It was the biggest single disaster of the Second World War to strike women in the British Army.
On May 11, 1943, between 15 and 20 Focke-Wulf planes – the most feared of the German air force – unleashed a devastating bombing raid on Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk.
One bomb hit the Imperial Hotel, which was the billet of the local unit of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) – the women’s branch of the British Army.
A total of twenty-six women – who had just returned from exercising in the morning sun when the bomb hit – were killed instantly.
In all, 49 servicemen and women and civilians were killed or later died of their wounds. Only one woman, Private Dorreen Chappell, was pulled alive from the wreckage.
The youngest victim was aged just 18 when she was killed.
Now, nearly 80 years on from what remains the worst female loss of life in the British Army’s history, the Women’s Royal Corps Association is searching for relatives of those who died.
The #WeWillRememberHer campaign is taking place after research showed that only around half of those who were killed are commemorated on official war memorials.
Below, bestselling author BEEZY MARSH retells the story of the tragedy, and highlights the new campaign.
As the sun rose through a haze over the sea at Great Yarmouth, two dozen young women hurried back to their billets from their bracing morning exercises, to change for breakfast.
Mists in May were not unusual, and although some grumbled about the dew on the grass making their shoes wet, it looked as if things would turn out nice again.
Only a few months ago, they’d been strangers; women from all over the country, many of whom were barely out of their teens.
But after volunteering for the Army’s Auxiliary Training Service, they’d been posted at Great Yarmouth to learn the skills they needed to work as signallers, to help the war effort.
On May 11, 1943, between 15 and 20 Focke-Wulf planes – the most feared of the German air force – unleashed a devastating bombing raid on Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk. One bomb hit the Imperial Hotel, which was the billet of the local unit of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) – the women’s branch of the British Army. A total of twenty-six women – who had just returned from exercising in the morning sun when the bomb hit – were killed. Pictured: Three of the victims of the bombing. Private Vera Mann (left), was aged 22 and from Leeds. Corporal Enid Line (middle), 23, was from Crouch End, Middlesex. She is buried at New Southgate Cemetery, Hertfordshire. Private Kathleen Gaunt, 19, was buried at Bingley Cemetery, Yorkshire
The Imperial Hotel on North Drive had been requisitioned at the start of the war, and parts of the grand Victorian building were used by the handsome officers of the anti-aircraft brigade. The ATS were billeted several to a room upstairs in an annexe called Sefton House. Pictured: The aftermath of the bombing
They’d come from as far afield as Scotland, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire and the home counties, but now they’d traded civilian clothes for sea breezes, the green serge uniform and the cap badge of the ATS which they wore with pride.
It was 1943; a time when the privations and losses of the Second World War were biting hard throughout Britain, but with a decisive victory for Field Marshall Montgomery in North Africa only days earlier, many had started to see a glimmer of hope.
THE 26 BRAVE WOMEN WHO DIED IN THE 1943 BOMBING RAID ON GREAT YARMOUTH ATS HQ
Women from Norfolk
1. GRIMMER, Lilian, Private, 18, from Cobholm, Great Yarmouth. buried at Caister Cemetery, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Lilian was supposed to be on leave, but swapped with another girl to let her go home for her 21st birthday.
