History

Exceptional Women Of The Battle Of Britain

Hitler did not bargain on the fighting spirit of those left on the ground ...

The bravery of three World War Two servicewomen - whose determination to continue their vital work while bombs exploded around them during the Battle Of Britain - has been praised as an inspiration to today's Royal Air Force personnel. 

The decisive actions of the members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), Sergeant Joan Mortimer, Flight Officer Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner, have been held up as an example to those serving in today's air force.

They are said to have refused to let anything stop them from carrying out their vital work in helping bring Hitler's Luftwaffe to its knees.

Corporal Vicky Keats from RAF Brize Norton has led the praise for the women of the WWII WAAF, saying:

"Remembering today brave and inspiring women who truly embodied the spirit of the Battle Of Britain and whose example motivates myself and others every day."

From July until October 1940, Hitler's air force tried to dominate the skies above Britain. Pilots of many nations united against a cunning and conniving foe. A fierce enemy that fought hard. 

What Hitler had not bargained on was the fighting spirit of those left on the ground. 

An aerial battle over London at 9am on the morning of 6th September 1940 during Battle of Britain 060940 CREDIT PA.jpg
Credit: PA Images / An aerial battle over London in September 1940 during Battle of Britain

The Battle Of Britain was not only won in the air, but by the incredible efforts of servicemen and some exceptional service women who played their part in bringing about victory. 

BFBS Radio asked Corporal Keats to retell the courageous story of Joan, Elspeth and Helen - three women who inspire and motivate her today, eight decades after the infamous Battle Of Britain. 

During the fierce battle in the skies above Britain, fought by men who were collectively known as ‘The Few’, Hitler’s air forces were relentless in bombing RAF stations to try and slow down the capability of the Royal Air Force. 

Sgt Joan Mortimer, Fg Off Elspeth Henderson and Sgt Helen Turner all worked as teleprinter operators at RAF Biggin Hill, a station pinpointed by the Luftwaffe.

Winston Churchill at Biggin Hill 300119 CREDIT Biggin Hill Memorial Museum.png
Credit: Biggin Hill Memorial Museum

Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill called Biggin Hill, one of Britain's oldest aerodromes, his “strongest link” - a base from where pilots shot down 1,400 Luftwaffe aircraft.

Jemma Davey, Director of the Biggin Hill War Memorial Museum, explained to Forces News in January 2019 that not only was Biggin Hill instrumental to the development of wireless communication technologies but ... 

"Instrumental in the turning point of Second World War." 

On August 31, 1940, the relentless bombings at Biggin Hill killed dozens of people.  

Battle Of Britain Sergeant Joan Mortimer Flight Officer Elspeth Henderson Sergeant Helen Turner Credit IWM CH-1550

© Imperial War Museum (CH 1550)

Sgt Mortimer, Fg Off Henderson and Sgt Turner standing outside damaged buildings at Biggin Hill, 1940

The next day, the seemingly fearless women were back at work while the constant bombing continued.

As Elspeth worked to keep in touch with Fighter Command at Uxbridge, she was blown off her feet by a direct hit to the ops room. But, once she had dusted herself down, she returned to her work. 

Helen was operating the switchboard while the building was repeatedly hit but she also carried on, only leaving her post when a fire broke out and all personnel were ordered out of the building.

Scramble Bell At Biggin Hill Memorial Museum Credit Forces News
Scramble Bell on show at the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum

Joan was working at the armoury relaying messages throughout the raid.

The only time she stopped was to run outside and mark unexploded bombs with red flags. All the time, bombs detonated around her. 

Speaking of the influence these three women, and others like them, have had on Cpl Keats’ career, she said: 

“I cannot imagine how terrifying these conditions must have been and quite rightly each lady received a military medal for their actions. 

“Remembering today brave and inspiring women who truly embodied the spirit of the Battle Of Britain and whose example motivates myself and others every day.” 

Spitfire ML407 Biggin Hill Credit Forces News
Spitfire ML407 on display at Biggin Hill Memorial Museum

The courageous women were awarded Military Medals for their actions on that dark day during the Battle Of Britain. 

The official citation for Sgt Joan Mortimer’s medal reads: 

“This airwoman displayed exceptional courage and coolness which had a great moral effect on all those with whom she came in contact." 

Sgt Mortimer was presented her Military Medal by His Majesty King George VI at Buckingham Palace in March 1941. 

However, not everyone at the time was pleased with the women being honoured in this way. 

Biggin Hill Memorial Museum Credit Forces News
Biggin Hill Memorial Museum

The Biggin Hill Memorial Museum spoke to Elspeth’s daughter Heather Redfearn in February 2020 about her Mother’s bravery.

She revealed there was controversy around the medal presentation. Elspeth, Joan and Helen were the first RAF women to receive the Military Medal which did not sit well with everyone. She said: 

“It caused a bit of a stir at the time, that these women were being awarded a ‘man's medal’. 

“It was awarded for bravery for, in her case, staying at her post during a raid when the operations room where she was based suffered a direct hit.”