it was “a respectable town.”
Searchlights were introduced into the air defence system from 1935, although it was not until September 1941 thanks to Winston Churchill that women could be involved. The 93rd Searchlight Regiment Royal Artillery became the first all-female active service combat unit in the army.
There was anxiety about how the ‘girls’ of the ATS would cope on bleak sites with potentially dangerous work. In fact, as their boss, General Sir Frederick Pile, noted, they showed themselves more effective, more awe-inspiring and more blood-thirsty than men. When General Pile called for equal pay, the idea was dismissed as “breath-taking and revolutionary.”
In her chapter Dr Pattinson examines the extraordinary wartime of the ‘ordinary’ young women who were recruited by SOE. Using published autobiographies, official documents and interviews with surviving female agents, she examines how recruits were chosen, the training they undertook, their operational missions and, for some, their suffering during captivity.
UK defence writer Georgina Natzio in a survey entitled Homeland Defence: British Gunners, Women and Ethics during the Second World War illuminates the ethical quandary around the introduction of women into direct conflict. The British and the Germans were unsure of how closely involved women should be in killing enemy combatants, and even their role in homeland defence stimulated bitter debate. By the close of 1944, more women than men were serving in Anti-Aircraft Command. Ms Natzio shares the admiration of Ms Corrigan for General Pile, who with his staff largely conquered inter-sex rivalry and identity problems by emphasising the high national and operational value of male-female partnership.
Prolific author Jonathan Walker reviews the career of Sue Ryder, from her recruitment into the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry to her work with the Polish section of the SOE. As an agent handler, she chaperoned and counselled agents ahead of their being dropped by parachute into enemy-occupied Europe. Mr Walker says that Sue Ryder typified the strong compassionate members of FANY who fulfilled this role, and whose service extended overseas as the fortunes of the Allies improved in 1943. In 1953, she established the Sue Ryder Foundation, a title changed in 2011 to Sue Ryder, a charity which continues her work. Jonathan Walker’s books include The Blue Beast: Power & Passion in The Great War (History Press) which exposes the scandalous private lives of men in power during the Great War.
Mike Ryan chronicles the flying skill and bravado of female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary who to the public lived in the shadow of the Royal Air Force, ferrying planes – including fighters and bombers – to home airfields. Fifteen of the woman pilots lost their lives, including the most famous, Amy Johnson. In 1930, in a second-hand Gipsy Moth called Jason, Amy had been the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia and set other long-distance records. On January 5, 1941, while ferrying a plane from Blackpool to RAF Kidlington near Oxford, she went off course in poor weather and drowned after bailing out.
Diana Barnato (later Barnato-Walker) was among other flying heroines. She delivered several hundred aircraft including 260 Spitfires. On one occasion a Typhoon she was flying began to break up, but she nursed it to land safely. In 1963, after a casual remark in an officers’ mess, she was invited to fly one of the RAF’s new supersonic Lightnings. Following clearance from the ministry of defence, she became the first British woman to break the sound barrier.
Celia Lee writes of the selfless wartime role of Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark who was born in Athens in 1906, and in 1934 married George, the fourth son of King George V and Queen Mary. As Duchess of Kent she was invited by Winston Churchill to become honorary commandant of the WRNS during the Second World War. The slogan was: “Join the Wrens – and free a man for the fleet.”
From the outset, says Celia Lee, she was an inspirational figure: “royal, tall, beautiful and hardworking… ideal for a leadership role.” She was one of the first members of the royal family to make a live broadcast during wartime and in response to her appeal on the radio in January 1941, more than 3,000 women applied to join the service.
Marina became a war widow when, six weeks after giving birth to Prince Michael, her husband Prince George was killed in a plane crash.
She gained a huge following through a tireless round of visits to the main centres of the WRNS, keeping up morale among those who were carrying out often mundane and tiresome tasks. During her tenure, a woman known as Nurse Kay became a nursing auxiliary at University College Hospital, being assigned to routine duties on ward 16 including applying surgical dressings, making beds and serving meals. Then one day a patient recognised her – Nurse Kay was Princess Marina in disguise.
The call-up of unmarried women between the ages of 18 and 45 began in July 1939. Later the age was lowered to 17 and included married women without children. Enrolment began with women living near the largest naval ports such as Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham and Rosyth. From 1941 they worked as radio and air mechanics, and as maintenance, torpedo and boat crews. They formed nearly 85% of the naval staff at Bletchley Park code-breaking centre. Wrens hardly ever served on naval ships, but were employed on service boats, delivering stores, despatches and collected damaged boats during the Normandy invasions for towage back to England. In 1993, the WRNS was incorporated into the Royal Navy.
