The outbreak of hostilities in 1939 was when war really came home to the East End. Up till then, conflicts had largely been fought far away, with news of victory and defeat dribbling back slowly. Of course the East End had suffered privations, and air raids, during the First World War. But it was World War II when everyone became involved, whether they wanted to or not.
‘It had never occurred to me that I would even leave Bow … maybe I’d work in the City in a bank or something, but that’s as far afield as I thought I’d go,’ remembers Beryl Edwards. Within months of the outbreak of war, though, Beryl was helping hoist barrage balloons on a cold and windy RAF base in Norfolk; just the first of many postings to the airfields helping to protect Britain from the Luftwaffe.
As well as bringing war to the home front in terrifying fashion, with nightly air raids on the East End, World War II changed life forever for many East End women, and changed society for good in the process. A new book, Women at War: In Uniform by Carol Harris describes how the hostilities saw the greatest military mobilisation of women in British history. Many young women, some still in their teens like Beryl, were away from home for the first time. At first, their duties were strictly limited but, as war bit deep into the nation’s manpower, their jobs were expanded. Within a year of the start of war, women were working routinely under fire.
Many WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), such as Beryl, manned anti-aircraft guns in all-female (and later mixed) batteries. Women of the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service and known as ‘Wrens’) maintained and repaired the ships of the Royal Navy and became involved in the top-secret planning for D-Day. Women had first entered the war zone in the First World War, and the units that had been formed then were rapidly re-established in time for the new conflict. The Army’s contingent, known as WAACs (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) were reformed as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1938. By 1945, this arm alone numbered over 190,000, including Second-Lieutenant Elizabeth Windsor, the future Queen Elizabeth II.
During World War I the women’s units had become the butt of ribald humour and worse. Tales spread of promiscuity, incompetence and ill-discipline; music hall comics and newspapers alike wondered whether women could cope with the pressure of war. The truth was rather different. Government inspections of female guard posts and batteries routinely found high levels of discipline, attention to detail and morale, with none of the problems of insubordination and bullying that were an occasional problem in men’s units.
And by World War II there was no question that women were doing dirty, difficult and often dangerous work. Enid Burns was a WAAF officer at RAF Norton during the early forties, in charge of three WAAF sites shielding Sheffield. ‘It is thanks to them that many Sheffielders and steelworks were saved from enemy bombers,’ she recalls. ‘They were a splendid lot of women, tough, brave, uncomplaining and cheerful, doing a very dangerous job, as the winder and steel hawser were lethal and many accidents occurred. We had a terrible fire in a hanger as a balloon was being repaired, and the hydrogen ignited. Many WAAF were badly burned.’
Beryl Edwards remembers well the privations of serving in the WAAF. ‘It was often cold and miserable – long shifts, a long way from home, and the uniform wasn’t the most flattering either! Often we would be woken from a few hours sleep to reposition the balloon, which had been blown out of position by a gale.’ For the male RAF officers and crew boozy evenings in the mess were an escape from the tensions of war and loss of one’s comrades. For young women like Beryl though, letting their hair down was more difficult: ‘We knew you didn’t have to throw off the shackles too much to be tarred with a bad reputation, so most of us were whiter than white,’ she laughs. But 60 years on, and long retired in the Essex countryside, Beryl wouldn’t have missed it for a moment. ‘It changed the lives of so many women, who might otherwise have thought only of marriage and children. And once we’d seen what we could do, there was no going back.’
Women at War: In Uniform by Carol Harris, published by Sutton Publishing, www.suttonpublishing.co.uk, ISBN 0750926333, £10.99