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Sources: Women at War
The learning activities for the 'Women at War' theme are based on the following stories. You can use the extracts as they appear on this page, or follow the links to read the full stories.
I recall the secrecy. I was picked up by the RAF Police at a railway station for some minor offence (not wearing a cap, probably), and was met by total disbelief when I told them I was not allowed to say where Station X, which was on my leave pass, was located. I was marched in to an officer; I still refused, and only after he had made a phone call did he reluctantly let me go. They changed 'Station X' to 'RAF Church Green' later.
There was often no time to wash or clean up, hence we often looked unkempt. But our job took priority. The shining silver things that flew over most major towns and cities were not all they seemed. They were monsters to control as they were three-quarters filled with hydrogen and a small pocket underneath the belly held air. So with this amount of hydrogen she was always attempting to get away.
I never regretted my decision to stick with it. We were taught to change plugs, strip down gearboxes and distributor heads, and anything else needed to keep three Hall Scott, or Packard American engines, ready for action. We went out to sea on trials, when the job was finished, and stood on the deck, side by side with the men, as we sailed out of harbour. A mutual feeling of friendship and great respect grew up between sailors and Wrens, which lasted the whole four and a half years. We worked, danced, partied and laughed together. We also experienced great sorrow when any of the boats were missing or damaged. I remember one in particular, No. 313, which limped home with a great hole where the engine room had been. The entire engine room crew had been killed.
This proved to be the source of my one real personal achievement. Early one morning I was flicking the knob methodically down the usual search channel when I heard the familiar carrier wave and stopped to listen, pencil poised. The voice gave details of a 'Gummi-boot!' down in the North Sea. The bearing was at once phoned through to HQ. A day or so later our First Officer came up to me beaming with a personal message from the Admiral, conveying thanks from the RAF. Our own Air Sea Rescue service had been able to get to the dinghy before the Germans, and snatch the two survivors back to safety.
I was trained in Sarafand for three months then sent on a driver training course in Cairo, not far from the pyramids. The company with which I trained was unique in the British forces because it was led by a woman, Major McKenzie. She was in command of a company of soldiers and the ATS. We had to discover how to drive in the dark, over desert, through quicksand and sandstorms. We had to learn how to maintain and repair the vehicles... Life in the desert was hard. Mornings and nights were bitterly cold, while the days were very hot. Often we had sandstorms, when the sand penetrated everything, even our food. But we were young, full of energy and working for a cause that made it all worthwhile.
The story I am about to tell is not so much about my life, but about a band of women who were seldom recognised, not always appreciated, and soon forgotten. Who were they? The Women's Land Army. Who, did you say? Yes, that is the reaction of most people... Most people used to think that because we were in the country and working on farms we were having a really good time. This was not so, although I am not saying it was all bad. We enjoyed the village dances, and made quite a few friends.
My reason for joining the Land Army was because I loved the countryside and animals, and wanted to help in the war effort. The uniform was very attractive, and the whole world seemed to beckon me, full of adventure - a new life begun. We scythed, plucked chickens, milked cows by hand, rode cart horses, cleaned shippons and stables, made silage, helped to clip the sheep, fed the animals including bulls and pigs, learnt how cheese and cream were made in the vast dairies, dug ditches. In fact we were given an excellent grounding in farm work. We also had lessons concerning crops etc. in the classrooms during the day...
Later I worked for a short time at a small turkey farm, where I also looked after a few riding horses and milked cows. I spent a very lonely 21st birthday at this farm. Later I was sent to a farm near the Norfolk Broads, complete with a disused windmill. I was often alone all day, hoeing and weeding crops and have never been as lonely as this time in Norfolk. As is often the case, the reality of work is not as interesting as the learning at college or the preliminary course.
I was working in the city of Portsmouth during the first raid of the Blitz. Our food office was completely bombed out and the Guild Hall was bombed. We had to open a temporary office and of course all the people's property was bombed. I had a special green identity card so that if there were any blocked roads I could pass through. We had to go to the people instead of them coming to us. They had most likely lost their homes and their ration books. We issued them with temporary ration cards until such times as they had new addresses when we would re-register them and give them new ration books.
When the war started the house where I was in service was used as a convalescent home for Canadian Airmen, which was ideal for them; acres of lovely grounds in a very quiet area. My age group had to register for war work and in 1942 I got my call-up papers. All very frightening having never left home! My railway pass was for Lymington, Hampshire to work in a factory for Wellworthys making piston rings for aircraft. I did not even know that there were such things!
When the war started she had to go and work in the local munitions factory in Tenbury Wells. Her memories of this are having to catch the bus during cold winters to be there for a 6.00am start. Then much of the day was spent at the industrial machines where a COLD milky substance ran over the parts to keep them cool, but made her hands cold also.
Her worst memories are of the accidents which happened to other girls working on the machines: one lady lost three fingers from her left hand when a cutting machine came down on it, before she could move it away. Of course this included her wedding ring finger, naturally a great loss for a young woman.
Another young woman was rather vain and refused to wear a hair net, as it wasn't stylish. It was there to protect her hair from getting caught in the machinery, which is just what happened, and she was scalped.
Nursing and Medicine
Dr Davidson had introduced a system that at first I thought was a good idea. According to the severity of their illness an oblong slip of gummed paper was attached to their chart, red for patients who were dangerously ill, blue for patients who were seriously ill and yellow for patients who were progressing favourably. This system was good for the nursing staff as we could see at a glance the patient's condition. If all was going well this was no problem, but on reflection the reverse did sometimes occur when a patient who had been progressing favourably developed a complication and the yellow sticker would then be replaced by the blue and then maybe the red. Would the children have known? I feel sure they did. This information would have been passed on by the other children and if they knew what red, blue, yellow meant I feel sure they could work out what yellow, blue and red meant. If we were cruel it was in ignorance.
Theatre became my own special field and I became most interested in the revolutionary plastic surgery being carried out at this time. I was also privileged to work with some of the surgeons who pioneered this work. There was no such thing as nylon sutures of course, and my fine red hair was often called into use. After being sterilised it was used to repair median nerves which had been damaged in forearm injuries caused by shrapnel. It evidently had the advantage of being both fine and strong! We carried out different types of skin grafts, the results of which were painstakingly slow. Seldom did the theatre staff see the end results of our efforts, but many badly burned pilots were supported psychologically by the young nurses who cared for them post-operatively.
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