Wartime heroines: Killed in the line of duty

This week, Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill became the first woman to die on active service in Iraq. Terri Judd looks at six other British women who sacrificed their lives for their country
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The Independent Online

The death of Flight Lieutenant Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill - the first woman to be killed in action in Iraq - provided a stark reminder of the role females play in modern warfare. In every British camp in Iraq, women in uniform serve alongside male counterparts, enduring the same threat of roadside bombs as well as mortar or rocket attacks.

There are currently almost 18,000 women serving in the British armed forces, as pilots, engineers, police, medics, intelligence and signals officers.

This situation is far from new. The Boer War saw the formation of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service - the first time women were recognised as part of the forces.

During the First World War, women volunteered for the Voluntary Aid Detachment and went into the war zone with basic medical training to care for the wounded. Members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry did everything from driving ambulances to dealing with bodies.

More than 1,000 British servicewomen died in the Second World War, performing such duties as engaging in anti-aircraft gun duels with Stuka dive bombers in the Battle of Britain and firing guns from Royal Navy vessels to protect evacuating British troops at Dunkirk. Many of those who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, working as agents behind enemy lines, were decorated.

Since then women have had an increasing role in the services, serving and - at times - dying alongside their male colleagues. But it has been slow to gain recognition and is sketchily documented. Only last year, the Queen unveiled a £1m memorial in Whitehall to formally commemorate the role of women during the Second World War.

Edith Cavell Executed by the Germans, 1915

The name of Edith Cavell is renowned not only for her bravery in helping Allied soldiers escape and her execution by the Germans in 1915, but also for the way in which then British Government refrained from asking for her to be spared the firing squad.

Born in 1865, she trained as a nurse and in 1907 was appointed matron of a hospital in Brussels.. When war broke out in 1914, the hospital was taken over by the Red Cross. Over the course of the next year, Nurse Cavell helped about 200 Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium into the neutral Netherlands and in defiance of Red Cross conventions. The Germans arrested and court-martialled her and she was sentenced to death.

Subsequent release of papers show the then British Government decided against making representations for mercy to the German government because it was likely to have an adverse affect. She was executed by firing squad on 12 October, 1915, after telling the Anglican chaplain who attended her "I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have not hatred or bitterness towards anyone": words later inscribed on her statue near Trafalgar Square. Her fate was used by the British as wartime propaganda and after the war, her body was exhumed and she was re-buried in Norwich Cathedral.

A number of hospitals and schools in Britain, Canada and New Zealand were named after her, as well as a hospital and the road in which it is sited in Brussels. Her fate also meant that Edith became a popular girl's name in France and Belgium and Edith Piaf, the singer, was named after her.

Violette Szabo Executed by the Nazis, 1945

Violette Bushell was working as a sales assistant at Woolworths in Oxford Street when she met her future husband. Etienne Szabo was an officer in the Free French Army and when he married his 19-year-old bride, he can have had little clue that she would be decorated for her bravery under fire during the Second World War.

Soon after giving birth to their daughter Tania, Violette learned that Etienne had been killed at El Alamein. "My husband has been killed by the Germans and I'm going to get my own back," she declared and volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive.

The daughter of an English taxi driver, who had spent part of her youth in Paris, her French was good enough to work as an agent behind enemy lines. Her first mission in France was successful despite being arrested by local police and she returned home six weeks later.

When she left for France again in 1944, to organise sabotage operations to coincide with the D-Day landings, her escort officer wrote: "In a group of heavily armed and equipped men waiting to take off from the same airfield, Violette was smiling and debonair. She wore a flowered frock, white sandals and earrings which she had bought in Paris during her first mission."

During the second mission, she was ambushed by German infantry. Despite being shot in the arm, she mannaged to cover for a colleague as he escaped. She was tortured before being sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she was executed in 1945. She was awarded the George Cross posthumously in 1946, which was presented to her four-year-old daughter.

Amy Johnson Drowned, 1941

Amy Johnson's courage as an exceptional pilot was already beyond question when she decided to volunteer at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Born in Hull in 1903, the daughter of a prosperous fish merchant, Johnson's pioneering spirit was evident from an early age. She graduated with a BA from Sheffield University (in itself quite unusual at the time for a woman) and developed a passion for flying while working as a secretary to a London solicitor.

Having become the first British-trained female ground engineer - and for a long time the only woman in the world with such a qualification - she achieved international fame when she flew solo to Australia. Setting off alone in a single engine Gypsy Moth from Croydon Airport on 5 May, 1930, she landed in Darwin on May 24 - an epic flight of 11,000 miles.

Throughout the 1930s she continued to set records and was publicly feted even to the point that a song was written about her.

