Seventy years after the start of the Second World War, six women who lived through the conflict tell Sally Williams how it changed their lives for ever
The War Widow
Phyllis Clemens's first husband, Norman Smith, served on HMS Egret, which in 1943 was the first ship to be sunk by a guided missile launched from a Luftwaffe bomber. Their son, Ray, was just two years old. In 1946 Phyllis remarried, and for the next 54 years she never spoke of Norman again. 'He [her second husband] never mentioned him; I never mentioned him. Birthdays came and birthdays went. I couldn't say [to my son], "Do you know it's Daddy's birthday?" But in my mind, 1 May – I'd think, "That's our wedding anniversary,' says Phyllis, 94, who may be a slight old lady but is still extraordinarily precise. She swallows hard, her eyes filling with tears. 'He was there all the time. Still is.'
Phyllis was 23 and working as a coder for an Army and Navy intelligence signal station in Malta in 1939 when she met Norman, an electrical artificer in the Navy. Her father was in the Navy and she'd spent much of her childhood on the island. She and Norman were married in November that year. In 1940 Norman was based in Portsmouth, and Phyllis settled into life as a wartime housewife: 'Sunday roast we always went to my mother-in-law's, and she taught me how to bottle fruit and tomatoes, and she used to get a sheep's head and cook it and cook it and then take all the meat off. I'd think, "Isn't that awful?" but she used to make the most lovely brawn out of it.'
In 1943 Norman was assigned to HMS Egret. 'We all went up to Euston station together,' she recalls, 'Raymond, Norman and I, and we waved goodbye. I can see him to this day. This rather tall man with no cap on, leaning out of the window, waving – the three buttons on the cuff of his jacket gleaming – I could paint it! The smoke of the engine – whoosh!' She stops talking. Her son still has the cable: 'N D Smith, HMS Egret, missing, presumed lost at sea.'
'I remember,' she continues, 'one time when I was sitting by the fireplace crying – it must have been an anniversary – and Ray coming up, and this little voice saying, "Don't cry, Mummy. Don't cry." And I said, "No, darling, I'll never cry again." And I didn't – not in front of him.'
Phyllis moved in with her parents on Hayling Island and was soon being asked to naval dances. 'I was without a partner and they fixed up a partner to come, and that, of course, was my second husband.' (John Clemens volunteered for the Navy in 1939.) Her mother was deeply opposed to the marriage. 'He's not Navy, Phyl,' she would say, 'He's only a call-up man!' Phyllis, too, had deep reservations. But what swung it was the prospect of a future stuck with her mother on Hayling Island ('I felt she was trying to control my life'), the social norms of the day ('There was no way out') and the fact that 'Clem' clearly adored her son.
After the war Clem became an accountant; they moved to Beaconsfield and Phyllis had to adjust to a new morning routine. 'I always used to see Norman off in Portsmouth, and he was in uniform, of course, and I waved him off from the door, and when he got to the end of the street he would turn and wave. So on our first morning in Beaconsfield, I watched Clem walk down the road, this man in civilians, waiting for him to turn around and wave. And he didn't.' Silence. 'And I thought, "Oh dear.' The couple went on to have two sons. Outsiders would have had little inkling of what she really felt. 'I sometimes think Clem only had half a woman,' she admits. 'I felt guilty. There had been no quarrel, nothing broken or ended, and yet I married again.' Clem died in 2000. Soon after, she dug out a photograph of Norman in uniform. It's now prominently displayed on her sideboard.
Freydis Sharland was 21 when she started flying Spitfires for the Air Transport Auxiliary. 'It was the sort of interesting job men like to do and not let women in,' Freydis, 89, says, with a wry smile. 'But we were very fortunate. The war gave us an opportunity.' The daughter of an archaeologist, Freydis became 'air-minded' after going to an air display with her brother in Newmarket in 1941. 'My father gave us 10 shillings each because he thought we would want to try out flying, which was something I'd never thought of doing before.' (She'd excelled at modern languages as a pupil at Wycombe Abbey, but assumed she'd just get 'any old job, really.) But after climbing into the biplane, waving to her brother and being taken off to do three slow rolls in the Suffolk air Freydis was smitten. After learning to fly at Marshall's Flying School, Cambridge, in 1942 she joined the ATA White Waltham ferry pool in Buckinghamshire, the only woman in a group of about 20 men.
