Remembrance Day 2021: Grace the Gunner Girl
- Credit: Grace Taylor
In 1941 Grace Taylor swapped her maid's apron and cap for ATS battledress and a steel helmet, a decision that changed her life as historian Dr Tessa Dunlop discovers
These days Grace Taylor lives quietly by the sea in Poole. This former servant girl, who risked her life defending Britain from Nazi bombers, is currently the president and oldest member of her local Royal Artillery Association. Meeting Grace and becoming her friend has been a privilege and a pleasure during what has been a tumultuous 18 months. Looking back on one national crisis from midst of another, 97-year-old Grace has been ever the calm sage (although she doesn’t like how the masks mess up her lipstick!) She starts every sentence with ‘my dear’ and always plies me with tea and biscuits whenever I visit. I met Grace when I was researching my book Army Girls, which reveals the story of Britain’s wartime female army. Grace as an original ‘Gunner Girl’ has helped bring to life a pivotal moment in our island’s history.
‘Well, my dear, I lied about my age so I could get in early, before I was 17-and-a-half,’ she confesses. By 1941 the ATS (the Auxiliary Territorial Service), had morphed into Britain’s largest female military service for women, and this plucky teenager would soon take her place amidst their ranks. ‘I didn’t know what I’d let myself in for,’ she admits, ‘but joining the army changed my life.’
By the time Grace entered their ranks in October 1941 the ATS had been transformed. Previously dubbed the Auxiliary Tarts Service in popular discourse, the organisation had a ‘bad start’ in the words of its doughty first director, Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan. Between the two world wars Britain had buried its head in the sand regarding rearmament, and military service for women didn’t appear on the agenda until 1938. The arrival of the ATS was too little too late, and those girls who were inclined to sign up generally opted for the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service) or the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Airforce) with their more innovative reputations and uniforms in chic shades of blue.
However, by 1941 the ATS had undergone a root and branch overhaul motivated by the belated recognition that Britain’s anti-aircraft defence (AA Command), tasked with protecting the country from airborne enemy bombing raids, couldn’t operate the 1000 plus gun-sites across the British Isles without female assistance. Cue a new Army Act that put the ATS on an official military footing and allowed women to serve for the first time in operational areas. The service was rebranded ‘action through adventure’ and by the end of the war boasted the future queen, HRH Princess Elizabeth, as its most famous recruit.
‘It’s funny to think that I ended up in the same service as the Queen,’ says Grace, with a wry smile. ‘When I was young, I lived in a bit of a vacuum. My mum died when I was just 11 and I was in domestic service so I didn’t know much about what was going on in the war.’
Work as a servant, the job that no girl wanted but one in four fell into, was Grace’s lot, but not for long. ‘Well, you see, I met a soldier. He was stationed at Warley Barracks (near Brentwood, Essex). Eddie Bill was his name and he was a private in the Ordnance Corps. It was the first time I had been properly hugged since my mum died. Then one day he told me he’d been transferred and was going abroad.’
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Grace was gutted. Even though she was only 16, Eddie had rocked this lonely girl’s world. ‘Before he left, he made me a letter opener, a paper knife with my name stamped on it. I’ve no idea where he got the brass from. I had it as a keepsake, I kept it with me right through the war. He came to the door of where I worked to say goodbye,’ Grace recalls. ‘I can see him now with his kit bag and cap. I missed him. I was so isolated as a servant. I thought to myself ‘now he’s gone away perhaps if I joined up, I might be able to go where he is and be with him again’. I really thought I would meet him again if I joined the army.’
Grace’s timing was perfect. Having convinced the War Office that women were needed on gun-sites, head of AA Command, General Sir Frederick Pile, was on the lookout for talented ATS recruits who could be trained to work the cutting-edge technology behind the guns.
‘I never did see Eddie again, but I sure was in the thick of it!’ Taking the bus to Southend, Grace signed up. ‘I didn’t have any certificates, that’s how I could lie about my age!’ and passed the medical ‘A1, I’ve always been strong as an ox.’ She then returned to Brentwood to her job as a domestic servant. ‘I didn’t tell my boss, it would’ve been awkward, I waited until my papers came and then I said ‘I’m going to war’.’
