Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Canterbury Tales Intervention

by Jack Heerema 

I suffer from a heroic mindset, aggravated by the romance of historical fiction.

There is no twelve-step program. There is no cure. My thought processes have become irrelevant. Is the miller telling his tale in Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale the same miller who is telling his tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? How can this be! I have clung to the desperate hope that the person who borrowed the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History will return it. I have never admitted to anyone ever that I have a hard bound copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and only I know where to locate Einhard’s Life of Carolus Magnus. I went into complete denial.

I had an extreme violent reaction to this denial by writing a historical fiction novel.

The primary pitfall we heroic sufferers face is superimposing our cultural values, beliefs and sensibilities onto the time frame used as the backdrop for our narratives. Author’s such as Patrick O’Brien have avoided this trap. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a welcoming beacon for navigating the culture, sensibilities, beliefs and values of 14th century England. Those writing about the period are offered a Canterbury Tales Intervention by Geoffrey Chaucer.


 Jack Heerema is the author of Marigold, Our Lady of Thieves’.It follows the life and fortunes of a foundling named Marion, who is rescued from a skip by Sir Kai ap Gruffydd who becomes her guardian and mentor. This story reveals how the sword Excalibur was found and how it came into her possession. On the way she is introduced to Robin Hood and the Valkyrie who would become her closest friends. The synopsis and reviews for the novel can be found at www.jackheerema.ca 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Boxley Abbey and its "animated" rood screen...

by Toni Mount

The fully restored Boxley Abbey Barn is clearly visible as you drive by on the M20 and, originally, this wasn’t a barn but the hospitium, not a hospital but the building in which visitors were given hospitality, so more like a hotel.

A photo of Boxley Abbey by Toni Mount
Photo Credit: Toni Mount

The abbey was founded in the mid-twelfth century but a few decades on, after Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170, Boxley became a popular stopping point for pilgrims on their way from London to Canterbury to visit the saint’s shrine. The Abbot of Boxley had played a part in organising Becket’s funeral. In 1480, the time of Seb’s visit, the abbot was John Wormsell.

The abbot and his monks knew there was money to be made from the pilgrims and Boxley exploited the possibilities to the full. Pilgrims could stay overnight and receive food and drink and, in theory, this was free because giving hospitality to those making a journey in the name of God was a Christian virtue. However, donations were strenuously encouraged and for those without money, a day’s manual labour at the abbey would do instead. But Boxley’s monks were ingenious at inventing ways of generating extra income. They sold lead pilgrim badges as souvenirs of Boxley, depicting what long been known as the Rood of Grace.

Every medieval church had a Rood. This was a carved figure of Christ on the cross with the Virgin Mary and St John on either side of the dying Saviour. The Rood was placed high up on the Rood Screen which divided the nave of a church – where the ordinary congregation would be – from the chancel – where the priests conducted the service. The Rood was there to visibly remind everyone why they attended church. But Boxley’s Rood of Grace was no ordinary carving: it was miraculous.

The twelfth-century figure of Christ could turn and nod its head, move its eyes, shed tears, move its lips and speak which, of course, encouraged pilgrims to be even more generous with their donations. Legend said that the wondrous figure had been carved by a poor English carpenter taken prisoner by the French in order to pay his ransom. And how did it get to Boxley? Apparently, a stray horse brought it to the abbey though how the horse crossed the Channel nobody said – it was just an extra piece of the miracle.

And that wasn’t all. The pilgrims were also given the opportunity to demonstrate their personal piety by lifting the little swaddled figure of the infant St Rumbold from his plinth – only the truly pious would succeed.

Later, during the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Protestants denounced the Rood as fraudulent Roman Catholic superstitious nonsense. And it was a fraud as Geoffrey Chamber, Thomas Cromwell’s commissioner, who oversaw the dissolution of Boxley Abbey in 1538, discovered. When the Rood was taken down, its mechanism of levers, rods and wires was revealed: a marvel cleverly constructed by man but not a miracle of God. But when Geoffrey asked the abbot, John Dobbes, and the monks about it, they claimed ignorance, saying they knew nothing of these workings.

Photo Credit: Toni Mount

Ruins of Boxley Abbey’s gateway The Rood was exhibited in Maidstone’s market place the same day, so everyone could know it was a fake, before being taken to London. There, outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bishop of Rochester – in whose diocese Boxley Abbey stood – publicly denounced the Rood as a piece of Roman Catholic fakery, designed to deceive the people and persuade them to give money to the monastery and, by extension, to the pope. The Rood was then chopped to pieces before being thrown on a bonfire along with other saintly and so-called ‘miraculous’ relics.

As for little St Rumbold, that was also a scam. Before attempting to lift the statue, a pilgrim had to make a donation. Only if the pilgrim was deemed to have been as generous as his purse allowed did the supervising monk release the bolt holding the statue in place. So the lifting of the saint wasn’t proof of righteousness, only of the monk’s decision that you’d given as much money as you could afford and no less.