Women from The South
2. LEWIS, Jessica, Private, 22, from Boscombe, Bournemouth. Buried at Bournemouth East Cemetery, Hampshire
3. LINE, Enid Gertrude, Corporal, 23, from Crouch End, Middlesex. Buried at New Southgate Cemetery, Hertfordshire
Women from The Midlands
4. MOORE, Ivy, Private, 24, from Grimsby, Lincolnshire. Buried at Scartho Road Cemetery, Lincs.
5. PEARSON, Roma, Private, 25, from Grimsby, Lincolnshire. Buried at Scartho Road Cemetery, Lincs.
6. JAMES, Nora, Private, 24 – buried at St. Mary Churchyard, Rolleston, Staffs
7. SUTTON, Marjorie, Private, 24 – from Fulstow, Lincs – buried at Caister Cemetery, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk – memorial found
8. WELLS, Viola, Private, 23 – from Grimsby, Lincs – buried at Caister Cemetery, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk – memorial found
9. TRAVERS, Doris, Private, 21, – from Northampton. Buried in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk at R.C. Cemetery
10. JOHNSON, May, Private, 20 – from Louth, Lincs – buried at Caister Cemetery, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Name appears on Louth Memorial https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/1943
11. HUNT, Eileen, L/Corpl, 21 – buried at Holy Trinity Churchyard, Besthorpe, Notts – memorial found.
Women from The North
12. COPLEY, Jean, Private, 21 – buried at Aston-cum-Aughton Cemetery, Yorks
13. GAUNT, Kathleen, Private, 19 – buried at Bingley Cemetery, Yorks
14. SHARP*, Jessie, Private, 21 – buried Hessle Cemetery, Haltemprice, Yorks *Listed as Sharpe elsewhere
15. MANN, Vera, Private, 22, from Beeston Hill, Leeds. Buried at Holbeck Cemetery, Yorks
16. BELL, Bernadette, Private, 22 – buried at St. Joseph’s R.C. Cemetery, Moston, Lancs.
17. FARNES, Louisa, Private, 22 – buried at Oxbridge La Cemetery Stockton-on-Tees, Durham. MAXWELL, Louisa, Private, 22 – buried at St. Nicholas Ch’yd, Gosforth, Northumberland
18. GALBRAITH, Margaret, Corporal, 23, from New Mills Derby (Buried at Caister Cemetery, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk – memorial found)
19. WIMBUSH, Doris, Private, 28 – from Doncaster – buried at Caister Cemetery, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk
20. CARTER, Molly, L/Cpl, 21 – buried at Handsworth New Cemetery, Sheffield, Yorks
21. FAWKES, Dorothy, Private, 26 – buried at St. Cuthbert Ch’yd, Corsenside, Northumberland – memorial found
Women from Scotland
22. McCAULAY, Jane, Private, 31, from Germiston, Glasgow. Buried at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk at R.C. Cemetery
23. SCOUGALL, Jean, Private, 21 – buried at Morningside Cemetery, Edinburgh
24. MACKAY, Elizabeth, Private, 27 – buried at Chapel Cemetery, Ross & Cromarty – memorial found
25. MACLEOD, Anna, L/Corpl, 23, from Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. Buried at Eye Cemetery, Ross & Cromarty
Some were homesick and left their sweethearts to volunteer, others were thrilled to be away from their parents and swept up in the excitement of learning new skills.
But their training as part of the 103rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade was intense, and the girls were under no illusions. Their work was a matter of life or death for those on the frontline and mistakes would not be tolerated.
Communications were vital in the war, and teleprinters received messages (signals), which were interpreted and sent on, either by teleprinter, phone or dispatch rider.
Some were in code, which had to go through the cipher office before they could be issued.
They’d be expected to work in shifts, every day, including weekends and bank holidays without complaint and wherever they were required to be, with bases in every corner of the country. By the end of the Second World War some 15,000 women were working as signallers.
For the girls at Great Yarmouth, their lodgings were good by Army standards; at least they didn’t have to bunk up in a freezing wooden barracks stuck in a field somewhere or dig for victory like the Land Army girls.
The Imperial Hotel on North Drive had been requisitioned at the start of the war, and parts of the grand Victorian building were used by the handsome officers of the anti-aircraft brigade.
The ATS were billeted several to a room upstairs in an annexe called Sefton House and the dining room where they usually ate breakfast was downstairs in the hotel.
One of the women, Private Doris Travers, had only recently written home to her family in Northampton on her 21st birthday: ‘It is not a very safe area, we are on the coast; never mind, we must put the bad with the good. My nerves are getting a bit shaky. I should like to tell you a lot but I can’t. I will be coming home in six weeks’ time.’
But on this morning, as Private Travers and the other girls buttoned up their uniforms and smartened themselves up, something was heading towards Great Yarmouth, emerging menacingly from the mists in the skies overhead.
