Old ladies at war

An ode of thanks to the now old lady warriors of WW II.

A ramble on the occasion of International Women’s Day, March 8

Last November my aunt Diana died of a heart attack: still in her crumbling home in London Metroland, by her well-maintained garden, in full possession of her faculties, at the age of 92 91. Pat and I went to the funeral, and stayed with Diana’s friend and neighbour Hilary, a contemporary who complains she can only face two hours London driving at a time; and we learnt of Hilary’s war.

This post is about the stories of five old ladies in WWII: or rather of the young women they were. I will use only their first names to protect their privacy.

Diana’s war:

Straight out of Oxford, Diana volunteered for the Port of London fire emergency evacuation service, but even during the Blitz it turned out rather dull. So she joined the Civil Service and dealt managed a unit dealing with applications for exemption from food rationing. She met her future husband and left war work on marrying in 1943.

Joy’s war:

Joy quit postgraduate work at Oxford to join the WAAF and became a radar operator in Fighter Command. This was not quite as glamorous as it sounds, since she was stationed in the North of England where there was only one daytime Luftwaffe raid during the Battle of Britain; flying from Norway beyond fighter cover, the German bombers fell into a turkey shoot. Then she was promoted and sent to RAF Coastal Command HQ, a bunker where she met a young naval reserve lieutenant who was part of the Royal Navy liaison. As a cipher officer her job must essentially have been supervising the pool of cipher clerks. She also left war work on marrying in 1943. I am their second child.

Enid’s war:

their college classmate Enid, whom I met at the funeral, married a clergyman in 1938 and was not called up.

Betty’s war:

ten years younger than the others, Betty reached 18 around D-Day. Under parental pressure she chose the Women’s Land Army , and went to work on farms in Essex until the end of the war. Then she went back to work as a dressmaker.

Hilary’s war:

Hilary had studied German at school and then trained as an architect. When the naval reserve officer in charge of SIGINT analysis on U-Boats at Bletchley Park, a heterosexual peacetime architect, needed an assistant, he naturally indented for a German-speaking woman architect: and Hilary’s name popped out of the card index. She spent the Battle of the Atlantic plotting the movements of Dönitz’s submarine fleet. After the crisis was over, she also married another young officer in late 1943 and returned to civilian life.

The wartime mobilisation of women in Britain was large-scale but neither efficient nor egalitarian. Betty had no more chance of working at Bletchley Park than Hilary had of doing cryptanalysis there. Diana, Joy, Enid and Hilary, young women of similar intelligence and education, were given wildly different wartime responsibilities. Middle-class married women were exempted from mobilisation, but munitions factories relied on working-class women. And executive responsibility was denied them all. The only exceptions I can think of were spooks — outsiders by definition. Vera Atkins , the fanous head despatcher of SOE’s French section, was a Romanian Jewish aristocrat. Her unbelievably brave women agents acted as radio operators and couriers, but one of them – Pearl Witherington – took over a Resistance network when its male leader was captured, and ran it successfully until the Liberation..

American women (including Barack’s grandmother) flooded into munitions factories in the same war. Rosie the Riveter was the kind of myth that’s basically true. WAACs were entirely volunteers: 150,000 of them.

Russian women were also the backbone of the great arms factories behind the Urals. In the Red Army they served as clerks and drivers in divisional headquarters, very close to and sometimes on the front line. According to Anthony Beevor, Stalin only countermanded the licence for the mass rape of German women when Red Army soldiers started targeting these Russian women too — by then it was too late.

In contrast the ideology of the Nazis stopped them from mobilising women. A surprising number of German factory workers were in fact women, no doubt as a legacy of the Jewish technocrat Walther Rathenau’s rational war economic policy in 1914-1918. But this was a shameful secret rather than a source of pride, and could not be developed. The strongly Nazi U-boat crews knew that they faced implacable foes — and three-quarters died – but I doubt if they imagined that the faces compassing their deaths around plotting tables in England included flirtatious young women.

Total war is not a Good Thing and the advance of gender equality it produced is not a justification. If it also gave many people on the Allied side a sense of participation in a common national cause, that was a more innocent version of the central emotional appeal of Fascism. But so what? WW II on the Allied side was that very rare thing, a clear-cut just war. So we can celebrate its positive side-effects.

To the extent that it was a close-run thing (at least in the European theatre), it is reasonable to say that the different treatment of women by the two sides made the crucial difference. The same could also fairly be said of any number of other things, but that does not invalidate the proposition.

So here’s to you old lady warriors, Land Girls and Rosies:

Thank you from all my heart.


Nazi antifeminism extended well beyond the sphere of Aryan eugenics where it made a weird sort of sense. The 650,000 French workers conscripted to work in Germany were SFIK all men, and the French were very much second-class Aryans: not conscripting Frenchwomen was sheer prejudice. Jewish women, of no value at all in Nazi eyes, were usually gassed on arrival at Auschwitz along with their children and old men, and only younger men kept alive for a while for slave labour. The whole pattern of Nazi exploitation was of course compulsively stupid, and bore little relation to the economically rational (though also evil) chattel slavery of the ancient world or the Old South.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web