Women’s History Month: Sergeant Joan Mortimer, MM

When I was in college, attempting to be my own editor on my own college papers and not notably succeeding, my country was in the pioneering days of women expanding their roles in the military outside the nursing field. Many went through very difficult times cutting and widening that path, including some I know well and respect. One thing they had going for them was that the path was at least trodden and visible, thanks to true stories of predecessors like Sergeant Joan Mortimer of the WAAF.

A political organizer from London, Joan Mortimer was twenty-seven when she joined the relatively new Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in early 1939. The war clouds were plain on the horizon, and war indeed broke out for Britain in September 1939. After the Nazi forces mauled the Benelux countries and France, it was the turn of the United Kingdom. The goal was to break the island’s resistance through a sustained air campaign, periodically inviting the British and their allies to just give up. They rejected this offer, of course, answering by force of arms–and thus developed the Battle of Britain.

RAF Biggin Hill was a frontline outpost of the air war over the UK. Located in what are now London’s southern outskirts, the base was an early responder to any incursion into UK airspace. That made it imperative for the Luftwaffe to pound it at every opportunity. Assignment there was hazardous duty, and on 1 September 1940 Sergeant Mortimer was among three WAAF enlisted women on communications duty when a major airbase strike came in. Along with Corporal Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner in the HQ, she maintained vital communications from her post at the switchboard (in the armory, surrounded by high explosives one might well hope avoided a direct hit). But that was not all.

Henderson and Turner remained at their posts doing their duties when a bomb struck and set ablaze the headquarters building. Only when the fire reached their room, and under direct orders, did they leave their work. The bombs sometimes didn’t explode upon landing, but that didn’t make them safe. As for Mortimer, she realized that no one had yet red-flagged the unexploded bombs on the runway, and that the base’s fighter complement would be at greater risk as it attempted to land and re-equip. Pilots could usually spot craters, but dud ordnance sometimes not so much. With the Luftwaffe still making runs on the airfield, Sergeant Mortimer ran out to mark the danger spots in disregard for her own life and safety.

No one can tell me that’s not a warrior.

The three women each received the Military Medal, which only six British women earned throughout the war. Sergeant Joan Mortimer’s citation described her actions thus: “This airwoman displayed exceptional courage and coolness which had a great moral effect on all those with whom she came in contact.” Boy howdy it must have. His Majesty the King himself had the privilege of decorating her.

Let her country, and its then and later wartime allies such as my own country, take a moment to remember Sergeant Joan Mortimer, MM, and her fellow airwomen whose valor earned the respect of those who served with them.

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