Scrapheap find helps to reunite women who lit wartime skies
Recognition at last for predominantly female regiment of searchlight operators. Julia Stuart reports
Sunday 19 June 2005
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."
- 1 Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
- 2 What supermodels really think about posing in the nude
- 3 North Korean defector flees to Finland 'with evidence of chemical testing on humans'
- 4 Black teen in critical condition after store employee 'shoots him for stealing 79-cent pack of cookies'
- 5 Swedish minister gives strongest case yet on why EU should stop turning away asylum seekers
Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
Greece debt crisis explainer: A history of just how the country landed itself in such a mess
North Korean defector flees to Finland 'with evidence of chemical testing on humans'
Swedish minister gives strongest case yet on why EU should stop turning away asylum seekers
Isis schoolgirl Amira Abase who fled London to join terrorists in Syria mocks victims of Tunisia massacre
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
Osborne to cap family benefits at £23,000 – announced ahead of his post-election Budget
£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...
£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...
£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...