Thursday 12 December 2013

The British women ‘who never cry’ are released by Germany

Over 70 years ago on this day, Thursday 12 December 1940, British women prisoners of the Germans were finally released from the ship on which they’d been detained for a fortnight. German sailors landed them on Emirau Island in what is now Papua New Guinea.
It was the beginning of the end of being in enemy hands. At last they would no longer be at sea in wartime dangerous waters.
Among the women were Betsy Sandbach and Geraldine Edge, escort nurses who had been captured while returning home from Australia after delivering child evacuees for the Children's Overseas Resettlement Board.
Picture: Several weeks earlier. The children and the escorts had arrived safely in Sydney.

The women who'd thought they were returning home, child-free, to Britain were instead captured by German Kriegsmarine vessels and transferred to a kind of floating detention centre, Kulmerland.
On this pre-war Hamburg-New York passenger liner renamed as the Tokyo Maru, the original amiable staff were still on board.
Genial cigar-smoking Captain Bshunder, who had charmed so many peace-time Kulmerland passengers said ‘“Why should I not be kind to you. War is senseless” … then added the stock phrase we heard so often, “We do not make war on women.” “Sez you,” we softly murmured,’ reported Geraldine and Betsy.

Clearly women were angrily seeing their German ‘guards’ as an enemy group who were puzzlingly unlike the barbarian stereotype but had to be opposed at all times.
On the other hand the Germans were proceeding in a gallant manner. They wondered rather anthropologically at the pluck and tenacity of their female unexpected ‘guests’.
The two escorts write a triumphal version of one much-repeated story about gendered and nationalistic relations aboard. There was a day when the doctor asked one of his very poorly CORB patients:
‘”Do you English women never cry?” “What would be the good? We have no handkerchiefs,” was the laughing retort. Two were immediately produced, but the tears, needless to say, never came.’
By contrast another escort, Florence Cebild, recalled a more complex, and less-quoted version where the patient bravely replied ‘“Oh yes, when we have something to cry about” ... [but later in the darkness was] sobbing quietly.’

Two weeks later, in the early afternoon of that final Thursday ‘came the longed-for and joyful command, “Will the ladies and children go off the ships first, please?” We needed no second bidding. Down the gangway into a waiting lifeboat we hurried,’ said Geraldine and Betsy.
The women were more fortunate than the 150 white men, who were taken back to Prisoner-of-War camps in Germany.
After that Betsy and Geraldine’s group endured two weeks of what one newspaper described as ‘a rollicking Robinson Crusoe adventure’ on Emirau (‘Squally’) Island. It was not.
Then on Christmas Day an Australian Naval initiative rescued them and took them safely to the Antipodes.
Very quickly, Betsy and Geraldine wrote their vivid book, which was published in September 1941.Now forgotten, it is one of the only books about women on the wartime seas. It must also have been important early propaganda, by women, with which women readers could identify.

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