World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                             Joan Boult 

My War Work, Royal Artillery Searchlight Division

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Joan Boult (nee Bluett)
Location of story: Bournemouth
Unit name: Royal Artillery Searchlight Division
Background to story: Civilian Force


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

I was about nineteen and living in Bournemouth when War broke out. We saw little direct action, apart from one occasion when I was walking with a friend in Talbot Woods above the town, and there was an air raid. It was mid morning and quite unexpected. We knew from the commotion and the pall of fire and smoke that damage had been done. Of course, on our return, we saw the extent of it. One of the big West Front hotels had suffered a direct hit.

There was nothing to bomb Bournemouth for. We had no naval base; we didn't manufacture armaments or anything like that. Instead, the town became a centre for sort of office-based manoeuvres, 'strategic planning', that kind of thing, because it was deemed to be safe 'ish'. As a young woman I was working in a draper's shop, selling.

When the War came, quite a lot of women went in the forces. There was something about women under twenty-one and over forty. I don't think they were allowed to join the 'regular' forces.

My sister joined the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). She had to go to Hastings. I remember her being in uniform at my wedding, towards the end of the War, so she must have been in a while.
We got these letters, I remember, a little bit into the War (I think I was twenty one by then), advising us that we should apply for work to support the war effort. There was a choice I think, but most of them were clerical type jobs, all for the War Office. Some of them were quite high powered, like code breaking. A lot couldn't tell their families what they were engaged in, until after the War was over.

I applied, successfully, to work for the Royal Artillery Searchlight Division. They had a sort of 'operations' room in one of the hotels on the West Cliff. All the big hotels had been requisitioned. We were on the top floor I remember. I suppose it had been a lounge for guests, or even a bedroom.
It was interesting work. My job was to organise a sort of 'recall' for men on the searchlights, to do civilian work for short periods.

These were men billeted in Britain, but all over the country. Every so often, certain of them would be allowed so much leave, fairly short bursts. They'd be required to help with a sugar beet harvest or in a coal mine. It was usually agricultural or industrial work of some sort, when there was too much work for the regular workforce. Their numbers would be depleted, because of the number of hands that had gone off to fight. The Land Army and the Bevin Boys would be doing their bit, but from time to time they'd need reinforcements. Whether these reinforcements we were sending were farm workers or coalminers in civilian life, I don't know. I'd imagine they would have to be, because there would be skills involved and no time to train someone up in just a few weeks. Whether they were going back to their own home area, I'm not sure. It'd be interesting to know. It'd make sense if they were. My job was to co-ordinate all the arrangements for this leave.

I suppose I'd worked from a list. I don't recall quite how the men were selected to come out, but I had to write to their regiments and work out all their movements and so on. Strangely, I always remembered organising someone to come to the coalmines in Clay Cross. A funny name for a place, I thought at the time, where an earth is it? Never realising I'd be living just up the road from it all these years later!

There was a huge map on the wall, of the whole country. I became quite good at map reading. If you give me the name of a town in Britain, I can usually tell you what county it's in. I got quite good at geography, it stuck with me. Even now, when we're driving round the country, I can beat some of the youngsters at navigation. I've my wartime service to thank for that!