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Women in War DDay 80 - A special guest blog from First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) 

By Lt Nicola Iles, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (Princess Royal's Volunteer Corps)

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps) – known as the FANY - is an historic all-female volunteer organisation and one of the most decorated female units in the world. Today they are an essential part of London’s emergency response capability, with 150 members on call 24/7 to provide surge relief to civil and military authorities in times of national crisis.

FANYs have been deployed to every terrorist attack or major incident in London since the Moorgate tube disaster in 1975; such as in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the London Bridge, Manchester and Westminster terrorist attacks and London's response to the COVID-19 pandemic supporting NHS Nightingale.

FANYs served with distinction during World War II and 2000 FANYs were part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE)(1). Of the 50 women sent to France as couriers and agents, 39 were FANYs, of whom 13 were captured and murdered by the Gestapo. Several FANYs played key roles during D-Day, these are just a few of the many:

Violette Szabo GC: parachuted into France for her second mission on 7 June 1944 to set up a new resistance network, intended to delay/block German reinforcements coming up from the south in response to the D-Day landings. On 10 June 1944 she ran into a German roadblock while travelling with two colleagues and was captured. Szabo held off the Germans single-handedly until her ammunition ran out, thereby enabling her two companions to escape. She was sent to Ravensbruck, where she was executed in January 1945.

Nancy Wake GM LdH CdG (and other awards; overall she was the most decorated woman of WWII): Wake, called the White Mouse by the Gestapo as she always managed to avoid capture, parachuted into France in April 1944. She worked on equal terms alongside a male colleague to train and arm the French resistance ahead of D-Day. She cycled several hundred miles in a couple of days to obtain a critical radio part for her unit. She was one of very few women agents who took part in active armed combat, including commanding a Maquis section under fire. At one point, she single-handedly commanded c. 1,500 men - a unique achievement for the time.

Lise de Baissac MBE CdG: had worked for SOE in France in 1942/1943 (parachuted in - one of the first women to do so). She returned to France on 9 April 1944 by Lysander and joined her brother Claude, who was running the Scientist Network in Normandy. The network was responsible for helping identify D-Day landing grounds and, successfully, delaying German reinforcements. This included participating in attacks on German columns and acting as couriers carrying explosives and interrupting German communications. Lise often cycled around the Normandy countryside looking for potential drop zones, with her radio hidden in pieces up her skirt and in her bra! In Paris on a recruiting mission on 5th June 1944, Baissac heard about the D-Day landings so cycled over 300 miles in 3 days to return to Normandy, sleeping in ditches en route. She returned to England in Sept 1944. In 2003, de Baissac was awarded her French parachute wings at a ceremony in France and watched modern-day FANYs parachuting.

Yvonne Baseden MBE: transferred to FANY from WAAF when she joined SOE. She parachuted into France on March 1944 and worked as a wireless operator supporting resistance networks that the UK wanted to build up ahead of D-Day. On 25 June 1944, Baseden was the radio operator responsible for coordinating the first daylight arms drops to the resistance (40 aircraft dropped over 400 containers of supplies). She was captured a couple of days later and sent to Ravensbruck. She was eventually evacuated by the Red Cross to Sweden and survived the war.

Pearl Witherington CBE CdG: was parachuted into the region of Tarbe in September 1943 to work with the Stationer circuit. Joining her was FANY Jacqueline Nearne whose sister Eileen would also join SOE, working with the Wizard network. As the Stationer leader was arrested by the Gestapo, Witherington led part of the Maquis with 1500 men, renamed Wrestler. When the BBC D-Day messages began, Witherington and her Maquis began to cut telephone wires and fell trees to block roads and railway lines between Paris and Bordeaux. This was a major set-back for the German’s effort to get men and machines to Normandy. Upon being offered a civil MBE post-war, Witherington refused it, ‘…there was nothing remotely civil in what I did.’

Nine FANY WW11 Veterans have been awarded their Legion d’Honneur for their work in SOE up to D-Day including Sheila Tomlinson who was selected for the SOE as a Wireless and Telegraph operator, and is still alive today. Below is an excerpt from a recent conversation with her:

I was in Dunbar on D Day. We were listening to the reports from the agents telling us about how the invasion was progressing which was quite amazing. When we left, the people in Dunbar were so generous; they sent us all back home on a train, with baskets laden with things we hadn’t seen on rations - butter, fish and all sorts of sweet goodies, It was an experience I am delighted I didn’t miss.”

Since 1907, the FANYs have ensured a continuous core of active members available to deploy. FANYs seek no plaudits, carrying out their role with discretion, care, sincerity - and always a sense of humour.

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[1] Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in 1940 to ‘Set Europe Ablaze.’ SOE was a vital part of the Resistance as disrupters of the German’s plans, be it destroying telephone lines, blowing up railways or collecting information about troop movements and relaying it to London on concealed radios designed to look like suitcases. Membership of SOE was by invitation only and the agents were a vital cog in supporting the Allies pre and post D-Day. Unlike other women’s services, there were no military restrictions on FANYs bearing arms.. There was a rank structure but gender equality was paramount with all agents undergoing the same training and selection, which was based entirely on ability. Those who accepted their role were under no illusion of the type of warfare they would be playing, there were no rules!

About our guest blogger - Lt Nicola Iles - First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (Princess Royal's Volunteer Corps)

Nicola has served with the FANY since 2009 and has deployed in response to the Grenfell Fire tragedy and the Manchester Arena, Westminster Bridge and Fishmongers Hall attacks. She is currently serving as the Corps Heritage Officer - the perfect role for someone who is passionate about all things historical and is working in partnership with the National Army Museum's staff to make our historical records more widely accessible to members of the general public.