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The Womens Auxilliary Airforce served throughout the second world war, taking on ground based tasks to free the men for flying duties.
Four Years In Lifetime, A Lifetime In Four Years
I was 17 years old or even 17 years young, dressed in my best, with the feel of adventure coming on. I wore a grey boucle cloth coat very pale with a silver grey fur collar, grey lizard skin shoes with square toes and squared off heels. What dress I can't remember exactly but I think it was brown with turquoise swathed front, it certainly was my favourite and I did not have that many. It really was an adventure, I'd never travelled so far alone, and Leeds to Bridgenorth seemed along way. The trains then ran more or less on time, and this one had a corridor so you could go to the loo or stretch your legs, but it was getting very full so you needed to be back in your compartment before the train came to a halt in any of what seemed like dozens of stations where even more people packed into the train.
Bridgenorth…….A smallish place and the WAAF training station was a collection of wooden huts with a parade ground, the admin office, the equipment section, the cook house, and sick bay etc. Huts in one area for the permanent staff and huts for the new recruits. We were met at the railway station by lorries into which we had to climb with our luggage (minimum) one case with bare necessities. When we arrived we were led to our billet a hut holding 32 beds a door at each end, windows of course and at one end a small private room occupied by our corporal. We sort of chose our beds, depending on where you were in line. The recruits, some were from the same area and had become a group on the train, some were young and some were to me much older, my sister's age group.
The groups who entered the hut before me were still in those groups and quickly chose beds one end or the other. I ended up midway with some girls of my own age. We were shown the ablution blocks, toilets and wash rooms and invited to test them out, and then taken to the cook house for a meal, somewhere along the way we acquired a knife fork and spoon and an enamel mug. We ate etc, I don't remember what, and then we were herded back to our huts to make up our beds and retire for the night. The beds were iron framed with metal springs and these biscuits, three square hard mattress type things that went together to form the mattress to sleep on. No sheets, one pillow and two blankets. So we obeyed instructions and made up the bed.
The groups had already formed and didn't change much throughout our induction period. At one end, the first ones in the hut were the townies seemingly, at the other the quieter lot (at that time) rather aloof. Later I discovered that they had all work experience mostly in teaching, clerical work, bank clerk's etc established jobs which they had chosen to give up to join up. Us in the middle were mostly like me ex grammar school or private school or young people who had gone into service in private houses when the war and compulsory enrolment had loomed and had chosen the WAAF instead of the land army, nursing, factory work or the other two services. To most of us our first night was quite a shock. At one end we had, as I said, the townies, they seemed to me to come from another planet, they chattered, brushed their hair and mostly left their make up on and were seemingly unabashed by having to undress in public. A lot had really fancy underwear proper bras, we made our own, smoked cigarettes, chewed sweets chocolate etc. Their conversation was alien to me, men seemingly and endless supply, film stars, latest films, latest popular songs and sexual adventures. The other end conservatively dressed, tweeds, raincoats and sensible shoes and hats, undressed under dressing gowns or blankets and talked quietly but audibly about what they had left behind and quite a few knelt by their beds to pray.
It was for us in the middle similar to a tennis match as our heads turned from one end to the other before we suddenly realised what we were doing and grinned at each other I took my clothes down to my slip and then took my stockings off. I'd already been to the ablution block with a towel and a toilet bag where I'd followed the house routine i.e.:- toilet then wash and clean teeth and brush hair, so I climbed into bed and managed to put my pyjamas on after I had peeled off my undergarments with what I had hoped was a little decorum, after all we were all strangers. My group (the middle section) executed a similar strategy and then I can remember so clearly the idiocy of it all hit me and I got the giggles, it was infectious, Peggy and Sally got it first and soon we were all laughing and probably near to tears too as we once again took in the situation at both ends and found that they were pretty silent. Then it was lights out. Silence, we were all in some awe of the hut corporal who on reflection looked a little butch in her smart uniform and parade ground stance and she gave orders. So to bed….sleep came because I was exhausted.
Next morning and oh what a morning. We were rudely awakened by the corporal at 6 o'clock. None of us were ready for that, then the ablutions, beds stripped, biscuits piled up, blankets folded and put on top and then the tick pillow. We mostly dressed in what we had worn the previous day, except because it was raining a few of us had Mac's of sort and some of us had flat shoes, but we were a motley crew when we were lined up for the cook house. The townies, well mostly, had dresses and cardigans and heeled shoes of various styles, some had small jackets, well it was June but very wet. Thirty two bewildered, unhappy girls/women, very wet hair styles…townies again, mostly permed often bleached, bedraggled rats tails, make up… a few had used everything that they had got, feet soaked and wobbly heels, we must have been a sight to see. Breakfast over utensils etc sluiced and dipped into a hot tank of water and then taken away from us. Back to the hut with a now male Sergeant and the female corporal, where we were given a diatribe about keeping the hut clean and a detailed timetable of what was in store for us that day.
1st A medical 2nd Equipment store 3rd Hut a) to put our gear away b) Sweep and mop each bed space and the area of communal space between them. 1st Medical….Strip off etc were they thorough, they even rechecked my sprained ankle which had delayed my induction for a month. Two of the townies had something wrong, but only one stayed late we heard from one of her friends that she was pregnant or as her friends put it " Silly moo got a bun in the oven" Two more were left during the 1st month and another went into hospital with appendicitis ; the rest of us did the whole six weeks course and now at home in our uniforms waited for a chance to take our civvies home, we got and 72 hour pass and our postings for when we returned for our kit and travel warrants.
I never saw or heard from any of them again some were posted together but mine was a single posting to Mountbatten, Plymouth. This was an island just across from the mainland opposite Dartmouth Naval College. I was to work in the Marine section as a Clerk and go for. Mountbatten was a base for Sunderland and Catalina Flying Boats and a favourite bombing run for German planes dropping their loads on Plymouth.
The W.A.A.F's, not that many were billeted in what had been married quarters, 2 and 3 bedroom, we were in 3 and 4 to and room so on average these were 8-10 in a house. My memory of how many houses is fuzzy, there were probably 12-15, down the road were a couple of air raid shelters, the office stores and quays were towards the bay. My work there was mundane requiring no real skills, reading, writing, answering the telephone, filing, no typing thank God - I didn't ever train for that, common sense, checking manifests for supplies in and out and watching the planes land and take off. The planes were magnificent I could see quite a lot from my office typing window and loved it when I had to go to the docks etc. I'd never seen anything like those planes or any other plane close to. The boats took cargo and passengers out to them and picked up cargo and passengers and I took any chance I could to help and climb inside. I did get one short trip, I can't even remember how but I know I was not supposed to be there, but it was exciting and worth the risk of the wrath of my superiors. When we got back our C.O was on the dock and I got into the boat a touch apprehensive but then when we landed at the quay I clambered out with the paper manifests I thin I stuffed them as usual in my jacket and carried on and he said nothing at all, just watched me as I passed him to return to the office, I saluted and sailed on with his questioning stare burning a hole in my back, but that was it. We got time off and spent a lot of it in Plymouth and there was a house at Newton Ferries (out in the countryside where we could spend weekend leaves in groups)
The bombing in Plymouth was horrific and yes we did get scared but we were too angry to get distressed, we saw terrible things ,the worst for us I think was a bomb shelter was hit, a big command one. We'd got stuck in Plymouth that night when the sirens sounded. We knew what we had to do and went to the nearest shelter to wait it out, it was a bad raid and everyone's nerves were tested. When the all clear was sounded we came out like rabbits out of a warren, stretching cramped bodies and patting dust off our uniforms etc, there was nothing standing whole around us, the air was thick with smoke and dust, it was my vision of hell. No one seemed able to say anything we were stupefied by what we were looking at, then there was a flurry of activity everybody running in one direction so we ran too. A shelter had been hit and everyone was trying to help. The buildings round the shelter had also come down it was chaos.