The Colour of Sin by Toni Mount

In today's article, Toni Mount continues her online book tour with an article about Boxley Abbey in Kent

In Toni Mount's latest Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Sin, her hero goes on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The pilgrim band spend a night at the Cistercian monastery at Boxley, just north of Maidstone in Kent, where a few ruins can still be seen today. 

Toni Mount is the author of the award winning "Sebastian Foxley Medieval Murder Mystery Series". You can find out more about Toni on her website http://tonimount.co.uk

Monday, November 6, 2023

The Oaks Mine Christmas Disaster

by David A. Jacinto

December 12th, 1866,  began not unlike most winter days in the village of Hoyle Mill. Two weeks before Christmas, a foggy mist drifted through the valley and gripped the bitterly cold and wet morning. Enthusiasm for Christmas  was running high.  Most men and boys in the village had been putting in overtime at the Oaks Coal Mine south of Barnsley to make a little extra Christmas money. 

That morning, well before dawn,  the coal miners shared a final word over tea and crumpets, bangers and mash, or blood sausage, kissed their wives and mothers goodbye, gave each of the little ones a warm hug, and began the short walk from Hoyle Mill to the Oaks Colliery.

 On the darkened path, they were joined by the other collies, chatting, laughing, and sharing jokes in casual conversation. Passing through the gates and into the Oaks yard, they headed toward the cage to go down the shaft into the mine, just as they did every morning.

One by one, each cage lowered down the telescoping shaft, stopping periodically to deposit miners at various levels. Each disembarking level led into a vast web of interconnecting tunnels, smaller shafts and mining chambers. The last of the miners reached the bottom at a thousand feet below ground, where the cage door was pulled open for the final time. They stepped onto the rough-hewn floor of the landing in the faint light. This brotherhood of miners shared their final morning pleasantries, smiling, laughing, and even singing Christmas songs as they each lit their oil lamps and headed off into the various corners of the mine to dig their own graves where they would spend eternity.        


The first trembling upheaval arrived late that clear blue morning. The cruel whip of nature bringing a sudden crack of doom to the quiet tenor of innocence as the blast  fought its way to the surface. 

In his office, Thomas Diamond, the mine superintendent, jerked to attention with the thunderous roar of the explosion. He ran to the window to see a monstrous skyrocket of flames and smoke shoot up in every direction from the main entrance to the mine. Bricks disintegrated into powder. Great ascending clouds of chalk, coal, rock, earth, and debris spouted up into the sky and began to fall back in a “black bloody snow”. The hundred-year-old cage support beams went up like matchsticks in the blaze. It seemed the entire surface of the earth had been torn off, burying four hundred miners in the pit.

The massive tree in the yard had been uprooted, fat tendrils of roots rose up from the ground looking like an upside down tree. The fires pooled and strutted, flowing from structure to tree as smoke chased ash into the sky. The appetite for oxygen was such that leaves and branches were sucked into the flames and flashed their disappearance in an instant.

Mr. Diamond rushed out of his office into the wings of the hot breeze cutting through the cold morning. There was the sound of pandemonium. The smell of smoke and burning flesh. The taste of coal dust. Men yelling. The crackle of burning timbers. Moans of pain and screams of agony. Adrenaline pumping, Diamond leaped into the chaos, ignoring the smoke and flames, seemingly contemptuous of the danger. The main entrance to the mine that was supposed to lay before him was no more. The entire yard was unrecognizable. He had been through mining explosions before, but nothing like this. It looked like a war zone after a daylong cannon raid. 

Driven to a rush of heightened awareness, Diamond seemed to have a clear vision of just what needed to be done. He knew it was important not to lose his head—to take immediate but thoughtful, deliberate action, carefully planning the dangerous rescue of the men still down in the pit. 

With his right hand cupped over his eyes to see through the heavy smoke and debris drifting back to earth, he held a kerchief to his nose. He searched through the smoky haze to commandeer rescuers from the miners who were scurrying in all directions in terror. He called out and the men jumped at his orders, seemingly thankful to have someone take charge and tell them where to go and what to do.

Miners boiled up from the bowels of the mine and toward him, away from the blazing fires of burning colliery timbers. They reeled in shock and confusion, some calling out in agony, some held up by other men, some saying nothing at all. Wherever Diamond looked, torn and broken bodies and injured animals were shaking in the grip of death, while the uninjured tried in vain to comfort the dying. One miner walked toward Diamond, staring dull-eyed at him without a word. It took a moment to register, the man was near naked, his skin burnt grey.

