MILITARY PERSONNEL WOMEN OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
The award of the British Empire Medal to driver Elizabeth Glen Booth of the Fleet Air Arm was the first gallantry medal awarded to a wren. She was on duty at the Crossaig Bombing Range near the Royal Naval Air Station Machrihaigh at Argyle & Bute, Scotland when a Swordfish aircraft crashed in flames. Wren Booth pulled the observer from the burning wreck and drove him to a doctor, but to no avail. She was presented with the medal by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.
Mary Churchill was the youngest of the five children of Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine. Mary was born on the 15th September 1922 and was raised at the Churchill home at Chartwell in Kent. At the outbreak of war she worked for the Red Cross and the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS). In 1941 she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), serving on mixed anti-aircraft batteries in London and Belgium. She rose to the rank of Junior Commander in the ATS, accompanying her father as aide-de-camp on several of his overseas journeys. One of her trips was the post-VE meeting at Potsdam where Churchill met Harry S. Trueman and Joseph Stalin. In 1945, in recognition of her meritorious military service she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). She married Christopher Soames in 1947 and they had five children. She led a full and active life and died aged 91 on the 11th May 2014.
Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen of England, enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS) on her eighteenth birthday the 21st April 1944. She was employed as a mechanic and driver and she took her duties seriously. Taking pride in her work she got her hands dirty in order to be called a mechanic. Every vehicle she worked on she learned to drive. On the 8th May 1945, VE day, Elizabeth and her sister Margaret were allowed to mingle with and join the crowds to take part in the victory celebrations.
Muriel Hall was born on the 24th September 1921 in Faversham in Kent. Her father died of illness in 1923 after surviving the Great War. She was sent to live with her grandparents who ran the local telephone exchange and lived only a few streets away. She lived with her grandparents until she was about 8 years old then moved to Maidstone to be with her mother who had remarried. Aged 16 she went to the Cromwell Hotel in London for an interview in the telephone exchange. She was asked to start immediately. At the outbreak of war she received her call up papers and was drafted straight into the Royal Signals as a telephonist. She spent most of the war attached to Headquarters, either the Southern, South Eastern or Scottish branch. However, Muriel was sent to a typing school to be taught teleprompting, typing and shorthand. The army also taught her how to use the teleprinter. Her experience of the teleprinter enabled her to join Reuters and she was based in Cabinet War Rooms. Muriel served in the Royal Signals Cabinet War Rooms for Reuters during the final year of the Second World War. Muriel’s words at the time were, “It was sad that it was spoilt for the King and Churchill. Someone in the USA broke the embargo that the war was over and therefore the announcement by Reuters had to be forwarded to all relevant parties”. The announcement was – “19.41 pm London Monday tomorrow will be VE day Europe full stop Churchill ET King will broadcast – Reuter”. Muriel was instructed to forward the message to all concerned by teleprinter that the “war in Europe was over”. She passed the message on and left her office at approximately 8.00 am on the 8th May 1945. After hearing that the Prime Minister Winston Churchill would be stating The King would be making a speech at 3.00 pm, she went home. She wasn’t permanently attached to Winston Churchill’s office, but whenever he needed anything typed, whom ever was available, would be seconded to his office. She took shorthand notes and his various letters etc. on a number of occasions. After the war Muriel and her husband Robert Belson, who she married in 1942, served in Malaya and she became a member of the Red Cross where she learnt to speak the language. Her husband worked as a head teacher in a local school, and he was transferred to Jamaica. Muriel went with him. After their tour of Jamaica was finished, Muriel and her husband came back to England in the late 1950s. She secured a position in the civil service until and remained until her retirement. Muriel died aged 89 in 2010.
Dubbed “Flying Nightingales” by the press, nursing orderlies of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) flew on RAF transport planes to evacuate the wounded from the Normandy battlefield. The Royal Air Force Air Ambulance Unit nurses were trained to treat broken bones, missing limbs, head injuries and burns. RAF Dakota aircraft were used to transport the nurses, stores and military to the battle area. Because of this the aircraft did not display the “Red Cross” sign, which they were entitled to, when they transported the wounded back to Britain. Most female medical and dental officers were commissioned into the RAF and held RAF ranks, whereas the Air Force nurses belonged to Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service. The WAAF was established in 1939 as the female auxiliary of the RAF and was discontinued in 1949, when it was renamed the Women’s Royal Air Force. Several members of the WAAF served with the Special Operations Executive during the war. During the course of its operations the WAAF had four Air Chief Commandants.
Dame Jane Trefusis Forbes, January 1939 to October 1943.
HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, October 1943 to August 1944.
Dame Mary Walsh, August 1944 to November 1946.
Dame Felicity Hanbury MBE, December 1946 to January 1949.
Norma Lodge was qualified in maths and physics when she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) determined to do anything but office work. As an experiment to assess her ability to take on a job that was normally operated by men she was trained as a radio location mechanic. She was posted to Charminster in Dorset where she learnt about faults and all forms of maintenance of the tracking systems on anti-aircraft sites. The work was classified as highly secret and very complicated. She was one of the first women admitted into the newly formed Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers (REME).
