Helen Jewitt was conscripted into the Army in World War 2, and her training and service took her around the UK - from Glasgow to Edinburgh, then to Aldershot, London, Ty Croes, Frinton on Sea and finally York.
December 8 marks the 80th anniversary of the conscription of women during the war. To mark the occasion, Helen has shared her story.
Helen Cecilia Tocher (born in 1918) worked as a butcher in her local shop and knew that having a ‘man’s job’ meant she was exempt from serving. So when she received her call-up papers for national service in 1942, she chose to tell them she was merely an assistant - meaning that she would be accepted.
Helen arrived in Edinburgh for basic training, sleeping on a bunk bed in a billet with 13 other girls. Learning to march was daunting, not least because as an eight-year-old girl, Helen had had an operation on one leg, leaving it two inches shorter than the other.
In order to ‘about turn’ the girls were taught to put one foot behind the other, but this caused Helen to tip over. Realising there was a problem, her sergeant arranged for her to have one shoe built up on the sole – a great solution for marching, but her footwear was soon to change when trades were assigned.
Service during World War 2
Having completed basic training the women were asked for their preferred trade. Helen was keen to be a driver but when she put her name forward was surprised to be asked about her licence. Thinking they would teach her to drive she was disappointed to find that this was not on the cards and instead she was dispatched to Aldershot for cooks training.
Having spent her early life in domestic service, and with butchering experience, Helen found the work easy, and with 20 cooks working together at any one time she enjoyed being in the kitchens.
After a day of cooking, they would attend lectures in the evenings in the still-hot cookhouse, where it was difficult to stay awake. Helen excelled here though, learning to cook for large numbers, and on special stoves under canvas cover, and as shift leader earned herself promotion to Lance Corporal.
Over the course of three years Helen travelled to different camps around Britain, the women being assigned depending on the ratio of support services needed for the men in training.
From Aldershot, Helen was sent to London to join a battery of the 78th Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery. Finding herself more city-wise than some of the country girls she adapted well, even managing to get one girl to board an underground train despite her great fears and refusal to board.
Moving around to support the men learning to fire weaponry, Helen went to Ty Croes so they could shoot over the Irish Sea, Walton on the Naze to shoot towards the Netherlands, and up to Whitby Abbey to aim into the North Sea. Whilst based at Hilly Fields in Brockley, Helen watched one day as a Nazi fighter pilot was hedge-hopping so low that she could clearly see his face. Here there were Ack Ack guns and barrage balloons, and Helen recalls taking cocoa to the officers during night raids.
Shortly after D Day, the Battery to which Helen was attached was posted to Belgium and Helen was looking forward to joining them, but developed dermatitis on her hands which was attributed to working with water. As this was essential for a cook, the Battery left Britain without her, and Helen stayed behind to help in the offices.
Now based at Frinton On Sea, she recalls the doodlebugs overhead and waiting to hear the engine cut out before running for shelter. One day a messenger arrived with some plans and an officer called Helen into his office and showed her a diagram of a doodlebug. This was the first time the British had any info on the bomb.
Towards the end of her time in the ATS, Helen was posted up to York to work in stores. Here she was tasked with clothing the men who were being demobbed, learning to guess their sizes by eye, and collecting in all their old uniforms. Although she chatted with the men, they never talked about their experiences of the war. Helen recalls one man who had been shot down the back of his head and had severely restricted movement.
Life after service
The good times in York came from meeting people from all around the world in the NAAFI, the Free French, Poles and Canadians: but it was a more local lad who caught her eye.
Denis Jewitt was a military policeman from Middlesbrough and also a conscript having been in a protected profession. They got talking, and kept in touch when he was posted to Africa. On his return they married and went on to have five children. One of her daughters went on to become a WREN and her family remain extremely proud of her service career.
Helen would have liked to have stayed on, but was demobbed in 1946. She feels that women should have better recognition for their service, and her message to any young women joining today’s army is “enjoy yourselves”.
Helen is a member of the WRAC Association, the national military charity which supports women who served in the ATS and Women's Royal Army Corps.
Women of all ages, ranks and experience come together to share their stories and experience the camaraderie they once felt within their Corps, whether they meet in person through the various branches and interest groups across the UK, or enjoy phone contact, benevolence support or the Association magazine.
The WRAC Association also works to highlight the disadvantages some women experience to this day as a result if their service.
If you or someone you know would benefit from knowing more about the WRAC Association, visit wraca.org.uk.