     Over two days the rescue would continue in an attempt to save as many as possible from the firedamp explosions, and following afterdamp asphyxiation. Almost every man and boy from the surrounding villages over the age of ten had been down in that mine. There was not a single family in Hoyle Mill who had not lost someone. Three-hundred and eighty-four men and boys would die, including twenty-six rescuers in a blast on the second day of the rescue attempt. That blast would close down the mine forever, leaving most of the dead buried for eternity. For these miners' families, there would be no more caresses from a husband, kisses from a father, no more “I love you, Mam” from a son, no more childhood memories of a brother.  

The Oak's irresponsible operators and massively wealthy landowners who had not provided proper ventilation or other safety measures recommended by inspectors would not be held liable in any way. They would not even provide enough money to bury the dead, let alone provide for food, rent, or even survival of these destitute families. Thousands of  family members would  be left with no way to even keep warm during their cold winter nights of despair after the disaster.

The 1866 Oaks Mine Christmas disaster that killed 384 men and boys was not the first on this seam of coal. In the previous twenty years there had been over five-hundred other minors who had lost their lives. In 1845, six men and boys lost their lives from a firedamp explosion and afterdamp asphyxiation at the Oaks; in 1847, seventy-three men and boys were killed, again firedamp and afterdamp at the Oaks; in 1849 seventy-five at Darley Main on the same seam; in 1851, twelve more were killed at the Oaks, again for the same reason; in 1851, fifty-two were killed at Warnervale. In 1852, twelve more were killed at the Elsecar colliery, firedamp and afterdamp. In 1857, firedamp and afterdamp killed 189 men and boys on the adjacent Lundhill Colliery, and fifty-nine at Edmonds in 1862. 

These avoidable disasters all along this same seam of coal occurred mostly because of poor ventilation and deplorable safety deficiencies. And yet the operators and fabulously wealthy Landlord were not held liable in any way for these deaths, inciting the miners' families to demand an inquest into the Oaks Christmas disaster. That inquest was held in 1867 and would stir interest all across the United Kingdom, rousing Queen Victoria to push for change in  laws governing coal mining and other industrial revolution operations. The Oaks Christmas Disaster and the fascinating historical events that followed are all covered in a well documented, historical fiction recently released by Simon & Schuster. “Out of the Darkness”, is based on the true story of a nineteenth century child coal miner rising out of the ashes of poverty and tragedy to change the world. It’s a story of poverty, sacrifice, greed, love, faith and the courage to push aside fear and jump into the refiner’s fire where the finest qualities of character are forged. It’s a story of the great sweep of human desire for freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of justice.


David A. Jacinto

Author of: Out of The Darkness

Saturday, August 19, 2023

The British Women who Flew in World War Two

 The Second World War was the first in which women played a role in aviation. Russian women flew combat missions as bomber and fighter pilots, but in Great Britain and the United States the role of women pilots was supportive rather than direct. Below is a short description of the important role of British women pilots in WWII.


In the U.K. women flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which was founded almost immediately after the start of WWII by senior executives of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) to employ pilots not fit for military service in supporting roles for the RAF and Fleet Air Arm (FAA). Although it became the sole ferrying organization of the British armed forces, it responded flexibly to other requests and also provided air ambulance, VIP transport and cargo service on an ad hoc basis.

From the start, the ATA was an organization dedicated to providing services, not proving a point, and it was open to both men and women. Indeed, throughout its existence, men pilots out-numbered women pilots by a significant margin. For example, the first pilots of the organization were 30 men and 8 women. At its peak in 1944, the ATA employed nearly 700 pilots of which only a little over 100 were women. (Source: The Forgotten Pilots. Lettice Curtis (who was herself an ATA pilot). Appendix 1.) Below the founder Gerard d'Erlanger.

The ATA was established by aviation professionals, and initially only accepted pilots with 500 hours of solo time. By the end of 1940, the needs of the organization were so great that the recruiting requirements were reduced to just 50 hours solo, and by 1942 the first candidates without any flying experience were accepted into the organization’s training program. The latter had started in 1941, when the reduction in flying hours required for application had been instituted. Pilots with just 50 hours solo needed additional training to fulfill the tasks assigned.

Rather than duplicating RAF or airline training, however, the ATA inventively developed a pilot training program designed to train pilots precisely for the tasks required by the ATA in a minimum amount of time. Pilots were first trained only on light, training aircraft and then put to work ferrying these aircraft to RAF training establishments. In doing the work, the pilots were already earning their keep, contributing directly to the war effort (relieving RAF pilots from ferrying), and also gaining flying time, experience and confidence.

                           An ATA pilot in a training aircraft. (Photo courtesy of Michael Fahie)

Once they had fully mastered these aircraft, the ATA pilots (whether men or women) advanced to more powerful single-engine aircraft including fighters, and step-by-step at their own pace to twin-engine aircraft and eventually heavy bombers. At no time were ATA pilots trained on aerobatics, air gunnery, formation flying or other military training irrelevant to ferrying and transport service. Indeed, they were given only minimal training on instrument flying, as ATA pilots were expected to fly “visual.” By keeping the topics of training to the minimum, training time was significantly reduced.

