Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A woman's response to captivity

A little musing given today is International Women's Day. More often than not, the impact of war on women is forgotten or airbrushed out of the usual sort of military book. My aviation biographies have both included details of the women my subjects loved but word limit precluded only brief mentions. I had more scope in 'Australia's Few' to deal with the impact of loss on the airmen's wives, girlfriends and mothers. Strange as it may seem, women will have a more significant place in my POW thesis because I believe that captivity (and war in general for that matter) was not just a male experience. It was also a female one. And so, (at this stage) roughly a third of my thesis is dedicated to women's responses to their menfolk's captivity; the importance of the women to the POWs as links to home; and the significance of their absence in the men's lives behind barbed wire.

When I first started research I was worried that I would not be able to gather evidence to tell the women's stories and, to be truthful, two families declined to provide me with access to their letters because they believed they were too private. I do understand this attitude but as well as protecting privacy, they are also ensuring that women's responses to captivity continue to be airbrushed from history.

Fortunately, other families have been more supportive of my desire to recount the female perspective. Here is a small indication of the pain Mrs May Fraser felt when she heard her son Donald was missing. She did not know if he was alive or dead, and it was the second time he had gone missing on operations so she knew it would be some time before she heard anything definite. If at all. She wrote to a friend who used to serve with him, hoping for just a little bit of hope to cling on to.

I am writing to ask you if you can give us any idea of the work Don was doing at the time he was reported missing, where you think he would likely be, over the land, or over the sea—is it possible he would be Tunisia, or do you think Italy or Sicily would be more likely spots, and will you honestly tell me, what you think of his chances of still being alive—I try to hope that he may be a POW and if he came down over the land there may be a chance that he is—but I am very afraid of the sea. I know they have rubber boats and every other contrivance for safety, but if they are shot down, would they have time to use them. That is what is worrying me so, it just goes on and on in my head, and makes me fear very much, that I will not see my son again.

The friend wrote back, and she gladly accepted the gleam of hope he offered but she still suffered from the lack of knowledge. 'I haven't been well, the worry and anxiety always sends my blood pressure.' She eventually heard that Donald had been captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. Her granddaughter recalled that her relief that he was safely out of harm’s way in a Stalag Luft III was intense. There was a great sense of peace that he was safe. And then May waited for his return.

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