Celebrities explore how the role of women in the armed forces has changed in the last 100 years. Nicky Campbell learns about his mother's role in WWII.
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It's 100 years since the first pioneering women
joined the British Armed Forces.
Today, women serve alongside men
together in combat on the front line.
If you can do it and you want to do it, you should be able to.
To see how much things have changed...
-How do I look?
..five well-known faces revisit either their own...
Morning, ma'am. I'm the captain of HMS Puncher.
You called me ma'am. How sweet.
..or a family member's military past.
They just got stuck in.
It was exciting.
From defending land...
I don't want to go that way.
these are the extraordinary stories of a century of women at war.
Today, broadcaster and journalist Nicky Campbell
discovers his mother's untold stories
of her time as a radar operator in World War II.
We were praying that you got your measurements right
and that the troops weren't going to be hit by you.
And gets a taste of the pressure she experienced
when Britain was under attack.
I felt myself panicking because I didn't know what to do or how to do it.
As they face up to the realities of war
and the importance of his mother's work..
A thousand bomber raids flattened everything.
..Nicky meets the women keeping watch over Britain's skies today.
What aircraft are we concerned with? What do we know about it?
The Typhoon jets will get airborne and intercept.
And there's a family celebration as mum Sheila
receives a recognition she never knew she was due.
Well, I am delighted to have it at long last!
It's Five Live Breakfast and it is Thursday morning.
For three decades,
Nicky Campbell has been one of Britain's best-known broadcasters,
hosting some of the biggest shows on radio and TV.
Text us on 85058, and we'll be having a look at your comments
on social media, @bbc5live.
But today he's facing one of his most challenging
interviewees to date - his mum,
who spent three years in the forces, from 1942.
Mum is an extraordinary woman.
Everybody loves her.
She was a psychiatric social worker all her life.
She dealt with people with mental health issues
and she was absolutely brilliant at her job.
And with absolute professionalism.
So I suspect that manifested itself during the war...
..in what she was doing,
and I'm looking forward to finding out exactly what she was doing.
Nicky was adopted not long after he was born,
by Frank and Sheila Campbell.
Before they met, both his adoptive parents served in World War II.
I knew about Dad's experience in the Indian Army
and I found out that he had been on the Battle of Kohima,
which was perhaps the most savage, barbaric battle
of the Second World War.
But Nicky knows precious little about the crucial role
his mother Sheila undertook, taking on the Nazis
as a servicewoman in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.
I've not spoken to her about her feelings,
what she felt about what was going on in the world.
We never know, do we, when we're in the epicentre of history?
We only realised that we have been after the event.
Originally from Harrogate in Yorkshire,
Sheila settled in Edinburgh after meeting her husband Frank.
Today, Nicky has returned to the house he grew up in
to discover exactly what his mother experienced
when the country went to war with Germany.
Oh, here he comes.
So when did you first become aware of Adolf?
I think during the year that I was leaving school.
He sounded rather horrible and was doing terrible things
but I didn't really know anything about him
and I wanted to find out more
so I went and bought a copy of Mein Kampf!
And I can't remember it now
but I read that to get some sort of idea what the man was like.
I was 17, I think, and I went up to St Andrews.
And it was left on the windowsill of my bedroom...
..and the window cleaner came and he saw it there
and he reported my father to the police!
It was 1941 and Sheila was studying for a degree
at St Andrews University.
But midway through,
she made the decision to drop out of university
and enrol in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, or WAAF.
Much to my parents' fury.
They were furious because I was reserved
and I should have finished my degree.
They went to their lawyer and tried to get me out of my volunteering
for the WAAF and joining up...
..but they couldn't, so I travelled off to the WAAF.
Did you feel that you were part of a cause, defending the country,
-helping the effort against Hitler?
And the excitement of it all and being with a group of others.
Sheila was selected to become a radar operator,
helping to track the enemy bombers attacking Britain's cities.
Do you remember the feeling of intensity?
It was exciting, always exciting, always intense,
and one played hard in between.
You know, when you were off duty, you went to dances,
you went here and there, you went out drinking.
This women-only corps that Sheila joined
was a successor to the Women's Royal Air Force,
created towards the end of World War I
and disbanded not long after.
It formed again on the eve of World War II, to recruit women
to fill posts as clerks, kitchen orderlies and drivers.
'Not only from the British Isles, but from all over the empire,
'there are girls serving with the Royal Air Force
'and thus they've enabled hundreds of men
'to be released for operational duty.'
But as the war progressed, the work they undertook diversified.
Many like Sheila took on the role of gathering intelligence.
From the codebreakers to the mechanics,
every woman who signed up to the forces over the last 100 years
has played a crucial role.
And some details, like their service number, stay with them for ever.
Leading Aircraft Woman.
I was Captain Paula Croser-Neely,
service number 549705.
Never forget that. You never do.
Being back in Edinburgh and hearing his mother's war stories
has inspired Nicky to visit a memorial in the city
to all the men and women who served.
This is the section commemorating...
..women in war.
Those from Australia, those from New Zealand,
I'm looking at surnames that I'm just so familiar with,
having grown up in Edinburgh.
I feel profoundly moved when I come to these places
one can't but...
..feel a sense of reverence.
And to discover more about Sheila's own experiences,
Nicky's been given a diary kept at that time.
What was great, Mum gave me this book...
..obviously, I'm giving it back,
which was a record of where she was and what she was doing
before the war, during the war and beyond,
which was kept, unbeknownst to her, by her mother.
Erm, and so, this is...
..actually, from a family point of view, invaluable.
So where was she, the 18th of February...
"31st of May 1944.
"Posted to Beachy Head...
"D-Day, the 6th of June."
There it is, written down there.
Screaming from the page, leaping out, capital D, capital D-A-Y.
"6th of June."
To get a clearer understanding of Sheila's role
in such landmark events, Nicky is meeting historian Dr Linsey Robb,
who is a specialist in the social and cultural history of Britain
during the Second World War.
So, Linsey, this is Mum's record of service.
Her diary of service.
Interesting, that's Morecambe, "Where I did my marching."
If you look just before that, she's got a week in Gloucester.
It would be her initial depot, where they go and they get uniforms,
they are given inoculations and a medical
and then, in Morecambe, where she did her marching,
that would be roughly six weeks of initial training.
It wasn't uncommon.
When the Women's Auxiliary Services restarted
before the Second World War, they are completely voluntary.
In 1941, they institute conscription,
which means that all women between 20 and 30 who are unmarried
are liable for either service or industry,
and your mother obviously felt so strongly about it
that she decided to volunteer.
Sheila's work as a radio operator was a role in which men and women
often worked side by side in the operations room
helping to make Allied aircraft stay one step ahead of the enemy.
It was essential work
but, in keeping with the prevailing attitude of the times,
it also kept women well away from face-to-face combat.
In the Second World War, the combat taboo is incredibly strong.
You know, women could not take up arms.
The most obvious example is anti-aircraft batteries,
which actually comes under the Auxiliary Territorial Service,
and they could maintain the gun, they could load the gun,
but they could not fire the gun,
so they very carefully, in the Second World War,
keep women from anything that would mean
that they themselves would have to fire a weapon.
But even with the ban on taking up arms,
many women were still in the line of fire
doing the jobs they were tasked to do.
-How many women were killed?
-Roughly, in the WAAF, 730.
Airfields were a legitimate target of bombing.
The British bombed German airfields as well
so women, like women in industry, knew they were sitting in a target.
The most, sort, of obvious...
A famous example is Biggin Hill near London,
which was hit 12 times between 1940 and 1941,
once quite destructively,
killing 39 people with a direct hit on the WAAF quarters.
For WAAFs like Nicky's mother, Sheila,
the threat of attack from a German bombing raid was real.
But they had a crucial job to do.
So Nicky's keen to get a taste of what day-to-day life
would have been like for his mum in the pressure-cooker environment
of a World War II radar operations room.
I've come to this former RAF base here in Norfolk,
not far, actually, from where Mum served,
and it's a radar museum.
You can feel the atmosphere already. It's going to be fascinating.
George Taylor is a volunteer at the museum
after himself working as a radar operator during the Cold War.
This is an amazing bit of technology.
Is this what my mother would have been looking at?
That's correct. On the A-scope.
'Radar, once a top secret, is still a mystery to most people.
