We all know about the sterling role played by “Dad’s Army”, more properly called the Home Guard. But, during World War Two, many women also did their bit for home defence. Defying Government disapproval, members of the “Women’s Home Defence” (WHD) showed that women were just as capable as men, when it came to defending home and country.
On a recent visit to the “On Parade - The Real Dad’s Army” exhibition, currently at Wolverhampton’s Bantock House Museum, I discovered what a struggle women had to convince the wartime Government to let them participate in home defence.
During the war, the Home Guard used Bantock House as a radio control centre, and for training local recruits. The exhibition provides some fascinating eyewitness accounts by men who served, locally. And, you can learn more about what it was really like as a member of “Dad’s Army”. Complete with gasmasks and period style radio, the small display packs quite an atmospheric punch. But, what really drew my attention was mention of the lesser known and largely forgotten, Women’s Home Defence organisation.
In May 1940, after the BBC radio evening news, Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, appealed for men not already fighting or in protected jobs, to join the Local Defence Volunteers, the precursor to the Home Guard. From the start, many women were keen to join, campaigning to be allowed “to do something for the defence of their country”. (Anthony Eden, 1940)
But while Eden and most of the Government were only asking for men to answer the call, there were several MPs who believed home defence needed all the able-bodied recruits it could get, male or female. They felt the main issue wasn’t whether women should be allowed to join the LDV, but whether they should be recruited to combatant roles, or confined to auxiliary roles. The following month, a Labour MP for Nottinghamshire raised the tempo, asking Parliament if women “who can use a rifle” could join.
Despite the fact that, from the outbreak of war, many women had been trained to fire rifles, often joining rifle clubs at their own expense, the notion of women carrying arms upset the overwhelmingly male establishment. Countless women wanted to do their bit and did not want to find themselves helpless in any invasion, a very real threat in 1940.
Most prominent of the campaigners was Labour MP for Fulham West, Dr. Edith Summerskill. Dismissing the Government’s attitude, which she felt put women at risk, because they deemed it “was not womanly for me to use a rifle”, Summerskill cleverly turned the Government’s arguments to her own advantage.
The Government gave two main reasons for denying women entry to the Home Guard. Firstly, lack of resources, including instructors, respirators, rifles, steel helmets and uniforms. Many Home Guard men lacked uniforms or rifles, making do with broom handles on guard duty.
Secondly, there was a great demand for women to serve in other areas of the war effort, such as factories, nursing and the voluntary services. Dr. Summerskill responded by saying that ways of sharing resources could surely be found. And, that the most suitable members of both sexes must be recruited for the various types of war work: “It is better for a C3 man to do the washing up and for an A1 woman to be on the gun site ...” But, it’s doubtful many men agreed with her at the time.
In reality, the main reason for preventing women joining the Home Guard was the predominant view that it was not appropriate for women to bear arms. But, Dr. Summerskill was not prepared to accept this, constantly badgering the Government, with counter attacks. In her view, civil defence was of equal concern to both sexes. And, as traditional guardians of the home, who better to engage in protecting home and country than women? So, in June 1940, undeterred by the politicians’ unyielding stance, Edith Summerskill co-founded the Women’s Home Defence corps. Before long, membership soared to 20,000 women, with 250 units nationwide.
Even by 1942, when Home Guard membership was at its peak, the old arguments were being trundled out, the Government still refusing to recognise the WHD. But, at local level, it was clear that many Home Guard commanders were taking women on board, albeit in auxiliary roles. Despite the ban, the Government itself had to admit that around 50,000 “unofficial” women were serving with Home Guard battalions. Most worked as secretaries, as drivers, and in catering roles. But others were in communications and in medical roles. And, there were instances when, at the commander’s discretion, women trained and drilled alongside the men.
In 1942, a Birmingham Home Guard battalion led the way by forming the First Women Auxiliary. Eventually, the Government was forced to give in. And, in April 1943, the War Office gave its official sanction to the formation of a Nation Women’s Auxiliary. The reason quoted being the increasing shortage of men and women for service on the Home Front. Henceforth, women could be enrolled, officially, into non-combatant roles. By March 1944, 28,000 women, most of whom had long been working unofficially with the Home Guard, were enrolled into the force. This would now be known as the Women’s Home Guard Auxiliaries (WHGA).
The women were not issued with uniforms, but identified by an enamel badge, and sometimes an armband. Both the WHD and WHGA also worked closely with other key Home Front organisations, including the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) and the Women’s Institute (WI).
In June 1940, one of the first women to volunteer for home defence duties was a Birmingham woman called Edna Selwyn. Following Eden’s recruiting broadcast, Edna dashed to her local police station to register. The sergeant on duty was amazed to find women clamouring to help. Nevertheless, Edna was taken on, helping to enrol volunteers.
There are also accounts of some women doing gun practice alongside the men. Ironically, this was mostly within units designed to protect government ministries. On the BBC history website, a 20 year old woman called Mary Warschauer, working as a code and cipher clerk at the Air Ministry, recalled her time with the Home Guard unit there. They were issued with blue dungarees and small, “Glengarry” type hats, just like the men, and practiced with Sten guns.
On a Home Guard memories website, there is also mention of a women’s section of the 18th Warwickshire (Coventry). The women had their own insignia, and you can see a photo of the badge at: HYPERLINK "http://www.staffshomeguard.co.uk" www.staffshomeguard.co.uk
In Surrey, the 51st Malden Home Guard had a medical section, staffed initially by just six men doing First Aid. In a contemporary account, Lt. Col N.H.H. Ralston recalls how, “one Sunday morning, a young lady (now Sergeant G) appeared, requesting to be allowed to assist the Battalion in first Aid. This was granted, and today we have a fully trained women’s First Aid Section under the title of Women’s Auxiliaries. They are equipped with a uniform ... consisting of khaki skirt and shirt blouse, F.S cap (no badge) with shoulder flashes with the word “Medical”. All this clothing had been purchased privately out of funds derived from concerts and dances etc, the women generously giving up their clothing coupons for this purpose. I believe that the Battalion is proud of the fact of being the first Home Guard unit to have women equipped and trained in First Aid ...”
As Ralston continues, it’s clear he was impressed by the women -“They take a very active part in all forms of operational training, sharing the duties of collecting and removing casualties, sometimes under adverse conditions ... They have spent a weekend in Camp doing field work and fatigue duties, along with the men ... there never is a grumble or a grouse, they just get on with the job ...” ( HYPERLINK "http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/ww2/home_guard/hg006.shtml" www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/ww2/home_guard/hg006.shtml )
Well, we always knew we were brilliant at multi-tasking!
If you have any wartime stories about Women’s Home Guard Auxiliaries in the Black Country, we’d love to hear from you.