It wasn't all waiting at home for the men. For some women, the War was a living nightmare; for others it was chance to break free. Beverly Kemp meets three for whom life was never the same again Love that was found, lost and found again New opportunities outside the home
During the war, Monica Still worked as a nurse at the Victoria Hospital in Lewes. Now 73 and single, she lives in Kent.

"The start of the war pushed me into deciding whether to be a nurse or go to agricultural college. Soothing fevered brows suddenly seemed far more important than learning to grow cabbages. I was far too young to comprehend what war actually meant, but I knew I wanted to do something useful.

I first saw Marya across the bar of the Queen's Hotel in Hastings. It was 1941 and the war had made it easier for women to do things that we had never done before, like going out for a drink without a man. Marya and I were both 19 and out for the evening with a group of friends from the nurses' home. It was a classic case of eyes meeting and you just know. I asked a mutual friend to introduce us and we never looked back.

Until then, I had been trying very hard to be madly heterosexual but, even in a town full of Canadian soldiers, it wasn't working too well. It came as a relief finally to make the decision that men were out. In those days that was quite a brave decision to make. Lesbianism was virtually unheard of. There were no books about lesbianism to read; no helpline to call.

Spending time together was frightfully difficult. Marya and I were never on the same ward and only managed to get on night duty together once. On the rare occasions when we were off duty at the same time, we would cycle out to the country to have tea and scones and forget the sights of a military ward.

The funniest memory was the night Marya decided to sneak into my room. A quarter of an hour later there was a knock on the door. Sister obviously suspected something. Marya jumped into the wardrobe. I pretended to be fast asleep. `Do you know where Nurse McLean is?' boomed Sister. `No, but I'll come and help you look for her,' I replied. Sister went stomping off upstairs with me trotting behind her while Marya flew out of the wardrobe downstairs to her room. A few minutes later my door handle rattled and Marya was back. This time Sister was furious and sent Marya off in disgrace. But we were third time lucky. Marya was a very determined soul!

We only had that one glorious year together. The war made everything so much more difficult and fraught. Time was short and we didn't have a chance to get to know each other properly. There was this unspoken pressure on both of us that we should be dating men. Other girls were marrying GIs and the place was full of soldiers who were away from home and lonely. In 1945, I received a letter from Marya telling me that she was marrying a soldier. It broke my heart.

The end of the war wasn't a joyous time for everyone. So many people lost the person they loved. I was devastated over parting with Marya and the years immediately afterwards were very unhappy ones for me, so perhaps I wasn't able to enjoy them as much as other people did.

It took us over 30 years to find each other again. I was 56 when we got our first home together. Marya was a widow with three sons. We only had another eight years. She died of cancer in 1988 and I nursed her through those last few years. But those eight years were the best of my life. There isn't a day goes by when I don't think of her and wish we had had more time together."

When war broke out, Audrey Chubb was invited to set up the Clevedon branch of the WRVS. Now 78, and a widow after 48 years of marriage, she has a son and a daughter and lives in Bristol.

"The outbreak of war brought out a sense of responsibility to their community that most women had never felt before. Until then, it never occurred to me that I would work. Women just didn't. You grew up expecting to get married, have a family, stay at home and invite people round for tea. Suddenly, there was an opportunity to use our capabilities outside the home, a realisation that life wasn't just centred around the family. Some women went on to do things they had never dreamt of.

My husband had taught me to drive when I was 18, so anything that needed to be driven, I got in and drove. If I was doing it now, I'd feel terrified but I was too young to understand the concept of danger and the attitude of that time was that if a job needed doing, you got on and did it.

I remember driving out in the middle of the night to feed men rescuing the crew of a plane that had come down in the Bristol Channel. The pilot's parachute was stuck in a tree. In those days, it was really exciting to have a bit of silk and there was a massive amount in a parachute! My co- driver and I divided it between us and I had a dress and some undies made out of it.

The silly thing was that no one believed it when it was all finally over. We were too stunned. I remember my husband erecting a Union Jack in the back garden but I don't remember rejoicing. My joy had already come with the birth of my daughter in 1944. I slipped back into domestic life quite easily because of my baby, but a lot of other women realised they couldn't go back to what they had been used to before. Many of the Land Army girls stayed on. They'd come to love the work and life in the countryside. Other women decided they didn't want their husbands home after all.

It took a long time to believe that life was returning to normal. Has it ever returned to normal? The community was so close in those days. Everyone smiled at each other and when they said `Are you all right?' they really meant it. I look at these inner cities now where no one knows their neighbour and I feel very sad.

I look at the men who were disabled fighting for their country who have just been cast aside and forgotten and I get very bitter. Sometimes I wonder what they fought for. Has it really given us freedom and a better world?"

A terrible time that tore families apart

Bess Roome was born in Vienna and came to live in England with her family when she was 14, two years before the war began. Now 72, she has been married for 45 years and lives in London. She has two daughters and three grandchildren.

"Those six years tore families apart. My aunt came out of Auschwitz weighing five stone. My uncle was gassed straight away. The only reason my aunt survived was because she got off the lorry to walk with my cousin. They were deemed fit for labour while the rest of the women on that lorry were taken straight to the gas chambers.

My sister's boyfriend was working on a farm in Hampshire which became a restricted area, so he was shipped off to a camp in Canada together with Nazis. My mother managed to get my grandmother out of Austria by marrying her off to a Portuguese man and sending her to America.

My friends were mostly other refugees so I was quite cocooned from anti- semitism. It was only when I got a job in a laboratory attached to a foundry that I began to hear anti-semitic comments. I dismissed the people who made them as fools. My attitude was that it was their problem and not mine.

Although the outbreak of war wasn't entirely unexpected, I remember my more left-wing friends started burning all sorts of papers and documents. Having come from either Germany or Austria, they were sensitive to the dangers and had no idea what to expect or whether they would be raided by the police.

Then my boyfriend asked me not to tell his family that I was Jewish. Our relationship didn't last that long afterwards. How could it? I knew about the concentration camps. I felt a deep sense of sadness and anger at the persecution of the Jews in Germany and my home country.

Odd little memories come back. You couldn't get alarm clocks anywhere. I was terrible at getting up in the morning, so I used to tie a piece of string around my finger and hang it out of the window so that a friend who passed our flat on his way into work every morning could pull it to wake me up.

Having survived the first few years, you became all the more determined not to die before it all came to an end. Most terrifying of all were the doodlebugs and landmines. One minute you could hear the doodlebugs, then all of a sudden the noise would cut out and that's when you knew they were coming down. But you didn't know where. It was chilling.

By the end of the war, most of us felt very tired. Of course there was a sense of relief, but the whole horror of Belsen and Auschwitz came to light then. When I met my cousin afterwards, she was very bitter because of what she had seen in the camps.

For me, it could have been worse. I could have been in Germany or Austria."

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