This article was taken from our archives. It originally appeared in the July 2002 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did in print originally.
Previously untold stories of the Island’s wartime heroines are part of a major new exhibit at the Bermuda Maritime Museum.
The activity and achievement of Bermudians during the war in the last century carve a remarkable record for a population so small. Bermuda’s Defence Heritage, an unprecedented 12-room exhibition which opened at the Bermuda Maritime Museum in June, honours the men and women who served at home and overseas during the two world wars. Housed on the renovated ground floor of Commissioner’s House, the exhibit showcases a wealth of information, including oral testimonies, photographs and artifacts, all gathered over the past year and now to become part of the Museum’s growing collections.
The second contingent of women to join the RCAF. Photo courtesy of Judith Montgomery-Moore.
The contributions of Bermudian women feature prominently in the exhibit. Amid a climate of slow political change for women and other disadvantaged groups, both in Bermuda and overseas, local women still succeeded in seizing opportunities to provide military and civilian service during difficult times.
During the First World War, from 1914 to 1918, although they could not officially enlist, Bermudian women provided aid on the warfront or volunteered for the cause locally. The Second World War saw 29 women serve with Allied regular and auxiliary forces: Royal Canadian Air Force (Women’s Division), Royal Air Force, Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Civilian women were employed by local forces, gave refugee and medical assistance, and supported or operated a host of wartime charity efforts such as the Bermuda Women’s Auxiliary Force, St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, and the Bermuda Services Overseas Association.
Here are a few individual stories of dedication and bravery.
- Women in White
- Cassie B. White was a shining example of the major role played by women from all nations during the First World War. In a 1977 Royal Gazette article, she was described as “probably Bermuda’s only heroine of the First World War.” While researchers hope to uncover contributions by other Bermudian women in this conflict, White’s wartime actions were especially remarkable. Indeed, her story prompted General John J. Pershing, Commander-in- Chief of the United States Forces in France, to cite her “for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty at great risk under fire” in 1919.
Born in 1889 and raised at Greendale, Warwick, White was a daughter of John T. White, and the aunt of Royal Air Force veteran and former Premier John Henry “Jack” Sharpe. Her independent spirit led her from Bermuda at age 21 to study nursing in upstate New York, leaving her sister Jessie (Jack’s mother) to care for their motherless family. White graduated from the Hospital of the Good Shepherd of Syracuse in early 1918 after eight years of training under Bermudian hospital superintendent Lina Lightbourn.
Eager to help those suffering on the warfront, White sailed on the steamer S.S Olympic in February 1918 as part of a Red Cross contingent intent on offering aid to troops in war-torn Europe. Reaching Liverpool, White quickly crossed the channel to France, where she was attached to a U.S Army Base Hospital.
First World War heroine, Cassie White. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Sharpe Keane.
Her early days here were made more difficult by the death in April of her younger brother, Private Walter A. White of the LincoInshire Regiment. Just 21 and a member of the first Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps contingent, he succumbed to wounds during active service. But the loss of her brother only strengthened White’s resolve to nurse the injured; by mid July, she was travelling by ambulance to the base hospital’s mobile Evacuation Hospital Unit (EHU). “We drove all night and it seemed as if we were going right in the front line trenches, for the roll of the guns and the flashes from them really made us feel a little frightened, but just the same we kept on going,” she wrote in memoirs preserved by her family. Within days, White was promoted to Chief Nurse of the enormous tented EHU, which moved wherever it was most needed.
From July to December, White led fellow nurses in running hospital units and dressing stations for the flood of injured British, American, and French soldiers. “Patients began to pour in, and oh how they came, the worst case that I have ever seen, ambulance drivers putting them all over everywhere, the surgeon not being able to operate fast enough,” White wrote. “Such wounds, and oh the poor boys dying so fast, it was murder and just made your blood run cold to see the boys, but not a word from any of them, they were so patient and oh so good.”
Outfitted at all waking times in high rubber boots and a tin hat, White and her crew assisted surgeons with dressings and amputations, moved hundreds of patients out of the line of fire and buried the dead, all among the mud filled fields of liberated France. Besides fallen Allied and enemy soldiers, and even horses, White helped to bury two fellow nurses. This physically and emotionally intensive work often went on for 20 hours or more a day under threat of shellfire. White recalled being “very tired, but receiving such badly wounded that I forgot all about being tired.”
