Women of WWII recall their roles in fighting the NazisMarch 16, 2021
Heroines of the home front: From Royal Navy plotter tracking enemy warships to Bletchley Park code-breaker… four women recruited into top secret WWII posts tell of the part they played in defeating Hitler
- Christian Lamb, 100, plotted enemy ships’ path for Women’s Royal Naval Service
- Patricia Owtram, 97, intercepted German naval broadcasts from cliffs of Dover
- Sister Jean, 95, worked as a cipher officer in places including Italy and Egypt
- Elizabeth Davies, 96, was stationed at Bletchley Park codebreaking facility
- Tales in documentary Women of the Second World War: Courage and Conviction
Britain’s collective fight against the Nazis in World War Two saw a third of the population involved in war work.
That number included seven million women who performed crucial roles including top secret intelligence gathering, maintaining and flying aircraft and compiling weather reports.
Four female veterans have spoken of their experiences in a new documentary, released by online platform History Hit.
Women of the Second World War: Courage and Conviction, is presented by historian Alice Loxton.
Christian Lamb, aged 100, worked as a ‘plotter’ for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS), a role which saw her chart the paths of Allied and enemy ships involved in the 1944 Normandy landings.
Patricia Owtram, 97, worked from an inconspicuous hut on the top of the cliffs of Dover to intercept German naval broadcasts, while her sister Jean, 95, was sent to Italy and Cairo to work with intelligence agents.
And Elizabeth Davies, 96, was stationed at the famous codebreaking facility Bletchley Park, where she specialised in deciphering Japanese navy codes.
Ms Loxton said: ‘The roles that Christian, Elizabeth, Pat and Jean played in their cypher and plotting work were key to the war effort, there’s no doubt about it.
‘But wartime has the great power of advancing progress, and it is clear that the Second World War gave these women a sudden burst of responsibility, education and adventure.’
Christian Lamb – Plotter for the Wrens
Ms Lamb was born in Edinburgh to a naval family – her father was Rear Admiral Ronald Wolsley Oldham, who served on battleships in the First World War.
She had been planned to study at Oxford University but, when the War broke out, she opted to delay her time as a student because ‘we all had to do our bit’.
Ms Lamb said her motivation to enlist stemmed from her desire to see Nazi Germany defeated.
After the Allies’ catastrophic defeat at Dunkirk, Hitler’s forces occupied much of Europe – pinning British forces back within the UK’s borders.
Christian Lamb, aged 100, was born in Edinburgh to a naval family – her father was Rear Admiral Ronald Wolsley Oldham, who served on battleships in the First World War. Ms Lamb said her motivation to enlist stemmed from her desire to see Nazi Germany defeated
‘I felt very strongly about the Germans,’ Ms Lamb said.
‘I’ll never forget the moment when we had the whole of the coast opposite England was absolutely occupied by Germans from Norway to Spain. And you could say they were almost touchable across the Channel.
Ms Lamb initially enlisted as a nurse but quickly realised she ‘wasn’t suitable’ and so joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, who were popularly and officially known as the Wrens.
The service was founded in the First World War but had been disbanded in 1919. It was reformed in 1939. Women were recruited for shore-based jobs to release men for service at sea.
By 1943, there were 74,000 Wrens serving in both the UK and overseas.
At the Wren headquarters in Trafalgar Square, Ms Lamb worked as a plotter. Her job was to use Radar technology to keep track of Allied and enemy ships ships in the Channel and elsewhere.
‘You had all the convoys, all the huge ships the liners, all going at about 26 knots. Everything had to be kept up to date.
‘I was a leading Wren aged 20. It was really quite exciting. I did a job which I enjoyed and which was useful. I felt it was useful… it saved people’s lives.
Ms Lamb was given the chance by a Polish pilot to be flown back to her base in a Miles Magister aircraft (file image shown above)
‘Plotting was interesting because if you saw a radar blip which might’ve been a submarine or a motorboat… you would send a motorboat to investigate.
‘It was very entertaining, interesting and very educational.
‘I was absolutely free and that was unusual, I would’ve been sent to some awful place to learn how to iron and how to wash and cook and things, there I was free, it was great fun,’ she added.
Her most important role was the work she carried out on the Normandy landings of 1944, which saw Allied forces invade northern France to retake terrtiory from the Nazis.
‘I was working on the actual maps of the landings. There were five landings on the Normandy coast,’ Ms Lamb said.
