World War 2: My mother didnt want me to go into service – women on female conscription
London: World War Two underground Blitz shelter explored
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Barbara Weatherill is 96 but the decisions she made as a teenager still resonate like they were yesterday. Perhaps the most life-changing of all came in January 1943. She had no intention of spending the rest of the war in a converted mill-cum-munitions factory in the snowbound Yorkshire Dales. No, she wanted to wear a uniform and serve King and Country – her sights were firmly fixed on joining the female army,otherwise known as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Her parents were less keen. She was their precious only child and, at 17, still well below conscription age.
But Barbara (then and now) was not easy to resist. She showered their home in Dentdale with recruitment leaflets – “especially the bathroom where I knew they’d likely read them” – and sat Ma and Pa down.
Barbara’s mother had dished out bully beef to the boys in the First World War but her daughter had loftier ideas.
“A cook? I didn’t want to be a cook! I wanted to sign up early so I could choose what I did in the Army,” she recalls.
Discredited as an organisation that offered little more than military skivvying in an unattractive serge uniform, the ATS got off to a bad start after its formation in September 1938 as a women’s voluntary service.
Hidebound by an anachronistic leader, Dame Helen Gywnne Vaughan, and with a reputation for employing the “wrong kind” of women, it was dubbed the Auxiliary Tarts Service in popular discourse.
This poor image was compounded by military thinking in the first half of the war: what were men fighting for if girls were forced to serve alongside them?
The sanctity of home and its reassuring promise of plenty and peace was a tantalising prospect for thousands of men living off rations in mean barracks.
But by 1941, the bald realities of conflict on a giant scale called for a giant rethink. Additional girl power was desperately needed to plug the gaps in Britain’s over-stretched war machine.
Faced with humiliation in Greece and North Africa, haemorrhaging at sea, blitzed at home and very short of supplies, the government took the unprecedented decision to conscript women.
So 80 years ago today, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons compulsion was needed to draw more girls into the military.
It was a significant U-turn from a Prime Minister who had long doubted the wisdom of forcing women to serve, believing female conscription would demoralise men.
Churchill reassured MPs: “We do not propose at the present time to extend compulsion to join the services to any married woman, not even childless married women.”
Initially, the National Service (No2) Act was confined to the call up of single women, aged between 20 and 30.
By the time Barbara Weatherill applied in early 1943, the service had been rebranded and promised “Action through Adventure”. That meant one thing.
“I wanted to be a driver. There was a thrill associated with driving. Yes, it was the same job our Queen did and I trained in the same place,” she explains.
Princess Elizabeth, like Barbara before her, had to persuade her father, George VI, who like most middle-aged men in Britain did not approve of young women in uniform.
Two months before war’s end, in the nick of time, HRH Elizabeth was finally permitted to join the ATS.
Documents show that, unlike Barbara, the future Queen was exempt from drill, physical training and did not stay in barracks.
Yet Barbara and Princess Elizabeth were treading a well-worn path: numerous girls began the war wanting to break free from their narrow confines and the main barrier to this ambition was parental.
Today Daphne Attridge is 98. Back then she was an 18-year-old growing up in the small Norfolk village of Feltwell.
“My mother didn’t want me to go into the ATS, and nor did Reg, my fiancé. He worked with service girls, he said he knew what they were like,” she recalls.
Daphne remains fiercely protective of the service she credits with changing her life, but retrospectively has some sympathy for Reg’s concern and concedes: “Perhaps he felt I might meet somebody if I joined up, that he wouldn’t have me to himself anymore. I would no longer be waiting for him back in Feltwell”.
Daphne, emboldened by the new legislation, dumped dear Reg and pushed back against her cautious mother.
“I was very very keen but mother said no. Then the law changed and I signed up early so I could get the job I wanted.”
She pauses, then continues: “My school friend Dorothy was killed serving on a gun-site outside Hull.
She was caught by falling shrapnel and died instantly.” Only just 18 in 1942, her friend, Dorothy Lemmon, wasn’t old enough to vote but she was old enough to give her life in the nation’s service.
