Wednesday 24 April 2024

D-Day’s first women to sail June 1944: exploring questions

It's the 80th D-Day anniversary on June 6. And it's important to recognise that women were initially and deliberately excluded from this major maritime operation. It involved 156,000 allied troops, an unknown number of merchant seafarers, and less than a handful of women at first.

Timeline of first women to sail to France after D-Day 1944
6/7 June overnight: Journalist Martha Gellhorn (36) (stowaway) and 6 US nurses, un-named. On the hospital ship Prague from a south coast port to Omaha beach.
11 June: Joy Taverner, QA nurse (22). She and her colleagues had to first wait 3 days on an LST  (landing ship tank) in the Solent
11/12 June overnight Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service sisters, part of No. 50 Mobile Field Hospital. Iris ‘Fluff’ Ogilvie (nee Jones, later Bower) (29) (pictured)  and Mollie Giles, sailed on HMS LST 180  from Gosport to Juno beach, to found a  field hospital. 
The captain gave up his cabin (with ensuite lavatory, for them). Men were hostile to women's presence. This was obliquely expressed by one commanding officer who warned ‘We can’t cater for you to have toilet facilities on your own.”
19 June: Matron Sally Wade and group of QAIMNSs arrived on HMS Duke of Lancaster
August: Six Wrens went over. They included WRNS Petty Officer telephonist Ena Howes (25) , who was Admiral Ramsay’s telephonist
September: FANYs, including driver Monica E Littleboy, went with motor ambulances, by landing craft
Date unclear: ATS went across to run mobile canteens

War correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s story of her D-Day+1  landing in France, on June 6 1944 reveals five interesting truths as well as raising  at least two fascinating questions about women on wartime ships. Martha (1908-1998) was a leading US  writer and is one of my heroes.

1.DIVERSITY. Actually D-Day was not a totally male military business. 
On the evening of June 6/7 the woman who was to become one of the most female journalists of WW2 stowed away on the Prague, a Great Eastern Railways Harwich to Hoek Van Holland ferry that been converted into Hospital Carrier number 61. 
Her cover was the six US nurses also on board. Good at sweet-talking her way into situations, Martha pretended she was going to interview the sisters for a magazine. You can read the story of what she said she really did in the 29 choppy hours to Normandy and back at ‘Martha Gellhorn, D-day: 60 years on; Second world war’, Guardian, 28 May 2004.
2. WOMEN.  She was one of the first seven women in the D-day invasion. British nurses were only allowed to go several days later.
3. UNCHALLENGED. The presence of this civilian female with no right to be there was oddly unquestioned. Reasons for that include:
  • she too was American, so she fitted in 
  • she was a pretty, plausible, personable blonde
  • as a Bryn Mawr girl and seasoned journalist she had agency and confidence  
  • her dad and brother were medics so she knew the hospital staff's cultured
  • on the confused ships nobody understood enough to challenge her
  • she had already travelled so much that she was a ship-savvy able traveller and could fit in well. (From 13-27 May she’d sailed, precariously, as the only passenger on a convoyed Norwegian cargo ship from the US to Liverpool; it carried dynamite, forbad booze, and had no lifeboats. She read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, enjoyed iceberg sightings, and, sighting the English coast in the 4am dark felt ‘such a feeling of wild happiness.’)
4. HANDY. As someone who could speak French and German she was useful for translating in communications between European casualties and US medics. Also she distributed cigarettes, emptied urinals, and worked with cabin boys creating corned beef sandwiches.
5.  DESPITE SEXISM. She achieved this feat in the teeth of official opposition and ‘curious condescension’ towards women journalists excluding women from this key moment in WW2, and despite the opposition of her own husband, writer Ernest Hemingway.

Her double whammy success was:
  • to get there anyway
  • to actually land in France, on Omaha beach, trumping her husband who was confined to watching from a landing craft out at sea.
1.  Lasting impact.  What effect did this 29-hour voyage have on Martha’s feelings about the war, and women’s place in it? She was to go on to do so much more, especially in Italy. She had already done so much
2.  Emotion handling. Martha was dealing with a hostile husband. The day after her arrival at Liverpool docks, ten days before D-Day,  she had just told Hemingway their four-year marriage was over. His cowardice, lies, bragging, selfishness and philandering had finished her. (They were to divorce in 1945.)War meant brought many relationship heartbreaks, some about masculinity and sex. With what other personal preoccupations did other women, like Martha, sail into the post D-Day events? In other words, we don’t participate in war as 100% single-minded warriors. So how do all our emotional preoccupations – especially sexual betrayal and anger about misogyny – effect our efficacy? Martha was private about this.


READ. Read her novels, collected letters, and reportage, plus biographies. A good starting point is

VISIT. You might like to visit the exterior of Martha’s flat at 72 Cadogan Square, London SW1X 0EA. (She didn’t write of her voyage there; she’d only moved there in the 1970s).  It has a blue plaque about her now. She had at least eleven homes in London, mainly Knightsbridge.

PASS BY: You can browse past her Welsh holiday home (1980-1994), Yew Tree Cottage, at Kilgwrrwg, near Chepstow, Monmouthshire, NP16 6DA. See purple plaque at gate. NB it’s a private residence, please respect that. The Purple Plaques campaign marks the achievements of remarkable women in Wales.

WATCH. See Philip Kaufman's  2012 movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn, No, it doesn’t go into her voyages.