The time the Red Cross tried to fix WW2 with doughnuts & dames

Meet The Clubmobile and the badass women who risked life and limb to travel to the front line…and deliver coffee and doughnuts to homesick troops. It might sound daft, but this scheme was crucial in boosting morale and keeping soldiers going during WW2.

Taking part in any active duty during a war is tough, but when you’re hundreds of miles from home in a totally different country hounded by the constant threat of death, it’s gonna make you miss home comforts. Which is why during WW2, The American Red Cross came up with, erm… a truly innovative way to give their boys overseas a taste of back home (and by innovative, we of course mean batshit)

America joined the war effort in December of 1941. And pretty soon, The good old US of A was getting reports back that their overseas troops were miserable. Unsurprising, considering war is an utter horror!

So the American Red Cross decided to try and bring US home comforts to Europe. They set up clubs and lounges in a blitz torn London and at some surrounding army barracks, where there were dances, coffee, food and good times all round. But what about the boys about to be shipped off to France? After all, they were feeling the fear most of all!

The Army asked The Red Cross to step in again and help. New York banker Harvey. D Gibson, happened to be the American Red Cross Commissioner to Great Britain and he had an idea! What if they could give the American’s the same home comforts, but on wheels! Thus, the Clubmobile was born.

A hot cup of coffee would be easy enough to serve up. But what about classic American food? Now obviously, they couldn’t serve up hamburgers from a tiny wagon on wheels that was parked next to a battlefield. So they came up with a close second, something that would surely bring a tear of joy to every traumatised soldier – doughnuts.

Me too… 🍩

A prototype Clubmobile was quickly pulled together, from an adapted Ford truck with a 10 horsepower engine that was dubbed the ‘St Louis’. Inside the truck was a little kitchen complete with doughnut maker and a hob to boil up water for coffee. 

Next they had to staff it. So a call was sent out across America for Clubmobile Girls. You had to be between the ages of 25 to 35 (so, hardly a girl then) and have some college education or work experience. You also needed to be ‘healthy, physically hardy, sociable and attractive.’

They were inundated with applications from women who wanted to help with the war effort and have an adventure overseas. These girls were quickly recruited and trained up on how to use the doughnut machine and make coffee by the bucketload…I guess they hoped that dodging bullets would hopefully just come naturally. 

A trainee Clubmobile girl Rosemary Norwalk  wrote to her family in 1943 that

“The biggest surprise to me has been the girls – almost without exception they‘re a cut above, and for some reason I hadn‘t expected that. There‘s not a dull one in the bunch.”


Group K Clubmobile girls in Leicester, England 1944

The initial pilot Clubmobile was a roaring success! So the Red Cross adapted a handful of London Green Line Buses to become Clubmobiles. These ones even had a small lounge, complete with a victrola, records, and paperback books!

The ‘girls’ also fought to get more useful items added to their clubmobiles, asking for gum, cigarettes, candy and (of course!) first aid kits for the soldiers. These women were looking out for their boys.

But these women were about to need A LOT more than first aid kits, because the Allied Army was cooking up something big: The Normandy Invasion of 1944. And, of course, for such a big fight, they wanted the Clubmobiles along to follow the army and keep troops morale up.

These brave women didn’t hesitate to say yes. But they couldn’t take the buses overseas. So the super hardy armoured Clubmobile was born. Made from converted 2 and a half ton GMC trucks. They had the kitchen and the lounge room (that doubled as bunks if the women couldn’t get to the base) and they even adapted one as a mobile cinema.

The Clubmobile girls would be driving these trucks and were trained on how to maintain them throughout their time overseas. Suddenly these women were learning new skills and being given responsibilities some of them never dreamed they could have.

Advert for Clubmobiles. Because of segregation there were seperate ones for white & black troops.

100 Clubmobiles were made, and then after the Normandy Invasion, 10 groups of Clubmobile girls and 8 Clubmobiles were initially sent over to follow the Army through their retaking of allied territory.

These women were in the thick of war and experienced the hardships and horrific injuries the soldiers faced every day. They took their role as relief from the fighting seriously.

Most of the women were single, with a few exceptions. Eleanor Stevenson, worked as a Clubmobile girl so she could follow her new husband, soldier William Edward Stevenson, through enemy territory and keep involved in the war effort.

That right there, is true love

It was hard work operating the Clubmobiles, shifts started at all hours and women did regular shifts from 8pm to 7am. The conditions were hellish and they were expected to stay open through all weather. Not all of the women could do it.

Mary McLeod from Oregon lasted 6 months on the Clubmobiles before ill health had her request to be sent back to a land club, she was in her early 30’s during her stint as a Clubmobile girl. She wrote home in 1944 that working took a:

“―terrific toll… you have to be the Amazon type and on the young side, and I am neither.”