A lorry took Grace and other ATS recruits to Glen Parva Barracks, near Leicester. A Victorian military complex that had trained young men in World War I and was now preparing young women for active service. ‘There was a lot of discipline,’ Grace recalls. ‘You had to barrack your bed and fold your blankets. An NCO [non-commissioned officer] came in and you had to stand by your bed for inspection. We marched in and marched out of the dining room.’
Grace served in one of Britain’s earliest mixed anti-aircraft batteries. After basic training she was selected for Arborfield near Reading, where ATS girls were instructed alongside Royal Artillery men. She spent hours hunched over the ergonomics of different fighter planes. Aircraft recognition was a vital skill and Grace can still recall Bakelite models of the British Spitfire and Hawker, their proportions replicated in miniature, their tail fins and wing span, versus deadly German Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf, long before she saw them flash in the beam of a search light. Designated a Private in 495 Mixed Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, (working alongside the largest 3.7inch static guns) her next posting was Anglesey with the couple of hundred men and women she would work beside for the next four years. Grace was young, strong and fearless and, more importantly, she was no longer working alone. ‘I loved the companionship, I just loved it.’
Outside, battling the winds off the Welsh coastline, she adjusted herself to the realities of a technical war. ‘It was a practice camp with live firing. You’ve got to pity the poor guy flying the bi-plane with a sock out behind,’ she chuckles.
With new expertise, Grace was filling a man’s shoes. Narrated by a male gunner, an early Ministry of Information film illuminated the work of the ack-ack guns, as the anti-aircraft guns were known, painstakingly explaining that ‘a shell takes half a minute to reach 30ft. If the plane’s speed is 200mph, in this time it will have gone two miles, so for accurate aiming we have to use special instruments.’
Special instruments that had niftily mechanised air defence (and the messy business of killing), neatly allowing women to step up in 1941 while preserving their ‘non-combatant’ status.
Grace was trained on the spotter and the height finder. ‘You’d be standing for hours out in the open. Before we had radar it was the spotter that suddenly shouts ‘PLANE’ and everybody looks and listens. As soon as you see it, you get your instrument onto it.’
The height finder tracked the elevation and bearing of the plane. Grace is back following the aircraft in her mind’s eye, face pressed against the viewer, watching out for the enemy, adjusting the bearings and the angle, calling out ‘on target’ to the girl in front.
Private Grace and 495 Battery were transferred to Crown Hill outside Plymouth in 1942. ‘When the sirens went you had to drop everything, grab your steel helmet and run to the command post.’
She shakes her head, ‘I didn’t think about the danger, I was too busy to be frightened.’
Still a teenager, she grabbed small pleasures where she found them. ‘My favourite nightie was made from the white silk of a German parachute. We’d shot down the plane.’
Grace didn’t even realise that gun-site work was optional, but by December 1941 the introduction of the second National Service Act meant that women over the age of 20 served. She leans in: ‘I liked my job, I was always in battle dress, gaiters and boots with a tin hat on me head. So that tells you something.’
When addressing Parliament, Churchill had framed women’s new role on gun-sites in the context of ‘great quantities of anti-aircraft equipment’ now ‘coming out of the factories.’ His youngest daughter Mary become the poster girl for ATS gun-site work and Churchill argued that range finders, predictors and ‘a host of elaborate appliances of a highly delicate and highly secret character’ would do the fighting, not the women. The press marvelled that ‘modern warfare has not only created a new specialised job for the man behind the gun but has brought the girl behind the gunner’, a ‘mixed regiment being a unit consisting of both sexes.’
Britain recruited girls into anti-aircraft defence two years before Germany. And as ATS girls like Grace would find out, after the 1940-1941 Blitz gun-sites were less dangerous than they had been, but they were far from risk free.
To discover what happened next in Grace’s war and to learn about the extraordinary history of Britain’s largest military service for women in World War II why not join me at Lighthouse Poole for Army Girls, when I will be talking with ‘Gunner Girl’ Grace Taylor as we mark the 80th anniversary of World War II conscription for women and reflect on the extraordinary role people such as Grace, HRH Princess Elizabeth and the Prime Minister’s daughter Mary Churchill played as part of the ATS.
Army Girls is at Lighthouse Poole, November 14 at 3pm, book at lighthousepoole.co.uk or call 01202 280000
Dr Tessa Dunlop is a 20th century historian, acclaimed author (Sunday Times bestseller The Century Girls and The Bletchley Girls) and Royal Television Society awarded broadcaster Her book Army Girls is published by Headline Press.