- Joan Clary - my grandmother in front of her WWII three-ton lorry

Joan Joins Up - the story of one exceptional woman’s WWII lorry driving effort

My Grandma, Joan Clary, became one of the first six women to drive three-ton lorries for the British war effort in 1940

Hair pins in place, hair twirled at the nape of the neck, crisp khaki dress tunic sitting on the shoulders of a small warrior woman of 5’4; this was my Grandma Stempel. For five years behind her in any photograph would stand a W.D. Three-ton Bedford war lorry. My grandma’s pride in life was that she was one of the first six women to drive an army lorry for the British war effort between 1940 and 1945. She was, quite simply outstanding, as were all the women who volunteered to help in the war – so extraordinary in fact was my grandma that the Daily Mirror made a feature of her enlistment called Joan Joins Up; She’s partner in fight for new Britain. Grandma died when I was very young and for all the time I knew her she had very severe Alzheimer’s. For my own mother I know it has caused great sadness that her children never knew her as the woman from Joan Joins Up, the woman who had the daredevil streak in the family, who was witty and vibrant, sporty and strong, courageous, talented, outstandingly confident and completely and utterly fearless. I may have only known Grandma when she was confused but she was the woman in my family who gave me my gutsy-girl-can-outdo-all-the-boys-attitude and that is something that lives on far stronger in my blood than any memory.

Joan Joins Up - Daily Mirror.

Joan Joins Up - Daily Mirror.

Before I found this article in the newspaper archives I had only seen photographs or heard stories from my mother, my father or my aunts about Grandma. My family has always told me how much I get from Grandma but in recent years as I pursue my driving enthusiasm and my need for speed as a career, these similarities have become the standout in my personality. I always count my father as having given me my love of cars but in truth Grandma had already set the precedent for me to follow long before my father nurtured it out of me. Now, reading this article aged twenty-two I feel I am meeting Grandma for the first time, how everyone else saw her. I am meeting Grandma Joan, the first Girl Behind The Wheel in my family.

Joan Joins Up Daily Mirror

Joan Joins Up Daily Mirror

Grandma joined the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) at 20. The ATS was the women’s branch of the British Army during WWII. 250,000 women volunteered to join the Service between 1938 and 1949 . Grandma left home with one suitcase like all those women to do her part for her country. The Daily Mirror followed Grandma for a whole week at the end of which Grandma would pass a test to start driving lorries for the army. She had to reverse them around the narrow dock lanes in the pitch black of night with no lights to avoid catching the eye of German bombers. In the Daily Mirror articles she was just a girl on her first days. The overwhelming impression of Grandma already though, was one of a woman who had two very clear attitudes to life she would always follow. Firstly, as a woman if you want to do something then get on and do it and that’s how you show the boys how it is done – equality is made through actions not words. Secondly, and most importantly for Britain, for her legacy and for myself as her motoring journalist granddaughter – get driving. These attitudes made her a driver of three-ton war lorries despite not knowing how to drive a car, the apparent fastest driver you’ve ever seen (to a terrifying extent when you are my 19-year-old father being taught how to drive by his future mother-in-law through the streets of London) and a woman who could do simply anything she put her mind to. “I believe there will be just as many women talking to their children about what they did in the Army at the end of this war as there were men at the end of the last war.” She was right of course– WWII changed the landscape for women forever because of their unprecedented help in the war effort.

Joan Clary - kneeling with her dog.

Joan Clary - kneeling with her dog.

Grandma’s lorry driving experiences are just the start of her life-long love affair with driving. It was also the start of her love affair with my Austrian Jewish grandpa (also a car enthusiast, although the slower paced vintage appreciator sort) whom she would marry and have three children with. It seems I fall into her tyre tread exactly. I was also 20 when I decided that I was investing in my dream car and my motoring future as a writer and journalist. I was 20 when I met the boy who I was meant to explore the world with in my car. For Grandma and for myself, 20 seems to be the magical number when the girl driver lets herself free and realises her life is always going to be going fast and going steady at the same time. I owe Grandma a tremendous amount. She gave me driving but more than that she gave me my heart and soul - the ferociousness of spirit to do something that takes guts. For that and for my mother the least I can do is remember Grandma in writing as Joan Clary - ‘a young woman of a new Britain’.

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Comments (12)

  • Terrific article - I very much enjoyed learning about Joan Clary!

      1 year ago
  • How I can relate to this story. My own mother was in the ATS for five years too. Countless tales she told me about driving everything from trucks to half tracks. At 18 years of age she was driving through Coventry when an air raid started and had to park up in woodland all night to avoid the worst of it . One day she was driving through London and a policeman put his hand up to stop her line of traffic , she could not reach the brake pedal in time as it was a long reach she said she had never seen a policeman leap as high as he jumped out of the way.

    Her major gripe was that the heating and comfort were not as good in the British trucks, she always preferred the American ones she said if it had not been for the Americans we would have struggled to win that war ! She too died if dementia five years ago bless them all had it not been for that stalwart generation we would not be here !

      1 year ago
    • Rick what an incredible story! It sounds like my Grandma and your mother would have got on famously! I bet that policeman always kept out the way when he saw a woman in a truck going past from then on hahaha. Wave them through! What a way to learn...

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        1 year ago
  • Just found this article (bit late to the party) - what a great story about your Grandma Joan, far too many of this generation remained silent of their actions and achievements during that time, we should celebrate all those we do know about...

      8 months ago
  • She was an amazing woman!

      1 year ago
  • This is awesome! :D

      1 year ago
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