Daphne is adamant it didn’t put her off serving. She became a teleplotter for a searchlight company – the person who sent through the commands that guided the searchlights to their targets.
Another young woman, Vera Waddington, was also inspired to fight back after a bomb nearly missed her home in Saltash, Cornwall.
Before being admitted into the service, like every other young woman, she underwent the humiliation of an ATS medical.
“It was a young man who inspected me. I’d seen the other girls come out and I thought. ‘crikey!’”
This wasn’t what Vera had bargained on when, aged 19, she decided to cut and run from her market garden job and sign up for the ATS in Plymouth.
“They looked at everything, under your arms, down below. I nearly died, my face was like a beetroot. They looked at your hair, your nails, everything.”
In the 1940s, modesty was jettisoned in the interests of national “health and hygiene”.
Fortified on air, exercise and agricultural work, Vera, now 99, was graded A1 and within weeks had been selected for specialised work on one of Britain’s many anti-aircraft gun sites with AA Command.
Assigned to work on a Predictor machine which estimated the bearings of the enemy aircraft, she was soon operating cutting edge technology in an era before computer programmes when “non-combatant” girls were guiding the anti-aircraft guns.
“Ooh yeah, you’d see the shells go up! You could put a plane off its course just by firing,” she recalls. Vera was riveted by her new life. “Yes, you could hear the shrapnel coming down. Some of our girls got hit. We were young and foolish I s’pose, we never thought of it at the time… it never occurred to me that I could get killed or anything.”
Grace Taylor, another “gunner girl” who lied about her age to join upat 17, nods. “When the sirens went you had to drop everything and run to the command post, you grabbed your steel helmet and you got going. No, not frightened. I don’t remember being frightened.”
She recalls defending Plymouth. “I remember one night we were in the right place but there were just too many enemy aircraft. The flashing and the noise was dreadful.”
A tin cup of warm cocoa at dawn was small succour for a girl whose identity was staked firmly in the work she did. “We saw the bombs, you know, as they hit the town.”
Like Grace and Vera, Barbara would also be assigned to AA Command. “I was a driver for the anti-aircraft sites – great big trucks – Bedfords, Austins. We worked just as hard as the male drivers but they were paid 3s 6d a day, and we were paid two shillings. Did I complain? No! There was no one to complain to. It was a man’s world.”
But before she was released onto the open road Barbara had to learn her trade.
“I trained in Camberley, Surrey, and we had all sorts of mechanical tests to see if we were any good with a screwdriver and spanner. I was lucky because I grew up next to a boy called Ken and he had Meccano!”
These days Barbara is very proud she trained as a driver at the same place as her future Queen, but points out her wartime service was two years longer and a great deal more involved than Princess Elizabeth’s.
“Well bless her, she didn’t do the full course at Camberley. She was exempt from physical training, drill, gas training…”
Elizabeth also avoided barrack life, returning to Windsor Castle every evening. In contrast Barbara, a naive only-child, found communal living quite an eye-opener.
“There was one woman – Marianne – who was as rough as they come, she was quite open about being a prostitute.”
Barbara laughs: “I expect the girls the Princess trained with were handpicked!”
Decades later Barbara met the Queen at a VE Day commemoration in Westminster Abbey.
“There were four of us standing not far from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it was me and three men.
I was going to be last but they moved me up to the front so I met the Queen first.”
Almost exact contemporaries and both drivers in the ATS, the pair finally talked. “But you know, I’ve no clue what she said to me.
Apparently that happens a lot when you meet the Queen.”
Today Elizabeth II is the last living head of state to serve in the Second World War.
She and her comrades Barbara, Daphne, Vera and Grace are some of the last veterans standing; a poignant and extraordinary reminder of the thousands of women who signed up and served King and Country 80 years ago.
Army Girls by Tessa Dunlop (Headline, £20) is out now. For free UK P&P, call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832 or visit expressbookshop.com.
The WRAC Association supports all women who served in the ATS and WRAC, and offers support, camaraderie and benevolence – all for £10 a year. Find out more at wraca.org.uk
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