Celia Lee is the author of HRH The Duke of Kent, A Life of Service and other titles.
There are many more episodes in Women in War from the theatre of life and death.
George Bailey dedicates a chapter to his mother, Tatiana Saczkowska (later Mrs Bailey) who was born in Yekaterinoslav, Ukraine, and whose father Nikolai was the engineer captain of a Russian mine laying cruiser which frustrated German shipping but was later torpedoed. The family moved to Antwerp, but Nikolai wanted to serve on British ships and left on one of the last ships out of Belgium, leaving behind his wife and daughter, who decided to flee in 1940 as the Wehrmacht surged through the country.
Tatiana and family and friends made a desperate flight through France seeking a port that was open to merchant shipping. At Bordeaux the British consulate refused to help because of priority for British subjects. Eventually Tatiana broke down in front of a consular official who took pity on her and her mother and stamped their visa for the next ship, a coal carrier making its way to Newcastle-on-Tyne, and on which they slept in the dust-filled empty hold. They were lucky not to have been torpedoed by a U-boat, which sank another ship nearby.
Another author, Christine Halsall, writes of the work of intelligence analysts at the Allied Central Interpretation Unit, who reviewed hundreds of thousands of aerial photographs taken by the RAF over Germany and German-occupied territories. The unit, including the team that identified the V-weapon threat, was said to be a truly integrated service, with no ‘glass ceiling.’ The cover of Women in War reproduces a photo of the WAAF Hazel Furney, who worked in photographic interpretation with RAF Medmenham L section which monitored enemy aircraft production.
Christine Halsall’s book: Women of Intelligence: Photographic Interpretation In The Second World War, was published in 2012 by History Press.
While the brilliant exploits of a handful of academics and intellectuals are justly celebrated for their work in cracking the fiendishly complex German Enigma code, their work would have come to naught without the thousands of women who processed the data at Station X. John Lee tells the story of the Government Communications Headquarters at Bletchley Park, with a special emphasis on the essential role of women of all three armed services and civilian workers from the Foreign Office.
The medical researcher Grace Filby (who died in 2016) reveals the pioneering work of women microbiologists at the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, during the Second World War and the Cold War. This chapter treats of the diseases and infections that have plagued society for many years and have killed thousands of soldiers during wartime. Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine were not immune – their two-year-old daughter Marigold was in 1921 struck down by septicaemia.
Paul Strong considers the experiences of women in both combat and support units on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, including German intelligence officers, brutal SS guards, Russian snipers, Soviet tank commanders, and the Russian female unit that the Germans nicknamed the Night Witches. Although the Nazis were ideologically opposed to the enlistment of women, some 450,000 would eventually serve as auxiliaries including ferry pilots and signals specialists. The Soviet Union was renowned for its women snipers, tank drivers and fearless pilots, but the million women in uniform were more usually in nursing and support roles. A small country such as Finland which was threatened by a larger one, in this case the USSR, was obliged to put a larger proportion of its women into the armed forces than any other nation.
Dr Halik Kochanski, an independent historian writes of families living in eastern Poland where the German attack that opened the Second World War was almost the least of their troubles. Their homeland was invaded from the east by the Soviet Union, and they were uprooted, hounded by secret police, and exiled deep within Stalin’s empire. While some escaped to the west with the army of General Anders, others were conscripted into the Polish units of the Red Army. Dr Kochanski’s latest book titled The Eagle Unbowed: The Polish People and the Second World War was published by Penguin in 2012.
Mr Strong and Ms Lee say in their introduction that modern technical advances that enable women to carry deadly weapons do not solve the broader cultural issues that complicate the debate.
It must be added that those same advances have been used to procure child soldiers. There are more chapters to be written in other forums on that disturbing phenomenon, and on robots, drones, cyber-attacks and artificial intelligence in warfare.
Photo captions in detail:
An ATS woman with ‘A’ troop 484/139 (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery, in the control room at Haecht in Belgium 1945. (Imperial War Museum)
Tatiana Saczkowska (later Mrs Bailey), escaped to England in early 1940.
Sergeant Gladys May Brotherton (née Spencer) ATS, and Lieutenant Mary Wandless Brotherton, her daughter in May 1942. Gladys was a driver with the Women’s Legion 1917.
Private Joan Hill (née Hewitt).
Princess Marina the Duchess of Kent, Commandant of the WRNS 1940. (HRH The Duke of Kent)
Diana Barnato-Walker broke the sound barrier in an RAF Lightning 1963.
Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia 1930.
Women in War: From Home Front to Front Line, is published by Pen & Sword, price £12.99 or $24.95, paperback. ISBN: 9781526766618.