Sunday, 26 July 2009

Women at sea in the Falklands War

Over recent years the stories of eight women who I’ve talked to about being at sea in the Falklands conflict have all been fairly different - predictably.

But this last month the narratives of three women who were on the QE2 (which acted as a troop carrier in summer 1982) made me see how very different a ship seems to each individual. War artist Linda Kitson and civilian nurses Jane Yelland and Di McLean told such different versions that I sometimes wondered if we were talking about the same ship.

The difference is not just in the way the stories are narrated, but the activities in which the women engaged (Kitson drawing rapidly [see her work, above left], Yelland and McLean dealing with crew injuries, then later wounded troops) and the way they saw their social situation and options. Yelland was on ‘her’ ship, McLean on ship for the first time, and Kitson – an experienced traveler - enmeshed in a floating world of young military officers.

Indeed, they barely knew about each other. Even today McLean has never seen Kitson’s drawings of what was going on on deck while she was nursing below. As for the laundresses’ experience, I fear it is lost to history.

Similarly, women on other ships (nurses and admin workers), such as the Uganda and Canberra, had very different experiences – the Uganda because it was a hospital ship and the Canberra because it was attacked.

I’m listening to these women for my forthcoming book on women and the sea in WW1 and WW2. But it seems like women’s experience of sailing to and from the Falklands also deserves a book. It was both the last of the traditional wars and the first war in which civilian women were so close to a combat site.

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