Furthermore, by allowing the pilots to progress at their own pace, no pilots were forced beyond their capabilities. There was no need for all pilots to qualify on all classes of aircraft, a policy that ensured all pilots contributed according to their abilities, reducing accidents and losses. Notably this training scheme was evolved and initially managed by some of the world's finest flying instructors -- instructors that had previously been with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

An British woman pilot in cockpit of a Sterling four-engine bomber (Photo courtesy of Maidenhead Heritage Centre)

In the course of the war, the women with the ATA steadily won the same privileges and status as their male counterparts. They wore the same uniforms, underwent the same training at the same centralized flying school, and performed the same duties as their male colleagues as they qualified successively on the classes of aircraft from training bi-planes to four-engine bombers. From 1943 onwards, they broke ground by being awarded equal pay for equal work at a time when other women's auxiliaries (such as the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)) were not. Last but not least, women in the ATA were promoted on merit and could exercise command authority over male colleagues.

Pauline Gower, the Commander of Women in ATA, whose gentle persistence and diplomatic handling of politicians and generals brought about these successes.

Furthermore, throughout the war, the women in the ATA were recognized and praised both officially and publicly for their contribution to the war effort. Five women and 31 male ATA pilots won the MBE. Four women ATA pilots and two male colleagues earned the BEM. One woman Flight Captain received a Commendation alongside five male ATA officers, and two women ATA pilots along with 16 male ATA pilots received the King’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.

Dr. Helena P. Schader is the author of a comparative study of women pilots in the US and UK published by Pen & Sword, Sisters in Arms: The Women who Flew in WWII.  A former ATA pilot is the leading female protagonist in her series of novels on the Berlin Airlift, Bridge to Tomorrow. Find out more about Book I in the series, Cold Peace, here.



Monday, July 31, 2023

Angevin History

by Jack Heerema

   The 19th century historian’s work was not complete unless infused with a touch of misogyny. This is particularly prevalent during the period of the Angevin kings. This was not done in a grand scheme as Lord Macaulay’s desire to have everyone in India speak English. Historians have characterized Queen Eleanor as being headstrong, contrary and willful, of course, these terms could never be applied to King Henry II, who standardized laws uniformly across England. There is always a reason behind the reason. He needed money and quickly to finance his continental wars.

   The contributions of women during this period have been very marginalized. Countess Ella founded both Salisbury Cathedral and Lacock Abbey. The results can still be seen today. Lady Isabel was kind, sympathetic and formable in administrating her Irish holdings. Was she not the daughter of Red Eva who led an army in Ireland? William the Marshall would never have a stronger ally than Lady Isabel. William Longsword, Duke of Salisbury would find a similar companion in Countess Ella. Longsword and King John were half-brothers, yet when Prince Louis of France invaded England, Longsword threw his support behind the prince. There is debate whether King John’s improper advances on Countess Ella contributed Longsword defection.

   History is interpreted through the cultural bias of succeeding generations. A jigsaw dropped to the floor and the search begins for the missing pieces. Slowly they are put back together, but we discover that the color is missing, and every generation picks one they feel fits best. Not many of us have experienced a marriage of convenience or as a source of wealth and power. This piece comes in a multitude of colors. We have not experienced the intense struggle between church and state, leading to the death of Thomas Becket. It is important for a historian to understand the culture in the period he studies to determine why decisions were made.

   King Henry II knew the cultural believes and superstitions held within the commonweal. He understood how to use populism and propaganda to further his ambitions. This insight wasn’t not missing in the church’s world view. In the year 1184 Glastonbury Abbey was almost burned down to the ground. A massive amount of funds was required for the rebuilding and what better source of income than from pilgrims making a journey to a holy site. Through his tribulations with the Welsh, King Harry discovered that Arthur’s last resting place was at Glastonbury Abbey. What better way to rally his people around himself than becoming heir of Excalibur. He died before this scheme came to fruition. The abbot of the abbey, on the other hand, still saw this as an opportunity to collect pledges for the building fund. A massive search began by digging up the entire grounds until the grave was found, behold it was. Pilgrims journeyed to the abbey and turned it into a cathedral. 

   Through the reigns of the Angevin kings the tax burdens on the commonweal were onerous and devastating. The continual wars in France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales extorted every penny by succeeding kings. King Richard’s ransom from Austria after fighting in the crusades left a huge swath of destitution and penury in England.  Is where the legend of Robin Hood originated. In our own day we have a superman or batman who rises from this devastation like a phoenix and rights the wrongs and injustices done to ordinary people who are powerless and have not the resources to fight for their own rights. We attribute the rise of Robin Hood to the Angevin period. Is this a coincidence? Every myth is rooted in fact which seems to be too heavy to bear.

