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On VE Day PETER FROST pays tribute to the female heroes of the struggle against fascism

War artists

We owe a special debt of gratitude to Dame Laura Knight. One of the very few female official war artists, she recorded many of the female war heroes. Many of the illustrations on this Blog are by her.

In September 1939 Knight was asked to produce a recruitment poster for the Women’s Land Army. Her A Balloon Site, Coventry (below left) shows a team of women hoisting a barrage balloon into position.

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Her most famous war painting is Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (above). It became the British equivalent of Rosie the Riveter. Knight went to Germany in January 1946 and spent three months observing the Nuremberg trials from inside the courtroom. The result was one of her most moving works, The Nuremberg Trial.

They flew Spitfires

One hundred and sixty eight women piloted all kinds of fighters and bombers as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which flew over 300,000 flights.

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These women flew virtually every type flown by the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm, including the four-engined heavy bombers.

They delivered aircraft all over the world. Fifteen pilots lost their lives in the air, including aviation pioneer Amy Johnson.

These women pilots received the same pay as men of equal rank.

This was the first time that the British government gave equal pay for equal work within any organisation under its control.

D-Day gliders

The very first troops who landed at Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of D-Day were delivered there by Horsa gliders.

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These cheap and light unpowered aircraft had been towed by bombers from England.

The plywood and timber gliders were built by mainly female labour in the Co-op furniture factories of Manchester.

Many other aircraft and other armaments were manufactured by huge female workforces who had at last been able to take on skilled engineering jobs.

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Bravest of the brave

The war has no greater heroes than the young women agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) who were dropped behind enemy lines to liaise with local, often communist, resistance forces in places like occupied France and Yugoslavia.

Of SOE’s 55 female agents, 13 were killed in action or died in nazi concentration camps.

SOE was also far ahead of contemporary attitudes in its use of women in armed and unarmed combat — those sent into the field were trained to use weapons.

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We should never forget the bravery of women like Odette Hallowes or Violette Szabo (above) and so many others.

They also served

On, or just behind, the front line were women members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). From today’s media you would think the only member was a young Princess Elizabeth, but in fact the ATS had 200,000 members.

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Bar actually firing guns ATS women did everything a male soldier did. Among them were lorry drivers, motorbike messengers and vehicle maintenance engineers. Women doing the same jobs got the same pay as men.

Thousands of female nurses also served in field hospitals and medical posts, often at the front line.

Breaking German codes

The story of Bletchley Park and the breaking of the Enigma codes has got a lot of coverage. Much approbation has gone to Alan Turing and to Tommy Flowers, and those two geniuses certainly deserve much of the credit. But it would be wrong to forget Joan Clarke.

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Clarke was a leading cryptanalyst and numismatist at Bletchley. Hundreds of other skilled and intelligent women did much of the translation, transcription and complicated calculations involved in unravelling millions of encrypted secret messages.

Not-so-idle women

The badges they wore had the initials IW. Male detractors said it stood for Idle Women, but the women themselves took the insult as a compliment and adopted the name for themselves. In fact IW stood for Inland Waterways and these women kept open one of Britain’s most important industrial arteries, the English canal system.

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The women navigated heavily loaded narrow boats between the London docks and the industrial midlands. Despite bombing raids in the docks and cramped, dirty and uncomfortable conditions on the boats they kept this vital lifeline open.

On the home front

Stella Isaacs founded the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS).

Before the war she was in voluntary social work helping the millions of unemployed.

When war broke out she was asked to establish an organisation that would assist on the home front. It became the Women’s Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions Services, later shortened.

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The WVS trained millions of women to cope with all kinds of war-time emergencies. They fed, clothed and re-housed enemy air raid victims and organised the evacuation of young children.

Issacs was the first woman ever to take up a seat in the House of Lords.

Defending our skies

Women were instrumental in maintaining Britain’s massive anti-aircraft defences against the Luftwaffe. Women made and flew huge and ungainly barrage balloons, which held aloft steel cable barriers that forced German bombers to fly above 5,000 feet, thus making bomb aiming much less accurate.

(c) John Croft; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

More women controlled powerful spotlights that picked out the bombers so that the gun crews could shoot them down.

Women worked as spotters and plotters tracking the locations of enemy aircraft for both guns and fighter pursuit.

Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner, 1941 by Laura Knight

Helping to feed the nation

The government knew that war would bring food shortages. Britain, then as now, relied heavily on imported food, and German blockades could starve the nation. They encouraged women to work the land.

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By 1943, more than 80,000 women were part of the Land Army. They did a wide range of jobs, including milking cows, lambing, managing poultry, ploughing, gathering crops, digging ditches and even catching rats.

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All of these women worked long hours and there was minimal training. They lived either on the farms where they worked, or in hostels.

They came from a wide variety of backgrounds, with more than one third from London and other large cities. Their wage was supposed to be £2.85 a week. but many were short changed by greedy farmers.

Lumber Jills

Around 6,000 young women joined the Women’s Timber Corps and learned to use saws, axes and heavy lifting tackle to harvest wood needed for the war effort.

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These women produced the chestnut tracks that allowed troops and tanks to cross soft ground during the D-Day landings, telegraph poles, pitprops, ship masts and the beech plywood that was used to construct Mosquito aircraft and huge gliders.

This article appeared in the Morning Star on VE Day 8 May 2015.

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