WOMEN IN CIVILIAN LIFE DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

 

WOMEN IN CIVILIAN LIFE DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon became Queen when her husband King George VI was forced to accept the throne after his brother abdicated in 1936. The King and Queen became the national symbol in the fight against fascism when the Second World War began. It was thought the Queen and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret would be evacuated to America or Canada. Her reply to the suggestion was: “The children won’t go without me, I won’t leave the King, and the King will never leave”. The first few months were fairly quiet in Britain until the 7th September 1940 when the Luftwaffe began their Blitz of Britain. For the next fifty-seven nights London was bombed consecutively and part of the city was completely destroyed, but the British Monarchy remained intact. At the height of the raids the King and Queen spent their working days at Buckingham Palace and their nights at Windsor Castle. Buckingham Palace was bombed several times and Queen Elizabeth declared:  “I’m glad we have been bombed. Now I can look the East End in the face”. The King and Queen had chosen to stay in London and endure the hardships of their subjects rather than be evacuated to safety. Because of this Adolf Hitler called her the “most dangerous women in Europe”. He considered her to be one of the biggest morale boosters for her subjects during the darkest days and viewed her popularity as a threat to German interests. When the Second World War ended on the 8th May 1945 the King and Queen appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to the rapturous applause of the waiting crowds. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret had been allowed to wander incognito in the crowds and take part in the celebrations. The Second World War officially ended on 15th August 1945 with the victory in Japan.

Until the last 36 hours of her life, Eva Braun’s relationship with Adolf Hitler went unacknowledged. Only a handful of his most trusted associates knew of her existence. She was born in February 1912 to a devout Catholic mother and strict Protestant father. She developed an early interest in in photography which led her to becoming Hitler’s court photographer. Hitler first noticed her in October 1929 as she was precisely the sort of pretty unthreatening girl to appeal to him. Two years later he began to take her seriously and she gradually consolidated her place in his affections. From 1935 she was the effective hostess at Berghof, Hitler’s Alpine retreat where she established a relaxing atmosphere for him to enjoy. It will never be known whether Hitler’s interest in Eva was paternal or sexual. By being excluded from official functions and Hitler’s increasing absences she was frequently bored but she remained fiercely loyal to him. With Germany almost defeated in April 1945, Eva travelled from Munich to Berlin to be with Hitler at the Führerbunker. She refused to leave as the Red Army closed in on the capital. After midnight on the night of the 28th/29th April 1945, Hitler and Eva were married in a small civil ceremony within the Führerbunker. The event was witnessed by Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann. Shortly after Hitler hosted a small wedding breakfast with his new wife. After 1.00 pm on the 30th April 1945, Eva and Hitler said their farewells to staff and members of the inner circle. Later that afternoon, at approximately 3.30 pm, several people reported hearing a gunshot. After waiting a few minutes, Hitler’s valet and SS adjutant entered the small study and found the lifeless bodies of Hitler and Eva on a small sofa. Eva had bitten into a cyanide capsule and Hitler had shot himself in his right temple. The corpses were carried up the stairs and through the bunker’s emergency exit into the garden of the Reich Chancellery, where they were set alight and burned so they did not fall into the hands of the approaching Russians. Eva was 33 years old when she died.

Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel was born at the Loire area of Saumur in France in August 1883. She and her two sisters were brought up in a convent orphanage after their mother died of Tuberculosis and had been abandoned by their father when she was aged 12. Her two brothers were sent to work as farm labourers. At the orphanage she learnt how to sew which enabled her to become a future fashion designer and business woman. Aged 18 Coco went to live in a boarding house for Catholic girls and found employment as a seamstress. When not sewing she sang in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. She acquired the name “Coco” when singing the song ‘Who has seen Coco’. She moved to the town of Vichy in an attempt to have a singing career but was not successful. She moved back to the Loire area and aged 23 she met a young textile heir and ex-cavalry officer Étianne Balsan and became his mistress. In 1908 Coco had an affair with Balsan’s friend, Captain Arthur Edward Capel, who was a wealthy member of the English upper class. She was installed in an apartment in Paris by Capel and he financed her first shops. She broke free of the convention that women should wear corsets and be subservient to men with her style of clothes she designed and made. Whilst living with Balsan she began designing hats and obtained a milliners licence enabling her to open a boutique in Paris. As an advertising and marketing aid Coco instructed master perfumer, Ernest Beaux to develop a new fragrance to enhance her new dress collection which was being presented on the 5th May 1921.  The new perfume, Chanel No. 5, was named after the fifth day and the fifth month, and it is still called Chanel No, 5. Coco’s fashion industry expanded into a formidable business at the beginning of the Second World War. During the German occupation of France she closed her shops in Paris stating it was not a time for fashion. She resided at the Hotel Ritz and her controversial romantic liaison with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage made her accommodation arrangements far easier. Dincklage reported directly to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The Ritz was the preferred place of residence for upper-class German military staff. Declassified archival documents have indicated that Coco had links to the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and that she was enlisted in the summer of 1941 and working as a spy. There is still some doubt as to whether she was listed as an agent. Her first mission appears to be that she went to Madrid to identify Nazi sympathisers and recruit them as potential spies. In 1943 she travelled with Dincklage to Berlin for the bungled “0peration Modelhutt” (Model Hat) in which she acted as a messenger for Walter Schellenberg, head of foreign S.S. intelligence. The aim was to try to persuade Winston Churchill that elements of the Nazi party wished to seek peace with the Allies.  Coco seemed to be the perfect person to deliver the message to Churchill as they had been friends before the war. The plan failed in because Churchill did not respond to the request. A fortnight after Paris was liberated in August 1944, two French resistance officers escorted her from the Ritz to the offices that dealt with Nazi collaborators. A few hours later she was released and it has been assumed Churchill intervened when she should have been punished as collaborator. She promptly fled to Switzerland with her lover Dincklage and   returned to France in 1949.  Coco’s comeback collection of couture debuted in 1953 and within three seasons she enjoyed new found respect. She lived permanently at the Hotel Ritz in Paris from 1954 until her death at the age of 87 on the 10th January 1971.

Irene Coffee (nee Brann) was a German-Jew born in Dresden in 1912. Nazi Germany was determined to exterminate the Jewish population, and after her father died in 1933 she eventually left for London in 1937. She entered into a marriage of convenience with a man called Aaron Coffee but the couple did not live together. Her new civil status enabled her to bring her mother safely to England. Although Irene found employment she did not feel secure, as she was regarded by her neighbours as being German not Jewish. By October 1941 the Germans had overrun most of Europe, and Irene imagined a German invasion of Britain and consequently the deportation to a concentration camp. In 1941 overcome by despair Irene and her mother took an overdose of sleeping tablets. This proved fatal for her mother but Irene survived and she was brought to trial for the murder of her mother and attempted suicide. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. The presiding judge, although he had passed the sentence had misgivings and wrote to the home secretary recommending commuting the sentence to life imprisonment. In due course King George VI granted this request. As a result of further representations by her lawyers she was released. After being freed she moved to the North of England then to Switzerland and finally to Australia. It is doubtful she succeeded in making a proper new life even though she remarried, and on the 30th September 1968 she again took an overdose of sleeping tablets. This time they achieved the desired effect.

The Diary of Anne Frank, is a book of the writings from the diary kept by Jewish Anne Frank while she was in hiding with her family for two years during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam the capital of the Netherlands. For her thirteenth birthday Anne received a red chequered autograph book and she began writing in it on the 14th June 1942. Anne’s older sister Margot received an official summons to report to a Nazi work-camp in Germany on the 6th July 1942 and the following day the family went into hiding, together with her father’s business partner and family. Their hiding place was in the sealed-off upper rooms of the annex at the back of the Frank’s company building. The family dentist joined them four months later, making a total of eight in hiding, and they remained hidden for two years and one month with the assistance of the trusted colleagues of Anne’s father. In August 1944 they were discovered and deported to several Nazi concentration camps. It is not known whether they were betrayed or whether a police raid accidently discovered them. Of the eight people who went into hiding, only Anne’s father Otto survived the war. Anne died when she was fifteen in Bergen-Belsen of typhus sometime between February and April 1945. After confirmation of her death the diaries were given to Otto and he duly had them published in 1947.

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Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, both international film actresses were children when Germany had occupied Holland and with Italy’s assistance occupied Italy itself.  Both countries were liberated by the Allies. The two girls went on to international acclaim after the war.