   When Prince Louis invaded England in 1216, numerous of the commonweal believed the yoke placed on their necks by King John would be removed. This turned brother against brother and many villages, towns and cities were looted and burned by their own people. There was indiscriminate raping and murders constantly. After a year Prince Louis was driven back to France after the Battle of Dover in 1217. This was done through the combined effort of the barons who stayed true to the English throne and rallied around William the Marshall, Duke of Pembroke.

   This is the backdrop for ‘Marigold, Our Lady of Thieves’. It follows the life and fortunes of a foundling named Marion, who is rescued from a skip by Sir Kai ap Gruffydd who becomes her guardian and mentor. This story reveals how the sword Excalibur was found and how it came into her possession. On the way she is introduced to Robin Hood and the Valkyrie who would become her closest friends. The synopsis and reviews for the novel can be found at www.jackheerema.ca 



Saturday, July 29, 2023

British Women at War: Womens' Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)

 The youngest and arguably the most dynamic and egalitarian of the womens' services was the WAAF. While the other women's services were grafted on to institutions with hundreds of years of traditions without women, the WAAF was founded at exactly the same time as the RAF itself. That proved to be a significant advantage, reflected mostly in the attitudes of the men with whom they served. As the recruiting poster suggests, WAAF didn't "free a man" to go elsewhere -- they served alongside them except in the air itself.


Despite being founded at the same time as the RAF, the original women's service associated with the fledgling air force (the Women's Royal Airforce or WRAF) was short-lived. Founded on 1 April 1918, it was already disbanded by June 1919. Yet in that short space of time, 556 officers and 31,000 other ranks not only saw service, they convinced the "powers that be" in the RAF that women could be useful -- at least in wartime. 

Thus, despite being disbanded, the WRAF was not forgotten. On the one hand, many of the women who had served stayed in touch and in the late 1930s helped form a voluntary organization known as "The Emergency Service." On the other hand, senior RAF officers declaimed that the WRAF was to the RAF like a wife, a sister and a sweetheart. Even the founder of the RAF, Lord Trenchard, considered the "W" in front of RAF as "an unnecessary initial" and insisted the WRAF was "part of the RAF" and -- significantly -- "would be again."  [Quoted in: Katherine Bentley Beauman, Partners in Blue: The Story of the Women's Service with the Royal Air Force, 55-56] By 1938, women were receiving lectures and drill from active service RAF on an informal basis. Among the women who availed themselves of these opportunities were the wives of some of the most senior officers in the RAF including the Chief of Air Staff. 

Officially, however, the WRAF was not resurrected as the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) until June 1939. With war obviously approaching, the RAF leadership decided that women were to be recruited for service in 1) motor transport, 2) clerical duties, 3) cooking and catering, 4) other "general duties" that might include messengers, telephone and teleprinter operators. At its inception, 2,000 women who had signed up for the ATS transferred immediately to the WAAF. The WAAF proved popular throughout the war and fully 84% of all WAAF were volunteers. Indeed, early on, there were more volunteers than could be accommodated and many women were turned away or sent home to await a letter calling them to the service. 

Contemporary expectations had been that the Germans would launch massive air raids on the United Kingdom at the outbreak of the war. Fortunately, conventional wisdom was wrong and Britain was granted nine months of grace before Britain's air war started in earnest in June 1940. During the period of this "phony war," while most people weren't looking, the RAF was recruiting selected women "special duties" clerks. These WAAF for destined for some of the most important jobs of the war.

On the one hand, more mature women deemed particularly discreet and reliable were selected and trained for work in codes and cypher. (The Royal Navy did the same, incidentally.) More exceptional was that the forward-thinking C-in-C of Fighter Command, had requested in 1936 -- three years before the WAAF was officially formed! -- that women to be trained to perform new, technologically-advanced jobs that had never existed before. Even more astonishing, the jobs he wanted them for were positions absolutely vital to the success of Britain's entire air defense. They were also high-pressure jobs that would have to be performed when under fire: wireless and radar operators, filterers and plotters. Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding not only insisted WAAF could do the work, he insisted that they receive commissions as appropriate, scuppering RAF policy about commissions only for women in administrative positions. 

When the Battle of Britain brought terror to Britain's skies, WAAF were at the front lines and rapidly demonstrated by sheer competence their worth. They worked at radar stations and plotting tables while the radar towers or their airfields were bombed. Time and again, they got up and dusted themselves off to continue working as the raid receded. Six WAAF received the Military Medal for bravery during the Battle of Britain. Unsurprisingly after this record, women not only dominated these trades, later in the war they moved from these jobs into the more senior and more responsible position of controller. 

