Hidden history of women who secretly served in Yorkshire Cold War bunker revealed

Eileen Ferguson (left) and Jo Clark in the Air Defence Operations room in the Cold War underground bunker at Holmpton near Hull. The pair were Air Defence Operators at RAF Holmpton.
Eileen Ferguson (left) and Jo Clark in the Air Defence Operations room in the Cold War underground bunker at Holmpton near Hull. The pair were Air Defence Operators at RAF Holmpton.
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Their secret service in an underground Cold War bunker has been under the radar for decades.

But now a new photographic exhibition uncovers the hidden history of thousands of women across Yorkshire on the frontline of Britain’s defence during a time of heightened tension between Russia and the West and fear of nuclear war.

Pat Leckonby from Holmpton a PBX Switchboard Operator from 1966-69 in the Cold War underground bunker at the former RAF Holmpton.

Pat Leckonby from Holmpton a PBX Switchboard Operator from 1966-69 in the Cold War underground bunker at the former RAF Holmpton.

On Friday 100 ex-servicewomen and men reunited for the launch of Hidden: Cold War Women at the Holmpton bunker - which to a casual observer looks like a bungalow, surrounded by a perimeter fence. But it is its “extra large cellar” - 120ft deep and encased in 3ft of solid concrete -and its labyrinth of rooms and corridors which comes a surprise.

Corporal Janet Huitt, a senior aircraftswoman at RAF Patrington, served as an air defence operator at Holmpton, plotting the movements of aircraft on a table familiar from World War Two films.

“Anything that wasn’t identified was a Russian spy plane,” she said. Two Lightning fighters - “the best aircraft the RAF had in my opinion” - would be dispatched to escort them back to Russia. “Sometimes they would wave and smile at our pilots, it was just a game,” she added.

Most women were in their teens when they started and were bussed from nearby villages and Hull to work - 90 women alongside 700 men.

A gentleman takes a look at photographs which are part of a new exhibition 'Cold War Women' by Lee Karen Stow

A gentleman takes a look at photographs which are part of a new exhibition 'Cold War Women' by Lee Karen Stow

She added: “We came here as a local service, we came out of our homes, worked alongside the men and went back when we finished, that was it. We didn’t get pensions, although I got a small gratuity. To get on you had to work twice as hard as the men and you only got two-thirds of men’s pay.”

As well as the huge pay gap, women also faced the ignominy of a dishonourable discharge if they got pregnant - which is what happened to Pat Leckonby, from Holmpton, in 1969.

She and two other women - all were married - decided to tell a female officer they thought would keep it quiet. But she reported it to the flying officer - who took a more sympathetic view.

However Mrs Leckonby still had to leave when she was five months pregnant. “We just thought it was the rules and didn’t question it,” she said.

The only physical signs of the vast Cold War underground bunker at former RAF Holmpton

The only physical signs of the vast Cold War underground bunker at former RAF Holmpton

Jo Clark, who was 19, when she started at Holmpton in 1961, made the long journey from Saugeen Shores in Ontario to the launch: “When we came it was the end of conscription and there were lots and lots of people here, that first year we had a ball.

"I don’t think we felt that we were doing anything important - in a lot of ways we were very naive.

“If there was an invasion we would be the first to go, but we didn’t see it that way.

“We were just young and had good money and were treated very well by the officers. It was an experience I would never want to miss. That’s why I came over - I have lived in Canada over 50 years - but they are very special to me.”

Photographer Lee Karen Stow spent a year and a half tracking down women for the project - above ground and below.

They include Royal Observer Corps, volunteers, tasked with recording the direction of a nuclear bomb and its radiation fallout and protestors at Greenham Common.

The stories remained hidden partly because of the Officials Secrets Act, and because the women did not think it was of any interest.

She said: “There’s never been an exhibition about Cold War women - as someone said it’s been under the radar for 60 years.”

See www.visitthebunker.com/opening-times-prices/ It runs from today until November.

Admission prices are adult £9, over 65s £8, under 16s £7 and family (2 plus 2) £28.