All the effort had to be clearing the entrance the top had tons of masonry etc on top of it. The entrance was caved in and covered in debris. The services ….. Fire and Ambulance etc and the rescue services were stretched to the limit so everyone, civilians, W.A.A.F, R.A.F, Navy etc all joined in the effort so there were six of us W.A.A.F from Mountbatten and probably 12-15 men (it was a small station), quite a few Naval personnel (they were land side). We had no tools, just hands, no cover for out uniforms and we were in skirts, stockings and jackets. We all took our jackets and ties off and put them with our hats and placed them in the custody of and elderly woman, goodness only knows what she was doing there she seemed shocked and more than a little bewildered and could not tell us anything about how many people could be buried in the shelter.
We were on passes which ended at midnight Sunday 48hrs, it was now early Sunday morning, we had been in the shelters all night. Eventually a hole was cleared and the rescue team arrived there were four of them, we all stood back as they investigated. I don't remember how many people were in there but the first few alive and relatively uninjured were near the entrance. Transport for the injured was stuck down the blocked road and workers were heaving and sweating to clear it so that they could get through. The transport came from local people, lorries, flat bed open ones, vans and ambulances, first aiders and St Johns Ambulances workers, doctors, nurses did their best as they were helped out. First out were children, the first few were dirty, bruised and cut and shocked. They were all so grey they looked like little ghosts, their tears streaked their faces, but they were alive and comparatively unhurt. They brought out the injured on stretchers, planks, gates etc. The rescue services were in the shelter with the medics, the children the first few were brought over to our group with blankets etc, the transport was needed for the injured. I was struck by their silence, they did not speak, they sat huddled together on nearby stones and waited. They cried silently, we cried with them and not just the females. Some came round with hot drinks and we held them for the children to drink, they were on automatic pilot, I think we said drink every so often and they did, no hygiene rules we drank from the same cups. Eventually a group of people arrived and took the children away. We couldn't leave, somebody near us muttered something about going but nobody moved.
It was hours later when some Redcaps arrived and some senior Naval personnel and they finally got us moving, we were brain washed to obey orders by then and too exhausted to think so we went. They Navy took us back to Mountbatten and the men and woman alike all piled into my office area, I think maybe my Sgt told us, he was certainly in the office and I can remember his words to me were "Good God girl you're a flipping mess" and ordered us all to sick bay to check, but all we really needed was cleaning up, hands and arms were scratched and grazed and cut, legs them same. Our uniforms filthy and some rips and tears, faces grey and streaked, eyes empty. The medical staff cleaned the abrasions and used iodine and I don't think we noticed and then we were sent to the ablutions to shower, bath, wash whatever. Back in the house eventually we realised that our shirts, stockings and skirts were unusable. It was days before we could talk about it and then not much because we had to go on duty, the raids were going on and on.
About a month later I'd got up a little late and the sirens had gone in Plymouth early morning I think, anyway I was rushing around trying to get myself organised, pushing my hair underneath my hat. I went feet flying out of the house and down the road, I'd just got to the nearest shelter when the crunch came and I was literally catapulted into the doorway of the shelter. I was angry more than hurt, out house was second in the row and only half of these houses seemed to be standing there, luckily the houses were empty people on day duty had gone people on night duty were finishing breakfast before they went to bed. The bombing of Plymouth continued mostly night raids and even on our island we spent a lot of time in the shelters and trips to Plymouth were mostly day time ones, and the odd trip to Newton Ferriers. Another incident that I did not really see took place one morning when a friend and I went over to do a little shopping, stupid really as there was little to buy and very little money and no coupons to buy anything, but we were bored and had a day off.
As we went through what was now a desolate ruin of a town, bomb damage everywhere, we saw a crowd and heard them the voices were angry and loud, so being nosey we went and joined the crowd. It was a very angry crowd, seemingly that morning….if I had been on duty I would have known….a plane had crashed into the sea and boats had gone out to bring the in the three Germans from the plane who had landed in a life raft. The Plymouth Brethren had got wind of it and crowded the key and one of them a stupid man had been alarmed at the crowd's anger and tired to escape. It was the women there who caught him and held him and they would not hand him to the authorities so they the authorities marched the other two away and the police and Navy stayed to reason with the women who were prepared to hang him there and then and then eventually Police and Navy managed to get hold of him, and this crowd we had joined were still hankering for a lynching party and were furious because they could not get their hands on him. The religious leaders had come out to reason with them and were saying that lynching him had happened it would make them no better than the Germans to which one woman replied that they had no desire to be better, they just wanted the Germans all Germans as dead as so many of the Plymouth men, women and children were dead because of the Germans. It was time to beat a hasty retreat with as much dignity and haste as we could, so we headed down to the quay and a boat for Mountbatten.
Soon after that one of our women got a posting to Wick in Scotland she was a clerk in the admin office and her home was near Plymouth, naturally she was more than a little upset and had seen the C.O to try and avoid the posting. She was told that someone had to go and the admin office had more clerks than was actually needed and someone else would have to volunteer to take her place, a clerk of course, she was pretty devastated, her husband was overseas and she had not seen him for eighteen months so I went for a walk and had a think. I was a free soul no attachments and far from home anyway so I went and volunteered to take her place. About seven days or so later I was on the train heading north. I was two days and two nights and more on the train, in sidings, changing trains etc and met by a van at the last stop by an airman. He took me to the base, bleak and bare a few huts and very little else. The one officer greeted me in his office and told me I was a mistake, they were expecting an airman to do the admin work and there was no accommodation for a woman, he then told the driver to take me to the mess and see that I had food and drink whilst he arranged accommodation locally for the night. This was a crofter's cottage, warm and comfortable, man and wife both elderly but very sprightly and nice to me and there I slept like a log. Next morning the officer appeared as I was eating porridge and said that he had a new travel warrant and the train left at 1:30pm, so back on the train I went for most of 3 days, my posting this time to Gloucester Records office. Accommodation in The Bell Hotel, top floor with a fire escape outside, and one of five in one room and our mess was The County Hotel opposite, actually it was a very comfortable billet. There was Snowy, Budgie, Sonia, Joy and me and that's where I got the nickname Billy. 1941 I think.
That Christmas we put on a pantomime in the hotel ballroom. Costumes were a problem but we plodded on learning likes and songs, women playing men women playing women, we had no musicians in the group and still no help with costumes and no coupons to get materials. Then one of our cooks who was a W.A.A.F cook and had obtained a compassionate leave posting to be near her invalid mother said she had spoken to her mother who was once in theatricals and tried to make her laugh at our efforts to get this pantomime going and her mother know a) a pianist and knew someone who had a chest of theatrical costumes from her days on the stage. It was like an Aladdin's cave with the costumes they were old but good and she gave us permission to alter to fit etc, she had crowns, tiaras, jewellery paste of course, capes, dresses, ballet tutus, ballet shoes, bar shoes with taps, even high heeled sandals and glittering court shoes, hats, feather boas and much more. The pianist was about 60 a man and he was an air raid warden and he was an excellent pianist. Men were not allowed into W.A.A.F quarters so we had to get special permission for him to come to rehearsals. The men who staffed Records Office were all Canadians and their commanding officer (I have his picture somewhere) was married to the 'Wills' cigarette heir. They too heard of our efforts and decided that so me of them were musicians and could and would form a small band and they did. I was Prince Charming, Joy was Cinderella, Sonia was the Fairy Godmother, and Snowy and Budgie the Ugly sisters. Buttons Dandino and the Baron were found but I do not remember who did who, I think the Baron was one of the cooks a large lady and her moustache kept slipping sideways the others were all clerks I think, we didn't have room on the small stage for a large cast. The songs we sung were old ones from films etc and they sounded so much better with accompaniment it was very amateur but great fun.
