World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                           Mary Hickes 

MARY'S MEMOIRS - A WAAF IN WARTIME

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Mary Hickes
Location of story: RAF Wilmslow, Manchester, Sealand, Shrewsbury, RAF Cosford, Wolverhampton, Belaugh Hall, Wroxham, Norfolk Broads, RAF West Raynham, Fakenham, Norfolk, RAF Little Snoring
Unit name: WAAF, RAF Maintenance Unit, 100 Group, 141 Squadron, 23 Squadron
Background to story: Royal Air Force

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Mary Hickes.

MARY'S MEMOIRS - A WAAF IN WARTIME
By
Mary Hickes

During the dark days of the War in 1942 the Government of the day decided that women in the age group 19 to 22 would be conscripted into the Armed Forces, with a few exceptions, notably those doing essential work.

After having passed a medical and also having had 12 months deferment on account of the fact that I was working as a shorthand-typist in the local authority Transport Department, considered at first to be essential work, I eventually received my call-up papers on my 20th birthday with an order to report to RAF Wilmslow (south of Manchester) on the 11th November 1943. A railway warrant was enclosed and specific instructions detailing my being picked-up by a Royal Air Force truck at Manchester, London Road Station (now known as Piccadilly).
It was with some trepidation that I boarded that train from Sheffield Midland Station.
Together with several others, I arrived at lunch time, so the first items of kit given to us were a knife, fork and spoon (known as 'irons') and a drinking mug.

RAF Wilmslow was to be my 4 weeks initial training, which was very strict and for which I was to be paid the princely sum of two shillings (ten new pence) per day for serving my country. We were shown to our dormitory in a Nissen hut and what a surprise, after being used to a bedroom of my own - about 16 of us to sleep in this room! The ablutions block was a separate building across the pathway.
Whilst stationed at Wilmslow, we were given our service number (which, incidentally, you never forget), learned Air Force etiquette, square bashing, fire drill, first aid and a smattering of ju-jitsu. We had vaccinations, inoculations and dental inspection. We were given specific instructions that our hair must not touch our collar. Beds were to be stacked before going to breakfast (the three biscuits forming the mattress to be stacked, the blankets folded on the top wrapped up in the sheets). Domestic night would be a Monday, when a WAAF officer would inspect our kit laid out on the bed, shoes were to be polished, also the floor of the bed space. Once a month we would have an inspection called FFI {free from infection} which every WAAF would have to attend. We were also told that if we were chosen to be mechanics, trousers and battledress tops would be a 'must', but we would have to change into skirt and best blue tunic if going off Camp in the evening. We sat general knowledge and psychology tests so that the Air Force could decide the appropriate trade for each individual.

We were then issued with our kit, which consisted of the following:
2 bras
2 vests
2 roll-ons with suspenders attached
6 pairs of knickers {3 white ones with short legs which buttoned at the side and 3 dark blue ones with long legs down to the knees finished off with elastic, which we very quickly named 'blackouts' and refused to wear}. These blue knickers were sometimes referred to as 'harvest festivals' (all is safely gathered in)
3 long-sleeved shirts with 6 detachable collars 1 cardigan (Air Force blue)
1 pair of trousers
1 battledress top similar to a blouson 1 skirt {best blue}
1 tunic (best blue)
2 pairs striped pyjamas
3 pairs grey lisle stockings {which we immersed in hot water to bleach them}
2 pairs short socks
2 pairs black lace-up shoes (flat heeled) similar to a brogue 1 pair rubber galoshes
2 shoe brushes and shoe polish
1 button stick and tin of Brasso for cleaning buttons and cap badge 1 greatcoat
1 peak cap with cap badge
1 camouflaged ground sheet to be worn as a cape in wet weather 1 gas mask in shoulder-carrying holdall
1 first aid kit to be worn in inner pocket of best blue tunic 1 kit bag
2 white hand towels
(1 knife, l fork, 1 spoon and drinking mug had already been issued)
In assessing what size uniform would fit you, you were merely looked up and down and the clothing assistant would say 'I think that will fit' -no measuring at a11! As soon as you were kitted out with uniform, you had to parcel up your civilian clothes and post them home - no chance of your being able to wear mufti!

12 clothing coupons were issued to us each year, which we spent on French knickers, camiknickers and grey silk stockings, so that we felt a little more feminine when off duty. The shops rarely accepted our coupons!

We had very few idle moments during the four weeks. Lights out at 14.34 pm and we were not allowed out of camp until the last weekend. We did several route marches which showed me what lovely country it was around Wilmslow. When out in the country, we were allowed to sing 'She'll be coming round the Mountains when she comes'. (As you can imagine we soon composed our own words to the tune). There were several other songs, including McNamara's Band which we were happy to march to. As it was nearing Christmas, the Officers decided that these new entrants would stage a nativity play. 1 was asked to accompany on the piano for rehearsals, but in the end was chosen to play the Virgin Mary. (I think I must have looked innocent!)

As a result of the tests we had sat, we went our different ways towards the middle of December 1943. ! was told that 1 would be going on a course to learn to be a Wireless/Radar Mechanic and as there wasn't a vacancy at that time I was sent to the RAF Maintenance Unit at Sealand (near Chester) to work in the Workshop and, hopefully, pick up some knowledge, as my profession was shorthand-typing. In actual fact, there wasn't a great deal I could do as the inner workings of wireless were foreign to me. I ended up as dogsbody, helping in the office and generally tidying around. I remember the workshop being very cold and rather an inhospitable place, with the ablution block outside, for which you had to sign out and in again, and to be no more than 10 minutes. The living quarters in the WAAF compound were Nissen huts with a Guardroom manned by WAAF, which it was necessary to pass any hour of the day or evening.

