Teacher, shopkeeper, housewife, spy:
Diaries of women in World War Two are one of my favourite type of non-fiction reading. They offer a perspective on war that flies far under the radar of most popular fiction and historical writing, with personal and sometimes intimate accounts of hardships, horrors, and everyday life in extraordinary times.
Here are five war diaries written by women that you’ll want to grab from the library as soon as you can.
Five war diaries by women in World War 2
To War with Whitaker / Hermione Ranfurly
To War with Whitaker is easily my favourite diary of the past few years. It would certainly find its way into my top five reads of all time, and now it’s available to borrow from the library!
When her husband was taken prisoner in the Middle East, Hermione Ranfurly refused to return home until he was safe. Her escapades in Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Algiers are by turns comic and tragic, and her voice is delightful.
Through it all, Hermione is a witty, warm, and fascinating voice, with the strongest of convictions that she is where she needs to be. A five-star read.
War in the Val D’Orcia / Iris Origo
Iris Origo was an English-born American married to an Italian and living in Italy when the war broke out.
She and her husband dedicated themselves to keeping their local community and the waves of war refugees and escaped POWs as safe as they could.
Her diary is a highly literate, intelligent, and thoughtful piece of writing, combining the dread and terrible excitement of bombing raids and encroaching armies with the measured recording of the political and social mood of the area.
Iris also kept a diary in the early years of the war, before Mussolini joined Hitler against the Allies, and her astute observation of the mood of the Italian people makes for uncomfortable reading – A chill in the air: an Italian war diary, 1939-1940
May Smith was a schoolteacher before the war began, and she remained on throughout the six long, dreary years.
A bright and opinionated writer, May’s diary captures the boredom and repetition of village life for an energetic young person. As her friends marry off and move away, she questions whether she will ever leave this way of life.
May recounts the films she sees and the clothes she makes and buys far more often than war news or hardships. For her, war was nothing but a mild inconvenience, and her diary is all the more interesting for that.
Writing her diary for the Mass Observation Project, Kathleen Hey charts a life of drudgery in a job that was made infinitely harder by war. Rationing turned the already detailed work of shopkeepers into an endless balancing act between ordering, supplying, and trying to follow all the rules laid down by the Ministry of Food.
Kathleen’s war was one of counting and recounting, trying to maintain a life of the mind while spending every day adding up ration tickets and scolding people for not registering correctly. When she ceases writing in 1945, the reader is left desperately hoping she managed to find a life outside the tiny village shop that trapped her for so long.
The final title is half-diary, half-reminiscence. Noreen Riols had arguably the most interesting job of all these women: she was a trainer in the highly secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) based in London.
When she writes about herself and her war experiences, Noreen sparkles. She is witty, self-deprecating, and wry. But she spends a too-large portion of this book writing about the tragic lives of those SOE agents she worked with, and not enough about her fascinating life working with them. This is still worth reading just for the eye-popping stories of training SOE agents not to talk about their misisons – even in bed…
Have I missed any women’s war diaries? Have you read any of the other Mass Observation Project writers? Let me know in the comments!
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