New Years Eve we spent dashing between our two hotels we did find some alcohol and never mind the blackout rule ( they never got passed the ground floor), well if they did I did not know. The Canadians brought cans of food and tins of biscuits mostly tinned meat and fruit. We danced in the street and sang as we danced we did impromptu highland flings and the Gay Gordon's and didn't mind who we danced with and just for a while the War faded away.
Now we are in 1942… It was such an easy life in Records Office, the work was very routine, not exactly a challenge, the billets were comfortable, the countryside beautiful. Gloucester a nice little town, the river banks were conveniently close and even with no money anyone could walk and with a sedentary lifestyle. Sonia, Joy and I (the terrible 3) could walk along the banks for miles. Cheltenham the next town was very easy to get to and with a late pass or a 24 hour pass we could come back late etc. We often hitched a lift in too, there was a place there I keep thinking Y.M.C.A but it certainly was not just for men, soft drinks only but a place to sit and talk and meet, all service people but most nationalities, maybe that's why we always called there. Relationships were pretty fluid, none of us had regular boyfriends as in "serious interest". I met and airman who came from Northumberland and he was around quite a lot we talked a lot, walked by the river etc. Joy had a boyfriend somewhere but she did not seem committed. Sonia was pretty unconcerned about the opposite sex. Budgie and Snowy did not go out much at all, they like each others company and were quite a bit older than us. The three of us had bikes and when the weather was good we'd get out into the country, Cotswold country, pretty stone houses, rivers and hills, wild flowers everywhere and beautiful cottage gardens. We saw very little of the war that was where the Sqdn Officer recommended me for Officers School. I know that Sonia had either applied or had been recommended, but nothing seemed to come of it at that time. We did, well I did get the feeling that she came from a different level of society and after the war she and I met in London, and she wanted (she we went) to the Waldorf for tea, she arrived for our meeting in a very classy outfit looking very expensive and much older. She was married but didn't tell me any more. The waiters knew her and were quite deferential. We didn't have long together she said she had to go somewhere or other for dinner and the waiter came to the table to say that the car was outside and with Goodbyes and an air kiss and a fling of fur she was away, got into a posh looking car and never even looked back. Joy I heard from by letter (we had swapped home addresses). Sonia had a phone Joy and I didn't. Joy married and wrote to say they were emigrating but I don't remember where to.
I do remember that the war seemed very far away. I was posted to a place where they trained officers. I think that there were about fifty of us originally. I felt that it allowed for and elimination process. The house was old but solid, the kitchen was in the basement and there was a laundry room with boilers and racks and mangles, a shower room with cubicles no curtains or doors, toilets with doors and two bathrooms and two store rooms. The ground floor had a massive entrance hall very dark. There was a mess/dinning room and a communal sitting room with a bar, the rest were lecture rooms I think, I don't remember any desks, just chairs and a large table or so. The bedrooms were on the second floor, there was another floor above which I think housed the staff, I didn't see much really. The first two days were introductory talks to all of us, more talks in groups. After the first bewildering 48 hours I was very restless, it was like the war had gone away and nothing seemed real, so I went for a walk in the grounds. There were empty stables and grass and more grass and what was referred to as a lake but it looked more like a pond, with a copse of trees. There was a garden but no flowers growing only vegetables and that was when I decided that this was not for me. I went to see Squadron Officer; she was acting like a Welfare Officer or something. I told her my thoughts and that I didn't want to be there etc gave every reason I could think of, she considered everyone including maturity, I was 18 they thought I was 19 however eventually she said it was my decision but if I was sure I would have to re-muster to another trade, and what did I want to do instead. I said the first thing that came into my mind Driver. It didn't really solve my problem.
Plymouth had left a deep impression, it had scarred me and the time at the records office had calmed me and probably reassured me, but now I really wanted to be in the war, I couldn't fight but I had to feel I was really helping. What was ahead was a wait of at least six weeks and the driver's course was also six weeks three months and with no guarantee about finding a posting. Actually they gave me a two week leave until a posting came through for me.
I remember very few of my leaves but this one stayed or rather parts of it did. So many things had changed, most of all the people. Almost every family I knew had someone missing. Lots of girls were working away from home, most of the young men my age and older were either in the forces or gone forever, some older people had passed on too. The shops were sparsely stocked, food, well there was barely enough to make anything substantial. The pubs didn't seem to have much beer and spirits were almost non existent and in the pubs it was mostly old men making a pint last all night and pipe smokers lit a small twist of tobacco and puffed gently to make it last. Most shops in the town especially food shops had queues and at night complete blackout.
Windows were crisscrossed with tape or brown paper and blacked out at night, the fires, everyone had open fires, were kept very small and not a cinder thrown out. All the flower gardens had gone, replaced by vegetables, women went bare legged - no stockings. Mum had some left all mended and darned. I gave Dad my hoarded cigarette rations, as I did not smoke then, and he cut every cigarette from the first packet in half and put them in a tin. There was no bomb damage that I could see and none anyone was able to point to.
I walked for miles in those few days a) to think b) to see more clearly the changes. After a few days I realised that it was me who had really changed and I didn't want to live their kind of life. The biggest change of all was my relationship with my family, they didn't actually say much but they did watch me, somewhere along the way of those 18 months I'd matured in their eyes into an adult. I had to stop Mum giving me extra rations and try and make them believe that I ate better than they did, which was perfectly true. As I walked people would often say Hello as we passed and often turned back to say something like "It's you" and we'd talk for a while. I went to the chapel the most peaceful place I remembered; it was not open very often. I went and watched and listened to choir practice and of course we all went on Sunday. I went to the cemetery and through into the churchyard to see my sister Dorothy's grave and a few steps more over to Grandma and Granddad's and then down the steps, lots of them, to the bottom road. I visited Auntie Annie and Uncle Ernest; I also went to see Uncle Dick and Auntie Gertrude and my cousins Arthur and Harry, Dad's side of the family. It all felt very strange, somehow I had moved on and was different and I had the feeling then that I would never live amongst them again.
My posting came through and I was to present myself to Gloucester W.A.A.F Training Base and with travel warrants etc at the ready, once more I was on the train. There was nothing remarkable about the base, it was winter, cold and damp and inhospitable, but the admin office was warm and friendly and I had work to do, but as an L.A.C.W Leading Aircraft Woman I hadn't enough authority so they made me a temp corporal. After all the posting was only temporary. Mostly I worked in the office or met new recruits and then I was given the job of parade ground training. That was really supposed to be done by the Sergeant but he or she only arrived when I'd done the warm up work. I did not much care as marching kept you warm and was frustrating and amusing in turn. It only lasted 9 weeks and then I was posted to Driving School at Pwhelli in North Wales.
