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Women of D-Day: while men stormed the beaches, women worked as codebreakers, ship plotters, radar operators

  • On D-Day, as soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy, hundreds of thousands of women served as code breakers, shipping planners, radar operators and cartographers.
  • During World War II, over 1.1 million women served in the Western Allied armies, of which 640,000 served in the British Army.
  • In total, around seven million British women served their country in some capacity during World War II.

Granny, what did you do during the war?

For British women who came of age during the Second World War, the answer to that question is often “a lot.”

The history of D-Day is often told through the stories of the soldiers who fought and lost their lives on June 6, 1944, when Allied forces stormed the coast of northern France.

World War II veterans proud to be part of the “Greatest Generation”: “We saved the world.”

But behind the scenes, hundreds of thousands of women served in vital non-combat roles as codebreakers, ship pilots, radar operators, cartographers and others. Their often-overlooked contributions are becoming more apparent as the number of surviving Normandy veterans dwindles and the world prepares for the 80th anniversary of the invasion.

One of those women was Marie Scott, a 17-year-old radio operator who listened to the chaos of the battle through a headset as she relayed messages between Allied commanders in Britain and soldiers on the beaches of Normandy.

“You realise the reality of war, what it actually means. It’s not words, it’s actions that affect thousands, millions of people,” Scott said recently, reflecting on her time with the Women’s Royal Navy Corps, or Wrens. “I think I grew up from being a silly 17-year-old that day. I think D-Day really made me grow up.”

Marie Scott, who served as a Wren and switchboard operator during the Normandy landings, holds up a photo of herself from 1944 in her London home on April 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Around 160,000 Allied soldiers landed in Normandy on D-Day in a massive amphibious operation aimed at penetrating heavily fortified German defenses and beginning the liberation of Western Europe.

More than 1.1 million women served in the Western Allied armies during the war, including 640,000 in Britain, where Nazi troops advanced along the English Channel coast and posed a real threat of invasion.

The future Queen, Princess Elizabeth, also contributed, training to be a driver and mechanic in the Auxiliary Provincial Service, the women’s wing of the British Army.

Recruitment posters had a simple message: by joining the army and taking on support roles, women could free men up from serving on the front line. Though they were technically forbidden from taking part in combat, over 800 British women died in service during the war.

“People forget that you were doing this at 17, 18 years old,” said Dick Goodwin, honorary secretary of the Veterans Taxi Charity, which sponsors veterans’ trips to Normandy every year. “It’s just phenomenal, really. It’s like being thrown into the deep end!”

Women who didn’t join the military had other opportunities to serve: The British government urged women to keep the economy going after the men went off to war, so millions of them worked in defense factories, grew crops, and rode motorbikes through blackout London streets to update firefighters on the latest bomb damage.

The Allies’ decision to mobilize women was a key strategic choice in contrast to Nazi Germany, where authorities relied on forced labor, said Ian Johnson, a historian at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

“Part of the intent was to take the Allied economic and material advantages and maximize them relative to the way the Germans were organizing their forces,” he said. “So these supporting roles were very important in providing a logistical advantage that helped the Allies win.”

In total, around seven million British women served their country in some capacity during World War II.

To honour their sacrifice, a sculpture has been installed near the National War Memorial in central London.

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The bronze monolith is decorated with 17 different uniforms hanging from it, representing the jobs women held during the war and then left when the men returned home.

These include uniforms from the Auxiliary Territorial Force, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Women’s Royal Naval Force – as well as police overalls, nurses’ capes and welder’s masks.

“I get a certain amount of satisfaction from my wartime experiences,” Scott said, “and sometimes I feel a little bit of pride in the younger version of myself.”