During WW2 the Royal Artillery’s searchlights were to many civilians in the UK among the most visible elements of the fight to bring down the enemy
aircraft that wreaked such utter destruction on our cities and ports. But while the beams of light over London were gazed upon with awe, many people were never close enough to the searchlights themselves to see that in many cases, they were manned by an all-female crew of ATS.
But on June 29th 2005, nearly exactly 60 years since they had been disbanded, 49 of the original 93rd met up for an amazing day. From all corners of the country, and even from as far as Canada, veterans flocked to the Officers Mess at Larkhill Army base (RA) to share some very treasured memories. With a searchlight, generator and other equipment on display, and Dame Vera Lynne booked as the VIP, this long-awaited reunion was definitely not to be missed.
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| Things kicked off in true WW2 style with a cup of tea and a good chat. Keith Brigstock gave a quick opening speech, and as the organiser of this amazing event was greeted with cheers from veterans who had spent hours on the phone to him without ever having met him ‘in the flesh’. Dame Vera was thrilled to speak to veterans before she was besieged by reporters and TV crews. However, it wasn’t just the VIP who was a star. Veterans were amazed and thrilled to find that reporters from various papers, radio shows and TV stations were queuing up to ask them questions. After 60 years the campaign for a women’s war memorial has finally come to fruition, and women veterans are being given the recognition they deserve. For the press this reunion provided a unique opportunity to speak to female veterans.
Looking around the room of white hair and floral dresses it was initially hard to imagine these women ever shouting orders and firing up lights and generators during the terrifying pandemonium of an air raid. But walking from one group to another, listening to their stories you realise that these unassuming Grandmothers were once formidable young women, who readily turned their backs on civilian life to face death and danger every day in the ATS. It is easy to forget just how dangerous life was, but Searchlight units were an easy target for enemy planes, and the crews who manned them took a real risk in doing so.
It was amazing to see how many memories came flooding back when the women were faced with the uniforms they had worn, or the pieces of equipment they had operated during the war. WW2 underwear was greeted with howls and giggles, and the teddybear coat was much commented on. Boards of WW2 group photographs were poured over with enthusiasm and many old friendships were re-kindled and new acquaintances made.
| The day progressed with various talks, tea breaks and photo shoots. Over lunch in the splendid mess hall ATS re-enactors sat between veterans and VIPs and much fun was had by all. Dame Vera brought the meal to a close with an impassioned speech. She expressed her admiration for the searchlight units which she remembered so well from her life in London during the war. And she expressed her amazement that it had taken this long for the 93rd to have a reunion!
For members of our ATS Ack Ack re-enactment group it was an absolute honour to meet the women that we try so hard to portray accurately. Veterans were very patient with the barrage of questions we asked, and gave us plenty of information we can use to make our re-enactment as good as possible. We learned more from the veterans in one day of chatting than we could ever read in books. From what ‘that switch’ on the searchlight does, to how you can achieve the correct creases on your skirt, veterans were thrilled to find that every detail they could remember was useful.
As the day drew to a close some die-hards went to the local British legion for another pint, while others set off on long journeys home. All together the reunion was an unforgettable day for everyone involved.
By Kit Bloom