North Wales in winter….Oh dear! Our billets were in Private houses, the owners liked the extra income it provided but not us or our welfare. In ours, three of us in one room and three in another were the pits; the floors had gone dark brown, greasy, stained linoleum. The beds always seemed damp; there were issue blankets, no sheets and old pillows. The windows were dirty and although we cleaned them inside we could not open them to clean outside as they were nailed shut. The curtains were blackout material nailed top and sides with a split in the middle. Luckily we were out early, breakfast was frugal, toast, sometimes porridge, sometimes no milk just golden syrup or jam, no sugar, but we did get hot weak tea. We were given sandwiches for lunch usually meat paste. In the evening when we returned about 6.00- 6.30pm there was another meal, watery soup, spam and potatoes or fish and potatoes or stew, lots of veg but very little meat and no potatoes or carrots. The one redeeming feature was that it was hot. It was the worst place I was ever stationed. We did try to get something done but that was difficult and in the end useless. The instructors were Naval Personnel, usually Petty Officers, and mostly more one to one instruction. The instructors were billeted at Pwhelli Holiday camp. Mine was great he was named Fred, he was very strict on the driving side, but he had a really good sense of humour. I spoke to him about the billet and he said that it was not unusual, and that he had heard about one or two, and although the powers that be had inspected and warned about the poor conditions etc, the food situation would improve for a couple of days and then return to normal.
We seemed to have no way out of it, we supplemented the food provided with scones and tea at the local café when we could, the instructors, well mine and a friend of his wangled some extras from their mess and we survived.
We could not walk on the beach as it was all barbed wire everywhere. The Welsh disapproved of women in the Pubs, so at weekends we went, invited, to the holiday camp and that lifted us a lot. The driving course for me was a joy even in bad weather, our vehicles were all 30cwt lorries and the hills and vales around Snowdon tested us severely but that was one reason the school was there. The hardest bits were driving from stop, on a steep hill with a matchbox under the back wheels, which had to stay intact. Fred bet me a bar of chocolate on the outcome of my attempt and lost - lovely bar of chocolate! We shared the chocolate all six of us back in our grotty rooms. The next one was reversing both down and up hills and into a field where there was a gate, open of course. For me that was too easy but for the others they needed at least two attempts, but there was no shouting or screaming from the instructors I met only encouragement. Six weeks and we were finished, no one of our draft failed the course and the instructors threw a party for us in the mess. Our only revenge was we unscrewed the knob on the room of one of the instructor's doors and jammed the front door lock with some plasticine someone found as we left. The lorry collected us and we threw our kit bags in the back and climbed in after it, and banged on the cab to move. Goodbye Pwhelli I never thought I'd return but returning anywhere was no something we contemplated at anytime.
My posting was to Lincolnshire, I have to think about this now because I moved around a lot at that time. There was Ludford Magna, Faldingworth, Scampton and others. I am fairly sure it was Faldingworth, a conversion unit where pilots converted from flying smaller aircraft to Halifax and Lancaster bombers.
The training consisted mostly of what was know as circuits and bumps, i.e. take off, circle the base and land, if the circles were smooth enough. The first take off's could be hairy, and smooth landings never happened often at first, often bumpy. Of course they got better and by the end of their course they were doing everything perfectly, after which they were posted to operational squadrons. There were many nationalities on these courses, it was very temporary personnel. I was driving and we had a rather large MT Motor Transport Section and got to know, however briefly, a lot of airmen. Australian, New Zealanders, Canadians, a few Americans (they had come to help independently of the U.S Government), Free French and Polish. Our job was to take the airmen out to the dispersal areas to their aircraft, then meet them again and take them to a squadron office where whatever they had done was analysed and corrected. When they were proficient in daylight runs they then had to do it all at night, all night, very wearing for ground staff on or off duty. We did get time off, late passes etc and usually we would go out in a group. That was OK with the ranks of Sergeant, but difficult with officers. Very few WAAFS had civilian clothes so you'd usually find the aircrew lot leading the way, with the females of the species a few steps behind or the other way round. Romantic liaisons or even friendships were difficult and short lived. The station then changed. It was eventually to become an operational bomber squadron but it first became like a transient camp, the huts in the men's compound which had previously held the pilots and crews doing their conversion, were empty for a while, then some more bombers arrived and these huts were occupied by the Polish Squadron. Some were aircrew and I presume some were ground crew; I did not come across them very much. My driving then was on ration lorries, coal wagons, ambulance duties, journey's with officers to other squadrons in the area, meetings of various kinds. Then again it changed 12 hrs on 12hrs off, changeovers were usually at weekends and the next week would be night duty, 8am to 8pm then 8pm to 8am. We worked in battledress with jumpers underneath and leather jerkins, it was cold and it was damp, snow clearance was all hands available. When it was foggy we laid out goose necks - lamps of flames burning paraffin, I think if available one transport, usually the coal lorries or tractors one each side of the runway to be used and lit when we knew there was an aircraft returning. Being clean wasn't always, being wet was the norm. Our living quarters were Nissan huts with bunk beds, but the huts were built into the ground so we had to step down into them. The ground outside became saturated and the water flooded in, literally to the point where we could not use the bottom bunks and had to rotate the beds with shifts. Our dirty boxes, where we kept clothes etc were floating or water logged and we wore wellies, I suppose they were issued. That winter was truly dreadful
The Polish Squadron were more animals that human, even our male counterparts complained with disgust at their habits, especially the A.G.M General duties cleaner etc. Toilets were filthy, the huts the same, they peed out of the windows etc, but the worst was yet to come. Several WAAF had been attacked and raped, none in the MT section, but it was scary and the girls were scared to go anywhere. The girls in the MT section had to. Our section was away a long way from our billets and the shortest way was a field path mostly we went in two's etc but we knew there would be times when we'd finish late and therefore a lone walk home. I carried a short tyre iron in my wellie, and fully intended to use it if necessary. Unfortunately it became necessary as I was attacked on my way back to the billet after an extended duty. I finished that night about 9pm instead of 8pm and was really tired so I had to walk back, on the way two drunken yobbish poles came out of nowhere and had a go, one behind grabbed me and I went forward knowing that he was drunk to try and put him off balance, and a sharp elbow helped. As I went forward my right arm was still pinned so I reached over and managed to grab the tyre iron with my left hand, as the other one rushed forward I lifted it outwards and hit him on the side of the head, the other one let go and staggered backwards and I took off. I could really run in those days even in those wellies, and my anger gave me wings. I barged into the office without any ceremony and really let forth about the lack of any security, WAAF's out there without any sort of protection living in with this risk and in fear etc. They gave me a cup of tea, then I went back to my hut to sleep. It was a short sleep the Sergeant came for me about 2 or 3 hours later and told me to report to the Admin Office Pronto.
I had no idea then what it was all about but at that time of night my first thought was home and what could have happened……No The other drunk had finally made it back to his hut and reported he'd been attacked and his friend was unconscious. I was questioned and the guard room Sgt gave them my report, my Squadron Officer was there and was very supportive, but rules are rules and there was an enquiry and I had to attend. It really was quite scary my word against theirs and then I found out that the one I had hit was dead, he'd choked on his own vomit. The Polish legal representative or otherwise asked if I was ashamed of killing one of our fighting men and I said NO. They attacked me, the Squadron officer then took over and gave them a long list of Raped and bloodied WAAFS and insisted on my right to defend myself.
A couple of months after that I went back to my billet after duty one morning and found a woman in our hut who'd hung a blanket around her bed and was really moaning and crying. I went to see what was wrong and found that she was giving birth, she begged me to stay with her but I knew that she and I needed help, so again I raced to the guard room and garbled the news and asked for the M.O then raced back to the hut. The baby had arrived and neither of us knew what an earth to do, he… it was a boy….was still attached by the cord, I'd seen animals but they usually chewed it apart etc so I fetched towels I didn't much care who's and I wrapped the baby in them. The M.O arrived quickly and did what was necessary and an ambulance drew up outside. They took them both off to hospital. I did not really know the woman well we were not in the same section, but I knew from others that her fiancé had been killed some 8 months earlier, and she had not told anyone that she was pregnant, how she managed I'll never know, but we were all always so busy working or sleeping.