Set up in 1939 to ferry aeroplanes between factories, maintenance units and the front line, the ATA started recruiting women the next year. By 1945 the ATA had 650 pilots; 164 were women.
Over the next three years Freydis delivered more than 100 Spitfires, plus an assortment of other aircraft, including Tiger Moths and Hurricanes, to such destinations as France, Italy, the north of Scotland and the south coast. It was difficult, often frightening work, as pilots had to negotiate barrage balloons and bad weather, without navigation equipment or radio aids (strictly forbidden), only a map and instructions to fly below the cloud – 'to know where you are. 'Unfortunately, there were quite a lot of funerals, as people did run into hills,' she says. Mostly she was in sole charge, but larger planes such as Hudsons required a crew of two. Yet not everyone welcomed the idea of women pilots. 'I had one man who refused to fly with me, because he said he wasn't going to be flown by a woman. I remember being absolutely furious and having to sit in the plane while he took charge.'
Her last flight was to deliver a Spitfire for scrap. 'I was glad the war was over because it meant suffering for so many people' – her own brother was killed – 'but it also meant my flying would come to an end, which was sad, because I liked it more than anything.'
In fact, after the war Freydis became a pilot with the Women's Junior Air Corps. In 1953 she delivered a plane on her own to Pakistan as a freelance commercial pilot. In 1955 she married Tim Sharland, a farmer, and hung up her goggles. 'My husband said, "You can't go on. You're bound to crash next time and then I'll have to look after the children.'
The canal boat woman
As a 'boater' working on the barges of the Grand Union Canal, Emma Smith enjoyed a level of freedom that was unheard of for most women. She rose and went to bed at whatever hour suited her, ate what she pleased and generally did what she liked. 'We were almost the only workers in the country at that time who had no commanding officer, no uniform,' she smiles. Her 'uniform' was a pair of dungarees cut off below the knee and an old shirt. 'I think of myself as being one of the original hippies. It was lovely,' says Emma, 86, still sparky and beguiling, with a girlish bob. It was an experience that was to have a life-long effect. Not only did it establish her as a bestselling author – Maidens' Trip, a memoir of her experience, won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize in 1949 and The Great Western Beach, a memoir of her Cornish childhood, was published to critical acclaim in 2008 – but it also triggered a personal transformation.
Elspeth Hallsmith, a dainty young girl from a privileged beginning, became Emma Smith ('Elspeth Hallsmith is such a terrible mouthful'), a resourceful, passionate socialist. 'I remember how grateful I was to be liberated from my upbringing,' she says. 'The war was an escape.' The daughter of a banker, Emma grew up in Cornwall. Her parents were, she says, 'completely incompatible: he passionately wanted to paint and draw, and my mother, who was very brave and beautiful, had absolutely no sense of art whatsoever.' He was also violent and cruel. 'It was a traumatic childhood.'
After war broke out she worked as a secretary in the War Office. 'Then a friend found a newspaper cutting about a scheme for taking women on the canals,' she says. Boats were laid up on the Grand Union Canal lacking operators, at a time when heavy cargo needed to be shifted between London and the industrial Midlands. Between 1942 and 1945 some 60 women worked on the canals.
Aged 18, and after only three weeks' training, Emma found herself operating boats that carried up to 50 tons of essential supplies – steel, aluminium or cement – from London to Birmingham, returning loaded with coal for the canal-side factories. She slept barely six hours a night, lived off stews and fried bread and jam, used a bucket as a lavatory and never felt clean. But she found a romanticism in the lives of the dockers, bargemen and regular boaters who travelled with their families. 'I admired them greatly,' she recalls. 'I felt I crossed over a boundary line and never went back. It made me realise there was this other world. We'd go to caffs and have bacon sandwiches. I'd never have gone into workmen's caffs otherwise. I became a working-class girl. It was terribly good for us.'
