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Women in War Study Group

Celia Lee had an idea to set up a Women in War study group. Whilst attending a Conference of The British Commission For Military History (BCMH), at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, she had the good fortune to be seated at lunch next to Paul Edward Strong. They struck up a conversation, and Celia mentioned the idea to Paul, who was enthusiastic about it right away. Paul had studied the role of women in twentieth century warfare. Several years later, when they had got the study group off the ground, seventeen of its members collectively wrote a book of essays on the subject.

Women in war workshop University of Birmingham July 2009
Mr Michael Orr, (Mike), who was then Secretary General of the BCMH, invited Celia and Paul to present a Women in War workshop at the summer BCMH annual weekend conference at the Centre for First World War Studies, University of Birmingham. It was the first time in the forty years of the existence of the BCMH that a women’s workshop had been included. Mike, a brilliant organiser, ensured that the workshop slotted comfortably into the conference.

The Conference and workshop took place in July 2009, and was chaired by Celia Lee and Paul Strong who, together, gave a short opening address. Between twenty-five and thirty people attended, including the BCMH President, the late Professor Richard Holmes, and members of the BCMH Committee.

Second World War Veteran, Mrs Thelma Stollar, nee Fry, who was born in 1923, and was now in her late 80s, opened the workshop. From memory, Thelma gave a rousing, direct address to the audience about her wartime experience in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, (WRNS), and history was in the making. Thelma, a WRN radar mechanic (1943-46), was trained in London and initially joined the Fleet Air Arm Station where she learnt about radar. She was then transferred to the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, Hampshire. She reported to Stone Frigate HMS Collingwood, which was to become the radar tramway for the navy.

Three well-researched papers were presented in the workshop on ‘New Thinking on World War II (1939-45)’, which was the main theme of the conference. Mrs Georgina Natzio, defence writer, and daughter of the distinguished military historian and army officer, Reginald George (Shelford) Bidwell, was introduced to the audience by her husband, Conrad. Georgina gave an excellent paper on ‘The Re-Establishment of the Women’s Services during 1938-39’. The husband and wife team, Major Christopher and Mrs Christine Halsall, were introduced by Dr John Peaty, and gave a joint paper, accompanied with many wonderful archival slides, on the highly secret work carried out by women in photographic intelligence and interpretation at RAF Medmenham, Danesfield House, Bucks, titled: ‘Photographic Intelligence and the Role of Women’. Paul Strong, was introduced by John Lee, and gave a paper, also accompanied by some stunning slides, on Women in Military Service on the Eastern Front. Lively discussions took place on each of the subjects, and the workshop was deemed to have been a success. The Women in War group had come into its own, and the book, WOMEN IN WAR From Home Front to Front Line is the next stage of its development.