My next posting was Ludford Magna near Market Raisin, strange station and area. There was a road running through the aerodrome, dangerous situation when planes were taking off which was every day. The R.A.F regiment were there guarding the aerodrome and closing the road etc, nice bunch actually and their dogs were great. Same mixture of aircrew as before mostly home grown, but we had the odd Free French, Canadian, Rhodesian, Australian, New Zealand. Same duties, driving crew buses, tractors with bomb trailers & bombs, petrol boswers, van's cars, lorries, ambulances,, rescue wagons - they were strange they were manned by one radio operator plus his machine and one driver and lights on the back which said ' Stop and follow me ' usually they did and with the radio operator in contact we'd guide them to the designated dispersal area. This was really for planes who were not based with us but for one reason or another they would not reach their own base. The reasons could be anything, engine trouble, shot up one target or on the way back, injured crew members urgently needing medical treatment, a fog or a crash on their own base etc.
One that landed came at us a too fast a rate of knots, hydraulic pressure or something gone, we got a message to get out and I turned at right angles across the grass etc but one propeller ripped the canvas top and it's support, the radio operator had already bailed out of the back. I hit the steering wheel with the impact; luckily the place was turning away from us and then stopped. I was not badly damaged, but my midriff was hurting like mad. People rushed to help and I was bundled off to sick bay. Because of the split by the road once we were on the other side we were expected to stay there until the aircraft returned, usually most of the night alone in the cab, a motor cycle or van would come around when the planes were due back, there were other crew transports but we were usually near different dispersal units. We did doze off, drink coffee and tea from a flask and smoke, we could also stretch our legs every so often. The R.A.F regiment lads would stop by every so often as they toured the perimeter with their dogs.
Bella was the one who always found me she would paw at the door and then join me in the cab, if it was very cold so would her handler and we would share a drink etc. I always had something for Bella to nibble. Occasionally we had leave bans and no one would be allowed to go on leave or pass or leave the aerodrome. On one of these I got the news that Dad was very ill in hospital. There were no phones to speak of in our village except the odd call box. However our local doctor did have one so I called him, and he confirmed that Dad's illness was a perforated ulcer, so I asked him if he would see Mum and explain that I was stuck. Being my usual rebel self I stewed on this all day and crept out that night getting down the road ready to hitch hike home, it took a while but I made it Wakefield and the hospital about late afternoon. I'd walked miles between the lifts. Dad was ill but improving and I brushed off the ban with Mum saying that they had given me a short pass. By about 6 or 7pm I set off back on the train and I was back in my billet by breakfast time having slept in Lincoln station and got a lift back from a farmer. The day that I had been away was my day off anyway, so leave pass, but time off and nobody had really missed me, we were seldom all together and night duties always meant some empty beds. So I kept a low profile and got on with the job.
At this stage of writing I wish my memory would coordinate events, for instance what year was all this???? And why am I writing this?? I tell myself:- A) it is good to put the memories in place B) Is anybody moderately interested C) Why do I want people to read it, it won't change anything.
I know better than most the bravery of the aircrew. Young men who never got to be middle aged or old, they truly were heroes. They were very stoic about their futures or lack of it, they did talk a little but their observations, thoughts and fears were valid and if they had tears they were very private moments My excuse if I need one is we were there, we were important both as a back up team and someone to listen or give a hug.
With the above thoughts floating around I've come to a halt. I can't find any enthusiasm to continue the saga and just don't know if I will and them I come to "Does it matter" whether I do or do not……………
As Audrey's daughter and the motivator or rather the nag behind this story coming into print, I would just like to add my thoughts. My mother is now in her 81st year of life and I know that recalling the events contained in this story have very been difficult. Not just the recollection but the pain of doing so. It has taken her great courage, and a great deal of time and heartache. Memories are not always as clear as we would like to think, and at the time of writing Audrey was very ill. I felt that it was very important that these events in her life were somehow chronicled so that others could read a first hand account of what life was like in the WAAF and in particular for this WAAF. Much has been written about our brave young men who fought for King and country in England's darkest hour. Many brave young men have had these times in their lives emblazoned on the silver screen, but very little had been said about the women who supported them and who were as important as our Pilots, sailors and soldiers.
This was a tragic time when the youth of this generation was stolen from them, where the carefree days of youth, that all of us have be able to enjoy, was merely an aching longing that would never be. I am very proud of my mother and the part she played; I only hope that in writing her memories of this time, other generations will be able to understand more clearly what the war meant to ordinary people. I believe that these memories are so very precious and should be captured whilst they can. Too many of my parents generation seldomly spoke of these times and for many, these memories are now gone forever as they have passed.
So Yes Mum it does matter and Yes people do want to read this and no it will not change the events, only people's understanding of them.
I've lost the thread completely now I have no clear idea what happened next. Up to this time I had no real interest in close relationships the world seemed such a fragile place so many people were dead and still to die. I did not want to love and be loved by someone, so I had friends and light relationships, nothing involved or demanding. Taking the crews to their planes and never seeing them again was an all too familiar pattern. I grieved for them we drank to them and accepted that this was going to recur time and time again. I spent all my longer leaves at home and never spoke about my other life in any great detail; they knew enough of what was happening and worried about me.
I think maturity began its process and I'd always found friendships with boys easy, so now I could make friends and keep it just that. One was an R.A.F Regiment Sergeant, mature well a good bit older than me, we went for bikes rides into the countryside and talked about everything. He had a wife and a child I don't know where now or even his name although I think it was Jim, it was like having an older brother. There were others but mostly groups male and female, usually the females would sally forth to a local pub and there were always groups we knew, sometimes aircrew sometimes ground crew, romance did flourish but usually briefly. I met one South African from Bulawayo in then Rhodesia; he was different, aircrew, charming mostly. He did propose and I did say yes but I had no intention or marrying anyone until this was over. It ended when he was killed of course. I flirted, sang, danced but was never really tempted. There were others, naturally, but the blackout, they way that we lived, the uncertainty got in the way. My South African paramour and his crew failed to return from their last Op.
Life was an every changing black and white film, it was intense, sometimes funny, extremely busy and by now routine. On leave I had to wear uniform, often civy clothes needed coupons, these were found and clothes made for me but unless we were visiting or going to town I'd just wear anything I could find around the house. I'd take my ciggy ration home for my Dad and anything I could find or acquire in the way of food stuffs for my Mum. I'd dig in the garden with my Dad, walk a lot usually with Mum and my dog and wait for my leave to end. I sometimes got out to a dance but it was not the same. At these times I felt I was living two different lives.
Sometime around this period Dad's health took a downward turn with a valvular heart problem and I requested and was granted a compassionate posting to a base nearer home and it was Full Sutton 77th Squadron Group 4 Bomber command. Every operational Squadron is very much the same as regards the working day so it does not take very long to settle in. The routine was established quickly. The tempo of the bombing seemed to increase, there seemed to be Op's nights most of the week, weather of course permitting, consequently there were more losses and more heartache and my part a resistance to getting close to any one person. Mostly free time was spent in York or the local pub and N.A.A.F.I in groups. Never the less it became clear I was not going to escape romance, during this time I met future husband F.O Vic Brown, skipper of D Dog. I got to know the crew pretty well, A) driving them B) in the local pub. The crew were Sgt John Quarry - Navigator, Sgt George Smoothie - Bomb Aimer, Pop Jenkins - (Australian) Radio Op, Alex Bouvet - Gunner, Johnnie Smith - Gunner and Tommy who joined them much later who I think was the engineer. I saw them all, (they all hunted in the same pack) both off duty and on. Off duty there was a pub in the village I cannot remember the name, it was in Stamford Bridge? It was a regular meeting place for all the squadron, the toilet was a nightmare, you stumbled down a path to it (no lights) there was a wooden seat with a hole in it, and it was very near a water course. You really had to be desperate to use it. D Dog crew were a friendly cheerful bunch and gradually I became one of their gang until they realised that Vic and I were sort of gravitating to each other, that one created a little sniping and George warned me off, wrong move, he did not know me very well.
We all contrived to meet but now I took extra care to talk to the rest of the crew as individuals and Vic and I met separately. It worked to a point but George continued his campaign I realised it wasn't just a dislike of me but the fact that the crew were now splitting up for social excursions and he felt more secure if the bond between them wasn't broken. It was important together they were strong. Vic and I went back to meeting only when the crew were there, except for when we could arrange 24 - 48 hr passes and then we would meet in York and get out into the country villages.
The war went on around us we did not make any long term plans how could we it seemed it would never end, in fact things seemed to be getting busier, there was routine now to ponder about the future, the future was tomorrow and no further. This was no time to fall in love, they were in the middle of a tour, and I was trying to stay the same when there was chaos all around and empting into my life. The barriers I'd placed carefully around my emotions were being penetrated. I losing that battle, I'd already seem too much, too many young men fly off into the night never to return and like everyone else I'd wept for them.
Life seemed like a roller coaster, Op nights were tense and utterly draining, anxiety and relief walked hand in hand. We would meet at the pub laugh and joke with the crew and then slip away, time alone was hard to get. Op nights I'd continue my routine taking the crews out to their dispersal area and so on. When the planes returned I always had a flask - oxo, coffee, tea and 7 cups at the ready. Collect them from the dispersal area and take them to debriefing and listen to see if, usually, which planes had not returned.
Vic and I got engaged, life took another turn I was posted to Pocklington down the road so to speak normal procedure. We planned to marry at the end of his tour.
Pocklington: WAAF quarters - Up a country road passing the village pub and cottages/houses and there was the WAAF compound - wire fenced, large gate, office on the left, Nissan huts everywhere, nothing new really. The routine roughly the same wherever you were posted Aerodromes functioned the same way. It must be 1944 I think in my little story. I would like to get it right but it is not so easy, I have been unwell for some time and ended up in Hospital, crashing somehow through the language barrier; heart attacks and pain are the same whatever. I am doing pretty well but the medication seems to make me a little fuzzy.
So let us say it is 1944 - What a busy year, D Day, Flying Bombs, the change in Europe, the US in the war, late it is true but after Pearl Harbour. The operations changed; normally the yanks flew the daytime raids and the R.A.F night time raids - now several times there were daylight raids to find the landing sites for the doodle bugs. The Free French Squadron were stationed at Elvington which was just down the road, they could not hide their excitement. We also had our own entertainment group which travelled to the various stations (RAF) in Group 4 and others if we could get there. Rationing Food clothes was worse, and there was really nothing to buy in the shops, especially without clothing coupons, very little entertainment, sing-alongs around any available piano and pianist, a wound up gramophone and records to dance to or the station band, it all lifted the mood, broke the tedium. The concert party - well some were or had been on the stage in their former lives, even me until Dad found out, we did what we did very well and dresses and theatrical costumes came from surprising sources, even putting on the dresses felt strangely scandalous. I'd never worn fish tail figure hugging plunging backs and fronts it is surprising how soon you get used to it and the lads loved it, because I was a driver, provided there was a lorry available etc there was no need to provide a driver.
D Day June 1944 I was on night duty that night actually some duties around that time sort of fused together and we hardly came off duty. We knew whatever it was it was big and of course we speculated like the rest of the population and then suddenly it was there and had actually happened. I was at the bus stop when I heard, expecting a bus to York but when I heard I picked up my bike from the aerodrome and went back to WAAF Quarters and to bed, I know I felt extremely tired and emotional.
There were two crashes into the hills during that month too. One Free French, from Elvington the other I think from ……….. I was on ambulance duty and had to go out with the medical orderly Sgt to the Free French one. We were expecting assistance when we got to the crash site but all we found were Aircrew trainees guarding the site and not at all happy and eventually when the other ambulance arrived it was not good. The other ambulance had already done one trip they had orderly's and helpers. Ted the Sgt was at a disadvantage, one rather small WAAF as a helper not really I was a driver but I was not nearly as unnerved as the trainees on guard I should have been. R.A.F Regiment really but it was unnecessary, people seemed to crawl ghoulishly out of their holes to go to a crash site, even after it was cleared they would comb the ground for souvenirs. So I stepped daintily out of my cab slithered into wellies and with Ted took and blanket to collect anything we found, good luck charms, teddies, scarves, ribbons etc. I found a flying glove and lifted it to put it into the blanket, there were still fingers in it. We were now using torches and Ted insisted it was time to go. So we used my flask of coffee I was seldom without that and shared it with the poor sprog on guard duty and travelled the dark roads back to camp. Conversation muted and limited cigarettes!! Too many. Eventually I arrived at the canteen I think it was egg and chips, definitely chips and I had been hungry for a while but the sight of the chips - like fingers finished me I screamed, I cried I was probably hysterical, Doc came and gave me something and I was asleep before they got me to sick bay. Ted was able to explain.
The concert party gave me a lot of pleasure, rehearsals were anytime we could arrange them and that summer we would swim in the nearby quarry and rehearse in the field then there was always the NAFFI - pianos etc and the small band, we tried on our costumes did alterations and running repairs. Shoes were hard to find, we often went on with padded toes and nails through the soles to wobbly heel and cardboard insole. Our leader was a handsome young man called Patrick I discovered his initials were P.P.D the middle letter was for Paul but he only answered to Paddy and I could see why. Autumn came and then winter but sometime during these months of 44 we were roused by the air raid warnings and told to get to the shelters. Fine but the call came from F/O Packham coming in through the door leading to the shelter, she was extremely unpopular in our billet, she did not stand a chance, thirty odd females rushing out (on her order) Scottie, Anne and I were at the other end and not exactly rushing so we were there to pick her up and dust her off, slapping her cap back on her head and literally taking her out with us. In retrospect this was pretty hilarious.
During the summer especially when we were swimming I would pack my engagement ring with any money etc in the centre of my kit bag and lock it. The girls in my billet were like an extended family so I felt they were pretty safe. Not so. I came back one day and found someone had slit open my kit bag and of course my ring and money had gone. I never did get it replaced.
Annie had been married 2 years and in 44 she became pregnant and therefore was discharged. Her husband was in the Navy. She wrote to us a month later to tell us that her husband, Andrew had been killed. Scottie married her Free French Airman and she went to France to live in 1945. But for now we all carried on doing our usual jobs. Vic was on Op's 2nd tour and like everyone in England with anyone in the services I did worry. I was only a few miles away and in the same bomber group and obviously information did filter through. I drove Coke Lorries; ration Lorries, ambulances, crew buses, tractors with bomb loads, vans, cars, motor bikes on DLS runs. I got my share of lazy days. They were usually transporting people to group head quarters in York and waiting and waiting. I quite enjoyed it but then I always had a book with me and a note pad and sometimes a sketch pad, cigarettes of course and my flask, unless of course it was a sudden call, full but there were always ways of getting these things filled.