‘Everything had to be very, very secret. I had my own little office in the basement. No one was in it but me and the whole of the walls were covered in those huge ordance survey maps of France.’
Ms Lamb also recalled the ‘thrilling moment’ when she enjoyed an unexpected flight in a Miles Magister aircraft.
After missing her train back to London following a training course in Bath, she said a Polish pilot she met ‘at a party’ the night before gave her the chance to fly back with him in his plane.
‘He said “shall I give you a lift back in the old crate?”
‘I said “what old crate?” and he said “my aeroplane” and I said “good heavens” I was so thrilled to answer “yes, absolutely, passionately”.
‘Can you imagine, a Miles Magister open to the winds, I had never flown in anything before. It was a thrilling moment, absolutely wonderful.
‘So we divebombed lots of cows which he thought would frighten me but I loved that.’
Christian has published four books, including one about the Wrens and others on gardening.
Jean Owtram – Cipher officer in Cairo and Italy
Patricia and Jean Owtram were born in what Jean described as the ‘basic’ surroundings of rural North Lancashire.
Patricia described how, before the war, they were both ‘quite sure’ they would grow up to do a ‘short course in running a house or secretarial work’ before marrying and settling down as ‘country mothers and wives’.
When Jean joined up, she expected to do something ‘rather simple’ but ended up being posted overseas.
‘We went out first as a convoy. Sailing through the Mediterranean at the age of 18, you’d never been out of Lancashire,’ she said.
When Jean Owtram joined up, she expected to do something ‘rather simple’ but ended up being posted overseas, where she worked with intelligence agents posted behind enemy lines. Right: Jean with her mother
‘And then I was in Cairo for three or four months. And then they wanted people over in Italy and so we flew in an aeroplane.
‘Code and cipher work was what it was called. We were doing correspondence work with our agents working behind the lines in Europe.’
While in Italy, Jean was able to learn to drive ‘unofficially’ and spent time when off duty exploring the country and looking at ‘wonderful views’.
‘The whole thing was exciting and wonderful. We weren’t actually killing anyone or anything like that. It was like glorious foreign travel,’ she said.
‘I think if I had the chance, looking back, I knew I wanted to travel I knew I wanted to see what else there was in the world, I wanted to get away, do things independenly, I think I had a wonderful chance handed to me on a plate.’
After the war, Jean worked as a social worker before being appointed as a careers officer at Lancaster University.
Patricia Owtram – Listened to German naval broadcasts for the Wrens
When war came, Patricia opted to join the Wrens.
She said she was ‘very excited’ because she had become fluent in German by spending a lot of time speaking with her grandfather’s Austrian cook and house maid.
‘They had a secret training etablishment in Wimbledon where they ran courses in intercepting and listening to German naval signals on the radio. So I was trained as a radio intercepter,’ she said.
When war came, Patricia opted to join the Wrens. She said she was ‘very excited’ because she had become fluent in German by spending a lot of time speaking with her grandfather’s Austrian cook and house maid
Patricia and Jean Owtram were born in what Jean described as the ‘basic’ surroundings of rural North Lancashire. Pictured: The women with their family (Patricia third from left and Jean far right)
She described how there was a network of small Wren listening stations on the British coast, where German-speaking staff intercepted German military broadcasts.
It was from a station at the top of the cliffs of Dover where Patricia listened in to German naval broadcasts.
How the Wrens’ cracking of the German’s Lorenz code helped the Allies at D-Day and contributed to their victory in the war
The Wrens work helped Allied military leaders establish that Hitler and his troops had fallen for their propaganda campaign.
Just before D-Day they revealed that Hitler had believed the deception campaign to convince him that the invasion force would land in the Pas de Calais.
Nicknamed Operation Fortitude, the Allied plan used dummy and inflatable tanks to confuse German forces.
Even once the invasion had begun they kept the Germans guessing about whether another landing would follow elsewhere.
As a result Hitler kept vital forces in the Pas-de-Calais – well to the north of the Normandy beaches – until the Allies were already overrunning his troops.
Another message showed how Allied air raids were successfully hindering the German war effort.
She said: ‘We worked watches round the clock – four hours on, eight hours off, searching the German navy’s frequencies, writing down their messages, passing on operational ones to naval intelligence.’
The majority of the messages were in the Enigma code, which – unbeknown to the Germans – was cracked by Bletchley Park codebreakers in July 1941.
Patricia said the messages were sent to the secret Buckinghamshire establishment to be decoded. ‘How they did it, I had no idea,’ she said.