Witnesses say they heard the unmistakable and terrifying drone of planes before they saw them. But by then it was too late.
Because of the hazy conditions, men of the Royal Observer Corps on Gorleston Cliffs only had 30 seconds to warn their HQ of an imminent attack.
Flying low, almost skimming the rolls of barbed wire on the beach, came the first wave of between 15 and 20 German Focke-Wulfe fighter-bombers, in groups of three.
The planes, known as the Butcher Bird or Shrike in English, were the most feared and effective of the Nazi air-force for their precision combined with the ability to carry 4,000lb bombs which they released with devastating effect.
The first explosive landed before the air raid siren had even sounded.
One witness, a local man called James Dean, later reported: ‘I heard the roar of planes and right in front of me, a crashing sound.
‘Then there was another and I saw the building burst apart in front of me, just as five enemy planes came screaming over my head.
‘The blast lifted me off the motor-roller I was driving. The planes were so low that I could see the black crosses on them.
‘They seemed to lift themselves up to clear the roof tops. When I looked towards the ATS billet, I saw the awful wreckage.’
The whole of the Imperial Hotel had been reduced to rubble.
Twenty-six fine young women who had been prepared to fight for King and Country against the Nazis, were killed instantly. But the carnage did not stop there.
The bombers rounded and dropped a further 13 bombs on the town, indiscriminately killing civilians as well as service personnel.
In all, a total of 49 servicemen and women and civilians were killed or later died of their wounds.
A rescue operation began almost immediately, with helpers scrabbling through the rubble with their bare hands to find any survivors.
But only one, 22-year-old Private Doreen Chappell from Gloucestershire was pulled alive from the wreckage.
The youngest ATS victim, Lilian Grimmer, of Norfolk, was just 18 when she perished that day, with 25 of her fellow ATS volunteers.
She was supposed to be on leave but swapped with another girl to let her go home for her 21st birthday.
The majority of the ATS girls who died were aged in their very early twenties and the eldest was 32. One girl, private Ivy Moore, of Grimsby, Yorkshire, had been due to announce her engagement.
Rescue workers including personnel from the Sherwood Foresters, refused to give up the search, clawing through the debris and eventually accepting that no survivors would be found. Their efforts were reported in the local press.
One said: ‘We were ordered to dig in the rubble and get the mutilated bodies out, so we clambered in and started work. There were bodies, arms and legs and torsos, all separate. The dead bodies were laid on the tennis court.’
Even at a time of war, when so many had suffered loss, the death of so many young women in an attack in broad daylight sent shockwaves through the nation.
Most of the women’s remains were returned to their hometowns for burial. However, eight were interred within the borough; six in Great Yarmouth Cemetery, also known as Caister, and two in the local Roman Catholic Cemetery.
Full military honours were accorded to them. Their coffins, draped with Union Jacks, were carried in a sombre procession to the communal grave on the shoulders of men of the Anti-Aircraft Command.
Bugles sounded the last post as the coffins were lowered into the grave.
The whole of the Imperial Hotel was reduced to rubble by the German bombs. Twenty-six fine young women who had been prepared to fight for King and Country against the Nazis were killed instantly. Pictured: The aftermath of the bombing
The Daily Mail reported on the Great Yarmouth bombing and the terrible loss of life. It recounted how digging was still ongoing in the hope of finding survivors
What was the Auxiliary Territorial Service?
The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was the women’s branch of the British Army during the Second World War.
Formed in 1938, it had its roots in the Women’s Axiliary Army Corps, which was formed during the First World War as a voluntary service.
From 1941 onwards, the ATS was granted full military status, but the women who served in it were not allowed to take on combat roles.
After female conscription began in December 1941, all women who entered the Army went into the ATS, apart from nurses.
Roles were initially restricted to cooks, clerks, orderlies, storekeepers and drivers but the jobs that were available became more varied as demand for personnel increased.
By 1943, there were 56,000 women serving with anti-aircraft units, although they were still banned from firing guns.
