V-E Day remembered


On May 8, 1945, Europe celebrated the end of World War II. Jean Crawley, who joined the British Army at 16, served as a dispatch reader with the 93rd Searchlight Regiment of the Royal Artillery in North London.

This article is part of a new occasional series organized by Globe and Mail.com and the Dominion Institute to commemorate significant events in Canada's military history, and to honour living Canadian veterans for their service and sacrifice.

Jean Crawley was just 16 when she left her full-time job in a Colchester dress shop to volunteer for the British Army. The year was 1941. Bombs were dropping and thousands were dying. After several of her friends signed up, Ms. Crawley decided to join them.

"I was very nave when I went in," she said.

After being fitted for a khaki uniform, which included a skirt, bloomers and stockings, Ms. Crawley was taught to march and use a gas mask. Although the training was hard, it was the pressure of trying to prove herself to male sergeants who questioned her abilities that made the work even more difficult.

"We said, `we'll show you' and we did," Ms. Crawley said referring to the attitude she and the other female recruits took toward the condescending sergeants. "We surprised them," she said. "We were very, very smart." In 1942, Ms. Crawley was called to the army and issued her number W175650 - something she still remembers more than 60 years later.

That year she was stationed with the 93rd Searchlight Regiment of the Royal Artillery in North London. The regiment was notable because it was the only one run by women, Ms. Crawley said.

Being on duty at a searchlight site meant being stationed in a dark field, about 25 kilometres outside the nearest town, with only a light to look out for approaching enemy aircraft. Later radar was attached to the searchlights to make it easier to hone in on the aircraft.

Out in the field, Ms. Crawley and the other women in the regiment searched the skies for enemy aircraft. After targeting an enemy plane, Ms. Crawley would shout out "on target" and a light would go on, alerting the nearby artillery.

"We prayed for bad weather so we could get a night's sleep," she said, adding that there were plenty of cold nights when all the women could do was sing songs in an effort to stay awake and keep warm.

Ms. Crawley also remembers helping to save several friendly aircraft that had been damaged during raids. Using the lights, they would guide the planes to a safe landing at the base. The women also extended a friendly welcome to the airmen by putting a sign at the top of a water tower that read, "Come to Tea".

Living and working together under such difficult conditions led the women to develop a deep bond with each other. Indeed, more than 60 years later, Ms. Crawley is still friends with some of the women in her crew.

After about a year with the searchlight regiment, Ms. Crawley was sent to North Wales for motorcycle training. She remembers the difficulty she had trying to start the heavy bike and seeking help from a male superior. "Who the hell is going to help you when you're out on the road?" he asked. She got the bike started and didn't look back after that.

After six weeks of training, she returned to her old regiment as a dispatch rider. Her job was to deliver messages and mail to the nearby searchlight sites. She also accompanied convoys and ensured they reached their destination safely.

A motorcycle accident put Ms. Crawley in hospital with a broken collarbone and scrapes down the side of her face. She was still in hospital on V-E Day. Disappointed to becooped up during the festivities, she managed to persuade a nurse to allow her out for a night to celebrate at a dance with a friend.

In 1946, Ms. Crawley left the army. She emigrated to Canada in 1957.

"My four years in the army, although we were scared and hungry, it was the happiest four years of my life," Ms. Crawley said.

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