Because Germany had been occupying France since 1940, they were able to use guns from Calais to fire shells at Dover.
Patricia said of the shelling: ‘Luckily they never had a go at our rather inconspicuous building on top of a cliff. But there was always a bit of risk of a German commando type raid.
‘So it was the only station where we had an armed guard of military police.
‘They were provided with Sten guns and we used to say to each other, it would be rather nice if there was a raid… if they could teach us how to practice with a Sten gun.’
Patricia said her role allowed her to see the War from the enemy side. ‘I spent years listening to the German fleet talking, and in a way listening to the war from the German side of it,’ she said.
‘The E boat crews became quite familiar in a way because they used to come across the North Sea and chat to each other and they would sometimes do messages like so and so’s crew is going on leave next week.’
After the war, Patricia worked as a journalist for the Daily Mail in the 1950s and also studied at Oxford. She went on to work as a TV producer.
Written jointly with her sister, she also published a memoir – Codebreaking Sisters – which was released last summer.
It was from a station at the top of the cliffs of Dover where Patricia listened in to German naval broadcasts (file photo)
Elizabeth Davies – Bletchley Park codebreaker
The Wrens also made up much of the staff at Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire. The invaluable work carried out there saved thousands of lives and contributed to the Allies’ victory.
It was there that the German Lorenz and Enigma codes were cracked, allowing Britain to decipher Nazi messages, including those between Hitler and his high command.
Through deciphering the codes, the Allies discovered that Hitler had been taken in by a deception campaign to make the Germans believe that the force which invaded Normandy in 1944 would in fact land at Calais.
Elizabeth Davies, who turns 97 next week, was sent to Bletchley after being interviewed while studying at Oxford by a man she described as a ‘very cadaverous gentleman’
Ms Davies, who turns 97 next week, was sent to Bletchley after being interviewed while studying at Oxford by a man she described as a ‘very cadaverous gentleman’.
She said how she was initially ‘a bit disappointed’ because would have enjoyed ‘flying aeroplanes’ instead.
Ms Davies was initially sent on a month-long course to learn nautical vocabulary – so she would be able to spot naval messages when she deciphered them.
‘My bit was Japanese naval codes. And specifically JN40, and JN25, two quite different codes.
Ms Davies’s speciality was Japanese naval codes, which she said she solved ‘on squared paper with a stubby pencil’. Pictured: Some of the codes
‘JN40 was a fairly simple merchant shipping code which you solved on squared paper with a stubby pencil,’ she said.
‘And it changed every week. That is the thing about codes. They had a very limited period. Because that’s what helps them to be secure.
‘We only did a rough translation and possibly you only picked out certain words you knew.
‘Then of course send it off to the translators and then they send it on to the strategic teams and the strategic teams decided who needed to know.’
Women of the Second World War: Courage and Conviction is available to watch on History Hit TV.
Women of the Second World War: Courage and Conviction is available to watch on History Hit TV and is presented by historian Alice Loxton
How Bletchley Park cut the war short by two years and expanded to areas including Colombo and Kenya to decode wireless signals sent by the Japanese
The importance of the code-breaking operations at Bletchley Park cannot be underestimated.
They produced vital intelligence that played a huge part in swinging the war in the Allies’ favour.
As Winston Churchill said at the time, the Bletchley staff were ‘the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled’.
Around 8,000 women worked at the centre, consisting of around 75 per cent of the workforce.
Cryptographers at Bletchley Park deciphered top-secret communiques between German forces
But they were often under-represented in high-level work such as cryptanalysis – with only a few being trained up for the task.
Intelligence from Bletchley played a vital part in the defeat of the U-boats in the six-year Battle of the Atlantic, British naval triumphs in the Battle of Cape Matapan in 1941 and the Battle of North Cape off the coast of Norway in 1943.
By 1944 British and American commanders knew the location of 58 out of 60 German divisions across the Western Front.
Alan Turing’s efforts in cracking the German Enigma Code were also instrumental to the success of the war effort.
A replica of the ‘Bombe’ machine used at Bletchley Park to help decipher the German enigma code
He and fellow code-breaker Gordon Welchman developed the Bombe, a machine which from late 1940 was able to decode all messages sent by Enigma machines.
Also in 1940, codebreaking operations expanded to areas including Colombo, Ceylon and Kenya – for help with the US effort against Japan.
Here British codebreakers, including women, would help decipher Japanese wireless signals.
And by mid-1945 around 100 people were involved in the operation which was run in conjunction with the US Signal intelligence Service.
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