I often drove Gus Walker. Air Commodore Augustus Walker a famous and respected figure in the Air force. One armed, and injury sustained whilst trying to get to air crew in trouble. To me he was very correct but kind and had a sense of humour, at this time I was occasionally his driver. I got to know him quite well in 1945. By this time there was often a phrase. 'When the war is over' and 'when I or we return to civvy street' we knew the end to this war was coming. For me this was a different concept, I seemed to have lived in two very different worlds already, civvy street was alien, I'd never really lived in it as an adult and now I was planning to marry and live in London, my family home was in a village in Yorkshire.
I was 20 years old; I was not sure whether or not I should marry Vic. He'd been to my home and met my folks and passed the test with honours but I had not met any of his family and knew very little about them. Pop, Vic obviously adored his father, Mama!! A love - hate relationship there. Uncle Jim quite a character so Vic said, and his brother Derek, 14 years old and Mama's little lamb. A lot of that turned out to be true when I eventually got to know them.
Meanwhile shopping. I should have married in uniform but my Mum and my sister Ed had got together and found some coupons so we went shopping in Wakefield, when I could get home. There was not a lot to choose from. It would be a winter wedding during the leave he would get when he finished his tour. To me it was definitely a leap in the dark but it would go ahead promises had been made I loved Vic and those promises would not be broken. We were married from Vic's home, I don't know who decided that but Dad was pretty bad and Mum accepted it maybe Vic charmed her into thinking it was for the best, he could do that quite easily. My sister wanted to be there but Mama could not find accommodation for her. I was pretty stupid I guess I just did not realise what was going on, I had an awful lot to learn. The people I worked with thought I was pretty level headed, I was the one that they came to for a chat if there were problems and suddenly I realised I was not very mature at all in fact I knew very little about life except that it could end in an instance.
The war ground on there was so much more optimism and we all sensed that we were working to its end. Christmas 1944. We celebrated but then we knew how to do that. Vic was near the end of his tour, one more op……..It was not easy waiting. Our wedding was scheduled for December 30th. He went on his last op. I was in the mess at a party and being plied with drinks. I never really drank very much and I could easily make one drink last all night, and my friends knew that. Then I realised they knew something I didn't…..Vic had not returned to base. Actually I later found out he had landed away, he arrived back at base the next morning safe and well.
We left York on the train for London on the 29th of December 1944, we arrived late at night. The wedding was the next day, all the crew were there, Vic's cousin Vi acted as bridesmaid. I did not meet her until we were ready to set off for the wedding. No one from my family was there it was decidedly weird. My mother in law had managed a table of food and a cake, I never knew but the cake was the centrepiece we followed tradition, both our hands on the cake knife and press down, it was hilarious the icing cracked and flew around like ceiling plaster, the inside crumbled and we literally fell about laughing am my mother-in-law ranted and raved (I learned some new words that day) at the suppliers of the cake. When the dust settled Mama played the piano and we sang everything, well that is what did in those days. Then to bed, the crew slept in the shelter which was used as a table. We were given Mama and Pop's room our wedding night we were exhausted all we wanted to do was sleep and we did.
The crew went off to continue their leave the next day. We spent our honeymoon at Vic's parent's home, 2 weeks for me, and then when we eventually returned to our Squadrons we had married quarters in the feathers hotel in Pocklington and so did Gus Walker and his wife. Not many people have their C.O at the bedroom door in the morning. The arrangement was really simple I became his driver on a semi permanent basis. Some days I took the Padre around but mostly I drove my C.O from our hotel to his office and whenever his schedule required and at the end of the day I drove him back to our hotel. I don't remember what Vic's job was officially. He was involved some how or another with an Italian prisoner of war camp up the road somewhere and he was liaising with Elvington. I seemed to drive for miles some days and sit around for hours other days. The Feathers Hotel, well that was married quarters with a difference, a real country hotel, Chintz curtains floral but muted colours, comfy bed, it was peaceful although being in a village we were not far from the aerodrome. I became pregnant but lost it before I was demobbed. Vic was posted to Merryfield - Costal Command, Dakotas, mostly runs to India and I was a civilian living with family I hardly knew, in an area Harrow on the Hill and needed to get a job or something to occupy the time until Vic was also demobbed. My war was more or less over, both Vic and I had survived now we had another battle surviving in civvy street. We had prayed for peace, hoped for a better world, gone from school kids just out to a married couple with no idea what to do next. I was far from easy.
In 7 months I will be 80 years old, Vic died 14 years ago I have a wonderful large family I am blessed and I know it. The years of the war stay with me, they moulded my life to a large extent. The old men remember too, they still talk about their experiences. Until now I do not think I have talked about my experiences except odd instances, and I have never met anyone who was a WAAF in Bomber Command to talk with, and it is too late now.
Four episodes in the war helped to decide the direction my life would take, plus my experiences after the war.
The War Times: 1) At the age of fifteen , in 1939 I became and air raid messenger for the area of villages where my home was in Yorkshire. One task which I truly hated was helping to fit gas mask to the very young children. 2) The children in Plymouth. 3) Seeing crowds of children leaving their homes and families - Evacuation. 4) The children in the areas where I was stationed as I shared my sweet ration with them.
After the War: 1) My first two children were deformed and died at birth. The prognosis was that I may never have children of my own, having lost others in the early part of pregnancy.
So I became a teacher. At the age of 14 or 15 that was the last on my list of 'want to be' I wanted so very much to pursue a life on the stage but I am so very glad I became a teacher, working with children was a wonderful life, and yes eventually at the age of 30 I had my own child and then two more. From my children I have quite a number of grandchildren and great grandchildren, and I cherish them all dearly. My life has been good and still is.
Audrey St. John-Brown.
Operation "BIG BEN"
Most British people have heard of the V2 Rocket - Hitler's ultimate secret weapon during World War II. The very first of these, code-named "Big Ben", landed in the Croydon area of London on September 8th 1944 and was followed by over one thousand more. They caused great terror and many casualties, landing indiscriminately and without warning. But few people realise that 1,610 of these devices were aimed at Antwerp in Belgium, once the Allied Forces had liberated that country
Antwerp was the port where all the supplies and armaments were being landed and warehoused for use by the Services as they advanced into Germany. By targeting them, the enemy hoped to disrupt the advance of the Allies. In addition it was the intention of General Von Runstedt when he attacked in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, to continue on to Antwerp and split the advancing armies.
Meanwhile SHAEF HQ at Versailles had already made plans to install mobile RADAR units; known as Type 9, in Belgium to assist in tracking the launch sites of the V2's destined for Britain. Thus when the first rocket landed at Liege on September 14th, 1944 and Intelligence advised that the German Command was intending to target Belgian ports, they installed 8 of these mobile units inland from Antwerp. Subsequently they set up a headquarters at Malines (or Mechelen in Flemish) to handle the information received and pass it on to Fighter stations in the vicinity. This eventually became 33 Wing, 2nd Tactical Air Force.
At that time I was working as a Filterer Officer in the 11 Group Filter Room at Fighter Command HQ, Stanmore where we handled and interpreted the RADAR information and early warning systems for Britain. It was during one of my periods on duty that the first V2 landed on the London area. We had been warned of some new form of air attack and I happened to be the person who received the code word "Big Ben" from one of our RADAR stations. Immediately, I had to stand on a chair and shout out "Big Ben" three times. The reaction was incredible, all hell was let loose. After several more of these attacks, we became used to them and things slipped back into the usual routine.
I was married at the end of September 1944 and after a few days honeymoon, I returned to duty. Almost immediately I, together with eleven other WAAF officers, were called aside and told to prepare for special training for an overseas posting. We were to be sent to Belgium to work on rocket detection there. We had already signed the Official Secrets Act on joining the Filter Room and therefore I was forbidden to explain to my new husband why I was being sent overseas. Normally no married WAAF was chosen and he could not understand why I had to go. Naturally he was very shocked. It was many years later before I was able to tell him what I had been doing.
