“If you have lived in a war and you’ve seen people dying and you’ve lived through bombing, you can’t stay that little girl you were.”
These were the reflections of 96-year-old Marjorie Clark, who was recruited as a teenager to serve in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War.
An Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) section arriving in Luneberg, Germany, 1945Credit: Harper Collins
Marjorie Clark in her First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) uniform, while attached to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the warCredit: Harper Collins
“Of course it affected me. I always think of London and St Paul’s, all the bombing,” she said.
“We had chaps in London ready to fight with us. We met a whole lot of individual people. It was interesting in a strange way.”
For Marjorie, as for many women who served during World War Two, the conflict was undoubtedly a source of horror and tragedy, but it also entailed unprecedented opportunities: for adventure, friendship, romance and travel.
A shy schoolgirl from the Welsh Valleys, she was posted first to North Africa, surviving a torpedo attack on her ocean convoy on the way out, before being transferred to Italy.
There she worked as a wireless operator and coder, supporting British agents collaborating with the local Partisans.
It was while engaging in this stressful, top secret work, that she met and fell in love with SOE agent Bob.
Their relationship was not straightforward: he was captured behind enemy lines, leaving her uncertain of his survival or whereabouts until the end of the war.
Marjorie was in turn struck down by illness and suffered a breakdown, but with pluck pulled through.
Initially a reserved teenager, she “became someone to stand on my own two feet”, she said.
Brave women of the ‘Great Generation’
I have been thinking a lot recently about Marjorie, who died in March, ahead of the 77th anniversary of VE Day today.
It was realising that the final years are now in sight for the remaining women of the nation’s ‘Greatest Generation’ that spurred me on several years back to seek out the most fascinating living female veterans and collect their testimonies in my new book, ‘Women in the War: the Last Heroines of Britain’s Greatest Generation’, which is out in paperback on Thursday.
They included Jaye Edwards, now 103 years old, who enlisted as a pilot to deliver Spitfires and Hurricanes to the frontline.
She was one of just 168 female pilots – of whom 15 were killed – in the Air Transport Auxiliary, which ferried new and repaired aircraft from factories to RAF airbases.
The Women’s Royal Naval Service was the women’s branch of the United Kingdom’s Royal NavyCredit: Mirrorpix
Nurse Marguerite Turner in her uniform, while serving in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) during the warCredit: Harper Collins
Marguerite today, at homeCredit: Harper Collins
Gutsy and determined, she refused to be deterred from learning to fly by an early “prang”, which saw her crash her training Miles Magister monoplane into a tree.
Her teeth were smashed out of her jaw into the crash pad, but she remained conscious – and eager to clamber back into the cockpit straight after her recovery.
In total she flew more than 20 types of plane and amassed 500 flying hours during the war, surviving a number of perilous journeys.
Sometimes the only instruction she was offered about how to operate a new aircraft was via the ‘Ferry Pilot notes’, a 250-page manual that she strapped to her knee, which offered basic information on take off and landing.
Romances fuelled by pink gin and martinis
Fellow centenarian Christian Lamb meanwhile served as a plotter in the Battle of the Atlantic.
“My war was really quite thrilling – on and off,” she admitted.
“Women were spared a great deal of boredom. There was a certain amount of freedom one had. It gave you choice and opportunities for doing what you wanted to do.”
Rising to become an officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (the ‘Wrens’), she worked in the high-octane Operations Room at the Western Approaches headquarters in Plymouth, plotting maritime skirmishes between Allied convoys and German U-boats.
By mid-1943, 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were employed in essential activities linked to the war effortCredit: Harper Collins
The most dramatic ambush she plotted involved the dashing naval officer to whom she had become engaged just days beforehand, after his damaged ship sailed into port.
A vibrant social scene among the recruits, fuelled by pink gin and dry martinis, encouraged relationships like Christian and John’s to bloom.
‘Winston waltzed in with PJs and cigar’
Joy Hunter, now 96, was just 18 when she graduated from secretarial college and went to work in the subterranean War Rooms beneath Downing Street.
She handled highly-classified blueprints for crucial military operations, such as D-Day, and attended the historic Potsdam conference in Germany, at which the Allies carved up the territorial spoils of war in July 1945.
Today she is one of the last surviving women who served alongside Winston Churchill during the conflict and was able to observe him at close quarters.
This included during an impromptu late-night film showing in the bunker, to which the prime minister bowled in late in his pyjamas with a cigar and glass in hand and bellowed ‘Winnie’s here – let it roll!’.
These are just a handful of the captivating women I was privileged to interview for my book, who in turn were among millions of female recruits who leapt at the chance to serve when war erupted in 1939.
Two years later conscription was introduced for women aged between 20 to 30, netting millions more.
The was a vibrant social scene among the recruitsCredit: Harper Collins
By mid-1943, 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were employed in essential activities linked to the war effort.
While they were not required to bear arms – and in all but a clutch of exceptional units were barred from doing so – many women nonetheless took up dangerous jobs that placed them under enemy attack and the threat of death.
They were paid less than their male counterparts of equivalent rank in almost all roles, and sometimes suffered abuse from men affronted by their entry into traditionally male-only jobs.
Often the camaraderie between men and women was strong, however, with both parties delighted at fresh ways provided by the war to meet the opposite sex.
For too long the stories of Britain’s women’s contribution to the war have gone untold.
But they are worth revisiting – not just because they tell us something interesting about the past, but because they provide universal insights relevant to today on how to navigate the highs and lows of life with resilience and good cheer.
‘Women in the War: The Last Heroines of Britain’s Greatest Generation’, published by HarperCollins, is out in paperback on May 12, £9.99