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While men stormed Normandy, women worked as codebreakers, cartographers and coxswains to achieve D-Day success

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May 31, 2024

What did you do in the war, Granny?

For British women who came of age during World War II, the answer to that question is often: quite a lot.

The history of D-Day is often told through the stories of the men who fought and died when the Allies stormed the beaches of northern France on June 6, 1944.

WWII VETERAN PROUD TO BE PART OF ‘GREATEST GENERATION’: ‘WE SAVED THE WORLD.’

But behind the scenes were hundreds of thousands of military women who worked in crucial non-combat roles such as codebreakers, ship plotters, radar operators and cartographers. Often overlooked, their contributions have come into sharper focus as the number of living D-Day veterans dwindles and the world prepares for the 80th anniversary of the landings.

One of those women was Marie Scott, who was a 17-year-old radio operator when she heard the chaos of battle through her headset as she relayed messages between Allied commanders in England and men on the Normandy beaches.

“You realize the reality of war, what it really entails. It’s not a word. It’s an action that affects thousands, millions,” Scott said recently, discussing her time in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, commonly known as the Wrens. “I think I grew up that day from being a stupid 17-year-old. I think I honestly grew up on D-Day.”

Almost 160,000 Allied troops landed at Normandy on D-Day in a massive amphibious operation designed to break through heavily fortified German defenses and begin the liberation of Western Europe.

Throughout the war, more than 1.1 million women served in the armed forces of the Western Allies, including 640,000 in Britain, where there was a real threat of invasion after Nazi troops drove to the shores of the English Channel.

Even Princess Elizabeth, the future queen, did her bit, training to be a driver and mechanic in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army.

The pitch on recruiting posters was simple: By joining the military and taking over support roles, women could free men for front-line service. Although technically barred from combat, more than 800 British women were killed in military service during the war.

“People forget they were 17, 18 doing these jobs,” said Dick Goodwin, the honorary secretary of the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, which helps veterans travel to Normandy each year. “I mean, it’s just amazing, really. Talk about thrown in at the deep end!”

Those who did not join the military had other opportunities to serve. Millions of women worked in defense factories, grew crops and rode motorcycles through the blacked out streets of London to keep firefighters updated on the latest bomb damage as the British government asked them to keep the economy going after men went off to fight.

The Allied nations’ decision to mobilize women was an important strategic choice that contrasted with Nazi Germany, where the authorities relied on forced labor, according to Ian Johnson, a historian at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

“Part of the intent was to take it — use the economic and material advantages of the Allies and really … put that to greatest use compared to the way the Germans structured their military,” he said. “So those support roles were crucial in providing the logistical advantages that help the Allies win.”

Altogether, some 7 million British women served their country in some capacity during World War II.

Their sacrifices are honored with a sculpture in central London, near the Cenotaph, the national war memorial.

The bronze monolith is decorated with 17 different uniforms hung on pegs to represent the jobs women took on during the war, then gave up when the men returned.

They include the uniforms of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Women’s Royal Naval Service. But there are also police overalls, a nursing cape and a welder’s mask.

“I get a certain satisfaction from my wartime experience,” Scott said. “And I do allow myself, occasionally, just a tinge of pride in my younger self.”

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