The women lived under the same difficult conditions as the troops, finding energy on meager food and water rations, using wheat fields for toilets, and sleeping in portable tents or bombed-out buildings and churches. With characteristic humour, White recalled meals of “corned beef and beans one day, bean and corned beef the next. And we only had a quart of water per day, too.”
Despite camouflage and other precautions, the exposed EHU occassionally came under direct enemy attack. “Oh, how we did dread to see the moon shine … It did help us in one way, for it gave a little light for us to see how to work, but on the other, it aided the [enemy] to find us. They were flying over us all the time and oh one night when [a German plane) came down so close to me to leave his card, I, for one, almost died, being the first time that I have ever heard him so close. Happily, he flew over my tent before dropping the bomb and after he left us I went to my other tents to see if my [patients] were OK.”
After five months in the line of fire, news of the Armistice came. “We heard about it about noon so everyone had to go to the old church and ring the bell, being the only way to celebrate, so this old bell just kept ringing for fully two days… The night of November 11 was wonderful, beautiful starlight and from where my tent was, we had a good view. Oh the beautiful fireworks all along the Front! They formed the different flags in the sky with red, white, and blue lights.” After celebrations, dances and downtime in France, White travelled through Germany, where she received her final orders from the U.S. Army. Later, she returned to the Syracuse hospital, as assistant superintendent and subsequently joined the medical staff of a New York chemical company before returning to Bermuda to care for an elderly aunt and do volunteer work. She never married. “Me?” she once joked. “Oh no! I paddle my own canoe.”
White could be described as Bermuda’s counterpart to Florence Nightingale. Captain Edward V. Sweet, who commanded the detachment, said of her and her fellow nurses: “They are soldiers, not posing, affected, self-satisfied heroines, bur plain unassuming, sound-hearted girls who faced the greatest of horrors of the war without flinching. Theirs was a job that many a man would have refused, but they stuck to it and won through.”
June (Reid) White Smith (left) and Betty (Ingemann) Trott (right). Photos courtesy of Betty Trott.
- Blazing a Trail
- Since their days at East End School, St. George’s, June (Reid) White Smith and Betty (Inglemann) Trott were pals. They went on to attend the Berkeley Institute together until the Second World War broke out in I939. Both sought work to help support their families. After working for lawyer David Tucker, Smith, a qualified stenographer, became a fulltime employee of the Bermuda Militia Artillery (BMA) in 1943.
“She was secretary to the Commanding Officer, worked at headquarters at St. David’s Island, wore a BMA uniform with a distinctive ‘Sam Browne’ insignia, and she had most of the privileges and perks of her fellow, BMAs,” Berkeley classmate Ira Philip wrote in the Mid-Ocean News on her death in March of this year. “The Militia made a great fuss over her, and showed her off whenever they could,” she said, adding that although she was a “poster girl” for the BMA, Smith “was a trailblazer for the feminine gender, particularly young black women who were unable to get jobs in offices, or even sell stamps in the post offices, until well after Dr. E. F. Gordon took the BWA petition to London in 1946, which marked the beginning of the end to the colour bar.”
Smith was the only woman in the Battery until she recommended her friend Betty lngemann for a post alongside her in the headquarters office in 1945. Inside and outside the military establishment, their presence was not inconspicuous. “We did attract attention,” Trott says, “because we were young and the only two [women] in uniform in St. George’s. Everybody gave us a second look, sort of.” Still, she says they were both “treated with respect” by their male counterparts in the Militia. After the BMA disbanded at the end of the war in 1946, White went on to work for the U.S. Army Engineer at Kindley Air Force Base, a well as in America for many years while raising her only son. Trott continued to work and raise a family on Island.
Lobelia (Curtis) Bubenzer’s memories of life as a 16-year-old in 1938 is not much different from sentiments expressed by teenagers today. Bermuda was, she says, “a bit confining.” Another Bermudian teen, Eva Robinson, returned home from boarding school in London at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, but was anxious to return. The two young women crossed paths and formed a close friendship. Bubenzer recalls: “We used to hear the terrible news about the bombing in Britain and it used to upset us very much. We wanted to go over to help. We were very patriotic, very British. We wanted to help the mother country. We used to read English magazines, and there were all these ads wanting girls to join the ATS [British Army’s Auxiliary Territorial Service]. We both decided that it would be a good idea for us. I wrote to [the ATS] and asked if we got to England, would we be able to join, and they said yes, they would accept us with pleasure, but they wouldn’t be able to finance our trip over.”
