Scrapheap find helps to reunite women who lit wartime skies

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

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Davidson performs his comedy show at Edinburgh Festival 2014
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Buyer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This award winning IT company are currently re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Account Manager

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor