Scrapheap find helps to reunite women who lit wartime skies

Recognition at last for predominantly female regiment of searchlight operators. Julia Stuart reports
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The Independent Online

They were at risk fromenemy aircraft night after night during the Second World War, but as women were unarmed. Now the efforts of the only predominately female regiment in British Army history are to be recognised, thanks to a chance find by an enthusiast for war memorabilia.

The 93rd (M) Searchlight Regiment Royal Artillery (TA) was formed in October 1942 using volunteers from the Auxiliary Territorial Service, after a secret trial of women's ability to operate searchlights. Manpower was short and the lights played a vital role. They picked up enemy aircraft, acted as a beacons for exhausted crews returning from raids, lit buildings during rescue attempts and swept the seas for German vessels.

There was concern that women would be unable to cope with the isolated locations of the searchlights, to defend themselves, or to turn over the huge generator. One of the greatest dangers was enemy aircraft shooting along the beam of light.

The regiment had up to 1,500 women, with support roles for about 150 men, none of whom operated the lights. The regiment was responsible for 72 searchlights to the north-west of London. Each was operated by around 12 women who lived alongside them in Nissen huts. Some troops were allocated a token man who would start the generator and then disappear into the night. One local padre used to do the honours, nipping over on his pushbike when the air raid sounded.

The women would have remained largely forgotten were it not for a history enthusiast who spotted a searchlight on Channel 4's Scrapheap Challenge. Keith Brigstock, an MoD civil servant, secured it for his Second World War re-enactment group and while restoring it, discovered the unique regiment. He tracked down 75 veterans who are still alive, 46 of whom will be attending a reunion.

Jean Crawley, 80, originally from Colchester, is travelling from Ontario, Canada, to attend the reunion held at the headquarters of the Royal Artillery at Larkhill, Wiltshire, on 29 June.

Ten days later, as a result of a campaign Mrs Crawley started nearly 10 years ago, the Queen will unveil a memorial to the women of the Second World War in Whitehall in recognition of the contribution made by more than seven million women to victory in Europe and Japan 60 years on.

Mrs Crawley, who emigrated to Canada after the war, spent about two years with a searchlight unit in a field 15 miles from Stapleford, Hertfordshire, as one of two radar operators. "There were 15 of us girls and I will never in my life forget the bond that we had. We cried together, laughed together, looked after each other," she said.

"We were out on that equipment from dusk to dawn sometimes when the raids were heavy in 1942. We had to try and get some sleep during the day and then had to do the maintenance on the equipment and start all over again at night.

"We were also used as homing beacons. When our own aircraft or allied aircraft were lost they would flash letters from the belly of an aircraft and we would know that they needed us to show them the way home.

"We would light up the beam fairly low and they would fly along it. We saved a lot of lives that way." Mrs Crawley then moved to troop headquarters in a field near Welwyn Garden City and became firm friends with Hilda Kuypers, who will also be attending the reunion.

Mrs Kuypers, 81, who lives in Portsmouth, was responsible for plotting aircraft and was also a relief generator operator. "We were very proud of the fact that we were the only girls' regiment. It was quite a feather in our cap," she said. "When you're four foot nine and a half, the generator was a bit difficult, but you got it going. You didn't have time to be frightened. When you came off duty at dawn you got some sleep, then there was maintenance and PT to do.

"You remember the good stuff, not the times when you took yourself to bed and cried, which you often did over things like a broken romance, not having seen your mum and dad or having to lay a brick path in the mud in the rain."

Mr Brigstock, from Pewsey, Wiltshire, said: "They are very, very proud of what they did. They proved that they could do the same job as men and they were very good at it. They seemed to grasp the technical side better. And they had their idiosyncrasies. Suddenly gardens would spring up around the huts and they put curtains up."