Audrey Hepburn was born near Brussels in Belgium in 1920 and moved with her family to Arnhem in Holland during 1937, as her mother was a Dutch noblewoman. Her father, who was English, was living in Britain and Audrey and her mother joined him, but in 1938 her parents divorced. After two years living in Britain, prior to the outbreak of war, Audrey and mother re-located to Arnhem. After the invasion and occupation of the Netherlands, Audrey attended a local school and continued the ballet lessons she had started whilst living in Britain. It has been rumoured but not confirmed that she participated in the Dutch resistance as she had frequently witnessed the transportation of Dutch Jews to concentration camps. She was especially traumatised by seeing children being taken away from their parents and wearing clothes far too big for them. Living conditions became steadily worse after D-Day and Arnhem was heavily damaged during Operation Market Garden. From her experiences and malnutrition she was to suffer health problems for the rest of her life.

Sophia Loren was an illegitimate child born in Rome during 1934, and before the Second World War started, her family moved and lived with her grandmother in Pozzuoli near Naples. During the Second World War, the harbour and munitions plant in Pozzuoli was frequently bombed by the Allies and during one raid Sophia was struck by shrapnel and wounded on the chin. Distant relatives took the family in when they moved to Naples. After the war Sophia’s family moved back to Pozzuoli where her grandmother opened a bar with Sophia waiting at tables and washing up. The place was popular with American GI’s who were stationed nearby.

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Wallis Simpson, later known as the Duchess of Windsor, was an American socialite whose intended marriage to British King Edward VIII caused a constitutional crisis that led to Edward’s abdication. She was born Bessie Wallis Warfield on the 19th June 1896 and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Her first marriage to U.S. Naval officer Win Spencer ended in divorce owing to the long separations entailed in a naval career. During her second marriage to Ernest Simpson she met Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1931. After Edward’s accession to the throne in 1936 Wallis divorced her second husband to marry Edward. Her aim was to be Queen hence her willingness to marry Edward. A constitutional crisis developed in the United Kingdom and the Dominions over the King’s desire to marry a woman who had two living ex-husbands. In December 1936 Edward abdicated to marry Wallis. His brother King George VI created the title Duke of Windsor for Edward and upon their marriage Wallis was formally known as the Duchess of Windsor but did not achieve “Royal Highness” status. Leading up to and during the Second World War the British government suspected Edward and Wallis of being Nazi sympathisers as they had travelled to Germany and met Adolf Hitler. In 1940 the Duke was appointed governor of the Bahamas and the couple moved to the islands until he relinquished the office in 1945. Shuffling between Europe and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s they lived a life of leisure as society celebrities. When the Duke died in 1972 Wallis lived in seclusion and was suffering ill health and rarely seen in public. Aged 89 she died on the 24th April 1986 at her home in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris. Wallis remains a controversial figure in British history as her private life has been a source of much speculation.

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Women’s role in the first half of the Twentieth Century had seen a dramatic change. When the Suffragette‘s first came to prominence women had not been encouraged to show their potential, apart from relatively few women throughout history. The main women forerunners in history were either Royalty or from aristocratic backgrounds whilst the remainder of the female population were looked upon as homemakers and mothers. There were stirrings of the change of attitude in women during the Nineteenth Century, but the Suffragette movement began to alter the public’s attention. Eventually the Suffragette movement secured the vote for women. The First World War provided the opportunity for women to prove what they could achieve. They took on more traditionally accepted female roles such as nursing serving in overseas hospitals administering to injured soldiers. They also filled the vacancies in the factories and on the land that were needed filling when the men went to war to fight. During and after the war, women began to relish the freedom that their experiences had given them. Many women were not prepared to return to the role of servant to aristocratic families as the social system had been eradicated by the war. They realised they could achieve different roles. Women’s lives were to alter dramatically during the Roaring Twenties with the onset of new fashion, new music and more money being available. Most of the population were to suffer during the depression years of the Thirties. With the onset of the Second World War, women again came to the fore in the manufacturing and agricultural industries and generally performing many traditional male orientated roles. In addition there were many more military positions available and women not only took advantage of, but successfully managed to reach a position of authority. Present day women now have the opportunity to succeed where in the past they were frowned on. They excel in universities, become doctors, lawyers and barristers and often run their own companies. There is still a long way to go before women achieve parity and there will always be the problems of acceptance. Both male and female must agree that there are differences between the two genders and total equality is not possible. However, an acceptable compromise can be achieved by encouraging females to be feminine and males to be masculine and allowing both sexes to perform what they are best at. Most of these opportunities have been achieved by the efforts of women throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century.

 

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