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Women Supporting the Services

Over the years the role of women in the services has changed and they now, largely, perform the same roles as men in all our Armed Forces. Women, predominately, have also played an important role providing support to family members on active service.

Rose Ellen Harte

Rose Ellen Harte war born on November 11, 1920 at the family farm of Derramore, on the side of Slieve Gullion, in the Mountains of Mourne, Bessbrook, Newry, Ireland. She died aged 96 on December 7, 2016 in Maryport.

The Early Years

Rose Harte could be considered as just another Irish migrant worker. Not a remarkable story perhaps, but as the biography of a hardworking woman who only saw potential not problems, it cannot simply be buried with her.      Rose’s Story is not of politics, aristocracy, or Royalty.  It is the story of a humble woman from a local family who just kept working.  She was proud to be Irish, always wore her gold fianne, loved her family and her Irish Catholicism, which was always there to cling onto in difficult times.

Rose was one of five sisters (Mary, Bridget, Rose, Kathleen, Sheila) and two brothers (William, Michael). Their father Joseph died young of pneumonia, an “occupational” illness in any farming community. The young sisters and their mother had to bury their father without ceremony, then get back to running the farm and bringing up their two baby brothers. They had a frugal, austere, hardworking, and Irish Catholic upbringing. It was a close, caring, and stable family unit. As they grew up, the sisters supported each other and their baby brothers. This family orientated upbringing stayed with and shaped Rose’s character and personality throughout her life and she brought up her six children in a similar way: Marie, James, Michael, John, Paul, Caitriona.

Ireland in the 1920s still wallowed in violence and turbulence as the newly independent Eire struggled in Revolution; Republican killing Republican, one religious zealot killing another, everyone killing for what was right, with God on their side.

If you were Irish, particularly Catholic Irish, the scourge of the potato famine still tortured the psyche, you had to emigrate, to work, to survive, to ensure the continuation of your family. This is what Rose Harte and her sisters did. One after the other, they left the farm and emigrated to England. Strangely, they found in England none of the prejudice and job discrimination they faced in Northern Ireland. The Harte girls were all intelligent, hard-working, and single minded – sometimes uncomfortably so! They got jobs and turned them into professions, which made it easier for their siblings who followed.

Rose’s first job aged 7, was out in the fields fanning away the chaff (or husk) from the hay seed for selling on to other farmers. Rose would then take this grass seed to the merchant in Newry for weighing and payment. So honest and diligent were the Hartes in ridding the seed of chaff that the merchant’s inspection was only cursory as he sieved the seed through his fingers and blew over it. That was the test. Payment was about 6 pence per pound at that time. The family still have the receipts 90 years later! Historical documents?

The cash was used to buy salt, sugar and sometimes dripping to make black sauce to go with the potatoes boiled in their jacket, and the inevitable cabbage. At home, their main meal of the day was a porridge or ‘skilly’ from their own oatmeal ground at the mill, cooked over an open fire in the big black cauldron and maybe some buttermilk (‘skimmed’) and salt. Soda bread always ‘on the hob.’

The Hartes and their Newry cousins Morgans, O’Hares, Campbells were intelligent and hard working to an extreme. Through their formative years the sisters pulled together, and then the initial poverty became a powerful driving force which launched them into their own careers as one by one, they escaped across the Irish Sea to a better life in England. Every working sister struggled to save and send home a 10-shilling note from their wage to help the upbringing of their younger siblings.

The Wartime Years

Finally, it was Rose’s turn to cross the Irish Sea, about 1938. She was appointed to a humble clerk’s job in Standard Motor Company in Coventry. With her lightning mental arithmetic, she found herself in charge of auditing stock with some accounting. Confident she had ability to do better, when she was approached by the military and asked to work for them - “headhunted” we call it now. She accepted the challenge.

What she did not know immediately, was that she had been appointed to the high-level AID (the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate) which was primarily responsible for supervising the assembly of military planes and primarily men’s work. She did not know either that her high security workplace, hidden away in the Coventry GEC complex, was a major research centre, and that she was quickly to move to the cutting edge of Radar development. The term ‘radar’ was not even used then.

Rose’s mathematical prowess was recognised, and she was now in a very select group of “boffins” and highfliers. She was put on an intensive “sandwich” course of study and had to travel to a London Technical College for her degree level maths and electronics for a month at a time, and then go back to the AID centre and apply what she had learned to the radar work and teach her colleagues what they needed to know. This sandwich Course went on for 2 to 3 years.    We don’t even know whether she was bright or brilliant or just a single minded, driven worker. Success is earned many ways.