In addition, in 1941 WAAF were tasked -- initially only experimentally -- with manning Britain's barrage balloons. This was a task requiring physical strength and skill. Balloons were filled with hydrogen and were 63 feet long and 31 feet high when inflated. They weighed 550 lbs and were controlled (as best as possible) by steal cables. The hydrogen was inflammable, of course, and handling of the winches and cables was dangerous. The balloons had to face "bow" to wind, which meant they had to be re-oriented whenever the wind direction changed. The work was 24/7. Yet the WAAF did so well handling the balloons, that women began replacing men in the balloon squadrons. Eventually 15,700 WAAF became balloon operators and made up roughly 60% of Balloon Command.


The WAAF expanded to other trades as well. In addition to taking on the maintenance of radar and wireless equipment (a natural extension in some ways of operating those systems) they were also soon serving as military police, meteorologists, intelligence officers, doing photographic interpretation, acting as interpreters, working as laboratory assistants, air traffic controllers, as draughtsmen and cartographers, stores clerks, parachute packers, and accountants. (The recruiting poster below shows a WAAF Air Traffic Controller.)

More astonishing, perhaps, was that the RAF also trained WAAF as electricians, airframe and engine mechanics (riggers and fitters), and as instrument repairers, highly technical trades traditionally done by men. Altogether, the WAAF worked in 110 different trades, and twenty-two officer branches were open to WAAF officers. The WAAF, meanwhile, had already in 1941 come under the Air Force Act making WAAF officially members of the Armed Forces. 

WAAF officers played a particularly important role in the latter years of the war as controllers and wireless operators at bomber stations, and also as intelligence officers debriefing returning bomber crews.

In addition, fifteen WAAF officers were recruited for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), fourteen of which were sent to France while one parachuted into Yugoslavia. Of these, one WAAF was executed by the Nazis and another tortured but survived, while the rest returned unharmed. 

The WAAF did not serve in the UK alone. Women code and ciphers officers were in high demand across the globe, including in the U.S., Canada and the Middle and Far East. Women photo interpreters were likewise coveted. Airwomen were also sent overseas to serve in domestic and clerical trades. Finally, WAAF followed the RAF as it advanced across continental Europe in the closing months of the war. Altogether, 7,556 WAAF served overseas in the USA, Canada, the Bahamas, India, Ceylon, Singapore, the Middle East and Mediterranean, and across Western Europe.

Of all the women's services, the WAAF was the most integrated and this was reflected in the uniform which followed RAF uniform in design and colour with only marginal or necessary modifications, such a skirts rather than trousers for dress uniforms. WAAF working in jobs such as balloon handling or aircraft and radio mechanics wore RAF overalls. WAAF were also entitled to wear "battle dress" with trousers and short tunics.  (Below a WAAF aircraft mechanic in overalls.)


At their peak, the WAAF numbered more than 181,000 including roughly 6,000 officers, which made it only marginally smaller than the ATS (190,000), but more than twice the size of the WRNS, who maximum force was 75,000.  The vast majority of the 217,000 women who served in the WAAF in the course of the war were volunteers, although  34,000 were conscripts. At the end of the war, WAAF accounted for 22% of the RAF's overall strength in the UK, and 16% of RAF strength worldwide.

WAAF are leading characters Helena P. Schrader's latest release: Cold Peace. This is the first novel  in a three-part series, Bridge to Tomorrow, which describes the causes, events and aftermath of the Berlin Airlift (1948-1949). Schrader is a multiple award-winning novelist, who has published three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about her, her books, reviews and awards at: https://CrossSeasPress.com.



Saturday, July 8, 2023

British Women at War: The Women's Royal Navy Service

 The smallest and most elite of the women's services in the U.K. was undoubtedly the Women's Royal Naval Service or WRNS. Because its numbers never exceeded 75,000, the WRNS was never dependent upon conscription; volunteers were sufficient to fill its needs. It also cultivated and maintained a reputation as being exclusive and having higher standards.

Like the other women's services, the Women's Royal Naval Service had its roots in the First World War when it was created in late 1917 to help meet manpower shortages. The women were used to free up male ratings from shore-based duties primarily cooking, cleaning and clerical work, and in both world wars the Admiralty insisted that women would not serve at sea. The first WRNS was both small and short-lived. Roughly 7,000 women served in it during the less than two years of its existence; it was disbanded in 1919. Twenty years later,  in August 1939 the WRNS was reformed. Again, its mandate was to "free men for the fleet" by putting women in shore-based jobs, such as cleaning, cooking and clerical work.

