The truth revealed on the pages of this book, given to me by each of the women (or their kind family members) is remarkable. There is no end to what we can and still need to learn about the Second World War years, but I absolutely guarantee that even the most knowledgeable of World War Two historians will learn something new, and vital, from each of these women. I attempted, when gathering these memories (which are from around the world, reflecting the global nature of the conflict) to get as wide a variety as possible, so the ‘facts’ are arguably random, relating to the story given – but that, I think, gives this book a special edge, making it even more fascinating, and intriguing!
For example, Mary Wilson – who worked at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital as a Lady Almoner during the war – drew my attention to ‘Dr Carrot – the Children’s Best Friend’; – a character created by the Ministry of Food in 1941. This sounds as though it might have been something trivial and just fun but was actually very important because so many people were suffering from malnutrition – and carrots (cooked a variety of ways as ‘Dr Carrot’ explained) were a government-recommended way of lessening the problems created by a poor diet.
Ena Botting served as an engineer in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA); I had no idea until I wrote up her memory about the requirement to wind-up (by hand) the landing gear of an aircraft. In Ena’s case she was referring to how it took 160 turns of a handle to lower (and raise) the wheels of an Avro Anson, which she said was very ‘difficult’ – matched only by the task of changing an aircraft’s wheels. However, Ena accomplished these tasks (together with her female colleagues), even though she was only in her late teens.
Another surprising tidbit of information appears in Clarice Jacques’ chapter. Clarice is the nursing story in the book (essential in a book about women during the war) – hers is a moving account of saving lives but inevitably too of the sadness of life lost – but Clarice also told of her joy of helping troops of many different nationalities; including men from Poland, who taught her Polish phrases. By reading Clarice’s story you will learn the Polish word for ‘goodnight’, which is dobranoc!
As mentioned above, this book contains not only memories given by British women; there are an equal number of equally illuminating global stories from Russia, Croatia, the Netherlands, Germany, Burma and Japan. Our German lady, Liesel Edwards, was a Jewish child during the war, who told me about coming to England on a Kindertransport train. She opened my eyes to the horror of Kristallnacht (‘The Night of the Broken Glass’ in November 1938) when Nazis raided her home because they were Jews and took her father away. Her despair is laid to bare; so too are the details, some months after Kristallnacht, of her journey to England. She remembered eating cheese sandwiches and drinking cocoa at the Hague on the way and the kindness of the customs officers there who let her keep the necklace she was wearing, which was given to her by her mother before she left (and which remained very precious to her because she never saw it again). This book is full of touching, personal recollections that give colour to the darkest of days.
Galina Brok-Beltsova is our Russian veteran of the War; her story contains many facts about the scale of loss of her countrymen to the Nazis – how, where and when many were killed (even though of course the Nazis were eventually defeated). Her story also illustrates the empowerment of women more brightly perhaps than any other chapter, because this is the memory of a woman who served in exactly the same way as millions of men (on both sides of the War) were serving – on the frontline. This is because Galina was a navigator on a three-seater aircraft flown by a woman, all of whom had been recruited into one of three all-female flying regiments of the Russian Red Army.
How extraordinary for me to have had to write up the true story of a woman recalling to me the memory below, amongst many others:
‘Suddenly, there was a shout from our gunner at the back of the plane who said: ‘They’re back, two Focke Wulfe’s [German fighter aircraft] are coming for us.’ Our aircraft had three guns – one pointed up, one down and one to the front – we shot from them, but our plane had a weak spot as it had blind shooting areas on the sides of the plane. Because of those blind areas we used our signal pistols from the cockpit windowpane, shotting at German fighters coming to the side of our aircraft.’
I must just say at this point that this book is not written, in anyway, to be ‘feminist proof’ of the strength of our sex. But perhaps it is just that. During the Second World War, and the First World War, and other conflicts besides, when women have to step into traditionally male shoes, under whatever circumstances, they simply do so; because there is no choice. It does show how strong – mentally and physically – women can be, when they need to be. This fact, however, isn’t of course relevant only to women; men of course also step up to the mark when they have to – it is a powerful fact of humanity – that is a factor running throughout this book, particularly.
I think that makes it essential reading – especially now when society, the world – is facing some of the most enormous struggles of our era. No life today (this article is being written at the time Remarkable Women of the Second World War is published, in June 2022) is untouched by the war in Ukraine. (Ironically the Russians are behaving towards the Ukrainians exactly as the Nazis did to them in 1941, and the response of the Ukrainians to the Russians is the same too.) This conflict is threatening global food supplies – worse in developing countries – but resulting in rising costs in the West too; all of this after the COVID pandemic, which has receded but hasn’t gone away.
We need to draw strength from whatever sources we can; these stories can, and will, help in so many ways. Each of the twelve women whose memories this book contains details the reality of what it was like to live through the War, developing our knowledge in a way that only the truth can. However, as important as this is what the memories give us beyond that. As Rt. Hon Penny Mordaunt MP writes in the Foreword:
‘These precious testimonies reveal lessons that go beyond that moment. Remarkable Women of the Second World War teaches us about humanity. Suffering and turmoil was intense and inescapable. That is why these stories, honestly told and honestly written, are so important – we can gather strength from the strength of these women courage from their courage, and believe in humanity, as they believed … in reading this book, when we are facing our own challenges, when we do not yet know how they will end, we can draw from these stories and all they have to teach.
It is a book about Remembrance. It is a book about hope.’
I wrote in my introduction that:
‘My greatest wish would be that all the women were still alive today and we could all be together in a lovely warm room, drinking tea and feeling happy, safe and fascinated in each other’s company. That can’t happen of course, but you can read their stories; you can let them into your lives as I have done.
You will be enriched by their recollections, of that I am certain.’
By Victoria Panton Bacon