Three months at Sealand and a vacancy on the course became available at Shrewsbury Technical College to learn electricity and wireless. After having been issued with a railway warrant to Shrewsbury, I was to hear that the 34 of us on the course would be in civilian billets. We were given bus fares and directions and told to go and find our billets. Mine was in Sundorne Crescent on the outskirts of Shrewsbury with a very pleasant young married woman with a daughter aged 3 years, her husband working on munitions, returning home most weekends. The landladies were to supply us with full board; generally two WAAF's were billeted together, although at one time there were 3 of us in my billet.
At College we were taught mainly by civilian instructors, but for administrative purposes there was a Flight Lieutenant and a Warrant Officer (male) from the Royal Air Force and a WAAF, who was possibly a Corporal. It was back to the School situation again - of classrooms, writing notes, having workshop experience, revising and finally taking examinations.

As regards laundry, if we were on a Camp there were facilities for sending washing to the Camp Laundry free of charge - to take it in one week and collect it the next. With only three shirts in the kit, you had to be very careful that you were left with at least one clean shirt. As we were not on a camp at Shrewsbury, it was arranged that one day per week we could be marched across the road from the Technical College to the Chinese laundry. The only time we visited RAF Monkmoor, our parent Station, in one of the suburbs of Shewsbury, was if we were ill and had to report sick.

During my time at Shrewsbury, all leave was cancelled for RAF and WAAF personnel that summer. The admin personnel told us we could send home for some civilian clothes and they would take us on a picnic to Cardingmill Valley at Church Stretton. I borrowed a dress belonging to my landlady's sister. I was very glad of it as it was a lovely warm and sunny day. I must have looked quite odd as the only shoes I possessed were my Air Force lace-ups! Having finally passed the exams at the College, we were now sorted out between those who would go on the Wireless Mechanic's course and those chosen to be Radar Mechanics. I was chosen for the latter. Because of the secret nature of Radar at that time, you had to be of British nationality and not colour blind. Those of us including myself should have gone to Kensington for our course, but the week before we were due to be posted, the WAAF billet was bombed, so we were sent home for a week, our instructions to come by post at home. In September 1944, I was instructed to report to the Radar School at RAF Cosford (near Wolverhampton).

We were told that the course was intense and that notebooks were not allowed out of the classroom, in fact the books had to be counted and locked in a cupboard before anyone could leave. We were allowed to go back to the classroom in the evening to study, which we did as there was nothing else to do in the evening. We were to turn the theories of wireless in order to learn the principles of radar. It was a difficult but rewarding course, which I have never regretted having to study.

Having passed our radar examinations at Cosford, our exercise books were destroyed; everything had to be committed to memory. We were told that we could wear a flash on the sleeve of our tunics and battle dresses, but because of the secrecy of our trade, it had to be the wireless flash, not the radar one which had a red centre.

From Cosford I was posted, with three other WAAF's, to 100 Group at Belaugh Hall about one mile west of Wroxham, the Capital of the Norfolk Broads. When we arrived there they didn't know what to do with us as Radar Mechanics were not employed at that Station, the Headquarters of 100 Group. The powers-that-be housed us in a Nissen hut without electricity which had already been condemned but it was the only accommodation available. The four of us had a lovely three days, sitting in the NAAFI, drinking tea and catching up on our correspondence.

Eventually, they sorted us out and posted us to RAF West Raynham near Fakenham in Norfolk to be attached to 141 Squadron, an operational squadron flying Mosquitos as fighter-bomber escort. We reported to the flight lieutenant in charge of the Radar workshop, his face dropped - he was expecting four RAF, not WAAF! The workshop, which was at the far end of the perimeter brack, was almost entirely made up of Canadians, including the officer, who had experience in wireless in civvy street and had volunteered to come here to help Britain win the war. After a couple of weeks at West Raynham, two of our group were posted to RAF Massingham, only a few miles away, but Joyce and I remained with 141 Squadron until the war in Europe was over. We worked long hours, having to parade outside the workshop at eight o'clock in the morning, about an hour for lunch when we went across to the cookhouse, finishing sometimes at about 5.30pm. but one of us was on duty until eight o'clock each evening.

We worked in the workshop repairing mainly Gee sets, a navigational aid which had been taken from the planes after operations over Germany.
With the Armistice in Europe in May 1945 the Canadians returned home. Some RAF personnel were posted to the Far East to help finish the War there. 141 Squadron was therefore split up and my friend and I were posted to RAF Little Snoring, a few miles down the road, with 23 Squadron, where we stayed until Japan capitulated.

Life in the Forces was very different from civilian life. It taught you how the other half of the world lives, also how to be amiable with other people with whom you probably have nothing in common. The camaraderie was excellent - we were all in the same boat; many of us missed that side of life after demobilisation.

It is certainly very difficult to explain to people who have not served in the Forces what it was like to be in the Air Force during wartime. After the European war was over there was more 'bull', that is discipline, parades, inspections, which many of us thought a waste of time. Taking the rough with the smooth, I enjoyed my 31/2 years in uniform. Had I not been called up I would not have gained the experience nor would I have had the opportunity to learn the principles of radar.