'Special pictures now help to elucidate the device.'
So when a raid's coming in, what would the atmosphere have been like in a place like this?
Well, they would just say,
"Another raid coming in, strange so-and-so, hide so-and-so."
That would be it. Then you'd concentrate on the next one.
-It's no good getting panicky
because otherwise you wouldn't do your job.
-This is a scenario that people will recognise from the movies.
So how did it exactly work?
You'd have about 15 WAAFs round a table like this
and they'd all be getting information in
from different radar stations and plotting it on this table.
So Mum is gathering the data
-and then the data is being passed over here...
..which informs this process.
'When next you see a plane in the sky,
'think of these people down in the operations room.
'They can see it too, right here on these plotting tables.'
-So all that information is immediately put on there?
These tracers, they would be moving three or four times a minute.
-Do I move these arrows?
-You move these arrows.
-Like that, that's right.
Have we got any aircraft in that area?
Ours have come back now.
That would have told the plotter it was hostile.
So what we had to do then is scramble aircraft to intercept.
Hopefully, we'd shot one or two down.
It's an impressive system for the 1940s.
It was, yeah.
Yeah, I can just remember it.
Having seen close up the equipment his mother would've used
during the war, Nicky has come upon a diary
written by a World War II radar operator
that vividly reveals not just how closely the men and women
worked together, but how tough a typical shift could be.
"Midnight. I've been on duty for one hour
"and my eyes are telling me I should be in bed.
"But there's a long night ahead until we go off duty at 0800hrs."
It must have been absolutely exhausting.
The levels of concentration that were needed as well.
What it brings home, an account like this,
is the real atmosphere in there and how frantic it was,
how stressful it was and how important it was,
and how, actually, this was a matter of life and death.
I love the bit at the end.
"Get into pyjamas, clean teeth, wash, comb hair...
"..and creep into bed."
By 1944, the tide was beginning to turn on the Nazi war machine.
And on June the 6th,
the Allies began perhaps the most critical mission of the whole war.
The Allied invasion of occupied France.
Sheila's job was right at the heart of that,
helping the RAF bombers target the German positions
blocking the advance of Allied troops.
I was on duty that day and I shall never forget it.
I mean, one was aware of what one was doing, you know?
Just bombing a little ahead of the troops,
praying that you got your measurements right
and that the troops weren't going to be hit by you.
'Bombing behind the lines and supplying cover
'for our advancing armies are only an indication of the many jobs
'assigned to the air forces,
'while on the ground, the advance continues.'
As the Allies battle their way through France,
Sheila and her female colleagues expected to be
in the mobile operations room that followed the British advance
but they were left behind.
And then the annoying thing was, of course,
they sent all the men and none of the women.
We were very angry.
All the young men that I'd trained that had been in it so recently,
they went, took our trailers and did the work, and we were left behind.
And you wanted to get out there?
Yes, we wanted to carry on doing what we were doing.
From a peak of 182,000 serving women in 1943,
only a few hundred remained by 1949,
when they became part of the renamed Women's Royal Air Force.
Today, radar is just as essential to Britain's air defences
as it was when Sheila served in World War II.
But, of course, the technology and attitudes have changed.
Well, we're on the road heading to RAF Boulmer,
which is about 30 miles north of Newcastle,
and this is the centre of Britain's modern-day air defences,
so it's kind of the equivalent of what Mum was doing
in the Second World War.
RAF Boulmer is home to
the UK's Air Surveillance and Control Systems Force.
The men and women working here are the country's eyes and ears...
..protecting our skies from attack and defending our shores.
Nicky's meeting one of the women currently serving on the base
as part of the weapons control team.
Why particularly the RAF for you?
Well, my grandad was in the Royal Air Force about 60 years ago now.
He was a mechanic in the Air Force. He was always very proud of that.
So I had an inclination towards that.
I joined when I was 19 and I thought,
the RAF is going to give me a diverse career
for many years to come.
After six months' specialist training,
Sergeant Jo Stanley is now qualified as a weapons controller.
It's her role to direct the RAF's Typhoon aircraft
to intercept and, if necessary, destroy hostile targets.
Things have changed in the Armed Forces for women over the years.
Now it's just no holds barred, anything goes, anywhere goes.
