Secret army of women played key role in success of D-Day

The detailed planning for D-Day was not just focused on the invasion of northern Europe – Britain was also braced for Hitler to immediately strike back.

There were also fears that the Allied forces in Normandy would have to deal with thousands of French women and children as the liberation of Europe began.

Once again, the British authorities turned to the backbone of the home front – the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS).

A volunteer cleans a floor of a canteen in London during the Second World War (Royal Voluntary Society/PA).
A volunteer cleans the floor of a canteen in London during the Second World War (Royal Voluntary Society/PA)

More than one million women joined the RVS during World War Two and thanks to their tireless efforts the “women in green”, as they became fondly known, were central to winning the war.

To many they were the army that Hitler forgot.

The organisation was formed in 1938 by Lady Stella Reading as the Women’s Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions as Britain prepared for war.

They assisted civilians during air raids by providing emergency rest centres, ran mobile canteens and helped with the evacuation and billeting of thousands of children.

By 1943 the Royal Voluntary Service was involved in almost every aspect of wartime life from the collection of salvage to the knitting of socks and gloves for merchant seamen.

As D-Day approached, RVS volunteers were asked to help set up reception centres to deal with the expected large number of French refugees.

The women also packed equipment for the Army and ran canteens to feed soldiers heading over to Normandy and the wounded returning to Britain.

Royal Voluntary Service 80th anniversary
WVS members ran canteens for the military and civilians during World War Two, particularly after London was hit by V-1 flying bombs (Royal Voluntary Society/PA)

Many of these accounts of everyday heroism are contained within the “monthly narrative report” that each centre had to complete in quadruplicate with one copy kept by the centre, one sent to the county office, one to the regional office and one to headquarters in London.

In a report dated June 1944, Lady Margaret Daley, joint county borough organiser for Portsmouth, wrote: “The month’s outstanding activities have been those arising from the invasion.

“Portsmouth WVS were asked by the Port Authorities if it would be possible for WVS to maintain a 24-hour special canteen service in the dockyard to serve small ships and landing craft who were bringing in survivors from the invasion beaches.

“The British Sailors’ Society kept us going with hot drinks etc, also loaned us their mobile canteen, and together with our own, we found we were able to keep up a rota.

“On the third night we were suddenly asked to serve ships bringing in wounded; this taxed out resources to the utmost, especially in mugs.

Local branches of the Royal Voluntary Society compiled reports of their activiites each month for headquarters (Royal Voluntary Society/PA)
Local branches of the Royal Voluntary Society compiled reports of their activiites each month for headquarters (Royal Voluntary Society/PA)

“Fortunately we had several hundreds of cardboard mugs on the van and these were pressed into service at once.

“Many of the men were cold and shivering from sea sickness and felt much better for the hot sweet tea. Some of the stretcher cases were also served with tea.

“By the end of the first week, we had served 6,165 hot drinks, W.R.N.S personnel are always ready to help us if there is a ‘rush’ on and at these times carry round jugs of tea or cocoa.

“Everyone connected with the Mobile Canteens has rallied with a splendid spirit to cope with the present emergency, and by their willing co-operation and determination to surmount the innumerable difficulties such as flat tyres, breakdowns, arrangement of personnel etc, which mean so much at the time and yet can later be dismissed with a smile, this round the clock service been able to be maintained.

“In conclusion the work is at all times interesting and we are more than compensated for our endeavours by the knowledge that we have been given the opportunity of doing some small service for those who have, and are still, sacrificing so much for us in order to hasten the end of the war.”

A week after D-Day, Hitler struck back with the first V-1 rockets hitting London and the WVS was called in to help rehome bombed out civilians.

The RVS produced a monthly newsletter keeping its members informed (RVS/PA)
The RVS produced a monthly newsletter keeping its members informed (RVS/PA)

In the August 1944 edition of the organisation’s newsletter, members were told: “The invasion of N.W. Europe brought much extra work to W.V.S. – all those months and years of training were put to the test, and we trust we were not found wanting.

“At no time since June 1938, when the W.V.S. was started, was the Service called up to do such a variety of jobs and under such pressure and usual such difficulties, as in June and July 1944,” an article noted.

“There are many, many stories of the great variety of work undertaken by W.V.S. both before and after D-Day. Many cannot be told yet for security reasons, some are serious, some are humorous.”

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