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15 October 2014
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Wartime duties in the Port of London Authority

by Surrey History Centre

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Contributed by 
Surrey History Centre
People in story: 
Florence Toft
Location of story: 
London
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A7655583
Contributed on: 
09 December 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site at Surrey History Centre on behalf of Mrs Florence Toft. It has been added to the site with the author's permission, and she fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

I expect most of us have enjoyed the antics of the Walmington-on-sea Home Guard platoon on television, but I wonder how many of us question why no women were included in the cast. The answer probably lies in the fact that few people knew that women were members of the Home Guard and over the years I have repeatedly had to produce my badge and 'stand down' certificate from the War Office in order to convince the sceptics that we did in fact exist.

In 1982, I decided it was time to do some investigating into the subject, and wrote to the Imperial War Museum to see if they could help. A very interesting reply eventually reached me and from it I learnt that women members of the Home Guard finally numbered somewhere in the region of 30,696. Early in the war, women in some country areas took over daytime duties in order to relieve the male members of the Local Defence Volunteers (the original name of the Home Guard). In October 1941, however, the War Office decreed that women were not to be enrolled in the Home Guard in any capacity, although they could act unofficially as cooks, drivers, orderlies, telephone operators, first aid nurses, clerks and canteen assistants.

They did, however, value the liaison which was growing between Women's Voluntary Service and the Home Guard! Not to be beaten by Whitehall bureaucracy, the women then formed an unofficial organisation of their own, known as the Women's Home Defence Corps, and learnt not only to shoot and throw bombs, but also field craft, signalling, reconnaissance and barricading. By February 1943, these women outnumbered 20,000 in 250 various units.

In April 1943, the War Office finally relented and stated that in future women could join the Home Guard on a non-combatant basis. We were given the strange title of 'nominated women' and would not be subject to military law. No uniform was provided, but we were given a plastic brooch badge with the letters 'HG' encircled by a wreath. An example of how far our duties could go was shown in a letter to the press from a military officer, which said we could 'degrease rifles or clean small arms, but not fire them, look after uniforms, but not wear them, cook rations, but not eat them.'! Just over a year later, in June 1944, we were at last given the title of 'Home Guard Auxiliary'. That discrimination against the women members of the Home Guard continued however, and when the question of me being given a Defence Medal was raised by my husband some time ago, he was told that women were not entitled to it. He was so annoyed that he decided that if I could not have it, he didn't want his either.

A programme about the women in the Home Guard in Wales was shown on TV last year and I must confess I was amazed at what they did. My contribution as a member of the Port of London Authority Home Guard seemed so small in comparison, but at the same time we still had a part to play. I was a member of the Signals Section based at Head Office near Tower Bridge and we provided contact between the men in the docks, headquarters and the wharves on the river. Our Colonel was the PLA Railway Superintendent - a man with a bit of a reputation where the ladies were concerned - so it was no surprise to anybody when, one day, he produced two female recruits from Lyons Cornerhouse nearby. The problem then was the fact that only people with passes could enter the docks or the Head Office building - I do not think that was ever resolved. The first time my friend and I went to the docks with the Colonel caused a few raised eyebrows from the men and I expect we were regarded as two more of the Colonel's conquests! Pat (my friend) and I were the only female PLA Head Office employees who were members of the Home Guard and, being quite active members of the Guide Movement, were already quite proficient in morse and semaphore, which proved useful in the Signals Section. We were provided with forage caps, the smallest battle blouses that could be found and our plastic badges, but no rifles, small arms etc! Pat and I missed the busiest period of activity in the docks during the heaviest bombing, when the Home Guard played a vital role, but then came the V1s ('Doodlebugs').

I had also joined a group for what was known as 'Shipping control duty'. There were several of these groups, each numbering six, and we did duty at night on a rota basis. The duty involved compiling lists of all shipping in the docks that evening and then waiting for the inevitable air raid siren telling us a raid was on the way, which sent us scurrying down to the basement and our control room. Hopefully we had managed to have supper before dashing down to the basement, but there was never any guarantee of that. In the control room, we were in touch with the anti-aircraft batteries in the docks and from them were able to plot the course of the Doodlebugs on a large scale map as they came in over the coast. One of the worst aspects of the job was knowing that a missile had gone down in one's home area and wondering for the rest of the night if all was well at home.

Evening drinks were made by the ladies on the team, which meant a walk along dimly-lit corridors to a small rather grubby kitchen and sending the cockroaches scurrying for cover as we switched on the light. The PLA building itself must have been a very attractive one before a bomb landed right in the middle of it and destroyed the rotunda, but at night it was very dark and eerie. While having our evening drinks and biscuits, we often had a mouse appear to collect the crumbs and that invariably caused my colleague, Connie, to give a loud shriek and leap on the nearest chair, much to the amusement of our male colleagues. My greatest disappointment during that period was caused by the postponement of the invasion of Europe by one day, for I should have been on duty on the night the invasion began. Parts of the Mulberry harbour and PLUTO were built in the docks (I had typed reams of details concerning War Department and Admiralty requisitions in connection with those activities) and, on invasion night, the docks and river must have been extremely busy and I was sleeping off my previous night's duty!

The morning after a night on duty, I had to face a difficult walk across London Bridge to the station, unless it happened to be a Sunday morning, for only one side of the bridge was ever used by the hundreds of commuters pouring into the City and I was going in the opposite direction. I also had to dodge the Billingsgate fish porters going along Eastcheap with their dripping boxes of fish balanced precariously on their special hats. Then the train home and the hope that I was not returning to a scene of devastation caused by one of the Doodlebugs I had plotted the night before.

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