-It's a great thing, isn't it?
Recently, the RAF regiment have allowed women
to join on the front line alongside the men.
It was the only role in the RAF that only men were allowed to join.
Now, across the Royal Air Force, you know, we allow all genders,
sexualities, all diverse and inclusive.
During her career, she's been based in the UK
and drafted to the Falklands.
What's it like?
It's cold, it's...
small, but it's really, really interesting, actually.
It's a completely different climate, completely different environment
and a completely different airspace but it's the same principle,
as in, the job is the same - we're still there to defend the nation.
-Making a difference, really.
But it's a very important job and we're trained to do it and that's what we're here to do.
-Multitasking involved, isn't there?
I don't want to be sexist here, but if it's multitasking,
-men are going to be useless at it.
-We've all had the same training so we're all as good as each other.
-Well, I get all that.
I get a thing from my wife, saying, "You cannot multitask!"
-So that's why we have a diverse environment.
Nicky wants to find out from today's recruits
what it takes to control the skies in the way his mother did.
To do that, he needs to head underground to the control centre.
-So it's like the TARDIS, this, isn't it?
-Quite big, yes.
-Huge on the inside because it goes down.
It's quite chilly.
It is a little chilly, yes.
It's here where the RAF personnel on duty monitor our airspace.
Even in times of peace, the RAF Air Surveillance and Control crew
work around the clock 365 days a year.
-My goodness, look at our airspace!
-Yeah, very, very busy.
-It's unbelievably busy.
So if a threat does come in or if something suspicious is happening
that shouldn't be happening, what happens in this room?
So we've got the battle phone over in the surveillance director's position.
-We'll get a phone call..
-Is that the red phone?
-I just thought it was, kind of, chic 1970s.
Air Traffic Control call the RAF at team at Boulmer
as soon as they detect suspicious behaviour
on any aircraft flying in British airspace.
If deemed a threat, the team here
known as the Quick Reaction Alert Watch responds immediately.
And it's their decision to scramble our air defence units if needed.
-Have you ever been in a situation where that phone went and there was genuine concern?
-Does the heart race?
Wherever I am in the bunker, I've got to run here, get my headset on.
I've got to find out the information.
What aircraft are we concerned with? What do we know about it?
So the atmosphere would be of urgent, efficient...
Watching the team at work helps Nicky visualise like never before
exactly what his mother did in the war.
What I'd like to do is just do a little swap
and to put my mum here, right? Sitting here and do a bit of this,
and then you try to do it the way she did it in the Second World War?
-That would be fascinating, wouldn't it?
-It would, yeah.
One thing that hasn't changed over the decades
is the pressure under which the radar operators have to work.
Nicky's about to get a true sense of how that feels.
So, there we are. That's what we're going to intercept.
Then he's getting hands-on in a simulation exercise,
where his job is to intercept a potential threat
from an incoming enemy aircraft.
So that's at 350.
What does that mean? 250 feet?
No, erm, 35,000 feet.
35,000! I was just thinking, we've got a bad situation going on here.
So what do we do now?
We're waiting for the jet to get airborne.
-Oh, right, we're scrambling our jets?
When Nicky's mother Sheila first sat in front of a similar screen
during World War II, the threat was very real.
We were checking for planes coming into our area.
Those that were friendly had a certain little blip that came down.
You knew it was friendly aircraft, but the ones that didn't
have that were questionable and possibly enemy.
But without his mother's training, Nicky's struggling to keep up.
-Hi, Nicky. It's Gallagher here.
We're concerned about this aircraft so I'd like you to go faster.
I'd like you to ask QRA-1 to go gate.
QRA-1, go gate, please.
'QRA-1, going gate.'
-What does it mean, go gate?
-Isn't that interesting? The language.
I felt myself panicking because I didn't know what to do or how to do it.
Jo was brilliant in instructing me.
Initially, I found it really complicated and confusing
but as it went on, erm, I also found it complicated and confusing.
They don't know we're coming. They can't see us. We've not flown in front of it.
That final turn's going to put it right in behind,
in order for the Typhoon
to carry out whatever mission it's been assigned to.
We've achieved our mission.
Well done, QRA-1.
'Thank you, controller.'
