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: