Roamer: Awesome stories of women at war and their heroism on the front line

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Last week Ballymena-reader James McIlhatton introduced us to a chimney sweep from Italy and a sheep farmer from Nepal who fought in two world wars and received the highest honours for bravery.

Both were on Mr McIlhatton’s list of “aged war veterans from different nationalities who served with great courage.”

Lazare Ponticelli, who emigrated from Italy to Paris in his teens, was regarded as France’s last surviving soldier of the Great War when he died on March 12, 2008 aged 110 years and 79 days.

Bhanbhagta Gurung, born in a tiny hill-village in western Nepal, died aged 86, also in 2008, having fought heroically as a Sergeant with King Edward’s Gurkha Rifles during WWII.

Ponticelli was awarded a Croix de Guerre and a Legion of Honour, and Gurung received a Victoria Cross.

James McIlhatton’s list of war veterans from various parts of the world, including Germany, didn’t just recount older folk who’d lived to tell their wartime tales, but there were several fascinating women’s stories amongst his chronicles of heroism.

A few years ago a News Letter reader told us about Flora Sandes, a 40-year-old British woman who joined the Serbian army during WWI, became a sergeant-major, was wounded by a grenade, and received the Serbian Army’s highest bravery award.

There are many similarly awesome stories of women at war, in faraway fields of conflict; on the front lines, in bomb-torn cities, in POW camps and on the home front – spies, snipers, fliers and nurses – with countless awards for bravery, often posthumously.

Resistance heroine Nancy Wake – the ‘White Mouse’– led 7,000 men against the Nazis and was WWII’s most decorated woman with a George Medal, a Resistance Medal, and a Croix de Guerre.

She died in London just before her 99th birthday in 2011. Soviet sniper Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko – nicknamed ‘Lady Death’ – was a legendary 25-year-old female sharpshooter who killed 300 Nazis during WWII at battles in Odessa and Sevastopol.

After the war Lyudmila completed a university degree, became a historian and died on October 10, 1974 aged 58.

Noor Inayat Khan was an Indian princess who spied for Britain in WWII.

She was the first female wireless operator sent to Nazi-occupied France during WWII.

Constantly on the move for three months she was captured, imprisoned, escaped, recaptured, tortured and shot by the Gestapo at Dachau concentration camp in 1944.

Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949.

Returning to James McIlhatton’s list of wartime heroes, his outline introductions included “one of the few women who, with other freedom fighters, risked their lives fighting General Franco’s forces.”

She was Rosario Sánchez Mora “named Dynamite Woman because she made hand grenades,” James explained, offering the rather gruesome detail “she lost her right hand from a much safer product than the ones she manufactured.”

Roamer discovered a poem that confirmed Mr McIlhatton’s account, by Miguel Hernández, a Spanish Republican poet who died in prison in 1942.

The poet honoured Sánchez’s courage with lines that translate somewhat upsettingly:

“Rosario, dinamitera,

On your pretty hand the dynamite

Exposed its fierce attributes.

Looking at it nobody would know

That behind the hand was a heart,

Eager for battle,

Thirsting for explosion.

But now it is not a hand,

The dynamite captured it.”

“After the war she was sentenced to death,” James McIlhatton’s account continued, “but she was later pardoned and died aged 89.”

Rosario Sánchez Mora was born on 21 April 1919 in a Spanish village where her father was a carpenter and tool-maker.

At the age of 16 she went to Madrid and became a seamstress.

When General Franco staged his military coup against the government of Spain’s Second Republic, Rosario enlisted as a volunteer defending Madrid against the Fascist forces.

She was chosen to make grenades, at which she excelled, but in September 1936, whilst attempting to set off a comrade’s explosives, she lost her right hand when the device detonated prematurely.

After medical treatment she worked in the Republican HQ near Madrid, where she met writer and poet Miguel Hernandez who wrote the poem that immortalised Rosario.

She returned to the front as Sergeant in charge of communications, and on September 12, 1937 married fellow-Republican Sergeant Francisco Burcet Lucini.

Her new husband continued fighting and Rosario returned to Madrid, where she gave birth to daughter Helena in July 1938.

Letters from Sergeant Lucini ceased, and she didn’t know whether he had been captured, killed, or escaped to France like thousands of his comrades.

Years later she managed to locate him, remarried with two more children. His marriage to Rosario, like many other Republican marriages in the Civil War, had been declared void by General Franco.

When Madrid fell to the Fascists, Rosario attempted to escape from Spain but was among the thousands captured by the Fascists.

She was condemned to death but her sentence was commuted to 30 years in prison. She served three years before being released.

Forbidden to leave Spain she settled in Madrid where she eked out a meagre living selling food and snuff.

She later rented a tobacconist’s shop, living in a flat above it until she retired.

Rosario Sánchez Mora died aged 89 on April 17, 2008.