As an evacuee, Betty McDonnell swapped the overcrowded streets of London for the lush and restful lanes of Sussex. 'I'd never been to the country before,' says Betty, 78, who cuts a tidy figure and has a mind for detail; she can still remember the blackberries she picked on her first day (and the wasp that stung one of her classmates). But then being evacuated changed Betty's life. 'We were really lucky,' she says.
Betty grew up in the packed, terraced streets of New Cross, south-east London, where her father was a caretaker at Goldsmiths College. The family rented a house with a resident landlady. So Betty, her two sisters, her mother and father lived in just three rooms. There was another drawback: Betty was a sickly child. 'I used to get bronchitis every December and was ill right up until Easter.'
Betty's poor health was inextricably linked to the London air. 'We lived right near the Thames in an industrial area. I can still remember the hooters of the ships on the river and the fogs. You couldn't see anything. There used to be a yellowy mist.' Betty was eight and a half when war broke out and it was only a matter of weeks before her mother was packing Betty's woolly vests and liberty bodice into a carrier bag. 'There were a few arguments. My mum didn't want us to go, but Dad insisted. Mum came around, realising that what he was saying made sense.'
On 3 September 1939, the day war was declared, Betty, her younger sister, Stella (their elder sister, who worked in a factory, stayed behind), plus most of their school-friends and teachers climbed on a steam train at New Cross Gate station and arrived two hours later in a different world. Betty and Stella went to live with the Coshams, an elderly couple in Ringmer, East Sussex. 'They had this beautiful cottage with a thatched roof and a lovely little garden. They were a really nice couple. They said, "This is your bedroom." I'd never seen such a big bed!' Betty, who'd only ever been out of London to go on holiday to Clacton or Ramsgate, went for country walks, drew flowers and felt like a heroine from one of her much-read girls' stories. And her health improved.
Other children were less happy. 'Lots ran away or went back to London, and unfortunately some of those got killed in an air-raid. It made me feel awful.' In 1940 the girls' mother joined them in the country, and they ended up lodging with the Fennells, a childless couple: 'Mum became very good friends with them.' After the war Betty trained as a typist; in 1953 she married Guy McDonnell, who worked for the gas-light company. She was living in Lewisham and pregnant with her youngest son, when she had 'the surprise of my life'. The Fennells had left their house to Betty and Stella – an 18th-century house in Lewes. Betty bought her sister out in the early 1960s for £600. They sold it 11 years ago for £170,000 to buy a bungalow in Seaford. 'It turned me from a Londoner to a countrywoman,' she says. 'We had the house for 32 years and it gave us a very nice retirement.'
From 1943 to 1945 Margaret Pawley was one of a group of pioneering women recruited by the Special Operations Executive for intelligence-gathering work overseas. To the outside world she was a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), a women's corps created in 1907 to drive ambulances. But FANY also served as a cover. 'None of us could drive! That was the absurd thing!' explains Margaret, 87, a wise-looking and strikingly self-possessed lady. 'You had to be the kind of person who didn't blab,' she says, 'who wouldn't tell people everything you knew.'
From her secret communications base in Italy Margaret's job was to intercept radio messages from the Germans. 'I used to listen every morning at six o'clock. They would say things like, "The German army is fighting valiantly for the village of so-and-so." And if that was north of the village they'd been fighting valiantly for the day before, you knew they were retreating.' She would then give a situation report on enemy activity, in her office, at eight o'clock sharp. 'People sat on benches and I would point out on a map where the Germans were.'
Born in Germany to British parents – her father was the High Commissioner from 1929 to 1930 in the part of Germany occupied by the Allies – Margaret was fluent in German, and very close to her German governess, but in no doubt about where her loyalties lay. 'There was a permanent reminder of my Britishness with a Union Jack in the garden.' The family moved to Kent when Margaret was eight; she was 17 when war broke out. Brought up with high standards of duty, she regarded the war as an episode of very bad behaviour. 'I was outraged the Germans had attacked us! Hitler was a disgrace to mankind, so I was anxious to do all I could to get rid of him. I knew I must play my part. I had something to offer and I was going to offer it.'
