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MARY'S MEMOIRS - A WAAF IN WARTIME

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					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, and has been added to the site with the author
permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.


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 lunchtime, 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 all! 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. I 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. I was told that I 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 was 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, we had 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 3 ½ 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.




Pr-BR

				
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