Lobelia (Curtis) Bubenzer. Photo courtesy of Lobelia Bubenzer.
Bubenzer’s family doctor helped to arrange a required medical exam at Prospect and a signing-up with the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corp (BVRC) at a Front Street office in early 1942. According to Bubenzer, the sign-up was a mere formality, which did not involve any actual service with the BVRC, nor issue of uniform or pay. The details of this affiliation or enlistment are unclear, since “it was all very unofficial,” says Bubenzer, but it seems to have been a necessary step for her, and later for Robinson, who also enlisted with the ATS in England. As black women, Bubenzer’s and Robinson’s affiliation with the BVRC, albeit informal, is notable given the limited scope of women’s rights at the time, including the disenfranchisement of all women in Bermuda until 1944 as well as the deep-rooted segregation in Bermuda. The colour car in the military would remain in force until 1965 when the BMA and the BVRC amalgamated as the Bermuda Regiment.
According to Bubenzer, there was no clear course of action for women to sign up. “They put it in the paper that I was going, and then people would ring up-their daughter wanted to go and how could they go about doing it. It seemed that other people would have liked to do it, too, but there was just nothing official and they didn’t know how to go about it. We did it on our own, really. There was no one here asking women to go.”
They spent several months waiting. “I was getting very impatient,” remembers Bubenzer, “because I thought the war would be over and I won’t be able to go. Then suddenly on December 20, 1942, I was told to be ready.” After boarding a flying boat at Darrell’s Island that night, Bubenzer left the Island for the very first time, flying to Baltimore, then travelling by train to New York, where she was employed in the British Army’s New York offices for several weeks while awaiting passage to Britain.
Transatlantic passage was eventually found for her aboard a banana boat from Halifax, loaded not with bananas but bacon bound for hungry English mouths. In spite of a perilous crossing because of the threat of German submarines, Bubenzer, whose boat was part of a convoy of 90 other ships, survived the journey. A full-scale air raid greeted a shaken Bubenzer in London, where she was immediately inducted into the British Army at a recruiting office. “The night I arrived, I was petrified, but then I looked around Victoria Station and everyone was carrying on like nothing was happening. I could hear the bombs falling and I though, “Well it can’t be so bad if everyone’s just carrying on”.
Bubenzer completed a few weeks’ training in Surrey, including drills, cross country runs and intelligence tests, and in February 1943, she was posted to an enormous ordnance depot outside Oxford, where thousands of men and women were stationed to collect and ship small arms overseas where needed.
Eva Robinson. Photo courtesy of Lobelia Bubenzer.
Meanwhile Robinson waited excitedly in Bermuda for her call co report. Bubenzer had not forgotten her friend, and with the assistance of Lady Davson, chairwoman of the West India Committee (a London organisation which worked in close collaboration with the Bermuda Services Overseas Association to provide a meeting place and support for Bermudian service members overseas), Robinson reported to the BVRC office and then made her trip from New York aboard the Queen Mary, which carried American troops.
The two friends were reunited in June 1943 at the Oxfordshire depot where they worked together as typists, mainly producing vouchers for small arms in the climactic run up to D-day, the decisive invasion of Normandy in early June 1944 by British, Canadian and American troops.
The two enlisted women provided valuable administrative support to the war effort for the next three years and in return, the ATS provided them with the opportunity and finances to enjoy theater in London at weekends and extensively travel around Britain during leave. “Bermuda at that time was very restrictive,” says Bubenzer, “and then to be so absolutely free was just wonderful.”
In May 1945, while on a train returning from a leave in Cornwall, the two learned of the Armistice, and returned to Oxfordshire to celebrate. Later, Bubenzer represented Bermuda in the June 1945 London Victory Parade, the only enlisted Bermudian woman to march.
Not yet demobilised, Bubenzer continued to work at the depot. There, she met August Wilhelm Bubenzer, a bilingual former German officer and prisoner of war captured in Italy in 1943 by the U.S. Army. He worked alongside her at the depot office while en route to Germany form a U.S. prison farm.
Robinson took advantage of wartime educational grants and took leave from the Army to attend Manchester University. Meanwhile Bubenzer pursued a career in the Army and her relationship with Bubenzer, whom she married in 1948; the couple had two sons.