The next few weeks passed in feverish activity, learning about our new duties, packing our kit and having special inoculations. It transpired that we had been selected for our mathematical ability and speedy reactions. We were being sent to 33 Wing, Malines, for plotting and interpreting the rocket trajectories.
We arrived on a chilly mid-November day in this old Flemish-speaking town with its mixture of Spanish and Flemish buildings, its old butter market and its principal industry of quality furniture making. Our headquarters were in the Banque Nationale in Louisastraad and our Mess in a building opposite, still bearing the name "Soldatenheim" where German soldiers had been quartered. It was an eerie feeling, being in a building so recently vacated by our enemies. Since there was insufficient accommodation for all of us to sleep there, some were billeted at houses in the town. I was sent to the home of Ignace Kennis, a well-known local artist.
He was an old man, tall and lugubrious, almost sinister. He always wore a black all-enveloping cape and a wide brimmed black hat. His features were sharp and he looked underfed, as were many others in the town. He was known to search in the rubbish bins of the military to find extra food, as did many other respectable citizens. No one had tasted real coffee for many months and they were using ground acorns as a substitute. His wife was a mousy little woman who only spoke Flemish so my French was no good for communication. My bedroom was dark, heavily curtained and I slept in a large carved double bed with a feather mattress and immense woven covers. The walls were covered in religious paintings, crosses and tapestries. I saw little of my hosts.
Returning from duty at midnight, I had to cross the butter market with its cobbles and my heavy shoes made a loud reverberating noise as I walked. There were no civilians about as there was a curfew after sundown. Initially I was very apprehensive since we were told there were still a few Germans snipers hidden in the town.
In the Officers' Mess our food was mostly tinned or dried as we were forbidden to eat fresh vegetables or fruit since human excreta was being used as fertiliser. In the early days we were even forbidden to drink tap water as it may have been poisoned by the vacating German troops. Canned beef, tinned cabbage and powdered potatoes were not exactly "haute cuisine".
However, the excitement of the work we were doing made up for a lot. The days were divided into four watches with two of us on each, working together with two WAAF sergeants. As the sightings from the RADAR units came in, we plotted the information and had to calculate and extrapolate the trajectory of the rocket's path back to its launching sight. Speed was of the essence. We had to do it in less than five minutes. The mark 4 rockets were launched from mobile launch pads, two at a time. From the moment of launch, it took only ten minutes before the launch vehicles were ready to move off to another location. This allowed us up to 5 minutes to work out the estimated launch site and have it analysed. We didn't have the luxury of calculators, let alone computers - only pencils and paper and slide rules. The information was passed on to the Mosquito aircraft. They were equipped with torpedo type bombs and patrolled in sections constantly over the likely launch areas in NE Holland. Given the possible location, they were able to target and destroy the launchers.
Not all the RADAR information or our calculations were completely accurate but the operation was a great success. By the end of the following March most of the launching vehicles had been destroyed and there were no replacements. Hitler's forces had many more warheads available but no more vehicles to launch them.
December 1944 was one of the heaviest months for launches. We now know the Rocket units were working in conjunction with the Rundstedt offensive. The weather was appalling over Christmas and the New Year and all our aircraft were grounded. His offensive in the Battle of the Bulge was very nearly successful. At the time we did not realise the gravity of the situation nor the threat to our unit. If Rundstedt had succeeded in overcoming the Allied Forces in the Ardennes, our unit at Malines would have been captured on his way to Antwerp.
Early in February on a rare day off, a Belgian friend took me in his timber lorry to the company's sawmills near the town of Bouillon. We travelled through the forest of the Ardennes. The heavy snows of the winter were melting and shattered bodies of the American and British troops were being uncovered in the melting snow. The losses were enormous. The broken remnants of tanks littered the forest floor. The intensity of the battle was revealed and I suddenly realised how close we had come to disaster.
The early months of the New Year saw a regular reduction in launches. By April the threat had finished and in early May we awoke to the news that peace had been declared. I recall that day vividly. I had been on duty all night - no incidents, no excitement. As I left the Operations Room and crossed the road to the Mess, looking forward to breakfast, a small car stopped. An English voice called out to me. I then noticed on the side of the car, written in chalk, the words "Ex-POWs. Inside were two very excited RAF Pilots. They were delirious with happiness. "You are the first English woman we have seen since 1940!"
They told me that a few nights before, all the guards at their POW camp, near Hanover, had disappeared. They had managed to get hold of one of the SS troop cars and they made their way from Germany through Holland to Belgium without being caught.
I took them into the Mess where they had the best breakfast we could provide and it was then we learned that the war was over. It was May 8th. My Commanding Officer told me to stay with them as he felt they could well be "bomb happy!" Although I had been on duty all night, the last thing on my mind was sleep.
I asked them what they would like to do and they replied they wanted to go back to Rotterdam where their Wellington had crashed and find the nurses who had helped them and they would like to take them some food. The Mess cook produced tins of corned beef; packets of biscuits and some jam and we set off in the direction of Rotterdam on their mission of mercy.
On the way, every village we passed through was celebrating. In Holland the farm wagons were parading through the streets, piled high with branches of gorse and broom - the orange colours a tribute to their Royal House. Finally we reached the River Rhine but there our luck ran out. The river was mined and there were many snipers in the city on the other bank. We learned this from an old ferryman who was able to take his small boat over to deliver supplies from nearby farms. We told him why we were there and he said he would deliver the food for us if we had an address. The two pilots produced a notebook and gave the name of the nurses and their hospital. I often wonder whether they ever received the food!
By the time we returned to Malines, it was early evening and everyone in the Mess had made plans to go into Brussels to celebrate. I was feeling drowsy so I asked the Medical Officer for a sleeping tablets which I took and went to go to bed. Then suddenly I realised what a special day it was and how stupid it would be to miss the celebrations! So I washed, changed my uniform and piled into the German car with the two pilots. Just before we set off, the MO. said "You'd better take this!" And he handed me a Benzedrine.
We spent the night in riotous celebrations in Brussels. All the population feted us and kissed us and handed us flowers. In the early hours of the morning when everyone else was feeling tired, the Benzedrine clicked in and I could have gone on until dawn - my first and last experience of an "upper"!
The following weeks saw the gradual dismantling of 33 Wing, 2nd TAF. There were Victory Parades, celebratory dinners with the Town Major (an Army officer brought in to get the town working again) and with the Town Mayor. Some personnel were sent home, others allotted new jobs. As I spoke French, I was sent for a couple of weeks to the concentration camp at Breendonck, south of Brussels. The Senior RAF Officer in the area issued an order that all personnel should visit the camp to see its horrors and hear the stories of what the Nazis had perpetrated there. My job was to show them round and interpret their questions to the Belgian officer now in charge. It was then being used as a prison for those Belgians who had collaborated with the Germans, mostly young men who had joined the S.S. My experience in that terrible place remains permanently in my memory but that is another story.
Finally, I was posted back to Britain and joined my bemused husband, ten months after marrying him. It was a further six months before I was demobilised and for him even longer. But it was a time I would never forget.
Read about life in The Filter Rooms
PhotographsIf you have any Photographs you would like to share please get in touch.
List of those who served in the WAAF.
- Cpl. Lena "Titch" Crawford Read her Story
- Audrey Turner Read her story
- Eileen Younghusband Read her story
If you have any names to add to this list please add their details.
If you have a story which you would like to share, or a website dedicated to a soldier or regiment please get in touch.
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