D-Day Women #1
Women's Army Corps (WAC)
Even before war was declared, Ruth Blanton knew that, if it came, she wanted to be right in the very heart of it. Determined, eager to impress, and packed with energy, she joined up as soon as news of Pearl Harbor was hot off the press, at the age of only 18. Her country needed her, and she most definitely was not afraid of stepping up.
The Women's Army Corps, shortened to WAC, was a branch of the armed forces started up in 1942. Women served in non-combat areas such as mechanics repairing vehicles, army post offices sorting mail, and working in communications and warning systems. By the end of the war, they were central to operations, with over 150,000 women performing a variety of crucial roles.
While Ruth remained in the US for extra training, the first WACs arrived in London in July 1943. Their mission was simple: to assist in the preparations for D-Day. A total of 557 enlisted women and 19 officers worked alongside the 8th Air Force, with a second battalion of WACs arriving within the next three months.
They worked as telephone switchboard operators, typists, clerks, secretaries, and motor pool drivers. WAC officers served as executive secretaries, cryptographers, and photo-interpreters. Switchboard operators were especially in demand, and in 1944 extra classes of women were recruited, trained, and sent abroad to work close to the front line.
Around 300 WACs worked in the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), which was located in south-west London before moving to France and eventually Germany with the advancing troops. The women were chiefly stenographers, radiographers, clerks, legal secretaries, typists, translators, telegraph and teletype operators, and general secretaries.
WACs worked with highly classified material and were living in dangerous conditions with long hours and few days off. They were crucial for the planning and running of D-Day and all subsequent operations until the defeat of Germany.
Ruth was trained as a WAC stenographer and sent to London in 1943. She was assigned to the G-2 (Intelligence) Section of SHAEF, right at the very center of the war machine. Her job was to receive and decode reports via short-wave radio from the French underground and allied Special Operations spies on the ground in France. These were then passed to the relevant linguist for translating, recorded and then distributed to the appropriate departments for the planned invasion of France.
This precious information included the locations of bridge, rail, and road sabotage, and the movement and strength of German troops in occupied France. The activities of German officers were carefully monitored, with an individual file on each one, including their family, education, hobbies, professional background, and length of service.
Every morning, Ruth would type the briefing report, and every afternoon she would update the main situation map. The map covered the entire wall at one end of the G-2 office, showing Europe, Asia, and Africa. Battle lines were shown with map buttons listing the Allied units engaged in each section and then enemy units on the other side.
The D-Day preparations were especially arduous and long for Ruth and the SHAEF WACs. They worked around the clock. Plans were often changed on a daily basis. The critical changes had to be typed up and alternate plans distributed to all the pertinent departments through Allied Command. Exactitude and organization were key.
Then, in February 1944, disaster struck. One night, the SHAEF compound in south-west London was hit by an incendiary bomb. It caused substantial damage to WAC housing, mess hall, and company offices. Ruth and the other WACs stationed there went to work putting the fires out and soon had it under control.
D-Day preparations. National archives USA
The days before and after D-Day were a blur of non-stop activity for Ruth. Who knew that the weather forecast could play such a crucial role? The WACs were glued to their short-wave radios for days beforehand, taking down last-minute movements of German troops, a flurry of sabotage, and, now, weather details.
The postponement of D-Day because of bad weather led to quickly organized chaos. No one had time to worry, nor to get it wrong. Messages had to be sent and resent, orders recalculated, missions redirected. Dashing from the situation map to the operations room, Ruth barely had time to eat, sleep, or even think—her mind had to be completely focused on the task at hand. None of them could afford to put a step wrong.
D-Day itself was astonishing. Ruth saw it all on the huge situations map on the wall: the troops moving incrementally over the English Channel, landing on the beach, Nazi troops moving in to intercept them, the squadrons of Luftwaffe planes dropping bombs on the coast from above. It was the best bird’s eye view going, continually updated as new reports came in.
Exhilarated, Ruth was among the first to see the successes, the way that years of planning—her own effort plus that of millions of others—now focused in on that small plot of France, those small victories on the ground that together forged into a bigger victory: the victory of the Allies over Nazi Germany had begun.
Only 10 days after D-Day, the Nazis began to fight back against London. This time, with a new self-driving bomb called a V-1—nicknamed “doodlebugs” by the Brits who were determined not to let the Nazis know they were afraid. Every night, the V-1s were onto London from Nazi launching sites in northern France and Belgium. As they were pilotless, it was impossible to know where they were going to hit.
It wasn’t long before SHAEF was struck by one of the dreaded V-1 bombs. This time it was the American soldiers’ quarters, and the WACs stepped into action. Ruth and her colleagues were woken up to race over to the bombed building, putting out fires, administering first aid, driving jeep-loads of injured to hospital, and organizing civilian relief workers in their own recently damaged building.
Only 38 days after D-Day, the first 49 WACs landed in Normandy to support the growing number of troops. Ruth, at the heart of the planning, learned about their every move from her control room. The WAC team in France were assigned to the Forward Echelon, Communications Zone, where they took over the switchboards that had been abandoned by the Germans as they were pushed back out of northern France. Taking over their tents, prefabricated huts, switchboard trailers, and tents, the women began tracking and coordinating the advance of the Allied troops as they surged down into France and then Belgium.
Ruth’s war ended with Germany’s surrender in May 1945, and although the war continued on the Eastern Front, until Japan surrendered in August 1945, she was part of the last crew of WACs to leave, having cleared away the war room where she’d been stationed for the past few years.
I always try to imagine what it must have felt like, seeing everything packed away, the emptiness of the room that was once the vibrant, vital war center, with possible bombs coming down every night and a very real, incredibly ruthless enemy on the other side of the English Channel.
The fear and chaos of the war had gone, but what about that sense of focus, of putting her mind to something so utterly crucial, to be part of a small team that was part of a larger machine, all with the same goal?
As she left, Ruth must have felt a true pride, for serving not only her own dear country, but also the entire Allied world, the future generations of humanity.