World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                       Alan Rimmer 

How my sister won the war

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Leonora Rimmer
Location of story: Stoke Newington, Wapping, Whitechapel, Elephant and Castle, Stepney, Egypt
Unit name: WAAF
Background to story: Royal Air Force


How My Sister Won The War

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

How my sister won the war
Alan Rimmer

My sister, Leonora, was only sixteen when she joined the WAAF in 1941 and became a barrage balloon operator. She did this until 1945. At the end of the war she went to Egypt where she did clerical work associated with the demobilization of troops that came there from various countries to the east. She was demobilized herself in 1947 at the age of twenty-two years, having been six years in the WAAF. Most of what is reported here is taken from tape recordings my sister made for me when I expressed an interest in writing of her war experiences.

Operating a Barrage Balloon was anything but routine. There were well established procedures describing how to go about the operation and maintenance of a balloon but there were always variables which created serious departures from normal routines. The number of girls in the crew was one of them. The fewer the number of girls, the more work that had to be done by those who remained. Perhaps the biggest variable was the weather followed closely by enemy activity.

"It seemed that all the nasty things happened when the weather was rotten. When we had to bring a balloon down because of weather, if it was very severe, then we would have to storm bed it, which meant bringing it down until its belly was on the ground and tied down all the way around. Of course, when it was down that way, you still had to move it and keep the bow into the wind. So, in the pouring rain, the wind would shift and we had to get out and drag those heavy concrete blocks, and undo the ropes, move them around and turn that balloon into wind. Before you got it into that position, those fins that are at the rear of the balloon had to be furled.

“The balloon is thirty feet high and the ladder is very tall. Two girls had to hold the ladder and, of course, being the tallest girl, I had to furl the tins. I would let the air out of them, and then roll them up. It would be raining and the rain went down my sleeves, down the back of my neck and everybody had chapped hands. I had chapped
arms, chapped elbows, and all these little cuts. Miserable! The ladder would be shaking and they would be hanging onto the bottom of it and the balloon would be
banging up against it because of the wind; it would he pitch black. I could use my awl to do a lot because they had slipknots that would undo very quickly when we had to release the balloon again. That was one of the most unpleasant jobs.

“There was nothing related to the maintenance of a balloon that was good to do. It was all dirty work; dirty oil ...your hands... I never took off my gloves if I could avoid it. I'd have all this old engine oil under my nails. There wasn't a way you could get it out. Then if you had cuts on your hands and up your arms, they'd get oil in them. You just looked really scruffy alt the time you were handling a balloon.

"There was one site I was on. I can't remember where it was exactly, probably Stoke Newington, but it was on a park because there was space and it adjoined a lumberyard. We had a very serious storm with a lot of rain and a lot of lightning and there was also an air raid alert on. Our balloon caught fire and went into the lumberyard. I don't know whether the lightning got it or it was shot at, but it went into the lumberyard and started a fire there. That was one night. We had just cleared up that thing and we lost another one. We got the other one inflated and got it up a couple of nights later and that broke loose.

“The cable went all across a Held, over the railway tracks, into the town. Now, all the cable was out with the balloon. I can't think how it happened as the flying cable is supposed to break free. It might have been shot down because it started to deltaic or, perhaps, the wind had been too much for it. The rip panel had gone but the cable had not broken and it had gone all the way across the railway embankment, across the park, into the town, over the trolley lines. It knocked out all the power at 6 o'clock in the morning in the pouring rain.

"So its back into the gum boots, and the rain gear, and we started following the cable. We saw that where it has gone over the railway embankment; there was a tunnel that led into the town. We knew we had a dangerous situation and, sure enough, the early morning train came along. The train picked up the cable. We all realized what was going to happen. It was going to be pulled along and then it would whip across, which is exactly what happened, so we all ran in one direction and the cable, when it was caught by the train, went in the other direction and just scythed out the whole victory garden that was in the park. It cut everything off.

“The train just went on. So we followed the cable and sang. ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’, as we went. We went into town. They were pretty mad at us, all these people standing on the street corners, and the balloon had come down in the railway station yard. It was just lying there, all deflated, and the first thing we had lo do was to gel all the secretive stuff off, the valves and any other thing that nobody should see. We then cut the cable into sections. We had been doing that on the way over there, with a big cable cutter, and coiled it up. We took the balloon, hauled it and put it all in this wheelbarrow and push it back to the site. Of course there were all these people standing around without a trolley bus to take them to work and yelling at us. 'It's not our fault!' we said.

“While we thought it was really funny, they didn't think it was funny at all. We took it back and called headquarters. They sent out another balloon. We lost two in about ten days.

"They then moved us down to the dock area in Wapping, Whitechapel, Elephant and Castle and Stepney. Not the nicest parts of London. The docks were not too far away and we had a Nissen hut and a wooden hut, an above ground air raid shelter, an Anderson shelter, an underground shelter on the site, and a balloon. The balloon (I think it was a dog site) didn't fly an awful lot but it could fly in there. There was enough room for it. But the regular bombing was very heavy. They were still lulling the docks and they'd knock out some of the tenements. It was pretty bad. It was dangerous because there was constant bombing. It was mostly at night. During the day, the V-1's would come in. These were the first of the flying bombs. They were called buzz bombs or doodlebugs. You could see them coming in. We'd stand outside and watch them. There might be two or three. One would be going off to your right, one to your left and one coming at you. You'd watch to see which was going down first and where it was going, and then you'd make a run for the shelter.

“Many times, the engine would remain on and it would come in like a dive-bomber with a terrible noise as it came in. It was much better if the engine shut off: it wasn't noisy that way. You'd get the hang of it at the end, but that screaming noise of the plane coming down was pretty hard to take. But the buzz bombs were thick. I remember one time, we counted eight all at once coming in. Then at night they had the regular bombing raids. They kept us busy. We slept in the shelters. That was the first time I actually slept in the shelter. I slept in the surface shelter; I didn't like going underground too much. But we had a good surface shelter that had bunks in it. In any case, the Nissen Hut got bombed. We couldn't sleep in that any more. We would normally sleep in the Nissen Hut and would go in the shelter when the siren went off.

"I was on this site for quite some time. A lot of the people, the children, had been evacuated out of there. There were just the older people and the workers who stuck around. The local grocery store went during an air raid. They had a shelter under the store, which got a direct hit. We used to be on what was called the heavy rescue squad with the ARP (Air Raid Precaution group) and they used to go after the people who were trapped. So we used to participate in that because we didn't have much to do on the balloons anymore. We had a short crew, six or eight of us that's all (out of a normal complement of sixteen). We would leave somebody on the site by the phone in case there were operations, and we'd go and help. In a grocery store (it was like a big supermarket), the people were getting gassed because of a broken gas main and there was water, also, the water mains had gone. I didn't see any live people come out of there, just bodies. They were people who had been in the store and went down to the shelter underneath. There were some people that had been able to survive and who were moved over to the rest centre, which was the school, an old, dirty looking place. They had a big sign up front, 'Rest Centre', so that if you got bombed out of your house, you'd go there. They had cots and things. Well, the people from the grocery store that survived went over to the Rest Centre or went home. But the Rest Centre got a direct hit that same evening and was blown to smithereens.

"These bombed building would have a whole side taken off so that you could see all the furniture and the curtains still flapping and the bathrooms all intact. What intrigued me was how the blast would work. It worked differently each time."