The women of D-Day: The journalists, drivers and codebreakers who played a vital role in the war effort

Monday, 3rd June 2019, 12:03 pm
Updated Monday, 3rd June 2019, 13:05 pm

June 6 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the day in 1944 when Allied forces in World War II invaded France from offshore, resulting in the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Millions of men were involved in the World War Two war effort, with many of those involved in D-Day itself - but women also played crucial roles in the historic day of June 6 1944.

The invasion of Normandy

By the beginning of 1944, over two million men and women were in Britain preparing for the invasion of Normandy.

These people were primarily from Britain, America and Canada, but also came from other countries, including Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands, serving as combat soldiers, paratroopers, sailors, aircrew or in support and logistical roles.

The D-Day landings involved over 5,000 vessels and ships, almost 11,000 aeroplanes and over 160,000 ground troops.

D-Day Dames

The D-Day Dames were a group of American women journalists who made history reporting on the events of D-Day.

This group of women, alongside other women war correspondents, would gather in London in anticipation of the Normandy landings, with the D-Day Dames fighting to overcome the ban on women going to the front lines during the Second World War.

In order to get to Normandy, one of these members, Martha Gellhorn, smuggled herself onto a hospital ship and locked herself in a toilet, becoming the first woman to report on the invasion.

Gellhorn had been married to well-known author Ernest Hemingway, but their marriage had broken down by the time D-Day approached.

Hemingway tried to block Gellhorn by getting his own war accreditation for Colliers, which was a magazine that she had long worked for.

However, Gellhorn made it into Colliers with her first despatch from Normandy, marking a huge turning point for women reporting directly from warzones.

These women, which included Margaret Bourke White, Ruth Cowan for the Associated Press, Katherine Coyne of the Herald, Lee Carson, Mary Welsh, reached front lines and sent reports from Normandy, before entering newly liberated Paris and later visiting concentration camps across Europe.

Code Breaking

During World War Two, Bletchley Park, which was made up of mostly women, used sophisticated code breaking techniques to feed crucial information to Allied forces in the critical months, weeks and days leading up to D-Day.

This secret operation included women such as Mavis Batey, a Codebreaker who made breakthroughs into Germany’s Secret Service Enigma, which provided a vital stream of intelligence for the Allies.

A new exhibition at Bletchley Park marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day (Photo: Andy Stagg, courtesy Bletchley Park Trust)

On D-Day itself, the Codebreakers were able to send on intelligence to front-line commanders in Normandy in less than three hours after intercepting anenemy message.

The group of workers at Bletchley Park are now being celebrated at a new exhibition at the venue, which marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

David Kenyon, Research Historian at Bletchley Park and author of Bletchley Park and D-Day(Yale University Press, 2019), said: “This exhibition portrays the vital link between the men and women at Bletchley Park, and their counterparts on the battlefield, and shows how goodintelligence could make the difference on the beaches of Normandy between life and death,success and failure.”

The Yorkshire Driver

June Denby, aged 95 from Sherburn-in-Elmet, Yorkshire, was a Driver during World War Two, following in the footsteps of her army father.

“In those days you didn’t need to pass a driving test, you had to have L-plates, as the test was suspended from 1939.”

“I tried to join the Flying Corps and the Wrens but I was too young for both, you had to be 18-and-a-half, so I went to Droitwich and did my basic training.

“I did ambulance driving and lorry driving, and then I said I’d like to go abroad if needed, so was sent to London where I drove people from the War Office before going to Virginia Water in April 1944, taking officers to various camps – we never knew where we were going.”

Ms Denby, who explains that “we knew right from the outset that D-Day was coming,” notes that in regards to her being a female driver, “Being a woman didn’t make any difference, we were all drivers, I don’t feel I stood out particularly, drivers were drivers.

“I remember being in convoys where there were only two or three women, but it didn’t matter.

“I don’t think we ever really considered or realised what a contribution we were making, we just took it for granted.”

June Denby, aged 95 from Sherburn-in-Elmet, Yorkshire, was a Driver during World War Two, following in the footsteps of her army father (Royal British Legion)

Ms Denby, who also worked in Normandy during the war, has been taken back to France as part of a trip with the Royal British Legion.

The former driver adds that, “‘There weren’t many women in Normandy and it often surprises other veterans when they see my medals, so it’s lovely that the Legion are able to arrange this trip and I feel I’m being recognised for my contribution.”

This article was originally published on our sister site, Yorkshire Evening Post.