Campaign launched to commemorate biggest loss of female army life in British history

Nearly 80 years on, the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association is working to ensure that the names of the victims are included in war memorials across the country.

A campaign has been launched to commemorate the lives of 26 women of the British Army who were killed in a bombing raid during the Second World War.

The women died when their quarters in Great Yarmouth were bombed by Nazi Germany in May 1943. The tragedy remains the biggest loss of female life in British Army history.

Now, nearly 80 years on, the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) Association is working to ensure that the names of the victims are included in war memorials across the country. The charity is also campaigning to raise awareness of the disaster among relatives of the victims.

The tragedy occurred early on 11 May 1943, when the women, who were serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as signallers, returned to their billet at the Imperial Hostel on North Drive in Great Yarmouth following early morning exercises.

The now-broken plaque to the Great Yarmouth bombing, unveiled by Lady Soames in 1994. A replacement memorial will be unveiled this May. Image: WRAC Association.

Shortly after their arrival, a wave of between 15 and 20 Focke-Wulf fighter-bombers, from the Luftwaffe Unit SKG/10, operating from Holland, attacked the town.

Because of hazy weather that day, the Royal Observer Corps on nearby Gorleston Cliffs gave only 30 seconds warning of the raid.

The hostel was reduced to rubble, with rescue workers finding only one survivor – 22-year-old Private Doreen Chappell from Gloucester. The youngest killed, Private Lilian Grimmer, was just 18.

In all, 14 bombs were dropped on the town, killing a total of 49 service personnel and civilians. The ATS women were buried with full military honours.

The disaster was previously recognised by ATS veteran Joan Awbery. In 1994, Awbery coordinated the unveiling of a now-broken plaque by Lady Soames, Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, having traced the relatives of some of the dead.

However, not all of the victims are remembered outside of Great Yarmouth. As such, the WRAC Association has launched a campaign, #WeWillRememberHer, to generate greater awareness of the tragedy.

As Fiona Gardner, WRAC Vice President, explained: ‘The association is committed to ensuring that these women are remembered on their local war memorials. That is why we are asking people from Ross and Cromarty to Bournemouth to let us know if they find these ladies names on a cenotaph, church plaque, or any structure made to remember those who gave their lives for their country.’

‘If they have been missed off,’ Gardner added, ‘we are keen to ensure that they are added in time for the 80th anniversary of the deaths in 2023.’

It is hoped that the campaign will raise awareness of the disaster among living relatives of the women, some of whom may be living abroad. As Awbery, now 101, says: ‘The WRAC Association hopes to identify these women’s great-nephews, -nieces, and cousins to tell them about the role their brave relative played in military history.’

A commemorative event is also due to take place, with the unveiling of a new plaque, at Great Yarmouth’s Imperial Hotel on Sunday 15 May.

More than 345,000 women served in the ATS between 1938 and 1949. It was out of this service, and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), that the WRAC was formed. The Association is now a charity working to provide comradeship, friendship, and support to its more than 3,000 members. You can find out more about the association and the campaign at their website,