Yet from the very start, the WRNS was different. For a start, it was technically part of the the Royal Navy services but not part of the Royal Navy. Legally, this meant it was a civilian support service and the WRNS did not technically come under the Naval Discipline Act until 1977!  Second, during the early years applicants needed "recommendations" -- preferably from RN personnel -- to be considered at all. Many of the first WRNS were the wives, sisters and daughters of naval officers. Furthermore, recruiting was at first confined to residents of the major naval ports of Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham and Rosyth, and the WRNS were expected to live at home!

Furthermore, from its inception in WWI (which followed the scandals that had plagued the WAAC), the WRNS were jealous of their reputation. The leadership was explicit in dictating that "WRNS must ... avoid any behavior which, though not incriminating in itself, may be undesirable...." The catalogue of such undesirable behavior included smoking in public, drinking alcohol in public, and  loitering around with men. Already in WWI, the WRNS were known as the "prigs and prudes" -- and were proud of it. When the service was resurrected in WWII, this tradition was continued. 

On the other hand, the WWII leadership came from a younger generation -- a generation of professional women who sought to fill the ranks with not just "the right sort" of woman, but women capable of doing the job. Unlike the leadership of the ATS, the WRNS leadership was composed of women with a more egalitarian outlook than the service to which they were attached. The WRNS leadership adopted a policy of strict meritocracy. A key component of this policy was that no woman could become an officer without first being a rating and proving herself. This policy did much to improve morale -- and was notably lacking from the ATS where most officers were appointed directly, often without qualifications, on the basis of their accent or social status.

Although the WRNS started the war with seven limited categories of work which can be summarized as clerical, cleaning and cooking, the war rapidly forced changes. Soon the duties assigned WRNS expanded to motor transport, storekeepers, messengers, mechanics, telegraphists and R/T operators, signalers and small-boat handlers.  Eventually there were 129 trades including plotters, radar operators. meteorologists, codes and cipher specialists, intelligence officers and anti-aircraft crew. Fundamentally, from 1941 onwards, the WRNS took on all shore-based jobs that did not require physical strength or sea experience, including training RN personnel for their duties at sea.

Particularly striking was the degree to which the extremely conservative and hidebound "senior service" eventually handed over significant responsibility to WRNS. For example, WRNS were largely responsible for the dispatch of RN vessels. WRNS issued sailing orders and allocated berths. They also sent, received and decoded messages. Meanwhile, WRNS were required to be mobile and go where needed rather than live at home. The chic, feminine uniform distinctly different from the RN uniform and designed especially for women, was soon supplemented by overalls, bell bottom trousers, and other forms of practical clothing depending on the job performed.  Silently, the requirement for recommendations in order to apply also went by the board. 


Meanwhile, the WRNS particularly distinguished themselves as linguists and in the field of code-breaking and cypher work. It is noteworthy that the Admiralty had unofficially identified these areas as potential fields for women before the outbreak of the war. Dispatch riders was another category of work in which WRNS earned praise and recognition. The work entailed riding powerful (and very heavy) motorbikes at speed, often over long distances, on unmarked roads with inadequate headlights (due to wartime blackout requirements). Inevitably, a number of women had serious motor accidents, and recruitment for the trade was discontinued, but those who had already qualified were allowed to continue, several earning mentions in dispatches or medals for their work.

Although the Admiralty never allowed women to serve "with the fleet," starting in 1941, small harbor craft were "manned" by WRNS.  Although the boat crews never numbered more than 573 altogether, it was the most popular of all categories and some WRNS preferred to give up their petty officer status for the sake of being an ordinary deck hand on a boat.  There was also one small but notable exception to the otherwise rigid rule about women not serving "with the fleet." WRNS cipher officers were sent aboard the large troop transports such as the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth

Finally, WRNS were deployed overseas, which required them traveling for the most part by RN vessel to their new overseas assignments. WRNS were sent overseas starting in 1942 and by the end of the war 6,000 WRNS were serving in 37 overseas locations. In the course of the war, WRNS served in Alexandria, Port Said, Cairo and Suez, Durban, Kilindini (Kenya), Colombo (Cylon) and Singapore. 

At its peak in late 1944, the WRNS numbered 74,620 who served in all theaters of the war. In the course of the war, they had made themselves so useful and demonstrated the capabilities of women so effectively that the WRNS was not disbanded after WWII but continued until it was fully integrated into the RN in 1993.

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about them, their awards and read excerpts at: https://CrossSeasPress.com.


Sunday, June 25, 2023

British Women at War: The Role of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in WWII

  From the start of the war, British women were encouraged to volunteer for one of the three women's auxiliary military services: Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The oldest, largest and least glamorous, of the three was the ATS.


The ATS was officially authorized by Royal Warrant in September 1938 and was intended to bring together under a single structure a variety of voluntary organizations which sought to recruit women volunteers to support the military in time of war. Some of these groups had roots going back to the First World War or even beyond in the case of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), which had been formed as early as 1908. However, except for the FANY, the various women’s auxiliaries which had sprung up during WWI had been disbanded and so it was necessary to start anew. 