Mariya Vasilyevna Oktyabrskaya was a Soviet tank driver and mechanic who fought on the Eastern Front against the Nazi German army. After her husband was killed in 1941 Mariya sold her possessions to donate a tank to the war effort and requested she be allowed to drive it. She donated and drove a T-34 medium tank, which she named “Fighting Girlfriend”. Mariya proved her ability and bravery in battle and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. She was killed in action, aged 38, in 1944 and was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union’s highest award for bravery during combat. She was the first of the few female tank drivers to be awarded this honour.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a Soviet sniper in the Red Army and credited with 309 kills. She is regarded as one of the top military snipers of all time and the most successful female sniper in history. When Germany began its invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the 24year old Lyudmila was studying history at Kiev University. She volunteered and was assigned to the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division. As her kill rate increased she was promoted until June 1942 when Lieutenant Pavlichenko was wounded and her confirmed kills were recorded as being 309 including 36 enemy snipers. She was withdrawn from combat after recovery from her wounds, and sent to Canada and the United States for a publicity visit. She was the first Soviet citizen to have an audience with the U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyudmila was later invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to tour America and relating her experiences. Her tour was a total success. Back in the Soviet Union she never returned to combat but trained Soviet snipers until the end of the war. She returned to university after the war to complete her education and began a career as a historian. Lyudmila died on the 1oth October 1974 aged 58.
Corporal Daphne Pearson was the first Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) member to be awarded the George Cross. The medal is the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross for gallantry and “acts of the greatest heroism or for the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger” not in the face of the enemy. This applies to members of the British armed forces and to British civilians. An aircraft crash-landed near her WAAF quarters at Dettling in Kent on the 31st May 1940 and Daphne ran over to help get the crew free from the burning wreckage, despite knowing there was at least one loaded bomb. One officer had been killed, two airmen were slightly injured and the pilot had serious injuries. She released him from the aircraft, administered first aid next to the wreckage, released his parachute and managed to get him away from the plane. When they were about 30 yards away a 120 lb bomb exploded and she threw herself over the pilot to protect him from the blast and splinters. On the 31st January 1941 she was presented the George Cross by King George VI. Daphne was born in Christchurch, Dorset on the 25th May 1911. As her father was a vicar in the church she moved with her parents onto the Isle of Wight. She joined the WAAF as a medical officer at the outbreak of the war in 1939. A month after her courageous action she was commissioned as a section officer and for the remainder of the war she served mainly in recruitment. She became the assistant governor of a women’s borstal after demobilisation in 1946. She then worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Daphne emigrated to Australia after a visit in 1969 where worked as a horticulturist. She attended reunions of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association until her death in Melbourne in 2000 aged 89.
When the Great War ended Flora Sandes, the only English lady to have served in the trenches, continued to serve in the Serbian Army until finally being demobilised in 1921 with the rank of Second Lieutenant. She had been awarded Serbia’s highest decoration the Kara George Star. After demobilisation she travelled the world before marrying ex Russian artillery colonel Yurie Yudenitch in May 1927. They eventually moved to Belgrade in Yugoslavia. As an officer in the Serbian army she was eligible for recall into the service and when Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 she once again became a soldier aged 65 years. Following the unconditional surrender of Yugoslavia Flora, evading the approaching Germans, was smuggled away in her uniform in a lorry which was evacuating the wounded to a German controlled military hospital in Belgrade. With help she obtained women’s clothes, changed into them and walked out of the hospital dressed as a woman not a soldier. She made her way back to their home and stayed with Yurie looking after him as he had been very ill until June 1941 when they were arrested by the Gestapo. They were separated, but were released and re-united after a few weeks due to Yurie’s ill health. With food scarce and Yuri needing constant nursing it soon became apparent he was dying. He died and was buried in Belgrade Cemetery and Flora stayed on in Belgrade until the end of the war. She supplemented her income by giving English lessons, after which the RAF flew her home and she settled in Woodbridge in Suffolk. She was still planning to travel when she died in Ipswich Hospital on the 24th November 1956 aged 80 years old.
Beatrice Shilling was a British aeronautical engineer and motor racer who was born in Waterlooville in Hampshire on 8th March 1909. Prior to the war she received a Master of Service Degree in Mechanical Engineering. Before and during the war she was employed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) as a scientific officer. During the Battle of Britain in 1940 serious problems occurred in both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters as their carburettors would flood performing a nose-dive. This frequently caused the engine to stall during a critical part of a dog fight in aerial combat. Beatrice devised the RAE restrictor which limited the flow of fuel into the carburettor and prevented it flooding. The restrictor was a brass thimble which had a hole in the centre and could be fitted to the carburettor without having to take the aircraft out of service. The pilots were delighted with the restrictor as it gave them the opportunity to partake in the aerial battles unrestricted by a possible stalled engine. After the war Beatrice continued at the RAE until her retirement in 1969. She worked on various projects including the Blue Streak missile. She and her husband were keen motor cycle racers and later progressed to racing cars, where they performed all their own tuning and maintenance. She was 81 years old when she died ibn 1990.