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The women were not allowed to fight, but nevertheless contributed to success on D-Day

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Marie Scott worked on switchboards during the Second World War and ensured communication between the commander in England and the soldiers in Normandy during D-Day. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP / NTB

Of NTB | 02.06.2024 09:03:16

War and conflicts: – What did you do during the war, grandmother?

For British women who came of age during the Second World War, the answer to that question is often: quite a lot.

Behind the scenes of the battles on the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944 were hundreds of thousands of military women working as code breakers, ship plotters, radar operators and cartographers. They have often been overlooked, but the work they did during the war has received increased attention recently – as the number of D-Day veterans dwindles and the 80th anniversary approaches.

– You realize how real the war is, what it really entails. War is not a word, it is an action that affects thousands, millions, says Scott in a conversation about her time in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, often referred to as Wrens.

– I think that was the day I stopped being a stupid 17-year-old. I honestly think I grew up that day.

Throughout the war, over 1.1 million women served in the armed forces of the Allied countries, including 640,000 in Britain, where the threat of invasion was real.

Even the then Princess Elizabeth, later Queen, did her bit by training as a driver and mechanic in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army.

– People forget that they were 17, 18 years old, the ones who did these jobs, says Dick Goodwin, who helps D-Day veterans travel to Normandy every year.

– It is astonishing. Talk about being thrown into the deep end!

The Allies’ decision to put women to work was an important strategic choice that contrasted with Nazi Germany, where the authorities relied on forced labour, according to Ian Johnson, a historian at the University of Notre Dame in the US.

– Part of the purpose was to use the economic and important advantages of the Allies and use them in the most useful way, compared to how the Germans structured their military, he says.

– So these support roles were crucial in providing the logistical advantages that helped the Allies win.

Their sacrifices are honored with a sculpture in central London, near the Cenotaph, the National War Memorial.

The sculpture is decorated with 17 different uniforms hung on pegs to represent the jobs the women took on during the war and which they had to leave behind when the men returned.

Among them are the uniforms of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Women’s Royal Naval Service – but also police uniforms, a nursing gown and a welding mask.

– I get a certain satisfaction from what I experienced during the war, says Marie Scott.

– And I allow myself, sometimes, to feel a touch of pride in my younger self.

One of these women is Marie Scott, who was 17 years old on D-Day and worked at the military switchboard. She heard the chaos from the beaches through her headphones as she relayed messages between the commander in England and the soldiers in Normandy.

Almost 160,000 soldiers took the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in a massive operation to break through Nazi Germany’s defenses and begin the liberation of Western Europe.

To recruit the women, posters were used with clear messages: by enlisting in the military and taking on supporting roles, they could free the men for service at the front. Although technically banned from combat, more than 800 British women were killed in military service during the war.

Those who did not join the military had other opportunities to contribute. Millions of women worked in defense factories, grew crops and rode motorbikes through the darkened streets of London to keep firefighters updated on the damage from the bombing. The British government also asked them to keep the economy going while the men went off to battle.

In total, around 7 million British women served to a greater or lesser extent during the Second World War.

(© NTB)

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