London pride | Celebrating the capital’s women of World War II for VE Day 75

Discover the history of the London women of the Second World War.

This May marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Moving the Bank Holiday from the usual Monday to Friday 8 May 2020, we will commemorate the end of World War II. Today, there aren’t many alive who remember the war, so it’s important to keep the stories of heroism and sacrifice alive so we’re always reminded to never get in another conflict like this again.

While it was predominantly men on the battlefield and leading the government during the war, women paid vitally important roles in WWII, both on the home front and abroad.

To mark VE Day, let’s look back at some of London’s women who made great contributions to the war effort.

  • Dame Doris Winifred Beale, DBE, RRC & Bar (1889-1971)

Born in Forest Hill, south London, Dame Doris grew up to become a military nurse. During the war, she served as Matron-in-Chief of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service from 1941-1944. She was made a Dame in the 1944 Birthday Honours. She is also believed to have died in her home district of Forest Hill at 84 London Road.

  • Faith Bennett (1903-1969)

Born Margaret Ellen Riddick in East Dulwich, south London, she went on to have contrasting careers in acting and flying. While acting under the name Faith Bennett in the 1930s, she also took flying lessons, earning licenses in both the US and UK. After divorcing her husband Charles Alfred Sewlyn Bennett, she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in 1941. She was assigned to the No. 5 Ferry Pilot Pool (F.P.P.), but two days later sustained ‘slight injuries’ after she made a crash landing due to bad weather and engine trouble. She was assigned to the Training Ferry Pool and remained with the ATA until July 1945.

  • Captain Hannah Billig, MBE GM (1901-1987)

Born to Russian refugee parents in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, Hannah Billig won a scholarship to read medicine at the University of London in the early 1920s. After qualifying as a doctor, she set up a small clinic near Cable Street in 1927, later moving round the corner to 198 Cable Street in 1935 (where a blue plaque commemorates her today). During the Blitz, she was the chief doctor for the air raid shelters in Wapping, tending to the sick and wounded in incredibly challenging conditions. She was awarded the George Medal for a particularly courageous act in March 1941. Billig broke her ankle when a bomb blasted her out of a Wapping shelter, where she had been attending to those inside. She bandaged her own ankle, rescued those trapped in the rubble and provided medical care to them, earning the nickname ‘The Angel of Cable Street’. In 1942, she went to Calcutta, India, with the Indian Army Medical Corps. She received an MBE in 1945 for her efforts during the war. Following VE Day, she resumed her practice on Cable Street and later retired to Israel.

  • Lady Ursula Isabel d’Abo [née Manners, formerly Marreco] (1916-2017)

Born into wealth in London, Lady Ursula joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment during World War II. She started out cleaning railway carriages, before working as a nurse at Battersea General Hospital, and later St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park. She managed to survive uninjured when her mother’s house in Mayfair was bombed. After leaving London, she started working at an ammunitions factory in Grantham, overseeing 2,000 women. The war years are just a small piece of her fascinating life, which is detailed in her autobiography The Girl with the Widow’s Peak: The Memoirs.

  • Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998)

Missouri, USA-born Gellhorn was a pioneer as a female war correspondent, whose coverage of WWII and the Spanish Civil War was well respected. She spent her latter years living at 72 Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge, where she is commemorated with a blue plaque.

Gwynne-Vaughan plaque © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

A blue plaque marking Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan in Fitzrovia

  • Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (1879-1967)

Westminster-born Helen was a botanist and military officer. She served in World Wars I and II and was the first Chief Controller of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) from 1939 to 1941. Throughout her career, she worked at various universities in London and lived at Flat 93, Bedford Court Mansions in Fitzrovia for nearly 50 years. She is commemorated by a blue plaque.

  • Joan Hughes, MBE (1918–1993)

Born in Woodford, north-east London, Joan was one of Britain’s first female test pilots. She started flying lessons when she was 15 and became the youngest qualified female pilot in Britain aged just 17. She was one of the first eight female pilots and the youngest to be accepted into the ATA in 1940. She soon clocked up hundreds of hours ferrying aircraft around the country. Joan was made an MBE in 1946.

  • Helen Kerly [aka Ruth Helen Clark] (1916-1992)

London-born Helen was one of the only two civilian female pilot officers to be commended during the WWII. She joined the ATA in 1943 and as a Third Officer, delivered Spitfires around the UK. The ATA gave her a certificate of commendation after she managed to land a Spitfire with technical difficulties in June 1944. Her goggles and helmet are currently on display at the Birmingham Science Museum.

  • Beatrice Ethel Lithiby (1889-1966)

Born in Richmond, Lithiby trained as an artist. After working with the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) in France during WWI, where she also recorded their work in sketches and paintings. She also served as a war artist for the Imperial War Museum during the Great War. She rejoined the British Army during WWII and progressed to a senior rank. She was awarded an MBE, followed later by an OBE.

  • Dame Vera Lynn (b.1917)

One of the war’s most iconic faces celebrated her 100th birthday in 2017. Born in East Ham, Dame Vera began singing at a young age. She became known as the ‘Forces Sweetheart’ for her concerts during WWII, with her best-known songs including We’ll Meet Again and The White Cliffs of Dover. She lifted morale with her recordings and gigs, even giving performances to the troops in Egypt, India and Burma.

  • Dame Vera Laughton Mathews, DBE (1888-1959)

Hammersmith-born Laughton joined the newly-formed Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS/WRENS) in 1918. During the inter-war years, she served in various posts around Britain, before becoming the second Director of the WRNS during WWII. She was made a Dame in 1945.

  • Anne Shelton OBE (1923–1994)

Dulwich-born Patricia Jacqueline Sibley was a popular singer during the war years, winning her first record contract at the tender age of 15. She sang inspirational songs at British military bases and for radio during WWII under the name Anne Shelton. A blue plaque has been placed on her former residence at 142 Court Lane in Dulwich Village.

  • Violette Szabo, G.C. (1921-1945)

Violette is one of the most famous secret agents from war history. Born in Paris to a French mother and English father, she moved to Stockwell at the age of 11 and was enrolled at a Brixton school. When the war started, she was working at the Bon Marche department store in Brixton. Before becoming a secret agent, she did a variety of work for the war effort, including the Women’s Land Army in Hampshire, an arms factory in Acton, and the ATS. After being widowed as a young mother, Violette started training as an agent for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1943. She travelled to German-occupied France for her first mission in 1944. After being captured by the Nazis during her second mission, she was interrogated, tortured and eventually executed at the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. She was the first British women to be awarded the George Cross. A blue plaque is on her former family home at 18 Burnley Road in Stockwell.

  • Dame Margot Turner, DBE, RRC (1910-1993)

Dame Margot, otherwise known as Evelyn Marguerite Turner, was born in Finchley. She enrolled in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1937. She served as a nurse in India, Malay and Singapore. She was captured by the Japanese in 1941 and held as a POW at Bank Island, near Sumatra, for over three years. After being liberated, she resumed her military nursing career. She was made a MBE in 1946, followed by a DBE in 1965.

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Media professional who was born, brought up and works in London. My blog is a guide to London - what's on, festivals, history, reviews and attractions, as well as the odd travel piece. All images on my blog are © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl, unless otherwise specified. Do not use without seeking permission first.

Posted on 22 Apr 2020, in History, London, Walking tour and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on London pride | Celebrating the capital’s women of World War II for VE Day 75.

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