During this time, she had to dodge “the Blitz” in London. Rose narrowly missed becoming a victim in the Bethnall Green Underground tragedy (170 men, women and children crushed to death in a stampede). Rose had been too frightened to run to this nearby air raid shelter. Instead, she hid under the stairs at her lodgings house across the road.

In her 90’s, if you had enough of her poetry, she could also ‘entertain’ you with high level algebra, differential equations and explain the magnetic field around the current in a conductor. If you stayed awake, she could quote equations like counting sheep. Did she become the country’s best qualified shop keeper?

Certainly, the training and study between London and Coventry had qualified her to be a very good AID Inspector.  Apparently, she became the first woman AID (radar) inspector. This involved examining and quality assurance on the radar components whether it was going into a Lancaster bomber or one of the protective rings of land-based radar detector towers around the coast of UK. This was circa 1940-43, the Battle of Britain was fought in the skies overhead, Coventry was bombed mercilessly.

Rose Harte was still a “slip of a lass” a “fresh Irish colleen” and she was excelling, like many others, in a job pivotal to winning the war.

After leaving the farm for England, she had to learn a different set of survival skills. There were no glass ceilings back on the farm, but she found them in industry. War is a leveller in all senses, and she confronted and overcame some of the traditional workplace prejudices against women. In a few years she seems to have toughened up after run-ins with male colleagues who thought prettiness equated with weakness. Rose knew nothing about female frailty. She spoke her mind and wouldn’t take “No” for an answer.

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In her work at the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate, she had occasionally to overrule male colleagues. An inspection meant an inspection. Nothing got past her unless she said so. The war effort depended upon it; no good a pilot at 15,000 feet finding his radar did not work when he had to intercept the Luftwaffe over the Channel or rendezvous to protect RAF bombers over the French coast!

In one workplace confrontation she held back a shipment of electronics being rushed to the North Africa campaign against Rommel. The crate she insisted on opening was full of fragile glass diodes (remember the old television sets?)  essential for the radar. Not one had been sealed with the essential black pitch to keep out dampness and protect them from vibration damage. Her diligence was rewarded with a formal written citation. More than she expected but less than she deserved?

The War was entering a new phase and so was Rose Harte’s life. Early in 1944, she was due leave, but when she asked for a pass to go home to Newry, permission was refused. German spies used the loughs of Ireland’s west coast as a ‘back door’ to the UK, in both WW 1 and 2. Her work was top secret and she had to stay in England. Only later did she find out that D Day and the Normandy landings had been imminent. Even Rose Harte could not be trusted!

Denied a pass home, she wrote to her two cousin sisters, Saranne and Ellen, in Whitehaven and stayed with them. The cousins were married to two Maryport brothers Chris and Jimmy Mitchell.  They took Rose to visit their parents in law. Was there an ulterior but romantic motive? Two sisters and their cousin marrying three brothers? It was probably a coincidence of convenience, but travelling was restricted, men were short in supply, and with rationing you had to “make do” with what was available!

Rose arrived at the Mitchell farm at Westfield Head in Ewanrigg,  and following the rural tradition, as a favour, she was allowed to milk the cows and churn the butter. And then forgotten about! After two hours, the youngest Mitchell son, Peter, turned up. Perplexed and bewildered – strange woman milking his cows? He was smitten, love at first sight. Clearly, One Maid a Milking was too much for him.  Rose was more circumspect about the relationship. Even after six children she still wasn’t sure it was love! They shared a love of the violin, however. Peter played the fiddle at the local weddings.

When Rose went back to her radar inspecting in Coventry, she was asked to open-up a new Aeronautical Inspection Directorate department in Belfast (circa 1944/45). To her shock, she was to run the department from within Harland and Wolff (of Titanic fame) shipyard. 35,000 mainly men (and Rose Harte) were employed there at that point in WW2.  Possibly the first Catholic to be employed there? So maybe she had slightly broken down another discrimination barrier. Or maybe not. Established institutions (including religion) change slowly. Rose didn’t stay long at Harland and Wolff before she was moved on to another AID department in Lurgan.

The war was ending and now she could easily travel back to the farm in Bessbrook. Apparently, she told her family little about her work; top secret or highly modest; a sin to talk about your accomplishments?

After the War

Peter Mitchell and Rose had kept in contact. He invited her to a party at the Maryport farm and on arrival she was surprised to find it was their engagement party! Nice to be asked, she never did like formalities.

