Women at War - the Unsung Heroes; BOOK REVIEWS

Article excerpt

IT'S taken the best part of half a century but the unsung heroes of the struggle against Hitler are finally getting their due.

They were not dashing pilots, rugged commandos or weatherbeaten sailors. Instead, they put the weapons into the hands of the fighting men and they were just as responsible for victory.

There was little glory to be won on the Home Front but there was no shortage of courage.

Not when there were people like Miss M.E. White from Kirby Muxlowe in Leicestershire who won the British Empire Medal when she stayed at her post in the village telephone exchange even though bombs had blown in the doors and windows.

Right from the start the politicians made it clear that this was 'the people's war', an idea that most took to heart.

Not that they would have had a choice because conscription didn't just fill the ranks of the armed forces, it also manned the factories.

More than anything, it is the story of 'womanpower'. In 1940 every woman up to the age of 51 had to register and make themselves available for some kind of war work.

Everywhere they turned they were bound to be confronted by some kind of propaganda exhorting them to ever greater efforts and more sacrifices - and it worked.

Is your journey really necessary? one poster demanded and another reminded workers that 'the attack begins in the factory.'

Another of those slogans. Go To It! is the title of Asa Briggs's book that tells the story of the Home Front.

It was an astonishing achievement. Millions of tons of shipping was built, thousands of planes, tanks and guns poured out of the factories and the output of British agriculture went up an incredible 70 per cent.

It was all about the girls in the Land Army, the Bevin Boys down the mines and skilled factory workers in Birmingham and Coventry.

All of this effort turned society on its head and it took some adjusting before many people could cope.

A Leicestershire farmer complained: 'My two land girls wanted to bath before the kitchen fire and I had to wait outside in the snow. One, a London actress, shouted through the keyhole 'come and dry my back.' That is not the type of girl I wanted.'

Go To it! - Working for Victory on the Home Front (Mitchell Beazley pounds 16.99) is published to coincide with an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

When Alice turns her back on husband and career to return to Birmingham it's not a new life she is seeking but answers from a past that she thought she had left behind.

But those echoes from the 1970s bring back a great rush of grief and anguish before she can find some kind of peace.

Scapegrace (Tindal Street Press pounds 6.99) is a terrific debut novel from Jackie Gay that is bound to add yet more lustre to Birmingham's growing reputation for top quality writers. …