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Women's own

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was the brainchild of a former British cavalryman, Captain E C Baker, who envisaged a corps of Florence Nightingales on horseback to back up the cavalry in skirmishes as well as rescue the wounded, writes Martyn Cox. The first recruits in 1907 were "respectable young women" aged between 17 and 35 who had to pay an enrolment fee and subscriptions to their HQ and riding school, and buy their own uniforms and first aid kits.

In 1914, there were only 40 volunteers, but by the height of the the First World War several hundred were serving at the Belgian and French fronts. They ran canteens and field hospitals and drove ambulances under fire (powered by motor rather than horse).

Their numbers grew in the Second World War (the total number serving in both wars was 10,000). By 1939, most Fanys had been absorbed into the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Their main role was in transport - they drove staff cars and lorries and delivered munitions, secret documents and emergency blood supplies. Fanys also worked at radar and anti-aircraft gun sites, and many provided welfare services for the thousands of Polish soldiers who regrouped in Britain before returning to fight on the Continent. They drove ambulances throughout the Blitz, and after D-Day some took ambulances by landing craft to Normandy.

Many hundreds of Fanys had retained their independence as "Free Fanys". In 1940, when Churchill created the Special Operations Executive with instructions to "set Europe ablaze", the Fany was a perfect source of spirited, intelligent women who could help resistance work in occupied countries.

Some Free Fanys worked at SOE's secret HQ at 64 Baker Street, London; others helped train agents and ran safe houses. Many more, like Marian Jones, were crucial backroom girls at secret communications stations.

Fany volunteers enjoyed a strange but convenient blend of military and civilian status; while they were traditionally unpaid, during the Second World War they received a salary. They were the only female units allowed to carry arms (paradoxically, for a corps founded on first aid). The uniform implied that its wearer was a driver of some kind, and provided a front for more clandestine activities. So the Fany was ideal cover for the SOE's female field operatives training in Britain for undercover work in France.

Of the 39 Fany agents, a third died in German concentration camps although others survived capture and imprisonment. Of only four women to be awarded the George Cross, the first three were wartime Fanys: Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Khan (both posthumously) and Odette Hallowes.

The most famous Fany of recent years is probably the late Sue Ryder CMG OBE - the campaigner and social worker who became Baroness Ryder of Warsaw, having worked with the Polish section of SOE.

In 1999, the Fany was officially renamed the Princess Royal's Volunteer Corps (Princess Anne is commandant-in-chief) but is still known as the Fany. It is an independent, self-funding organisation that supports police and military authorities in various specialised communications work: in casualty bureaux during military operations in the Gulf War and more recent conflicts; or in call centres after civil emergencies such as the Hatfield rail disaster. Today, there are 100 active Fanys plus 600 veteran members such as Mrs Jones. Ideal recruits are 18 to 45-year-olds who live or work within the M25. They are trained in first aid, driving military vehicles and communications skills. "We recruit young women who are bright and enthusiastic - and have a sense of humour," says the corps commander, Lynda Rose. "IT skills and languages are also a priority.

"We expect the Charlotte Gray film to bring some attention to the women who served in both wars - and help make the public, especially potential recruits, aware that we are still very much a going concern."

Charlotte Gray, directed by Gillian Armstrong, and starring Cate Blanchett as Charlotte, is on general release from February 22. See documentary, Behind Enemy Lines: the Real Charlotte Grays (Channel 4, February 17, 8pm), tells the true stories of four SOE Fanys who worked in occupied France. Additional information about the role of women in war, with a resources section including links, is at: www.channel4.comhistoryFor information on current Fany activities, see informative site dedicated to 'the women of the Special Operations Executive' at includes a comprehensive SOE and Fany bibliography. Nancy Wake - the inspiring story of one of the war's greatest heroines by Peter Fitzsimmons (HarperCollins pound;7.99) is a biography to be published next week of the Australian Fany Nancy Wake, who appears in Behind Enemy Lines: the Real Charlotte Grays.In Obedience to Instructions by Margaret Pawley (Pen and Sword pound;19.95, tel: 01226 734555, focuses on the Fanys who served in Algiers, Cairo and Italy in the Second World War. Pen and Sword also publishes Violette Szabo, a biography by Susan Ottaway, later this month (pound;19.95) Martyn Cox is compiling an oral archive of surviving Fany veterans and is associate producer of Behind Enemy Lines:the Real Charlotte Grays

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