When her commercial flying career ended with the outbreak of war, however, she decided to set herself a new challenge and joined the recently formed Air Transport Auxiliary, a pool of experienced pilots who for whatever reason were ineligible for active service. Her duties consisted of transporting Royal Air Force planes.

On 5 January 1941, while flying an Airspeed Oxford to RAF Kidlington, she went off course in poor weather. She ditched her plane near a convoy of British ships in the Thames estuary, and HMS Haslemere lost no time in getting to her. The ship's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher dived over the side, but he was unable to help her and succumbed to the cold and lost consciousness before he was picked up. He died of exposure without ever coming to. Johnson's body was never recovered.

At the age of 38, she was the first member of the Air Transport Auxilary to die in service.

Heather Kerrigan Killed by the IRA, 1984

Corporal Heather Kerrigan and Private Norman McKinley had been bridesmaid and best man at a wedding together. Months later they were to be tragically linked again. The young woman was among eight members of a Ulster Defence Regiment patrolling on foot near Castlederg, County Tyrone on the morning of 14 July 1984 when a 200lb IRA land mine was detonated from across the border and they came under fire.

Corporal Kerrigan died of her injuries as she was being flown by helicopter to hospital while Pte McKinley was killed instantly. She was 20. Her brother was also seriously injured in the attack.

Not many months earlier Kerrigan and McKinley had been at the wedding of her brother-in-law Tom Loughlin, who was killed by the IRA four months before they were. Several other guests, including Robert Elliott, have also since died.

Tom Loughlin's wife said: "What did they hope to achieve by murdering an innocent and defenceless woman? She harmed nobody. She didn't even carry a gun. Heather knew no fear, she was a brave, brave girl, who was well aware of all the risks involved. They all are. But the Government should be doing more because it seems to me that the IRA are out to get all our loved ones, particularly around Castlederg."

In the aftermath of the killings, a statement by the West Tyrone brigade of the IRA said: "Provided we are satisfied that such a person has not committed grievous war crimes against our people, and is not engaged in a ruse, we shall remove that person's name from our target list."

Diana Rowden Executed by the Nazis, 1944

Like Violette Szabo (see above) Diana Rowden was one of the small band of little-known but incredibly brave women who served in the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War.

Born in 1915, by the time war broke out in 1939, she had already led an eventful life. She had an extensive knowledge of French society and culture, having lived and been partially educated in France. She studied at the Sorbonne, before working in Paris as a journalist. With the outbreak of war, she joined the Red Cross in France and worked as an ambulance officer. After the Germans invaded, she was interned, but eventually managed to escape via Spain and Portugal in 1941.

She then joined the Womens' Auxiliary Air Force, before being recruited into the SOE in early 1943. Later that year she entered France undercover and joined the Acrobat network, where she acted as a courier, delivering messages to other agents and members of the resistance around France.

After a month, the network collapsed when its leader was arrested, and Rowden went into hiding. She was eventually betrayed by a double agent. Interrogated and imprisoned by the Nazis, she and three other female agents were eventually injected with poison and cremated at a concentration camp in the Vosges mountains in 1944. Their deaths were witnessed by another captured SOE agent, Brian Stonehouse, who later painted a watercolour of the four, which now hangs in the Special Forces Club in London. Diana Rowden was posthumously awarded an MBE and the Croix de Guerre.

Justine Chabrillae Died in 1855 nursing the wounded in the Crimea

Almost nothing is known about the life and death of Justine Chabrillae, although everyone has heard of the woman who was her guide and mentor - Florence Nightingale.

Chabrillae was one of the company of 38 nurses - some civilians, some nuns - who accompanied Nightingale to the Crimean War and who underwent extraordinary hardship in order to carry out their mission to care for the wounded.

When they arrived at the hospital at Constantinople in 1854 the nurses found filthy, insanitary conditions, no beds, 20 chamber pots between 1,000 men and one surgeon for every 95; initially, the nurses were not even allowed on the wards. There were no tables for performing operations and a daily allowance of one pint of water per person, for everything.

The nurses found they had to battle not only appalling conditions but also Army chauvinism and a bureaucracy which insisted that a doctor's permission was needed to feed the patients. But eventually, as the casualty levels rose, the nurses were allowed onto the wards at Constantinople and then later at Balaclava. They worked around the clock to help the wounded and restore order and cleanliness.

After almost a year, there was an outbreak of cholera and a number of surgeons died, as well as three nurses: Chabrillae, Elizabeth Blake and a women simply known as S Barnes. Chabrillae was buried at the Haydar Pasha cemetery in Istanbul.

Nightingale, the Lady of the Lamp, became a byword for the care of the sick, but it is certain that she would never have been able to succeed without those, like Chabrillae, who assisted her.

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