Famous ATS women included King George VI’s eldest daughter, the then Princess Elizabeth, along with Mary Churchill, the daughter of Prime Minister Winston.
By the end of the Second World War, around 250,000 women had served in the ATS.
For the sole survivor, Private Doreen Chappell, the emotional and physical consquences of that dreadful morning were to last a lifetime.
In the immediate aftermath, she did not realise that she was the only one to make it out alive – a fact which her bosses attributed to her dislike of being inside during air-raids, which may have lead her to avoid some of the falling masonry which killed her friends.
Lying in a hospital bed, swathed in bandages, she joked: ‘Trust me to be the only one to finish up in here!’
But for the next three years, she was in and out of hospital for mental and physical consequences of the air raid and was invalided out of the force. Doreen went on to marry an officer she’d met in Great Yarmouth when he was in the Navy, manning a motor torpedo boat. She died in Wales in 1989.
Now, nearly 80 years on from what remains the worst disaster in terms of female losses to the British Army, the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association – which is the only charity to specifically support women who served – is searching for relatives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country that day.
The #WeWillRememberHer campaign aims to ensure their loss is not forgotten after research revealed only around half of those who died are commemorated on official war memorials. The charity is determined to put this right.
Paula Rogers, Chief Executive of the WRAC Association, says: ‘Recent studies have confirmed what the WRAC Association has known for some time – women often do not see themselves as veterans.
‘This is exacerbated by the lack of recognition on our memorials across the UK, and at Remembrance services where women attending are often assumed to be the wives and widows of ex-servicemen rather than someone who served her country.
‘We have only found around half these 26 women on war graves so far.’
Retired Brigadier Fiona Gardner, the charity’s vice-president, adds: ‘Year on year, our members have been attending the Great Yarmouth site where these women were killed to pay their respect and honour their sacrifice but we want to go further.
‘The WRAC Association is committed to ensuring these women women are remembered on their local war memorials.’
The ATS was the women’s branch of the British Army during the Second World War. It was merged with the Women’s Royal Army Corps after the conflict. Pictured: Members of the ATS on parade
A new plaque will be unveiled at the site where the tragedy struck, at 2pm on Sunday May 15th, at The Imperial Hotel in Great Yarmouth.
Some family members did contact the WRAC Association over the years, to record what memories they could of their loved ones.
A cousin of Private Vera Mann wrote: ‘Vera was an only child and she and I were great friends. She was happy with her life in the ATS and she came to see me on her last leave just before Christmas 1942.’
The family of Lance Corporal Anna MacLeod of Stornaway, wrote: ‘Anna’s death was a shattering blow to us all. Anna was just about to be commissioned and had a promising career in front of her.’
The Palm Court Hotel was built on the site of the destroyed Imperial Hotel. The site of the Sefton House annexe where the ATS girls were billeted is now occupied by the hotel’s indoor swimming pool
The relatives of Private Ivy Moore of Grimbsy placed flowers on her grave every year and the Grimsby branch of the WRAC Association held a church service for the three ATS girls buried there.
It took almost 50 years before the tragedy was commemorated in a fitting way, thanks to another WW2 veteran, Joan Awbery, 101, from Cambridgeshire who enlisted in the ATS in 1942 and ended the war as an officer working in Brussels in the Legal Aid section.
In 1994, thanks to her determination, she co-ordinated the unveiling of a plaque, with Lady Soames, the youngest daughter of Winston Churchill, having traced some relatives of the women.
Sadly, many had already died. Now the plaque, which had been damaged in an accident, has been mended and is to be rededicated in a ceremony on May 2nd at the site of the tragedy.
As Ms Awbery explains: ‘Given the tender age of these women, we know grandchildren won’t be found but the WRAC Association hopes to identify great nephews, nieces, cousins and so forth to tell them of the part their brave relative played in military history.’
More than 345,000 women served in the ATS from 1938 to 1949 and many women and their families emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as those who returned to Barbados and Jamaica.
Are YOU related to any of the women involved in the tragedy? If so, please contact the WRAC Association by phone on 0300 400 1992 or via Twitter @WRACAssociation