At its inception, the duties envisaged for the ATS were defined as driving, cooking, cleaning (orderlies), clerical work and managing stores. The idea was that women would take over these functions on the home front inside the army so that men would be freed to fight, particularly overseas. Although uniformed from the start and divided into "officers" and "other ranks," it was not until the ATS was recognized as a component part of the military by act of parliament in April 1941 that women officers received commissions and enjoyed an equal status (though not pay!) to men. As a rule, women in the ATS were paid two-thirds of what the men they were replacing had received. They also received just four-fifths of the rations of men. Only with respect to leave was there no discrimination; the women received the same amount as their male counterparts. Women between the ages of 18 and 43 were eligible, and women between 44 and 50 could enlist if they had served in the last war. 


Promotion was far less egalitarian. Practically all officers were upper class, many were titled, although they often lacked any other qualification. The right accent and an aura of "authority" were considered the most important requirements -- at least in the early years. 

The poor quality of the leadership probably accounts for the troubles the ATS initially experienced in obtaining adequate uniforms, billets and respect. Rumors of widespread immorality and unmarried pregnancy soon spread. Morale plummeted and by the start of 1941, more women were leaving the ATS than joining. Since it was then still a voluntary organization, this was possible without negative repercussions. It took a parliamentary inquiry to expose the allegations as fraudulent and malicious. Meanwhile, the leadership was rigorously overhauled and a new director installed.

Meanwhile, the women of the ATS were demonstrating their capabilities, and they were taking over an increasing number of jobs. One of the most important of these was manning anti-aircraft batteries. The employment of women on "ack-ack" batteries was proposed and advocated by General Sir Frederick Pile, the CO of the command early in the war. The driving force behind the acceptance of the idea was numbers: Britain's anti-aircraft batteries were short 1,114 officers and nearly 18,000 men at the start of 1940.  General Pile devised a plan to recruit 15,000 women by the end of 1941 -- and he was willing to pay the women at the same rate as men. Indeed, he wanted the women fully integrated into the Royal Artillery with the same ranks, rights, rates of pay and discipline. However, opposition by the ATS leadership prevented the implementation of his proposal. 

Then in May 1941 the Army Act ended the ATS' voluntary status, and the way was opened for the deployment of women in anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries. In March 1942, the conscription of women was legalized and thereafter the ATS was no longer an exclusively a volunteer force and its members became subject to the full weight of military discipline.  Public opinion, nevertheless, still opposed the idea of women "bearing" arms -- or shooting artillery. Instead, the army opted to create mixed anti-aircraft batteries with both ATS and Royal Artillery personnel working together. 

 Although not allowed to fire the guns, the women attached to an anti-aircraft battery  were responsible for operating and maintaining advanced equipment such as predictors, height-finders, plotters, and spotters.  ATS women also manned the searchlight batteries, a role some viewed as the "elite." Searchlights were radar directed and so they worked as plotters as well as operators, the latter had to maintain both the beams (not an easy task) and the generator for the lights, as well as be able to switch it on and off and swing it manually if necessary. ATS attached to anti-aircraft batteries also did driving, manned R/T and teleprinter machines, serviced vehicles, did sentry duty and carried dispatches.

The first mixed gun battery was deployed in August 1941 and the first mixed battery credited with downing an enemy aircraft was in Newcastle in December 1941. The commanding officer of this successful unit went on record saying:

As an old soldier, if I were offered the choice of commanding a mixed battery or a male battery, I would say without hesitation I would take the mixed battery. The girls cannot be beaten in action and, in my opinion, they are better than the men on the instruments they are manning. Beyond a little natural excitement...they are quite as steady if not steadier than the men. They are amazingly keen to go into action....

By the end of 1942, 170,000 women were manning Britain's "ack-ack" guns, which made up 77% of all ATS strength. Meanwhile, the number of other trades in which women were employed had grown from the original five trades to a total of 77 including postal workers, ammunition inspectors, translators and librarians. Furthermore, women were being sent overseas. From just 57 women in the Middle East in August 1941, the number of ATS stationed overseas grew to roughly 14,000 by the end of the war.  At its height, the ATS numbered 210,308 women. Casualties were modest. A total of 67 ATS women, most serving on the ack-ack guns, were killed due to enemy action in the course of the war. 

Although the reputation of the ATS had improved after it's disastrous low at the start of 1941, it never managed to match the prestige of the other women's services and a higher proportion of ATS personnel were conscripts than in either the WAAF or WRNS, the latter of which was all volunteer. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Winston Churchill's daughter Mary joined the ATS in 1941, and in early 1945, Princess Elizabeth also chose to join the ATS, serving as an ambulance and lorry driver. 

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about them, their awards and read excerpts at: https://CrossSeasPress.com.