I thought this little chapter might entertain at least those of my relatives who are also descended from Grace O'Malley, the pirate chief and confidante of Queen Elizabeth I. My favourite story of Granuaile, as she is also known, is this: she was in labour on board her pirate ship when the first mate came crashing in.
“Yer honour, there's a Turkish ship trying to draw up alongside. What shall we do?”
“I'll show you what to do,” she said, with which she picked up a blunderbuss, staggered to the side of the ship, and discharged it at the Turks.
Personally I have had very little to do with fighting women. The only terrorist I have ever met was when I was a student. I was introduced to a stunningly beautiful Venezuelan with a cascade of shimmering black hair and deep violet eyes that a man would love to drown in. Mmm. Er... This paragon of female pulchritude held some sort of speed record for stripping down and reassembling a machine gun. She was a friend of Ílyich Ramírez Sánchez, the world's most wanted terrorist, better known to the world's press as Carlos the Jackal. She told me how she had turned her university into and armed fortress in the pursuance of some dispute, as one does. Some years later, I missed meeting Gudrun Elslin, the third leader of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, by one day. I was in Germany and she was in Abingdon.
Anti-terrorist personnel are trained to “take the woman out first”. This is counter-intuitive and opposed to a man's deepest protective instincts. The reason is that whereas a man, seeing himself surrounded with no hope of escape, will lay down his weapon and surrender, a woman will charge her assailants and try to kill as many as possible before she is gunned down.
Ancient Greek explorations had a brake put on them by legends of Amazons. Boadicea (properly Boudicca or Buddug) devastated Londinium and came close to making Britain too hot for the Romans. Moving into modern history, we find among the desperadoes who conquered Mexico a lieutenant of Hernán Cortés called María Estrada, who could slice off a man's head and shoulder with one swing of her broadsword. The nineteenth-century Kings of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) maintained a personal bodyguard of Amazons, whose reputation for cruelty and savagery contributed considerably to European ideas of Darkest Africa.
The eighteenth-century Royal Navy had many stories of women who served in it. Some joined up to be with their boyfriends, and their disguise went undetected until they had babies. Or so it was said. That reminds me of the Shakespearean theatre, where women were banned from appearing on stage. So boys played women's parts. Actually, women often played the part of boys pretending to be women, with two fingers raised to the Government, the Church, and the City of London over the river. (To savour the complexity of sexual innuendo that must have delighted the mainly complicit audience, read As You Like It. Actual women pretending to play boys in order to play women's parts disguise themselves as boys to avoid sexual harassment, only to find...) In the Navy, no doubt the Captain's moll drew a sailor's pay, and she only had to caparison herself as a man if the Admiral came aboard. Such hanky-panky only helped to add to the Royal Navy's mystique, which was professionally cultivated by professional propagandists such as the songwriter Thomas Dibdin.
Moving to the early nineteenth century, let us take a look at the great Victorian hero Admiral Cochrane. Cochrane's British reputation was earned as a ship's captain during the Napoleonic Wars. After Trafalgar, Boney tried to rebuild the French fleet, but Cochrane prevented him by constructing a 1,500 ton bomb and sailing it up the Gironde. This must have been the biggest ever man-made explosion until Vimy Ridge. He was court-marshalled for wasting naval stores and equipment! Cochrane had been thought to be “not the marrying kind”, but at the age of forty he surprised everybody by marrying the sixteen-year-old Katherine Corbett Barnes. Typically, this landed him in jail, because his bride was a Ward of Court and they eloped to be married under Scots Law by the blacksmith at Gretna Green. His bride promptly collected enough gunpowder to blast open the jail where her husband was held, thus earning her soubriquet “Fighting Kitty Cochrane”. After Cochrane was kicked out of the Navy (literally; this was a ceremonial way of dismissing an officer with maximum disgrace) for playing a minor part in a colossal Stock Exchange swindle, he was head-hunted by O'Higgins to be Admiral of the rebel Chilean navy. He stole such few Spanish ships as he found in the southern port of Valdivia, and sailed them to Callao, the port of Lima, to attack the main Spanish navy that was stationed there. Meanwhile, Fighting Kitty Cochrane, now aged twenty-one, led a guerrilla army north through Chile, east across the Andes into what is now Bolivia, across Lake Titicaca into Peru, then down the mountains to join with San Martín in a landward attack on Lima. Cactus enthusiasts will recognise that this is an arduous journey even today. That a young woman should lead an army along that route two centuries ago is astonishing.
