THE role of women – including the Queen – in the Second World War has been remembered at a special ceremony at the National Memorial Arboretum marking the 80th anniversary of the formation of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).
Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) veteran and double Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes travelled to Staffordshire for the event to rededicate the ATS Lady statue at the WRAC plot alongside fellow former Servicewomen.
Dame Kelly, who is a life members of the WRAC Association, said: “I am delighted to be here to meet some of the women who paved the way for us in the Army, and who served in [the Second World War].
“One of my earliest ambitions was to join the Army and win an Olympic gold medal, and I was certain that being female wouldn’t stop me from doing either. I am so proud to have served my country and serve alongside so many inspirational women.”
The WRAC Association’s 3,000 members include many who served in the ATS until its disbandment in 1949, when the WRAC was founded as the female-only section of the British Army. It was disbanded in 1992, after which women joined regiments alongside their male counterparts. The youngest member who served in these exclusively-female sections of the Army is around 45 years old, and the eldest is well in to her 90s.
Bletchley Park code breaker Betty Webb (94), president of the charity’s Birmingham branch, was also present at the ceremony. She recalled listening to bad news of the war on the wireless and volunteering for the ATS, after which she was ordered to London to be interviewed by an Army major from the Intelligence Corps.
She spoke good colloquial German and assumes this is why she was chosen to go to Bletchley Park – the government code and cypher school, where 8,000 people served during the height of activity and women outnumbered men by three-to-one.
Her first eye-opener was signing the Official Secrets Act and the shock of hearing an officer explain how severely punished she would be for breaching it. She couldn’t tell her parents where she was, or what she was doing, for 30 years and her parents died before the veil of secrecy was lifted, so they never knew.
Betty moved to block F in 1943, where she paraphrased Japanese messages so they were harder to trace and safer to send. She later decoded and translated Japanese messages in The Pentagon, Washington DC.
She said: “I do what I can for the Association – what with two new hips!”