Women at War - and Restoring Peace


The Second World War involved the whole population of Britain, and women played a full part in the armed forces as well as in civilian occupations. The uniforms of ATS (Army), WAAF (Air Force) and WRNS (Navy) became familiar in the Glasgow streets. About 150,000 men and women from Glasgow served in the fighting services during the war.

On the home front, the black-out even preceded the outbreak of the war, and it was a very thorough black-out, particularly during the first few weeks when there was no street lighting and trams and buses had no interior lights at all. During September lst - 3rd, just as Hitler was about to invade Poland, 120,000 fearful Glasgow weans with labels attached assembled at their schools. They were provided with gas masks and iron rations and whisked off in trains to unknown destinations in the country. Some went as near as Ayrshire or Lanarkshire and others as far afield as Perthshire and Aberdeenshire to stay for the 'duration' as it came to be known. Mothers of Glasgow stood red-eyed at the station barriers as their children left. "See you soon " was all that most of them said. When the children arrived with their teachers in the country they were billeted out into private houses, boarding houses, hotels or stately homes or whatever was available. The lights went out. There was a great rush for black out material to prevent the cry of the air raid warden which became all too well known, 'Put out that light!'. Everywhere the children went they took with them the gas masks which became a familiar and friendly piece of equipment, which fortunately was never required. The gas mask was popularised by Dave Willis in his air raid warden song ;

'In my wee gas mask, I'm working out a plan
Tho' all the kids imagine that I'm just a bogey man
The girls all smile and bring their friends to see
The nicest lookin' warden in the A.R.P.

Whenever there's a raid on, listen to my cry
An airy-plane, an airy-plane away-way up-a-kye
Then I run helter-skelter but don't run after me
You'll no get in my shelter for it's far too wee

Despite rationing, which seemed severe, the amount of food available was always adequate and, in fact, rationing provided a healthy diet, owing to the direction of the Ministry of Food by Lord Woolton, and the advice of the nutritional experts like Boyd Orr whose researches were the basis of the food rationing system. However, the shortage of fruit, particularly oranges and bananas, was keenly felt. Bananas did not reappear until 1946 and sweet rationing continued until 1948.

In wartime people wanted to keep as cheery as possible and there was a boom in entertainment. Radio programmes like 'Music while you work" and "ITMA", with the inimitable Tommy Handley, had huge audiences and queues outside cinemas in the evenings became as common as queues outside food shops during the day. Of course people also attended the cinema in these days to see Pathe Gazette news and documentaries of what was happening at the fronts. There was no T.V. However, there was always light relief from depressing news; two films were shown as well as a cartoon during a continuous showing. People came in when it suited them and left when "this is where we came in" - probably the origin of the

phrase. The worst of the war came to Glasgow in the spring of 1941 with the Clydebank blitz which killed 1488 people and seriously injured 1985 between March 13 and May 8. Only 12 houses in Clydebank were left undamaged and all but 2000 of the population of 55,000 had to leave the town.

In contrast to the tragic suffering in Clydebank the arrival of Rudolf Hess who parachuted out of a Messerschmitt on the evening of Saturday 10 May 1941 and landed with a hurt ankle on a field near Eaglesham, was light relief. His alleged peace mission was treated with the contempt it deserved and he spent the rest of his life in captivity.

Another episode of light relief was the loss of the SS Politician off Eriskay with its cargo of whisky galore. The "Herald" announced "Recent events in the Hebrides are regarded by the natives as the fulfilment of the poet's promise, "the spirits of our fathers shall rise from every wave" ".

Women went to work with a will. Many women 'manned' the munitions factories. There they went with their hair in curlers underneath a home made turban and sporting dungarees. Everyday 'Music while you work' was blasted down the loud speaker system from the radio programme. All the big band names became household words. In the shipyards women even became fitters and were seen to be able to do men's work. Glasgow corporation tramways were seriously short of male employees owing to the call-up and women readily undertook their duties. The Glasgow tram conductress was a formidable figure aptly commemorated in the famous cartoon 'Come oan, get aff!'. Liberation had really begun!

One of the great contributions to the war effort which women made was through the Women's Land Army. This organisation was responsible for the recruitment, training and placing in employment of Land Girls, for their welfare and accommodation and the provision of their uniform. Land girls did every kind of agricultural and horticultural work including forestry. The peak strength of the WLA was 80,000 in 1943.

On the farm, in the factories and in the home, where "make do and mend" was the motto, women kept the nation together and showed an indomitable spirit.

During the war British Soroptimists continued to travel and held meetings in bomb-damaged cities like Birmingham and Coventry. Members often assisted in canteens for service men and women and victims of air raids. Three ambulances, bearing the Soroptimist emblem were presented to the British Army on Horse Guards Parade by the Federation President, Alice Williams.