Rose and Peter married near Newry in 1946 with sister Sheila as bridesmaid. Peter arrived with a wedding cake made by a milk customer in Grasslot, but no best man. Like Rose, he wasn’t good on protocol. He didn’t arrive in a taxi or on a white stallion. He was delivered to Kilkeel at the foot of the Mourne Mountains by Fishers Shipping Agents of Irish Street, Maryport on a coal boat!  Quicker than the Larne-Stranraer crossing. We forgot to ask whether he went back the same way with his bride to start a new life in Maryport.

It had to be a lucky wedding with a boat full of “black gold” close by. It had to be a long marriage because it was this very coal trade from the Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport pits which had kept this Eastern coast of Ireland in power for the previous 150 years. As they stood in bliss at the altar, all this must have been going through their minds.

Rose and Peter started their married life on the farm at Westfield in 1946. There was a milk business to eke out the poor return on the farming. Then in 1954(?) the Council gave them £300 for the compulsory purchase of the farm and built the new Ewanrigg housing estate on it.  It was a dilemma, but Rose Mitchell knew what to do. She opened a grocer’s shop in her living room! The post war austerity was still with them. There wasn’t much food to buy. Rationing cards were needed for everything.  The post office had the monopoly on cod liver oil and orange juice. Rose Mitchell just got on with what had to be done, one task at a time, one day at a time. Then she opened a bigger shop. Then a bigger one still.  The rest is a separate history, also of hard work and opportunities taken.

Peter and Rose lived happily ever after. For 52 years. There were ups and downs, but they kept the Wheel of Life turning.

Rose Mitchell was so unassuming, she almost craved anonymity. She would cringe with embarrassment if anyone tried to praise her. She never thought her life was interesting or special, just another turn of Life’s Wheel? Just another hapless sole struggling to earn a wage and raise a family? She wasn’t saint, she wasn’t sinner.  She kept her affairs confidential. Would anyone recognise her as Maryport’s Premier businesswoman?

She would not have allowed any of this story to be told in her lifetime. Only in her later years did she relax and spill out some of the details.

For over a thousand years, immigration across the Irish Sea has sustained and invigorated the communities on both sides. West Cumbria is full of Irish names and Irish Catholics, and Scottish and Anglican, and now, all nationalities. Ireland is full of English names and mixed faiths. When the Ice Age and glaciers were here only 10,000 years ago, we were all the same stock, just humans with the same genes.

Rose Harte could be considered as just another Irish migrant worker. Rose’s story is not of politics, aristocracy or royalty.  It is the story of a humble woman from a local family who just kept working.  She was proud to be Irish, always wore her gold fianne, loved her family and her Irish Catholicism, which was always there to cling onto in difficult times.  Like many Irish, she made England her home, but her heart was always back in ‘the Mournes.’

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Recalling Bosnia by Anna Todd (Nee Hendey)

I joined the Royal Logistic Corps in Sept 1993. I had big ambitions to become a Photographic Interpreter, but the Army Careers Office had other ideas and signed me up as a Driver, promising me a free driving licence and a world of opportunities. I was 17 and a half and full of hope. I was one of the first women to do basic training with the men, after the disbandment of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. We trained together, we served together.

By the beginning of 1995 I found myself shin deep in mud that stuck like custard to a bowl. It was late at night and a makeshift camp, without lights to help us find our bergens being tossed out the transport bus, which had brought us from Spilt airport to Lipa, Bosnia Herzegovina. Shivering in the minus 20 conditions that night we found our way to a tent and the relative warmth of a kerosine burner, the unmistakable smell of which hit as soon as you walked in. I was going to smell like kerosine or like diesel for the next 6 months, I just didn’t know it yet.

I spent a few uncomfortable hours on a camp cot, rigid and stiff, but off the floor where the rats had free reign in the darkness. I had slept in most of my clothes as the kerosine burner had run out in the night and no one was prepared to get out of their scratchers in the freezing cold to refill it in the early hours. Snow had fallen, it kept falling, thick dancing snowflakes which lay on top of the mud freezing it and the wooden pallets that made the gangplank to the cookhouse tent.

I was given keys to a DROPS vehicle, an HGV which had a hydraulic hook on the back that picked up iso containers full of supplies. It could be ammunition, gas bottles, food, anything that was needed by troops up and down the country. Whilst I must have had a brief introduction to DROPS vehicles back in the UK, I now found myself in a left-hand drive, for the first time driving the HGV around sheer drops over the mountain terrain on ice and snow. We passed through villages where the children would run after us shouting for bonbons and food, waving at us, and smiling gaping grins.

