When World War II broke out in 1939, lives were changed to serve for Britain and contribute to the war effort. 80 years later, we remember the work done by those on the frontline and on the home front, whose sacrifices changed the course of history.
Betty Webb was just 18-years-old when she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1941, hoping to do her bit for her country. After making her German language skills known, she was invited to an interview in London and was immediately put on a train to start work at Bletchley Park.
“I’d never heard of Bletchley and I certainly didn’t know what was going on there,” Betty explains. “I arrived there with another girl who had escaped from Belgium.”
Nestled into the Buckinghamshire countryside, Bletchley Park would become home to Britain’s most top-secret operations throughout the course of the war, where enemy messages were intercepted and decoded, allowing the Allies to anticipate the Axis’ next moves. It’s estimated that the work done at Bletchley Park shortened the war by between two and four years.
“Most of the work – as far as I was concerned – was of a clerical nature, but it was all very important, even though you didn’t really know what you were doing because of the extreme secrecy,” Betty continues. “I didn’t discover what I was doing until about three or four years ago. I was actually handling enemy material that was to do with the beginning of the Holocaust.”
After working in various secretarial roles, Betty’s talent for paraphrasing was discovered. She was then given the responsibility of paraphrasing decoded and translated Japanese messages – a job Betty was so good at, she was sent to work at the Pentagon in Washington DC for the last few months of the war.
“It was a great honour,” Betty remembers. “I don’t know that I felt it at the time, but I realise now that I had been entrusted with that important job. I’ve woken up to the fact that, however minor my job might have been, it’s something to be proud of.”
Upon arrival, every recruit to Bletchley Park signed the Official Secrets Act, pledging to keep their work secret – a secret that could finally be revealed in 1975, 30 years after the war ended. For the last 25 years, Betty has given almost 200 talks on the Park, and in 2015, she was awarded an MBE for her services to remembering and promoting the work of Bletchley.
Across the country, in Aberdeenshire, Nessie Harper was working in the Women’s Land Army (WLA), helping to prevent food shortages throughout Scotland. With much of the male agricultural workforce away fighting on the frontline, women were recruited from towns and cities to take on their responsibilities. At its peak in 1943, over 80,000 women worked in the Land Army, leaving behind their homes and families to help feed the population.
“We knew we were doing our bit, our duty,” Nessie explains. “It was exciting to start with because we were leaving home for the first time and would have freedom. We thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was, but we just had to do it and get used to it.
“People didn’t realise it was such a hard job and that we were doing the work of all the men who had gone off to the Army. People gave up their lives for the country. In the Land Army and other services, we gave up the lives and lifestyles we were used to, leaving our families. It’s important that people remember the sacrifices that were made.”
Betty agrees: “If we hadn’t broken the codes and been able to defeat the then enemy, our history would have been completely different to what it is today.”
On 6 June 1944, the largest invasion by land, sea and air in history took place. The Normandy Landings – or D-Day – marked a turning point in World War II.
18-year-old Robert Barnett was there as a member of the Royal Navy, and took part in the operation first- hand. He’s one of hundreds of veterans trying to raise awareness of the Landings, and promote remembrance of the war.
“I believe we should attend the commemoration of Normandy every year, by publicising and keeping it alive in remembrance of the fallen,” Bob says. “My wish is that people, especially students and young people, should be reminded throughout the years, of the sacrifices made by Britain and its Allies, and the loss of life in their fight.”
Greg Hayward was also just 18 when he completed his apprenticeship with the RAF and was called to serve on D-Day. Both Bob and Greg were a part of a journey that took 300 D-Day veterans back to Normandy, to remember the sacrifices made and raise awareness of the realities of life on the frontline.
We will always remember these heroes and their sacrifices.❤️️ https://t.co/lx2S3n54as
— Help for Heroes (@HelpforHeroes) June 5, 2019
“Veterans today should be celebrated and remembered in a similar way as the veterans of World War I and II,” Greg urges. “We need to ensure that future generations are kept informed of the sacrifices made.”
“I would like people to celebrate and show respect to all veterans,” Bob agrees. “Particularly those who have fought in recent conflicts; they’re the ones that need our help now.”