So, aged 21, she joined the men and women of various uniforms and nationalities going in and out of an anonymous-looking building in Baker Street: the Inter-Services Research Bureau was, in fact, the Special Operations Executive headquarters, where Margaret was offered a job through her father's contacts (he'd worked as an intelligence officer during the First World War). Ten days later she was on a plane to Cairo – 'They needed people really badly.' In June 1944 she was posted to Bari, and then to Siena, where she stayed until the end of the war.
FANY intelligence workers wore a strict uniform: khaki drill skirt and bush jacket, hair above collar length, no sling handbags (FANYs had to carry leather briefcases), and silk stockings off-duty instead of the standard-issue lisle variety. Conditions were often basic – in Mola di Bari, a small coastal town south of Bari, Margaret lodged near the harbour 'that nearly always had a pretty bad smell of rotting fish' and endured boils, ringworm, athlete's foot and jaundice (which involved a stint in hospital).
In November 1944 Margaret was made an officer, and in February 1945 she joined No 1 Special Force at Siena. But there were still some things a woman was not allowed to do. Her dream was to parachute into enemy territory, 'but they said no. Just because I was female. They said that if I got injured there would be no one to do my job, but I think they didn't want me to do it. I still feel cross. I would very much like to have done that.'
After the war she read history at Oxford University, where she met her husband, Bernard Pawley. She wrote five books, including In Obedience to Instructions: FANY with the SOE in the Mediterranean. She remained close to her former German governess, but never talked of her wartime job. 'I don't think that would have been very tactful, do you?' she says, smiling enigmatically.
The Shorthand Typist
Before the war Myra Collyer was on course to become a shorthand typist in her home town of Reigate. Instead she wound up working in the top-secret Cabinet War Rooms, the maze of rooms (now open to the public) that was a secure bunker for government and military leaders, 10ft under Whitehall. 'Like a pit pony!' she jokes, when we meet in her old office. At 85, Myra is still an exuberant presence.
Back then she watched the famous faces come and go: Winston Churchill ('ambled and made muffly noises'); Anthony Eden ('opened the gate and said, "After you." Absolute gentleman'). The atmosphere was focused. The food was superior: suet pudding and seed cake. And, like all employees, Myra had weekly treatment for light deprivation. 'You stripped down to your bra and pants and did five minutes in front of a lamp on the wall. One girl burned her eyes badly. She didn't put the goggles on.'
The lively and adventurous daughter of a chauffeur and a dressmaker, Myra jumped on conscription as a route to independence. 'They said that if I signed up from Reigate I would probably be put in ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] uniform – I hate khaki! – and would live at home. I didn't want that! I loved Mum, but I wanted to get right away.'
She was 18 when she left to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. The first thing she did was take in her uniform: 'I was 34, 24, 34 in those days,' she says, drawing a curvy silhouette in the air. Two weeks later she received her first posting: 'They said, "2033711 – London Office!' Her first job was to type up reports of bombing raids. After a few weeks she was assigned to assist the draughtsmen who produced the maps for the Map Room. They drew diagrams of the Atlantic showing every boat that had been sunk and every U-boat sighting: 'Some days I'd have the job of adding the little swastikas or Union flags.'
Working conditions were testing – 12-hour shifts, claustrophobically low ceilings, straw beds ('you were given an hour's sleep but I could never sleep') – and yet she has only one complaint: air quality. 'They put netting over the vents and it was jet black in a few days. You could smell the soot and smog.' Suffering from chestiness, she asked to be moved, and a year later was posted to the Allied Central Interpretation Unit in Buckinghamshire, where she typed up reports that interpreted photographs taken after RAF bombing raids. Her next job was at Nuneham Park near Oxford, where she had to type up letters smuggled from British POWs abroad.
After the war she worked as a secretary in the advertising department of BOAC – considerably more glamorous than the local estate agent where she'd been 'bored to death' aged 17. 'The war made me blossom. I'd always been determined, but it made me more of an extrovert.'
In 1949 she married Nigel Collyer, a pilot, and soon after gave up work to raise her family – moving back to Reigate in 1955. 'When you're young you want to get away,' she explains. 'It was an adventure for all of us young girls.'
Source: The Telegraph