World War II, as we all know, was a grim ordeal, a global storm which caused suffering and death for millions. Yet, here and there in the corners of the battlefield, fortunate young people in their late teens and early twenties survived and thrived. For them the war represented opportunity: the chance to leave home in a worthwhile cause, grow up faster, find themselves and their potential, get to handle responsibilities more quickly, and make friendships which lasted for lifetimes. This is a tiny piece on a group of four of them.
From mid-1939 onwards the British government urged women to join up for the coming conflict, in outfits such as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the female add-on for the British Army. Despite the fact that ATS personnel got half the pay of their male counterparts – not because they were seen as non-combatant; women formed part of anti-aircraft gun crews, for example – many did so. For some young women around the age of 20, it was an opportunity to get out of unhappy family situations, have a proper job, do something useful, or develop some self-respect for the first time. No doubt there was a mix of motivations in each case.
We’re in the army now
They were Eddie, Eve and Joan, and Phyllis who I think was the youngest. They met for the first time as they were being inducted into the ATS. They came from a variety of backgrounds: Eve, for instance, had been a dancer in a West End musical, while Phyllis was your ‘Cockney sparrow’ leaving home for the very first time, and loving it. There’s a photograph of them somewhere, wearing gym kit, looking happy and healthy and bright.
They were based at Woolwich, then a great military ordnance and logistics facility with a large frontage on the southern banks of the Thames, downriver from the London docks. The Woolwich ferry got you across the estuary to what is now Newham but when the bombs started falling in 1940, the ferry would stop mid-stream to wait it out, while those aboard who couldn’t swim bit their lips and prayed. Land transportation was not necessarily safer: one bomb fell on a truck filled with ATS girls and all perished.
Our four musketeers developed as young women amid all the pressures of wartime. They grew necessary skills, such as spotting danger. One of them was posted to a supply unit where it became clear to her that skimming of stores, corruption and black-market deals were part of the deal. She asked for, and was granted, an immediate transfer, so she was well out of the way when everybody left in the unit was arrested three weeks later.
But there was fun as well. The day Princess Elizabeth, the King’s daughter who had joined the ATS and wore a tailored version of the uniform – no-one supposed that she actually typed, or cooked, or drove for anyone – came down to be watched by newsreel cameras as she ‘repaired’ a lorry.
It was a lorry that had been comprehensively overhauled in anticipation, naturally, but never mind. The pictures were good.
There were endless dances, with live bands including Glenn Miller’s, and the opportunity to meet and date young officers and gentlemen in uniform. If memory serves, it was Eve and Phyllis who were together at an off-duty dance on the base in April 1944, when two such handsome young paladins sauntered in from the Royal Artillery HQ up the road. For Eve, certainly, it was love at first sight.
The four musketeers survived the war and started on the rest of their lives. Marriage; children growing up, getting educations and leaving home; a cancer scare; unlooked-for moves; the challenges and freedoms of widowhood; all the ups and downs of family life, during which they stayed in touch, meeting in London for tea and cake and an opportunity to catch up and support, or attending the memorial services for the ATS over the years at one of which they found a fifth musketeer to bond with, called Mary. All those Christmas and birthday cards down the years, until they could be sent no longer. How do you imagine a friendship lasting 72 years?
Phyllis died yesterday in a hospital in NW London, after long illness and a brief, unhappy time in a care home. The others have departed, except for Eve. She endures. Now aged 93 anda great-grandmother, she lives out her days in a nursing home in rural Somerset. This afternoon, one of us her children will go and tell her that she is now the last of the five musketeers:
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remember’d how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.