The professionalism of Jo and Lowri and their cool, calm,
confidence in actually addressing the job in hand
was just magnificent.
It's not just training, I think it's something inside them as well.
Something brings out the best in people, I think. It was really impressive.
Come home. Let's have a gin!
'Will do. Wilco.'
Very good. Brilliant.
-I can see how there's so much training going into it.
Since women joined the military in 1917,
they have excelled in the intelligence field
and at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire,
the Army, Navy and RAF worked together alongside civilians
to make incredible advances that changed the outcome
of the Second World War.
I was about 18 and a bit.
I came to Bletchley not knowing what I was in for, if you like.
Charlotte was one of the 8,000 women who helped to intercept
and translate coded enemy messages.
Being as young as I was and very inexperienced,
I was given all sorts of little jobs to do
until I went into the Japanese section in Block F,
where I was transcribing messages
which had actually been decoded.
Dr David Kenyon is the research historian for Bletchley Park.
Women here at Bletchley Park played a huge part in the process.
By 1945, just over 75% of the staff were female
and they were involved in every part of the code-breaking process,
from the interception of messages,
through the various decryption departments
up to teleprinting out the messages at the end.
Bletchley Park wasn't necessarily unique
in the number of female employees it had
but it was certainly one of a number of organisations
that were using women in those roles for the first time.
Once a year, surviving veterans return to Bletchley Park
to mark their achievements.
These reunions are a valuable opportunity to piece together
the detail of their work - a pivotal contribution to the war
that was kept secret until the 1970s.
They were using our decodes
to know where the ships were.
Most of my friends, they hadn't a clue where I'd disappeared to
for ten days on end.
You just said, "I was working in an office.
"Something to do with the Foreign Office, I think."
I feel sad that my parents died before they ever knew
because I think they thought that I was, sort of, not doing
my bit for the war, really, just working in an office, you know.
But now it's the opposite.
You know, my family are terribly proud of me
and people are terribly interested and want to know all about it.
It took until 2009 for the work of the codebreakers to be officially
recognised with a Bletchley commemorative badge.
Well, that was quite a landmark, and a very gratifying one,
to have some recognition after all that time.
I think it's enormously important that we should celebrate the work
that these people have done
and acknowledge the contribution they made.
Wars are not only won on fighting fronts.
Wars are won in places like Bletchley Park.
It's not anything I did in particular,
I was just part of the team.
And as a team, yes, very proud of it.
To dig deeper into his mother's experiences,
Nicky's taken Sheila to meet with fellow radar operator Bessie Thomas.
Though they've never met before, the two have plenty in common.
It's a privilege to be with you both today.
-Oh, isn't that nice?
-It really is.
It's the first recognition that the poor old WAAF radar operators
have got known about, aren't we, Sheila?
Yes, I'm pleased your mother thinks the same thing as me because...
-We got no recognition through the years.
-..we really felt let down.
Bessie tracked not just enemy aircraft,
but one of the Nazis' most feared weapons, the V1 rocket bombs.
What's a V1?
A flying engine with a bomb on.
-Is that the same as a doodlebug?
-Yes, that's the doodlebug.
And when the engine stops...
it comes down and you get the explosion.
So if you hear the engine, then you suddenly hear the engine stop.
-If you were in London...
-Do you remember that?
-Yes, I remember them.
You would know, when you were in London.
-Did you ever hear it stop?
Hitler hoped these flying bombs would terrorise Britain
V1 rockets killed over 6,000 people.
But thanks in part to the work of radar operators like Bessie,
the RAF soon worked out how to spot and intercept them.
-You plotted a V1, did you?
-Yeah, I followed it in.
I was saving Great Britain.
For Nicky, hearing Sheila talk with fellow servicewoman Bessie
has brought into sharp focus just how critical her contribution was.
By May 1945,
victory in Europe was officially declared
and Bessie and Sheila enjoyed the national celebrations.
We lit a bonfire, and we all sat,
and it was the only time that I've been drunk.
I had a pint of beer!
-Is that the only time that you've been drunk?
-In your life?
-She's been drunk slightly more than that!
Yeah. Maybe, I don't know, six or seven times?
-I don't know how many times!
-She's lost count!
-Haven't you, Sheila?
So, thinking back, you've got every reason
to feel very proud of your part in defeating Hitler.