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Then the next village along we would be met by men with AK47’s, firing the odd shot over us, sneering at us, spitting at the trucks as we drove through.

The mines. I’m 19 years old. I had never encountered a mine before, but all around us, every field, every verge, there were mines. The houses blown up and bullet ridden, like dirty swiss cheese. People still living in these dwellings, no roofs, no doors. One wrong move off the road, one blown tyre, one missed junction and a mine would blow you from your cab into the awaiting heavens. There were dead bodies and that of cattle that would indicate the road was mined. Those images would stay with me my lifetime.

I didn’t understand genocide at first, or the sickening reality that the fields we passed held the mass graves of hundreds of bodies. It was an education Bosnia, on how to survive, how to grieve, resilience, ugly hatred, poverty, greed, small gestures of kindness, trust and togetherness. Friendship and pride.

These pictures were on my Nan’s mantlepiece until the day she died. She never said “I’m so very proud of you” but no one else had their picture placed above the fireplace. That was enough for me.

Pte Anna Hendey

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An Army Wife – Anna Todd

It became second nature to be packing boxes, ringing schools, organising removals and anticipating the furniture going missing, or entering a house that would be yours for the next two years, that was in serious need of updating or repairs. Having to accept invites to Tupperware parties or Mum & Tots groups in the vain attempt to meet someone, desperate as you, to make a friend and save your sanity in the months that stretched ahead, which would undoubtably be lonely. On your own, far away from family and friends, navigating your way through new schools, new shops, new roads, new neighbours, new starts and sorrowful goodbyes. Preparing your children, I had 3 under the age of 4 years old at one point, to cheerfully pack up their bags and teddies and anticipate an adventure ahead. At 4 years old saying goodbye to Harry next door who had been your playmate for the majority of your life is not an adventure, it’s a loss, it’s gut wrenching and overwhelming and adults think you can make new best friends at the next house. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.

As an Army wife you have to hold together the emotional trauma of your children having to move every 2 years, the separation anxiety that is caused every time your husband has his bags waiting in the lobby ready to board a mini-bus, taking him away for long periods of time. You have to find some hidden reserves that means you can deal with a pregnancy on your own, in a foreign country, where the hospital staff don’t speak your language. Then there’s the resourcefulness you learn, to count down the days until Daddy returns, making chuff-charts to pin on the wall, sticky fingers ticking off each day with colourful pens. There’s the OMG moments when you crash the car and need to sort out the insurance, repairs, replacement. There is the day you feel like you just need to sleep, or eat or talk to someone who knows, on the edge of a melt down and there it is..the almighty, never-seen-so-big-before spider in the bath that you are required to remove to the screams of various children who have managed to inherit your arachnophobia!

Whilst in the middle of pregnancy and relocation and toddler tantrums and juggling life on your own,

the news is belting out 24hours a day the horrors of the place you know you’re loved one is at. I followed GMT morning news religiously, my husband away and my brother, a Royal Engineer, in Iraq in the first days of the war. Addicted to hearing, or maybe glimpsing a sighting of him, as the correspondent followed the Dessert Rats and the Engineers attached to them. I watched as the chaos ensued behind that war correspondent, becoming more and more anxious about my brother’s safety. He was not safe, he was at war, I had to tell a different narrative to my parents, especially my Mum, but I knew the truth. She was shouting into the microphone as bombs could be heard in the background, all of a sudden, she disappeared from shot and I could hear the shouts of men “GAS GAS GAS” warning of the immediate risk of an incoming gas attack and to don their respirators. As an ex-soldier I knew this drill, I knew what it meant and I prayed to a god, who I didn’t believe in, that my brother would make it home, that he would not be gassed, or bombed or shot or any other atrocity that was playing out in front of my eyes, on Good Morning Britain, whilst the world drank their morning coffee and burnt their toast.

I watched in horror, tears rolling down my face, hands clenched, heart racing, searching, searching for a familiar face and then… “Mummy, can I have cocopops please?” bowl in hand, bringing me back to my responsibility. Get the kids fed, get them dressed, tick off another day on the chuff chart, keep them safe, keep our home together, hold them close, don’t let go.

Where there is war or detachments for our forces, there are hidden battles being fought at home too. Those battles don’t stop when your loved one walks through the arrivals gateway at the airport, or back into the routines of life at home. Sometimes those battles are the longest and hardest and bravest that are faced and navigated by our troops, but also by those who dish up the cocopops each morning and find the reserves to pack another box and cope alone with the scars that our loved ones bring home.