Many Soroptimists served in the forces. One of them was Federation President Lilian Gibbs. A barrister by profession, she made history by pleading at Derby Assizes in the beret of a Sergeant of the Women's Royal Air Force. Another Federation President recalled that on one occasion, due to air raids she arrived in Leicester at lam instead of 9.30 pm. On reaching her hotel a sleepy nightporter showed her to her bedroom, where she found a man already asleep in the bed! No further details are available.

The Glasgow Club can record proudly that one of its members, Dr Maud Menzies, took part in the "D-Day" landings in Normandy in 1944. That was the beginning of the end for Hitler.

But peace has her victories no less than war. The troubled 1940s saw a tremendous explosion of new scientific ideas and there were colossal strides in industry due to expertise gained in wartime. The atom bomb had ended the war but the peaceful uses of nuclear energy began to be explored and the atomic research station was set up at Harwell in Oxfordshire in 1947. Radar and sonar were developed, polythene, terylene and vinyl were introduced, and transistor radios became available. Women scientists played a part in many of these developments. In 1945, one of the most eminent of these, Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, became the first woman Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) for her contributions to X-ray crystallography in the determination of atomic structures.

Peace brought a social revolution with the new Labour government under Clement Attlee. The welfare state was created, the National Health Service began and there was an extensive programme of nationalisation of industries. But the legacy of wartime austerity lasted for many years yet and rationing was a long time in disappearing. Despite all the wartime deprivation, the 40s woman was as style conscious as any and took her cues from Hollywood. Nylon, a new fabric used for parachutes in the war became readily available as stockings which did not need darning and Christian Dior produced the longskirted "New Look" in 1947. Women gladly cast aside their wartime short skirts in favour of these glamorous garments. As the skirts went down so did the hair. Long skirted ball-gowns also began to come in again and white ermine capes became a favourite 21st birthday present. Fur of all kinds was available and women really began to enjoy themselves.




The Glasgow Club in the 1940s


In December 1940, the Club undertook its own major piece of war-work - the "adoption" of an isolated Coastal Command Battery in Nigg, Ross-shire. From then until the end of the war, a stream of parcels, comforts, items of equipment both major and minor, and letters flowed from the Soroptimist Club of Glasgow to the men in that lonely camp. A typical list of the contents of one parcel reads: "Books, journals, gramophone records, darts, table tennis balls, packs of cards, cigarettes, sweets, chocolate, 12 lbs. liquorice allsorts and one helmet." Money from the "Coastal Command Fund" was raised in countless ways - small raffles being one of the most frequent, the contents of parcels from the American Federation coming in useful as prizes. Money, too, was sent to help other war-time efforts; for the Relief to China Fund and to a Girl Guide Hostel for Servicewomen, to mention only two.

In the midst of the war-work, in 1943, the first efforts were made to establish what eventually became the Standing Conference of Women's Organisations. This idea was initiated by the British Federation of Soroptimist Clubs under the tentative heading: "Group Action". In October of that year, the first meeting of the Standing Conference was held, 52 representatives of various women's groups in the city attending. Four years later, in 1947, the sum of 1280 was raised at a Gift Sale in aid of premises funds for the Standing Conference; the Soroptimist Club was responsible for a stall at the sale. Once more, givings to charity should be viewed against the background of contemporary salaries. In the late 1940s a female teacher was earning less than 600 and a nurse about 350 annually.

In 1948 Soroptimists held their first post-war International Convention at Harrogate, attended by 1492 members, 300 from overseas. This provided opportunities for many reunions after years of enforced separation. The Convention theme was "Working for the world we want".

In 1946, the membership of the Club had grown to 110. In that year Dr Mary Stevenson, former President of the Glasgow Club, became President of the British Federation of Soroptimist Clubs - the second ex-president of Glasgow Club to reach that position,

In an effort to help ex-servicemen the Club established a library at Erskine Hospital in 1946 and books were supplied by members. Magazines and periodicals, too, were supplied to both Erskine and Cowglen Military Hospital from Club funds. Later, a radio and radiogram were presented to Erskine Hospital from the Glasgow Club. Another piece of work in connection with ex-servicemen was the cultivation of the garden at Cowglen Hospital in 1947. Concerts on Sunday evenings during the winter were also organised at Cowglen.

In 1948, the Soroptimist Club of Glasgow celebrated its 21st birthday, with an anniversary dinner in Burlington House complete with candle-decorated cake. All but one of the former presidents were present to light the 21 candles. Two appeals to which the Club responded about this time were from the Old People's Welfare Committee, who asked for members to take a personal interest in lonely old people in the city; and from the Cancer Appeal Fund to which the Club sent 120 as a donation. The year 1948 was also marked by the start of the "Sister Club" scheme; Glasgow's American Sister Club being Los Angeles. In 1949 came the end of one Club activity, and the beginning of another. The Bridgeton Women's Institute, in which the Club had taken an active interest for more than ten years, closed down due to loss of premises; and the first party for the Children of Eversley Home (a Corporation Home for unwanted children) was held. Early the following year, the "aunties" scheme began, by which Club members "adopted" a child in the Home.