Oh, I still do, actually.
Did you ever get a medal of any kind?
I mean, just for having served?
One. I didn't get the two.
-I didn't get any.
-Did you not?
-I feel quite put out.
-Oh, you definitely have that.
You're entitled to it. Why didn't you get one?
I don't know. Nobody ever sent me one.
Oh, it's lovely meeting you and talking to you.
You're bringing back all sorts of memories.
-It's very interesting.
Whether the service of individual women at war
has been recognised with a medal or not,
the value of their collective service over the last 100 years
alongside their male counterparts isn't in doubt.
Some men thought we were just there, erm, as decoration.
Erm, they didn't actually think we could compete with them.
It took them a while to realise we could,
we were just as good as they were.
We had the job to do and we did it
and we worked very hard and women did things in the war
that they never thought they could do.
When you're in uniform, it doesn't matter if you're male or female.
It's the rank that you hold and the position you're in.
men and women have worked side by side in the forces.
Every one of them a cog in the military machine.
During World War II,
airmen like Len Manning relied on the intelligence gathered by women
like Nicky's mum to identify their targets.
-Hello, sir. How are you doing? Nicky Campbell.
-Len, nice to meet you.
-Pleased to meet you.
-Allow me to carry your pint. We'll have a chat.
I might drink it!
My mother was doing the radar
and she was sending the bombers ahead of the front line.
Did you think about the radar people and the job they were doing?
It was all integral, the whole thing.
It made bombing easier.
While the work of women like Sheila was critical
in helping Bomber Command strike their targets,
they couldn't help when, in 1944,
Len was shot down over occupied France.
Even then, it was women who, in the, end kept him safe.
All of a sudden there was a massive explosion in one of the wings.
The flames started to come past the turret.
I thought, well, we've got to get out of here,
so I just went to the door and just jumped straight out
and I landed flat on my back.
By this time, I was pretty badly burned.
It was painful and I staggered on for about eight miles, I think,
and then I collapsed on a farmer's doorstop.
And, fortunately, they were members of the resistance
and they took me in, which was dead lucky.
-Were they nice?
Yeah, they looked after me that night.
In the meantime, the Germans had started looking for me,
so, the following day, having got a doctor to me,
they decided to move me on and they moved me to this cafe
in a little village called La Tretoire.
The cafe was owned by two ladies.
Madame Beaujard and her mum.
One morning, they said that the Germans were coming into the village
and, not thinking,
I walked into the cafe
and there were two Germans sitting there having a drink.
She realised what had happened and she got a tea towel
and beat me around the head -
"Get out, get out! Go and do your work!"
That was good, yeah. That's good.
She was really with it.
-That's bravery, isn't it?
-Yeah, well, she got the Legion of Honour.
-Oh, wow. That's...
-That's courage in war, isn't it?
-If they'd been found, they'd have been shot out of hand.
They wouldn't take them away. They would shoot them there and then.
Len spent three months being hidden by the women at the cafe
until the Americans arrived, driving out the Nazis for good.
Two incredible, profoundly moving examples of women in war,
-those two French women were.
To Madame Beaujard. Cheers.
-And to you, sir.
A century since women joined the military,
the RAF is the first force to open 100% of its roles to women.
In today's Air Force,
they also train alongside men from the day they join.
The best way of finding out about someone
is to do a training course with them that's physically demanding.
When you're tired and you're grumpy and you really need a cup of tea,
then that's when you see a real person.
Women still only account for 14% of the RAF personnel
but unlike when the force formed,
they are now on a level playing field.
I'm expected to be at the same standard of training as the men are
and therefore, if I trained with only females,
they would never know what my training involved.
Opening combat roles to women has sparked controversy
and a retired Army Colonel has spoken out against the move,
believing women in combat
will reduce the capabilities of the troops.
And a truly balanced force could be a long way off.
I don't think that trying to make the Air Force 50-50
would necessarily work, because you won't necessarily get 50%
of all males from all backgrounds that want to join either.
It's a personality type.
But fighting alongside men means women in the forces
have to be prepared for the horrors of conflict too.
And long before women were on the front line,
that's something Nicky's mum Sheila also had to come to terms with.
There were aspects of the war
that he knows trouble his mother to this day.
She has spoken about her mixed feelings about what...
..she was doing ultimately led to.
And the disconnect...
between having a board in front of you
or a radar screen in front of you and, erm, people being incinerated.
There's huge controversy about some of the bombing
that we did in Germany.
And I think any right-minded person can understand
both sides of the argument.
How much was necessary? How much was proportionate?
How much was...
..stuff that happens in war?
Disrupting the industrial might of the Nazi war machine
was the chief aim of the RAF raids into Germany
but the homes of civilians were destroyed too.
We were supposed to be precise
but winds changed and...
..perhaps our accuracy and our measurements wasn't as perfect as...
And the thousand bomber raids, they just flattened everything.
In February 1945,
up to 25,000 civilians died
during the bombing of the German city of Dresden.
What did you think about that? People dying.
Well, that's the thing.
It was like a game. You didn't think of people.
We never thought of the people that stayed there.
It was a precision game of bombing.
The fact that people are involved or lived in some of the places
we were bombing, I mean, just never entered our heads.
-We didn't think about it.
But then there were civilians, weren't there?
Well, we never thought about those.
Or at least, if anybody did, it was never discussed, never talked about.
If somebody had raised it, would it have been shot down, if you like?
Not the thing to do.
I don't know.
You never discussed it?
And it would have been difficult to carry on, in a way.
You know, to do the job.
You couldn't entertain the thought, no?
When did you start thinking about that?
Not till way after the war.
It's all such a long time ago.
Like many people who served their country through war,
Sheila Campbell has mixed feelings about some of the things
she was called to do, but she had a job to do
and her role in the WAAF and the Allied victory
has always been a source of great pride and personal satisfaction.
Since women first joined the military in 1917,
their service in conflicts from World War I to Afghanistan today
has often resulted in them being awarded a medal.
Sheila never received one but now that's about to change.
Today, Group Captain Gus Wells has invited the Campbell family
to the RAF Museum in Hendon.
And it's his privilege to invest Sheila with the war medal
she never received, recognising her service to the WAAF.
What the hell are you doing here?
On behalf of the Royal Air Force, it's a pleasure
and actually a privilege as well to be able to present you
with this long overdue 1939-45 Medal.
The work that you and your contemporaries did
throughout the war is very much part of our heritage and it guides
what we do today, so you really are an inspiration to us all.
-Thank you very much indeed.
-Oh, my goodness!
-Thank you so much.
-That's all right. It's all our pleasure, it really is.
I feel, sort of, rounded-off so to speak, war-wise!
-Completion of the war, yes.
The war is over!
Well, that's just a perfect ending, isn't it?
Wonderful. I'm delighted. I never thought I'd ever see it.
For the youngest member of the Campbell family,
as well as being an opportunity to celebrate her grandmother,
it's a valuable insight into the part women have played
in Britain's Armed Forces.
She was such a pioneer for what she did in the war.
Even though I've studied it at school,
I didn't realise how much they really affected the war effort,
and without them it could have been a different story.
She's really inspirational.
And for Nicky, this proud moment is more than just a tribute
to his mother.
It's official recognition of the role that she
and thousands of other women have performed
in the service of their country over the last 100 years.
I've met some fantastic people.
Hello, sir. How are you doing?
Heard some spine-tingling...
amazing stories, which have made me feel very...
But most special of all and best of all, to be here,
and to see Mum get her medal, I feel that she...
..kind of represents so many women and what they did
and what they believed in and how their role has...
erm, in the Armed Forces, become from a small role to what it is now,
which is absolutely indispensable.
It's been such a proud day for the family and a fantastic day for Mum
and that is going to go right on her mantelpiece.
Broadcaster Nicky Campbell discovers more about how his mother Sheila helped take on the Nazis during World War II. As he uncovers the secrets of her service with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, finding out about her pivotal role in the D-Day landings, Nicky gets a taste of what life as a wartime radar operator would have been like for his mother. And there is a proud moment for the entire family as Sheila's wartime service at last gets official recognition.
Nicky also meets a veteran of bomber command who, like his mother, wrestled with the morality of bombing German cities, as well as the young RAF women doing his mother's job today, keeping a vigilant watch over Britain's skies.