Mary Metcalfe Texford was in the first group of women to land on Utah beach after the invasion and she wrote about her experiences following the Army. The devastation they saw and even on one occasion having to stay up all night because the threat of Nazi’s launching an attack was a very real possibility. They witnessed horrors too, with Mary recalling she saw a:

“boy get blown up by a mine while eating his doughnut and coffee.”

But Mary had to continue serving and got on with her work.

And it wasn’t just the boys they served who lost their lives. Clubmobile girl, Elizabeth Richardson lost her life in 1945, whilst transferring to join the troops in Germany, when her Red Cross plane crashed.

Elizabeth Richardson with her clubmobile, just a few months before her death

The Clubmobiles and the women who ran them, stayed with the Allied Army Forces through until the end of WWII on the 2nd of September 1945. A small number of Clubmobiles stayed behind in occupied Germany and some in London to keep the American troops who stayed behind in doughnuts and coffee.

In fact, the Clubmobile was such a success that a variation was used during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

That was interesting, where can I find out more? Well some of the Club Girls have memoirs! Mary Metcalfe Rexfords’ Battlestars & Doughnuts and Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys by historian James H Madison on the experiences of Rosemary Norwalk are both a look back at life as Clubmobile Girls.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The Edelweiss Pirates: the teens that bought down Hitler

Gertrude Koch wasn’t like other 17 year old girls. What with her living under Nazi rule in Cologne, Germany, during WW2, that’s not exactly surprising; after all, her days were spent recovering from the latest air raid and picking her way through bombed out streets.

But that wasn’t what made Gertrude stand out.

See, at night night Gertrude would risk her life to shelter allied soldiers and escaped prisoners. Yeah… not so normal.

Gertrude Koch
Don’t let the awkward teen visage fool you, she’s badass to the core

Together with other rebel teens, Gertrude rained anti-Hitler leaflets down from the roof of Colognes Train Station, helped break into food warehouses to feed the imprisoned and daubed anti-Nazi slogans on every building she could.

Gertrude was an Edelweiss Pirate and she and thousands of teenagers like her risked everything to tear down the Nazi regime in any way they could.

Yet the Edelweiss Pirates remained largely forgotten by history – until now…

Lets do this thing!

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Prepare yourself for some awesome forgotten history

In the late 1930s bands of teenage resistence groups sprang up throughout Germany.

Created by teenagers who wanted nothing to do with the Hitler Youth or League of German Girls; they called themselves, The Edelweiss Pirates (which btw is a way better name than Hitler Youth!)

Almost all were working class. These teens worked in factories and mills in the day, then as soon as their shift was over they’d don their metal Edelweiss pins and head to the hills to frolic with their mates.

Now this may sound super wholesome… but it was also super illegal.

You see outside of the state sanctioned youth groups, it was illegal for teens to go outside set zones within their regions.

It was a ridiculous law and the pirates happily stuck two fingers up to it, proudly heading off on hikes, carrying guitars so they could sing anti-Nazi songs round the campfire.

The Edelwiess Pirates .jpg
I present the definition of no fucks being given.

As the Nazi regime grew, so did the law breaking pursuits of the Edelweiss Pirates.

They were soon painting buildings with anti-Nazi slogans, jokes and messages. One official reported:

‘These youths who have been inscribing the walls with the slogans “Down with Hitler”, “The OKW (Oberkommande des Wehrmacht) is lying”, “Down with Nazi brutality”.

Unsurprisingly the Nazis (not known as history’s fun-sters) wanted to crush the troublemaking teens.

Edelweiss Pirates were quickly rounded up by police; then they had their heads shaved and were thrown in prison.

But of course… that didn’t stop them.

Edielwess Pirates with guitars
‘Oh these? These are our about to fuck shit up short shorts’

As the war ramped up so did the Pirates.

They were now giving shelter to escaped prisoners of war, Jewish people, and even allied troops.

They didn’t stop there.

The Edelweiss Pirates started to militarise themselves and within months they were running armed raids on Nazi bases for the supplies needed to distribute food and aid.

Soon they were planning missions to destroy Nazi weapons and attack Gestapo bases.

You can imagine how happy the Nazis were about this…

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Yeeeeah… just to reiterate: The Nazis. Not histories most chill guys

In one night in 1942, over 1000 Edelweiss Pirates were arrested by the Gestapo.

Gertrude Kloch was one of them. Aged just 17 she was roughly interrogated and thrown into prison.

She was lucky.

The Pirates has proven themselves to be an unceasing thorn in the regimes side and the Nazis weren’t shitting around anymore.

In 1944, 12 teens and young men were publicly hung in Cologne; at least 6 were Edelweiss Pirates.

Anecdotal evidence from former pirates suggest that many more were executed without trial, their deaths never recorded. Edielwiess Pirates

Yet, despite the deaths in their ranks, the Edelweiss Pirates never stopped.

They steadfastly remained a constant pain in Hitlers arse, right until the end of the war.

cheering.gif
Seriously. These kids – just the best god damn teens in history

After the war, the Pirates refused to take the allied side. The only thing they wanted to do with their new occupying authority was to work out a patrolling rota so they could go back to keeping their local streets safe.

See, the pirates weren’t interested in backing one allied authority over another.

They warned against making things about politics again; understandable since last time Germany had done that… you know… Hitler happened.

Sadly, however reasonable the Pirates argument, the allies were not having it.

They shunned the pirates and as such, didn’t remove their previous criminal records (from the Nazi regime) which meant any pirates with criminal records from this period remained ‘war criminals’

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Yeah… don’t try to look for logic in that

It would be literal decades until the Edelweiss Pirates had their criminal records wiped and were officially (AND FINALLY) recognised as resistance fighters (this happened in 2005 for you date lovers)

Sadly many Pirates weren’t there to see their names cleared.

but 81 year old Gertrude Koch was.

Sure, Gertrude was happy to finally have the recognition the Edelweiss Pirates deserved… but she hadn’t lost her fighting spirit. So she stood up and declared to the awaiting press:

‘We were from the working classes. That is the main reason why we have only now been recognised’ 

which ya know … true

Gertrude then picked up a guitar and headed off to join Colognes surviving Edelweiss Pirates as they proudly sang their anti-Nazi anthems once more.

Surviving Edelwiess Pirates .jpg
The last of Colognes Pirates in 2005, singing anti-nazi songs after being officially being declared resistance fighters. By 2016, Gertrude was the last surviving member of the group. She died that year, aged 92… of course one of the last things she did was recount her badass days as a pirate to a journalist, so that the Edelweiss Pirates could live on.

The Hollywood Canteen: starlets, pie and murder

The brain child of Bette Davies and John Garfield, The Hollywood canteen served up wartime escapism with more than a dollop of movie magic.

Opening in 1942, the canteen only served serviceman, but that’s not what made the canteen so special….see it was entirely staffed by Hollywoods entertainment elite. Rita Hayworth dished up pie, Shirley Temple worked behind the bar, Betty Grable waitressed and Marlene Dietrich washed dishes. It was a movie bought to life, players and all.

Rita Hayworth serves pie at The Hollywood Canteen
Interestingly, Rita Hyaworth and I have the same pie cutting outfit

The incredible impact it made in cheering up the troops can not be denied…but the Hollywood Canteen couldn’t run on star power alone. With 3 million servicemen pouring through it’s doors (and those men getting through at least 30,000 gallons of punch a month!) there just weren’t enough celebrities to both make films and wash mountains of dishes.

 

So the canteen hired a small army of junior hostesses. Beautiful young women who dreamed of making it big in Hollywood, they jumped at the chance to both help the war effort and potentially get plucked from obscurity.

Now working for the canteen was a big deal! Sure you didn’t get paid, sure most of your work was cleaning up, serving and being made to dance…but you guys…there was a film about The Hollywood Canteen, stars and studio big wigs dotted it’s halls and to work there was a chance to be someone; if just for one night. im a star.gif

But, once hired, The junior hostesses had to play by a whole bunch of rules! They had to maintain their looks, they weren’t to even think about stepping on the floor with a hair out of place. They must dress appropriately and act appropriately at all times. And most importantly…they had to be good girls – so no going home with the servicemen!

Good food, good girls and good clean all American fun…

What could possibly go wrong?

 

Georgette Bauerdorf newspaper cutting
well shit. 

Georgette Bauerdorf

Oil Heiress, Georgette moved to Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress. So naturally, like scores of other budding starlets, she snagged a job as a junior hostess at The Hollywood Canteen.

Georgette was immediately a very popular hostess: charismatic and beautiful, her dance card was full. Georgette BauerdorfBut the good times didn’t last. On the night of 11 October 1944, Georgette finished up another shift as a junior hostess, hopped in her car and headed home.

The next morning, her cleaner found Georgettes body face down in her bath tub. She’d been raped and strangled.

There was no sign of a break in, no sign of a struggle, nothing of value had been stolen; though Georgette did have some bruising, the killer had left no other trace. The last anyone ever heard of Georgette was a scream:

‘You’re killing me’

(Note: By the way, if you ever hear something like this, please be a babe and call the police immediately)

To this day, Georgettes murderer remains unfound….. But don’t worry, that’s not the end, of course not…the internet exists! So there are looooooots of theories

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web sleuths in one gif

Some arm chair theorists believe Georgette was a victim of the Black Dahlia murderer…but the evidence on that one is pretty shaky (like HH Holmes is Jack the Ripper shaky…) So we’re just gonna discount that right now.