Robinson later received her degree from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, and in the 1950s, attended the Sorbonne and taught English in Paris. On their return to Bermuda, both went on to establish their careers. Robinson became a teacher and Bubenzer was the first woman to work in Magistrates’ Court. Their friendship continued until Robinson’s death in 1998.
“I was 100 per cent British, and I couldn’t wait to go over there to do my bit,” says Bubenzer. “l was going over to win the war, but of course when you get there, you forget about those sorts of things. We were both very pleased we went over, and for me, it was the making of my life, really. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
- Flying High
- Two Luscombe planes flew in and out of Darrell’s Island during the early years of the Second World War when the Bermuda Flying School offered basic flying instruction to Bermudian candidates for the Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm. In 1942, the school closed, but efforts by its founders, members of the Bermuda Flying Committee, continued to support the recruitment of Bermudian men for these forces. While many paid their own way, the Committee’s lobby helped convince the Bermuda government to subsidise the airfares and service of men joining the RCAF.
With no recruitment channel available to them, local women wanting to enlist took stock. With the help of the Bermuda Flying Committee, paticularly its leaders, Major Cecil Montgomery-Moore, Bertram Work and James Wyatt, they successfully demanded to participate. Thanks to their combined efforts, the RCAF became “the place that was available for a girl in Bermuda at that time who was interested in going overseas and joining one of the services,” says Elizabeth (Jack) Downing. In addition, women persuaded the government to subsidise women’s travel and foreign enlistment, though women of others ervices did not receive subsidies. “They wanted us all in one place so it was the RCAF (WD). There wen: 36 of us initially who wanted to go,” recalls Iris (Jackson) Kempe. Women performing essential services like teaching and nursing were not permitted to leave the Island and were therefore omitted from the group. There was also the matter of a standard required examination in Bermuda. Ultimately, a total of 17 Bermudian women joined the RCAF during the latter wartime years.
Sylvia Roberts (left) and Mary Cousland Leighton (right). Photos courtesy of Eleanor Gibbons and Mary Leighton
Two separate contingents of women, the first in June 1943, took the flying boat to the US east coast, then a train to Montreal, where they formally signed up with the Royal Canadian Air Force (WO), the only true military force for women within the Allied coalition. While there had not been much choice, they found themselves serving with perhaps the most progressive service for women at that time.
“Although they were recruited through the slogan ‘They Serve That Men May Fly,’ women were an integral part of the RCAF from the beginning and were employed in a number of non-traditional roles,” Terry Copp writes in the November/December 1996 issue of Legion Magazine. “This equality of status led the air force to drop the name ‘Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force’ and adopt RCAF (Women’s Division). Nicknamed the ‘WD’s,’ women held the same rank and were subject to the same chain of command as men. Female offices issued orders to airmen as well as airwomen. When posted overseas, the RCAF insisted that WDs, known as ‘WIDs’ in Britain, serve under RAF or RCAF command and not with the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.” Recalls Kempe: “We even wore our jackets buttoned the same side as a man.”
Daisy Vallis – the only Bermudian woman killed while on actual service. Photo courtesy of William and Barbara Roberts.
After basic training camp at Rockcliff station in Ottawa, the women found themselves training and serving around eastern Canada and England in a variety of capacities. Some were wireless operators, like Elizabeth Jack, who kept listening watch on the RCAF planes escorting convoys out of Halifax. Others, like Jackson, taught male pilots Morse code. Corporal Mary Cousland, now Mary Leighton, who had previous military experience after working locally with the Royal Navy, joined the RCAF’s Eastern Air Command bomber operations in Halifax, where she plotted convoy aircraft protection and enemy submarines. “We used to get the information and we’d plot it and give the pilots the routes that the convoys were going to take and they would go out and cover it,” explains Leighton. “We worked with the Navy and we were the Air Force … it was like a great big cinema … where they’ve got girls up ladders plotting the convoys and submarines on an enormous map.”
Their experiences provided the Bermuda women with practical training and opportunities to travel, earn pay and meet service and civilian men and women from all over the world. While most women of the RCAF contingents returned to the Island after their post-war demobilisation, Private Daisy Louise Vallis, was the exception. Killed in a civilian accident in Canada in 1945 prior to her demobilisation, she is the only Bermudian woman recorded as dying while on active service.