Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Dad's Army? Stephen Cullen's new book uncovers the stories of women in the Home Guard during World War Two

Members of the Women's Home Guard Auxiliaries

Following the BBC evening news on 14
th May 1940, the Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, broadcast his appeal to "men […] who are for one reason or another not at present engaged in military service […] to come forward now and offer their services" for the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). The response was instantaneous, and among the hundreds of thousands of men who registered in the following days and weeks, there were many women who also wanted to join the new defence force. 
One such woman was Edna Selwyn, a company secretary from Birmingham. She later remembered: ‘’I went straight round there [the police station] as soon as Anthony Eden finished [the police sergeant] was quite horrified and said “I had no idea there’d be any women”’. The police sergeant gave Selwyn the job of helping him to enrol volunteers, and, in this way, she became one of the first ‘unofficial’ women to support the new force.

It was not the government’s intention that women should join the LDV, but it is clear that local LDV commanders did accept women. Typically, these ‘unofficial’ women acted in auxiliary capacities, as secretaries, drivers, and in catering roles. Despite the government ban, the government itself believed that as many as 50,000 women were serving, entirely unofficially, by late 1942. Ironically, women were often enrolled in units designed to protect government ministries. Mary Warschauer, who was a 20-year-old code and cipher clerk at the Air Ministry in London, later she remembered:

"We had a Home Guard there […] There were about ten to twelve women, and about twenty men. And we went to practice rifle shooting [...] We wore air force blue, navy blue, dungarees, and little Glengarry type hats, both the men and women wore the same thing […] The Captain used to train us, we did more than the Home Guard people would do […] The Sten guns had just come into being then. They weren’t issued to soldiers at that time, but we were allowed, we just had the one that we were allowed to practice on".

Despite demands for women to play a full role in the Home Guard, it was an increasing shortage of men and women for service on the Home Front that led to the announcement, on 20 April 1943, that women could be officially enrolled, in non-combatant roles, in the force. These women were eventually known as the Women’s Home Guard Auxiliaries (WHGA). By March 1944, 28,000 women, most of whom had already been working unofficially with the Home Guard, were enrolled with the force.

Discover more about female members of the Home Guard in Stephen Cullen's new book In Search of the Real Dad's Army
You can also listen to Stephen's recent talk about England's first female racing driver Dorothy Levitt on the BBC Radio 4 Making History programme and read his latest article in the Women's History Review

Find out more about Stephen Cullen here

No comments: