In her light green uniform, Dory Sparks walked out of the small brick house she shared with a few of the other girls working at the Chiswell munitions factory. Lorries trundled along the street to the factory located at the edge of the town. It was a sprawling complex with two tall chimneys belching black smoke.
The dust and dirt got into everything and she didn't have any nails left for the sticky TNT to hide under. The smell of it made her wash her hair every day and she was getting used to sleeping with perpetually wet hair when she came home late in the evenings. Either that or wash black dirt off her sheets every other day.
It was hard work. They worked every day of the week and got only two days off per month, but it was necessary work—if monotonously boring. It paid well, particularly in her group. She was group eight, tasked with handling the amatol which turned the mortars from innocent steal tubes, to proper explosives.
Filing in through the gates with the crowd of other girls, Dory found her timesheet and shoved it into the punch. As she walked, people melted away from their workstations, she toward the far end where the filling operations were, separated by a thick concrete wall from the storage area, where workers were classified the most dangerous level.
It was strongly encouraged that you were unmarried to work in the higher levels, in case things went wrong—and when things went wrong, it went spectacularly wrong. One munition going off was bad enough, but one exploding set off all the other ones around it and then the building was more or less pulverized, so it wasn't a place to be careless.
Reaching the filling part of the factory, Dory moved to her workspace, where ordinates were already lined up, ready to be filled. Her job was to go to the smelter, where the amatol was heated and to carry it over to the ordinates, fill and attach the detonators. Others then transferred the ordinates to the storage area, where they never waited around too long.
The factory worked at full capacity. The need for ordinates meant that no slack in production was allowed.
Through the grubby glass window, Dory saw what looked like a lovely summers day pass by. Her hands were red and uncomfortable inside the leather gloves she wore and sweat ran down her back from the constant lifting and heaving.
Placing her bucket down, she grabbed the wooden stick and went from one mortar to the next, gently stirring the amatol inside the drilled barrel. Any air pockets made the mortar explode in the tube, probably killing some young lad in the process.
It was hard to think about what all these mortars would be used for. War was triage. It was them better than us, and at times Dory wondered how in the world they had got themselves into this situation. The world was unrecognizable, but she worked as hard as she could to produce the ordinates that would kill the enemy.
At times, she thought back longingly on the still and peaceful days in St. Tropez. They seemed a lifetime away, even if it had actually been less than a year. Here, one day was much like another. Rise at dawn, work until well into the evening and try to sleep in between—with wet hair.
On her days off, she went to the pictures. A moment of escape, but first she had to sit through the Pathé pictures which showed overly enthusiastic depictions of our national pride. Sometimes Dory wondered if there were some who excited about the unfolding of the developments of this war. It sounded that way, according to how upbeat the news presenters were.
Hollywood always came through with an escape, with glamorous dresses and handsome men in some comedy of errors. A place far away where there was no war.
There were war movies as well, but Dory didn't go to those. There was enough bravery in the girls around her. She didn't need to know how brave their men were. It was too frightening.
Recently, she had written to DI Ridley, wishing him the best of luck for all the endeavors her faced, knowing he could tell her very little of what he did with Military Intelligence. If could be that he didn't even receive her letter.
More regularly, she wrote to Lady Pettifer, who was back at Wallisford Hall with her brother. Part of the estate had been given over to the Ministry of Food to raise chickens. Dory couldn't imagine the grand estate with countless chicken coops. Livinia, Lady Pettifer's niece, was apparently working as a secretary at the Ministry of War. It seemed everyone had to do their effort for the war.
"Miss Sparks," a voice said, breaking into Dory's thoughts. "Please come to the office immediately."
The woman in a tight pencil skirt and heels walked away. By dress, not one of the factory workers, instead from the administration office.
Dory had no idea what this could be about, but she finished screwing on the last of the caps and indicated to the man from storage that he could move the lot in front of her.
At the sink, she washed her hand with the large, gritty bar of soap, trying to get as much of the dirt off. Even with gloves, it got all over her hands. With a sigh, she looked at her nails and gave up.
It was a long walk back to the office, past large machining equipment. The woman hadn't even said her name and Dory wasn't sure she would recognize her face.
The office was crowded with small desks, the cackle from the typewriters filling her ears. Dory walked toward a desk where she thought she recognized a girl. "I'm Dory Sparks. Someone wished to see me."
The girl looked up and adjusted her glasses, staring incomprehensively. Wonderful, Dory thought. She had no idea where to go.
"This way, Miss Sparks," someone called and Dory turned to see the tight pencil skirt again. It was a lovely skirt. Dory wished she had one. The woman walked on down a corridor and Dory followed. "In here."
"Right," Dory said and took off the handkerchief that held back her hair. The room was small with a table in the middle, two women in dark green uniforms sitting by the table, their heads down in a file. "Miss Sparks?" the older woman said as she looked up.
"Please sit," she said, indicating to the chair on the other side of the table. "Now, you're a group eight I understand."
"I am Marjorie Dam from the ATS," she said with a smile. The ATS was the Auxiliary Territorial Services. Their posters were intermittently plastered up around town, along with the WRENs and the WAAF. "We are looking for girls with strong nerves and you have to be doing the job you do." The woman turned her head as she considered Dory. The other woman was watching her intently too. "I think you might be exactly what we are looking for."
"Oh, yes?" Dory said, not having enough information to really understand what these people wanted. In truth, she had little understanding of what the ATS did, or the others.
"Are you interested in performing a more active role in the war?"
Dory wasn't sure if she could give any more than she already was, working every hour of the day a she was. "You mean go to France?"
"No, nothing like that."
"We're looking for women to help with our home defenses."
The other woman started speaking. "As you know, the Germans have their bombing raids across the southern parts, particularly London. We need to bolster our defenses."
"We need someone with a bit of nerve."
Which meant it there was some risk involved. "I'm listening."
"Excellent. We are specifically talking about anti-aircraft defenses."
"The guns that fire at the enemy planes."
"Not the guns exactly. We represent more the detection."
"Specifically in London," the other woman filled in.
Dory blinked. London was where the raids were, so it made sense that was where the detection was. But they had also come all the way up here to search for people as opposed to selecting out of the numerous women in London.
"You are unmarried," one of the women said, consulting the file, which meant there was definitely risk involved.
"Training is provided. You will perform a very vital function for your country and do your bit to stop the bombings that are devastating London."
Obviously, she could say no, but could she live with herself. If not the guns, then Dory guessed they were looking for women to man the searchlights, which meant being active and vulnerable when the enemy aircrafts were over London—when the bombs were dropping.
Perhaps it as understandable that they recruited from factories where women were already performing dangerous roles.
"The hours are unsociable," the woman continued. "The Germans have changed their tactics and come more at night now than they did before."
"I see," Dory said.
"It would be awfully good if you could join us, Miss Sparks. Our boys could use all the support they can get, but our populace need defending too. You can play a real and vital role in that."
With a sigh, Dory stroked her hands down her cheeks toward her mouth. "Of course," she said.
"Excellent. Now you need to travel to Preston in Lancashire, where you can enlist and receive the King's shilling."
The notion sounded outlandish, but she was pressed into service.
"Obviously, there will be a physical exam, but I don't expect you will have any problems. Here is a voucher for travel. Simply present it to the station master and he should put you on the next train heading in the right direction. So pleased you are considering joining us. With women like yourself, this war can be won." She tore a yellow piece of paper from a booklet and handed it over to her.
Dory looked down on it, where in black print it said the holder could travel to Preston, Lancashire from anywhere in the country. "Thank you," she said, not feeling the certainty that these two women projected.
Already, though, Dory knew she couldn't say no. The army had come all the way up here to ask her to join. It would prey on her until the end of her days if she declined. So, no more work in factory. Instead, she would have to face the bombs dropping on London.