Women in the War by Lucy Fisher with a foreword by Baroness Boothroyd
Harper Collins, £20, 291 pages
There is one point on which women who served in the Second World War all agree: wartime experience not only changed them: it altered the status, and even the self-worth, of women in general. As Christian Lamb (born 1920) of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) put it: “From 1940 onwards, women were held in greater esteem and were able to take on a bigger role outside the home.”
Although a Labour MP, Agnes Hardie argued that “war is not a woman’s job”, and, as mothers, should be exempt from war service, the women who were active in nursing, in SOE (Special Operations), as WAAF pilots, radio operators, land girls, and doing vital code work at Bletchley Park (where 80 per cent of the code-breakers and interpreters were female) felt they had benefited – in independence, in personal confidence, in discipline and maturing. All those in this collection married, and almost all had children and grandchildren.
Despite having witnessed the suffering and deprivations of war, most of the group interviewed by journalist Lucy Fisher had personally positive experiences. Most men they encountered seem to have been well-mannered, and the American servicemen who came to England were downright chivalrous, according to Hilda Bainbridge (born 1921) of the Women’s Land Army. There were romances, friendships and camaraderie, and chaps seemed to be awfully sporting if girls gave them the heave-ho.
Betty Webb, (born 1923), who worked at Bletchley, told an ardent swain that the romance was off – she just wanted to be good friends, and he took the disappointment with manly grace. In an era when we hear so much about “toxic masculinity”, and men who harass and pester, grope and rape, it’s wholesomely refreshing to glimpse this world of apparent decency. The only evident exception occurred when Joy Hunter, (born 1925) a secretary in the Cabinet War Rooms (mingling with Churchill) was disconcerted, when visiting Washington DC, to see men “accosting” women in the street.
Ena Collymore-Woodstock, (born 1917) the first Caribbean woman to train as a radar operator, didn’t even encounter personal racism – although this may have been because of Ena’s own positive attitude. Unofficial colour bars did exist, and black people were barred from some jobs and could be refused accommodation, and entry to dance-halls. But Ena herself had no problem. “I was confident … I had a good time in England. I had very good friends … I didn’t meet with any great prejudice.” Princess Mary, George V’s daughter, gave her a particularly warm reception.
Connie Hoe, (born 1922) a munitions worker who was half-English and half-Chinese, grew up in a warm community environment in London’s Limehouse where racism wasn’t an issue either: when she was orphaned, a kindly neighbour just took her in and raised her as her own child.
These 10 women, the last survivors of the war generation, are by definition, unusual. They have known hard times, but all seem to have stable personalities. These were “good” girls – there are no unmarried mothers or wild rebels who went astray.
Perhaps there is also another common denominator: the extreme discretion that was drummed into them in wartime. Repeatedly, they were told “careless talk costs lives”, and they internalised that rule. Those who worked at Bletchley kept the secret of their labours until 1975. They couldn’t tell subsequent employers what they had been doing during the war; Betty Webb didn’t even tell the man she married. Sadly, he died before the secrecy protocols were lifted, so he never knew.
Sad, too, that the Women’s Land Army was regarded as the “poor relation” of those who served. Hilda Bainbridge applied to join the British Legion post-war but was refused. “They said, you’re not service. We poor Land Army have got that all our lives.” It was not until 2014 that a national monument was erected to the Land Army girls.
Surprisingly, too, spiritual or religious sensibilities are seldom mentioned, although Joy Hunter was a vicar’s daughter who later worked for the Archbishop of Canterbury and Christian Lamb went to a Catholic boarding school and was married at the exquisite St James’s Church in London. But perhaps religious feelings are also subject to the discretion and privacy which was a mark of this outstanding generation.
Lucy Fisher’s book is a fine witness to that cohort now passing, and a valued archive for women’s studies. The text might have benefited from an occasional footnote – such as illuminating the hair-raising life of that controversial Ulster warrior, Blair “Paddy” Mayne, who makes a brief appearance in these dispatches.
Mary Kenny is a journalist, broadcaster and playwright.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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