My Hero, My Son – by Anna Todd

When Lewis was born, I haemorrhaged so badly that I was in need of a transfusion. I didn’t realise this though, as I looked into those big blue eyes and questionably ginger fuzz on his head and fell head over heels in love with the angry cry coming from his perfectly formed lips. I didn’t realise my life hung in the balance, so caught up was I in the moment and in that perfect little face staring back at me.

Fast forward 18 years and my son, the sensitive, compassionate, funny, loving boy, always so good at sports at school I was told he would make professional tennis, has started his first week in basic training. There was a lot that led up to that decision. The Army flows through his veins. His Mum, his Dad, his Grandad, his Uncle and his Step-Dad have all served in the Army, it has been a constant in his life since the day he was born. Sunday’s ironing uniform didn’t just mean school uniform, going to his best friend’s house for tea was a Fijan affair, with his favourite Fajian noodles, going to sleep at night to the distant sound of ammunition from an exercise in the fields opposite was a common backdrop, learning what separation meant happened from an early age.

Lewis told me, about aged 16, that he wanted to join the Army, in particular the Royal Army Medical Corps as a Combat Medic. Distraught at this news, trying to persuade him every which way possible to change this course he wanted to set for himself, I asked him why in God’s name the Medics? It was inevitable really, his step-dad was a Medic and a huge influence in his life and he had joined the Inshore Rescue team, here in Maryport at aged 16, the youngest crew member. I was often asked if I worried about him when the pager went off, inevitably it would at dinner time just as I was serving up. But committed he would take off, mostly on foot, racing down to the life boat to help them launch. Of course I worried, I worried about the whole crew coming back safely, but I knew he was in good hands, they looked after him as if he was one of their own. It was this comradery and pride in an organisation

that saved lives that started him on his journey, convincing him that his life ahead was one of Service. He replied to me that day, when I begged him why does it have to be the Medics? He said “Because I want to be the one who is there for someone on the worst day of their life and help them.” Who am I to argue with that?

I guess the majority of Mum’s facing separation from their child at around 18 years old is to lose them to university. I had experienced that already with his sister. But this was much worse. I knew the days and nights that were to follow would stay with him forever, that he would face physically the hardest challenges of his life, mentally he would need to remain strong. It became my job to buoy him up on the evenings he rang, feeling homesick and tired and lonely and like he had made a huge mistake. I knew he could do it, that he had the reserves within to get him through and it became my sole mission in life (for 13 weeks) to remind him of this and pass on the tactics that we had used all those years ago to get us through basic training. “Make your bed and sleep on the floor” “use your flask in the cookhouse, fill it with hot chocolate and leave it in your room for bedtime. Little bit of comfort.” “Use baby oil to get the cam-cream off.” The list was endless, and I felt like I was there reliving my youth, walking by his side through it all.

Covid robbed us of a Pass Out parade, but we had pictures instead. My beautiful lad, in his uniform, proud as punch. I feel trepidation for the years ahead, I fear the knock on the door, I hold him in my thoughts every single day, but I am proud of the man he has become. He has just returned from Northern Ireland working in a hospital there, helping patients on a respiratory ward through some dark days. Turns out I have a 6ft, ginger haired, handsome home-grown hero. And I will be your biggest fan son until the day I die.

Pte Lewis McGregor Royal Army Medical Corps
Combat Medical Technician


Auxiliary Territorial Service

My Mother Jean Davidson nee Kendall volunteered for the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) in 1941 when she was 19 years old. She volunteered because her mother thought this was her best option as she could chose which service she volunteered for and so avoid later conscription when she would just be randomly assigned to any service or factory.

She seems to have had a fairly uneventful time and spent most of the war serving in a camp near Swindon as a telephonist. She never spoke about her time in the ATS very much.

She and my Dad, Ronnie Davidson, had been engaged for 2 years when my mother wrote home in early 1944 asking her mother for permission to get married. Her mother who was an extremely formidable woman by all accounts said no. Until in late 1944 a rumour swept the country that all unmarried ATS girls were to be deployed to Germany. Her mother wrote and said she should marry as soon as possible.

So on 10th February 1945 my parents had a military wedding in Swindon. Both my parents were only children and sadly neither of their parents were able to attend.

My mother was given away by the Colonel of the regiment and she had managed to borrow a white silk wedding dress and a dress for her bridesmaid. My dad always said the only people he knew at their wedding were my mother and his best man.

Submitted by Patricia Thornthwaite

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