Generally speaking, though, women have been traditionally excluded from military activities involving combat. Traditionally, therefore, women used to attach themselves to armies in order to darn the socks and undertake whatever other services women do for soldiers. They were called in Latin impedimenta, or in Russian tovarishchnitsa. [There is an unfortunate pun here. Russian Communists called each other tovarishch (male comrade), but the word for female comrade is tovarishchnitsa, which also means “baggage”.] General Hooker, during the American Civil War, had the bright idea of formalising his baggage train by providing waggons for them. This improved the mobility of his army considerably. The women of the baggage train were called “hookers”. Hitler decreed that women should confine themselves to the Three K's: Kirche, Küche, Kinder; or in English, retaining the Three K's: Kirk, Kitchen, Kids. The Russians did not have this luxury; they faced extermination. So women did not merely make munitions, they used them. They fought in the tanks that they assembled. In the Battle of Kursk (July 1943), Soviet women drove the tanks that they had just made, still unpainted, into battle. When they ran out of ammunition they simply used their tanks as battering rams on suicide missions. This was the greatest armoured battle in history and it marked the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.
German troops on the Eastern Front had to suffer persistent harassment from the Nachthexen, or Night Witches. Let me explain. In the late 1920's, at the suggestion of his Commissar for Agriculture, one Academician Williams (a Welshman!), Stalin organised all the country's arable land into collective farms. Partly to make the best use of scarce resources, but more particularly to extend tight political control over the countryside, Machine and Tractor Stations were established, each to serve a group of collective farms. The equipment available included light aircraft specially designed for crop-spraying. These were biplanes with wide wings, capable of turning very sharply in order to go back and forth across the fields. They had a maximum speed of 130 kph and could carry 250 kg of insecticide. These planes were requisitioned by the military and converted to carry 250 kg of bombs. Their women pilots would attack the Germans' sleeping quarters at night. They cut their engines on starting their approach, so that the only sound they made was the eerie hum of the wind whistling through the wires that bound the wings together. That is why they were called Nachthexen. Having discharged their 250 kg of bombs, they flew back to base to reload. One woman got the Order of Lenin for carrying out 800 missions of this type. The Germans' Messerschmitts could not catch them, because they could turn on their own length, and besides their maximum speed was way below the stalling speed of a sophisticated fighter plane.
British women played a larger part in pursuing the war than the women of any other country. Officially they were excluded only from combat duties. Unofficially, however, not everything was as it seemed. Let us take the case of Penny Witherington. Miss Witherington, a well-brought up young lady with a French mother, resented the German occupation of France. So she volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive. During her training she won the annual prize at Bisley for being the best rifle shot in the British army. Then she was parachuted into North-West France, where she organised an army of some two thousand resistance fighters. With her characteristic uniform of a necklace of Mills bombs, a Thompson gun where most women hold their babies, and a Browning machine pistol instead of a handbag, she terrorised the occupation forces. In June 1944 the Americans were protected on their right flank by the Witherington Army, giving them the freedom to drive east and north-east. Brest remained in enemy hands until VE-Day, but it was no danger to anybody, because the Germans were bottled in by Miss Witherington. After the War the British Government were at a loss to know how to recognise her achievements. They would not give her a military award because women did not fight; but she refused a civilian honour on the grounds that “nothing I did during the war was civil”.
Since the Second World War women have continued to make the occasional mark on the history of armed conflict. For some years the Indian Government was much perplexed by the woman leader of a Maoist insurgency that was noted for its savagery and brutality. After the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center, the planes that bombed Bin Laden's presumed hide-out in Afghanistan were piloted by women. The planes took off from Kentucky and were refuelled several times in the air. It is very satisfying to know that women should have been instrumental in attacking that most bigoted and murderous of dark-age revivalists.
Currently (2018) the most fearsome, disciplined and successful army in the Middle East is the women's section of the Kurdish Peshmerga. (Kurdish pesh = “face”, merga = “death”). This is a force of Muslims fighting to destroy the Daesh and rid women of the burka. Hooray.