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 



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:



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:


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:


Saturday, June 24, 2023

Liverpool's Role in the US Civil War

Liverpool in the 1860s


Unlike the rest of Britain, Liverpool’s population and economic status plummeted after World War Two. Go back 80 years further, though, and you have Britain’s second great metropolis, thriving off King Cotton and still benefitting hand-over-fist from the transatlantic slave trade. In modern terms, it would be a city of four million people, or nearly twice the size of Paris. A confident, arrogant world player grasping at city statehood.

Liverpool sucked money into its Cotton Exchange and banks directly from the trade winds and favourable currents from the new world. Traders got rich quick, but by 1863 something had stuck in the craw… those Damn Yankees. As a savage ground war ignited across the Eastern States of a still fledgling nation, the superior Union Navy blockaded all merchant traffic coming in and out of the South. Many leagues away in North-West England, a cotton drought set tempers boiling and the nouveau riche Illuminati of Liverpool rolled their stall out to scatter this blockade, by fair means and foul.

Britain’s official neutrality – Lincoln had explicitly warned the British Government against meddling – was flouted as the Confederate Navy was built, launched and crewed out of the city. Huge and notorious ironclad leviathans slipped out of the shipyard at Cammell Laird, steaming out into the Mersey bound for engagement. No expense was spared, and the South had been gifted the best technology of the day, with blockade runners like CSS Alabama and CSS Banshee becoming the scourge of the North. The Rebs suddenly had stock on water, and it came expressly from Liverpool.

Via deep-rooted trade connections, the city was deemed strategically essential to both sides in the war. The United States had long established a Consulate on Paradise Street, before the Confederacy – floated by local support – established its own base at Rumford Place and then Abercromby Square. A Cold War of espionage, legal challenges and sabotage began as agents (including a number of commissioned female agents) on both sides roamed the city and infiltrated the docks and ships.

Thomas Haines Dudley and James Dunwoody Bulloch

Two men infamously stood out in a growing ensemble American cast: Union Consul Thomas Haines Dudley, an erstwhile close aide of Lincoln who had a role in his election, and the formidable James Dunwoody Bulloch, Confederate Commander and Dudley’s counterpart at Rumford Place. Bulloch was the direct link in building the clandestine Navy, while Dudley challenged him in British courts and via his own network of agents who acted on the edge of local laws.

During the summer of 1863, in the run-up to Gettysburg, the pivotal battle stateside, Bulloch was succeeding in his charm offensive on the rich denizens of the city, via gentlemen’s clubs like the Athenaeum, which had a long association with slave traders. While anti-slavery campaigns were robust, former slavers had received vast sums in compensation and had reinvested their monies in the same dirty business, only at the import end of the supply chain. The CSS Alabama wreaked havoc on the blockade, and destroyed dozens of enemy vessels before finally succumbing at Cherbourg, more evidence that this war was fought on both sides of the ocean. 


The actions were not confined to the two senior rivals either. Key Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt hid out in the city for several months after the dirty deed, evading capture and extradition. Liverpool’s addiction to the vast wealth created by cotton drove the city’s fervent support of the Rebel Yell, and this included harbouring fugitives and spies like Surratt. Westminster did little to nothing in terms of disrupting this tryst, with rumours of collaborations between some senior politicians with investments tied up in Liverpool’s trading interests and the movement to back Richmond.


Irish Diaspora


An important backdrop to these events is that Liverpool’s dense population was swelled by the diaspora after the Great Irish Hunger in the 1840s, which meant that many of the commissioned agents and paid gangs originated from this generation of immigrants. Both sides in the war recruited vigorously in the city for their armies and navies. Irish fought on both sides and continued to build American cities as much as their labour built Liverpool. Ireland formed a bridge across the ocean, and Liverpool Irish were another essential link, taking up the lucrative but dirty work offered by Dudley and Bulloch at a time when any work was sought after. 


This nefarious cooperation of Liverpool and the Confederacy can be boiled down to an unerring truth; the American Civil War began with a shot fired from a giant gun built by a Duke Street ironmonger and ended in 1865 with the surrender of Liverpool-built CSS Shenandoah on the Mersey, with the last act of defiance coming with their acquiescing to the British rather than Union Navy.


After the War


Dunwoody Bulloch settled in the city after the war and is interred at Smithdown Road cemetery. Today, Liverpool redefines itself as a city of tolerance and as a proud, ancient melting pot with a strong urge towards social justice. City historians like Lawrence Westgaph and Malik Al Nasir have opened up long-closed archives that detail what happened before and after the war, particularly in terms of slavery, by following the money and proffering reparations for the middle passage Holocaust. Myths hang tight, and while the ideas behind the Confederacy maintain an allure to the alt-right in the US, the frequent appearance of a Confederate saltire on Bulloch’s resting place reminds us that maybe a few in Liverpool still wished that war had ended differently. The fundamental difference is that now they’re in a tiny minority.


About the Author


John Maxwell is the author of the Civil War thriller “Water Street”. 


Set in Liverpool in 1863, the American Civil War comes to the British Empire’s second city and the world’s richest port. Confederate Commander Banastre X. Dunwoody has a plan to turn the conflict by securing advanced warships, but the U.S. Government is one step ahead of him. It seeks to sabotage his efforts through its covert agent – Harriet Dunwoody – Banastre’s pregnant wife.



Water Street