Put that Light Out



By Imogen Corrigan

Imogen Corrigan is familiar to members of the Wadhurst History Society from two previous talks that she gave on aspects of Medieval history. The subject of this talk thus seemed a radical departure.  The reason, however, is easily explained: before she became an expert on Anglo Saxon and Medieval History, Imogen had served in the British Army for nearly 20 years.  She served in the WRAC (Woman’s Royal Army Corps) and the AG Corps (The Adjutant General’s Corps) before retiring with the rank of Major in 1994.  Moreover, her family has had a long association with the British army.  She believes that she may be one of only two people who are the third generation of women to serve. Her maternal grandmother was a driver in the Women’s Legion in the First World War and was in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) during the Second World War. Her mother served in the ATS and WRAC. Imogen, like her mother and grandmother, changed Corps during her career and so had two cap badges.  She would be interested to hear if anyone else has a comparable record.

Before getting to the specifics of the role of women in the 93rd Searchlight Regiment during the Second World War, Imogen gave a brief overview of the role of women in the army during the 20th   and 21st   centuries and how it has changed, and attitudes to it have changed, over the years.  Two early milestones were the establishment of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) in 1907 and the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in July 1917.   The former was active in both nursing and intelligence work during both World Wars. The latter was Britain’s first all-female voluntary military unit and owed its formation and success to two remarkable women ahead of their time: Alexandra Chalmers Watson and Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan.  Its aim was to free up more men to go and fight in the First World War.  Within one year of its formation over 400 jobs were open to women mainly as cooks, clerical workers, drivers and medical workers.

The next important milestone was the formation of the ATS on 9th September 1938, like WAAC, initially a women’s voluntary service.  From the start, the ATS had image problems with many – including women – considering that women were inherently unsuited to military life.  Such attitudes persisted well into the latter part of the 20th century.  Imogen recounted that, for example, during her time in the army women were not even required to take a physical fitness test.  Since then, largely through the pioneering efforts of Brigadier Eileen Nolan the Director of WRAC (the successor to the ATS), servicewomen have become progressively integrated into the regimental culture of the British Army. Now women comprise 10% of the armed forces and can serve in all combat roles alongside male colleagues.

During the 1930s, as war became increasingly probable, the Government started to make preparations.  A major concern was bombing by enemy aircraft and the need for an air defence system to combat it.  It was recognized that searchlights would be an essential part of such a system  to illuminate enemy bombers so that the men operating anti-aircraft guns could shoot them down more effectively. In January 1935 a plan was formulated that envisaged the formation of 100 searchlight companies, with 2334 searchlights lights and 43,500 men.

Once war had broken out, however, it was soon found that men were increasingly needed for deployment elsewhere and there was a risk that the number of anti-aircraft units might have to be reduced.   Certain women such as the noted electrical engineer Caroline Haslett had deplored the lack of thought given to the potential role of women in the war effort and through the Woman Power Committee in 1940, were urging the greater use of women for war purposes.  Consequently, a proposed solution to the problem was the employment of women of the ATS for these operational roles. This was supported by General Sir Frederick Pile, the  General Officer Commanding-in-Chief.   In July 1941 the ATS was given full military status, meaning its members were no longer volunteers and in December 1941 the National Service Act made the conscription of women legal.

Initially the ATS women were deployed to heavy anti-aircraft (HAA) gun units to work the AA instruments, radars and command posts. This proved a success but there were qualms about using women to replace men in searchlight units because this would have meant them having to cope with working in small detachments in isolated places with few amenities.  There were also doubts as to whether they would have the strength and the ability to operate the searchlights.  In addition, searchlight units were subject to attack and although they were equipped with light machine guns for self-defence, the Defence Regulations of the time would not allow women to fire them.  However, a trial in which 54 ATS members were subjected to training revealed that these assumptions were ill founded.  Indeed,  General Pile was later to write that the women “showed themselves more effective, more horror inspiring and more blood-thirsty with their pick-helves than many a male sentry with his gun, as several luckless gentlemen found to their cost”.  In December 1941 the Under Secretary of State in the War Office recommended that members of the ATS be deployed in searchlight duties and July 1942 the first seven searchlight troops were formed with ATS members and these be came incorporated in the first mixed searchlight regiment. General Pike also proposed that the women should be provided with a more practical uniform and should have the same rates of pay as men doing the same job.  By August 1943 the 93rd (Mixed) Searchlight Regiment had become a fully female regiment with around 1500 women serving. Imogen pointed out that a wholly female regiment would be an impossibility today. Among its many deployments, the regiment contributed to the defence of London and Imogen noted that in the iconic picture of St Pauls straddled by two searchlight beams during the Blitz the operators of the searchlights would have been women.

As the war progressed, the operation of searchlights became increasingly technically sophisticated. For example Searchlight Control (SLC),nicknamed “Elsie”, was a  system that provided radar aiming guidance to an attached searchlight.  By combining a searchlight with a radar, the radar did not have to be particularly accurate, it only had to be good enough to get the searchlight beam on the target. Once the target was lit, normal optical instruments could be used to guide the associated anti-aircraft artillery.  Imogen’s mother had operated such a system.

In addition to their primary role of in air defence, searchlights had another important function: “homing”.  Navigation by British planes returning over blacked-out Britain was not easy and there was a danger that they could be confused with enemy aircraft. Searchlights were used to identify them and, by creating a path of light, help aircrews find a safe landing at a suitable airfield.  It was estimated that 274 aircraft were saved in this way.

Serving in a searchlight regiment was far from being a sinecure.  Conditions were arduous and, in the absence of men, women were required to undertake many tasks involving hard physical labour.  Moreover, it could be highly dangerous because bomber pilots would often fire down the beam that was illuminating them to escape detection. General Pile was to write   “The girls lived like men, fought their lights like men and, alas, some of them died like men”.  However, despite the hardships and the danger, such was the camaraderie amongst the women that many of them regarded their time in the Searchlight Regiment as one of the best times in their lives.

The 93rd Searchlight Regiment was disbanded in July 1945. The ATS existed until 1949 when it was merged into the Women’s Royal Army Corps.

Arthur Dewar