International Women's Day
At Royal Star & Garter, we have the privilege of caring for some truly remarkable women. Now, to celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday, 8 March, we share some of their wartime stories.
When Ena’s husband was killed by enemy troops in the Second World War, she became a working, single mother.
Ena was unable to serve in the military in the Second World War due to ill health, but her husband Bill did. He joined the East Yorkshire Regiment, and survived Dunkirk and the D-Day landings. But in September 1944, Ena received a letter from the War Office, which read: “We regret to inform you that your husband has died of wounds.” The couple had a two-year-old daughter, Ann.
Ena took on the role of a working, single mother, mourning the loss of her husband and working as a hotel receptionist whilst a close friend looked after Ann. She later fulfilled Bill’s wish to ensure their daughter had a good education by sending her to a top school.
Ena later started fighting for the rights of women who had lost their husbands during the war by joining the War Widows’ Association. She dedicated large amounts of her time to fundraising for worthy causes including Royal Star & Garter. Over five decades, she has helped to raise thousands of pounds for the charity.
"If your hat was dented by a piece of shrapnel you would paint the area white and wear it as a badge of honour!”
At the age of 16, Elsie volunteered as a Cyclist Messenger in Manchester during the Blitz. Messenger work was dangerous and exhausting, cycling through the streets, carrying messages from the warden to the post centre where the news was compiled. She used to hide when she saw dead bodies and was worried when the sirens went off.
She recalls: “You used to hear shots from the artillery, then all the shrapnel would come down and you’d hear it clattering on the rooftops. Sometimes it made a spark. If your hat was dented by a piece of shrapnel you would paint the area white and wear it as a badge of honour!”
She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) aged 18 and welcomed the adventure. She became a Morse code instructor, teaching at Compton Bassett. Three years later, Elsie trained as a Wireless Operator Mechanic at RAF Cranwell before being posted to Melton Mowbray where she tested the wireless equipment in the aircraft to ensure it worked before a flight.
“It was very sad seeing all of the devastation, so much property razed to the ground. Nobody about. It was awful.”
Betty joined the (WAAF) in 1942, aged 20. She was transferred to RAF Feltwell in Norfolk and worked as secretary to the Commanding Officer. Betty enjoyed her job but found it difficult when faced with writing to the families of aircrew who did not return from missions. She explains, “It was really sad having to write those letters. There weren’t an awful lot to write, but there were enough.”
One of Betty’s most poignant memories of her time in the WAAF was when she flew over Cologne just after the war had come to an end. Betty elaborates, “It was very sad seeing all of the devastation, so much property razed to the ground. Nobody about. It was awful.”
“We had a lot of dead who we used to lay out in the playground. It was horrendous, quite horrendous.”
Joan was 15 when war was declared. Desperate to play her part in the war effort, Joan fibbed about her age, declaring she was 16, so she could join the Air Raid Precautions (ARP). Joan can still recall the noise of the air raids, “They made a terrific noise. The floor beneath us shuddered. We held our breath. There was a giant roar. The guns opened up, heavy guns which positively thundered. Bombs screamed and exploded, the place shook.”
Before an impending air raid, Joan and her peers would ready the first aid post, and wait for the bombing to begin. First Aid Post No. 5 was sited in a school. She remembers, “We had a lot of dead who we used to lay out in the playground. It was horrendous, quite horrendous.”
In April 1942, aged 18, Joan joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) “to do or die for England.” Joan’s strongest memories of her time in the ATS are of the camaraderie that got her through hard times: “Although war is terrible and I wouldn’t wish it to happen again, the experience of working together and coming through it – I know it may sound strange but it was something I will always treasure and be grateful for.”
“It was awful in Germany. I was near Hamburg and saw all the destruction and starving people looking through the bins for something to eat. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Phyllis did clerical work at a bookbinders before deciding to take an active part in the war effort, joining the WAAF in 1942, aged 19. There she continued her clerical work and, following the war, served for six months in Belgium and Germany. She remembers: “It was awful in Germany. I was near Hamburg and saw all the destruction and starving people looking through the bins for something to eat. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Phyllis was demobbed in 1946. She said: “I enjoyed my time in the WAAF. I wanted to serve my country during its hour of need, and I’m proud I did.”
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