UK's oldest surviving female WW2 veteran, 103, became radar operator

Britain’s oldest surviving female WWII veteran, 103, told top brass ‘I haven’t come from Jamaica to be a typist’ before becoming first black woman radar operator defending UK’s coast

  • Ena Collymore-Woodstock objected to being given a clerical job at War Office 
  • Volunteered for Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and was trained in military drill
  • Many of the 600 female volunteers from Caribbean faced racism and sexism  

At 103 she is Britain’s oldest surviving female Second World War veteran – and she battled top brass to be allowed out from behind a typewriter to play a vital role defeating the Nazis.

The Mail on Sunday can reveal that Jamaican-born Ena Collymore-Woodstock – one of the first women to set sail from the Caribbean to help the Allied effort after answering a recruitment advertisement in 1943 – objected to being given a clerical job at the War Office.

Having survived a torpedo attack on the boat she travelled on, she arrived in London and was given the job because she had worked as a court clerk in Kingston.

Jamaican-born Ena Collymore-Woodstock, 103, was one of the first women to set sail from the Caribbean to help the Allied effort after answering a recruitment advertisement in 1943

But after a few weeks, Mrs Collymore-Woodstock, who was then just 26, wrote an angry letter to Army bosses telling them: ‘I haven’t come all this way just to be stuck behind a typewriter!’

It set her on the path to become the first black female radar operator defending the coast of Britain with a team of ack-ack girls during 1943 and 1944. Later she was deployed to Belgium, close to enemy lines.

She said: ‘There weren’t many women in the Army at that time and very few women of colour.

‘I wanted to do my part and I felt special. We all knew we were doing things for the first time. I hadn’t joined up just to type and I was very insistent about that.

‘I wanted to be where the action was. I felt British, I was young and single, so why not go and fight? My generation of women were determined to prove we were capable. I helped show what women could achieve despite there being no female role models at senior level of society at the time.’

After volunteering for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) she was sent with other black female recruits to Guildford, Surrey, where they lived in freezing wooden huts and were trained in military drill. She then joined an anti-aircraft unit as a radar operator or so-called ‘ack-ack’ girl, plotting the path of incoming enemy planes.

She battled top brass to be allowed out from behind a typewriter to play a vital role defeating the Nazis

As enemy planes flew over, Mrs Collymore-Woodstock and her team radioed the command post, which would co-ordinate the gunfire.

According to the National Army Museum, the War Office was against the recruitment of women from the Caribbean on grounds of race and the suggestion they would find it difficult to adapt to the British climate and culture. But by 1943 the War Office relented and the first recruits began to arrive.

There are thought to have been about 600 female volunteers from the Caribbean, but many faced racism and sexism.

Mrs Collymore-Woodstock, who was born in 1917 and had lost both parents to illness by the time she was a teenager, said she never encountered racism first-hand and was treated kindly by a lady who shared her surname and had spotted her in the local paper.

After volunteering for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) she was sent with other recruits to Guildford, Surrey, where they lived in freezing wooden huts and were trained in military drill

‘That Christmas, when the ATS camp was closed and there were water shortages, she invited me to stay,’ she said.

After the war, she broke yet more boundaries by training to become a barrister at London’s Gray’s Inn and embarking on a legal career spanning four decades. She also became the first woman to hold judicial office in Jamaica as a magistrate.

Mrs Collymore-Woodstock was awarded an MBE in 1967 for her work with the Girl Guides. She married Victor Woodstock, a civil servant, in 1951 and had two daughters and a son. She now mainly lives in Barbados.

Her story emerged during a campaign by the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association to honour the nation’s oldest veterans.

Vice-president Alison Brown said: ‘Ena is an inspiration. We wanted to thank her and reflect on her achievements, plus those of other pioneering women of the Second World War who pushed aside gender bias and spearheaded roles for women in society.’

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