Where does that leave us? Well…it all points back to one place:The Hollywood Canteen.jpgAccording to her friends and weirdly also her Dad’s secretary, Georgette dated some of the men she had met whilst at work in The Hollywood Canteen; though she always did so under a shroud of secrecy, keen not to be shown breaking Canteen rules.

When going out with these men, Georgette insisted on footing the bill (after all she was an heiress and they weren’t making the big bucks in the army!) her good will didn’t end there. If she saw a soldier looking lost, she’d offer him a lift. If she saw someone counting their pennies at a sandwich counter, she’d pay for their meal.

Basically, Georgette was a good egg and through The Hollywood Canteen she soon amassed a whole network of soldiers she helped, dated and befriended.

The night of her death was no different, with Georgette meeting two very different servicemen. Georgette Bauerdorf in her carThe first was an overbearing young solider. He followed Georgette around during her shift at The Hollywood Canteen, insisting she dance with him. Even when she obliged he continued to cut in on her work all night, arguing he needed anouther dance.

By the end of her shift, Georgette managed to shake the arse hole off and hopped in her car. That’s when she met serviceman 2; he seemed lost so Georgette pulled over and offered him a lift.

The man later reported that she seemed skittish and scared during the drive. This guy wasn’t the only one who thought Georgette seemed scared; earlier that night she begged a fellow junior hostess to sleep over, but refused to say why.

So what happened? Well, investigators thought it likely that Georgette knew her killer. With most of the men in her life from The Hollywood Canteen, perhaps someone followed her home? Maybe an ex came back to town or she’d been arranging an after work secret date.

Georgettes case remains open, but with any leads long gone, it’s very unlikely this Hollywood mystery will ever be solved. Hello darkness gif.gif

Ok, that was all the bleak.

Let’s end things on a more positive note, with the story of one of Georgettes fellow Junior Hostesses:

Florida Edwards.

In 1942, Florida suffered a nasty Jitterbug injury (yes, apparently that was a thing in the 40s). Whilst jitterbugging with a marine, she was thrown across the room, landing on her spine and leaving her bedridden and unable to take on work for a month.

Flordia felt that that the Canteen hadn’t looked out for her wellbeing. The floor had been slippery and during the unfortunate jitterbug she called for help, but nobody came… and so she was going to sue their sorry arses for $17,250!

lawyer up gif
Because Floridas coming for all your tap shoes!

Flordia took the stand and explained that she was iky (if you’re not hip to jive, that means: ‘I don’t like to do jive dancing’) , saying:

‘Jitterbugging is a very peculiar dance. Personally I don’t like it. It reminds me of the jungle antics of natives.’

Once she’d finished throwing in some casual racism, Florida went on to explain that when the Marine asked her to Jitterbug she had refused, instead standing stock still.

The Marine apparently took this is a firm ‘yes’ and threw Florida around the room, finally propelling her into an almighty (and soon to be catastrophic) spin, from which there was no coming back.

Fellow Hollywood Canteen worker, Luise Walker, backed Florida up and explained that in a spin like that, no dancer could have controlled her landing.

The Hollywood Canteen were having none of this and actually bought in a ‘jive expert’, Connie Roberts, to demonstrate how safe jitterbugging was. Connie had a partner throw her across the court in a dangerous spin to prove how much control a woman had in the landing:Connie Roberts in court, presenting jive evidence in defence of The Hollywood Canteen.pngDespite dancing evidence, the judge sided with Florida, mainly on the grounds that after everything he had seen, he felt that jitterbugging was a:

 ‘weird dance of obscure origins’

Florida was awarded $8170 (which in todays money isn’t enough to buy a house –damn you economy! – but is enough to have a lot of fun with…or I don’t know, invest wisely or whatever)

Case finished, Florida went outside the court to meet the press, where she pulled this amazing face:

Flordia Edwards
Hero. 

This was really interesting where can I find out more? Well, theres a great book on The Hollywood Canteen called (get ready for the worlds longest title): ‘The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced With the Most Beautiful Girls in the World’

If you’re after something shorter I suggest checking out amazing podcast, You Must Remember This, it’s all about Hollywood History and is one of my favourite things.

Theres a great episode on the canteen called: ‘Star Wars Episode 1: Bette Davis and The Hollywood Canteen.’ (this is actually part of a series called Star Wars, looking at how Hollywood dealt with WW2, its great, go binge listen!)

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