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. Read the rest of this entry