- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Maureen Ascott's grandmother
- Location of story:
- Symondbury Dorset, HMS Merlin RNAS Yeovilton
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 February 2005
First hand from my Nan.
Aeroplanes were to be a big part of my war. My first contact with a plane was on a Thursday afternoon, 15th August 1940. I was picking blackberries at the back of old warren hill at Symondsbury, when I was horrified to see a hurricane flying slowly up the valley with smoke pouring from it. It had obviously been in a battle with a German plane and was trying to land out of the way of houses in the town or village. I ran through the fields following its trail and came across it crashed in a field by Fourgates. Having had some training in the girls’ training corps I knew how to undo the straps and release the pilot. He was thankfully alive but injured, and as I struggled with the straps I was suddenly grabbed from behind and thrown out the way. The army had arrived and thought the plane would explode, but fortunately it did not. The pilot was taken to hospital.
In 2000 when the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was celebrated, the Dorset Echo was in contact with the pilot, Sgt Pilot Cowley. Before the plane was removed from the field, the soldiers took off the number identification plate and gave it to my sister to give to me. I kept it for 40 years, then it mysteriously disappeared. I wish I had been able to give it back to Sgt Pilot Cowley.
My second contact with planes was in the Fleet Air Arm as a wren radio mechanic, for which I had to study for several months at Chelsea Polytechnic on a theory radio course and then on an airfield doing practical work on various FAA aircraft. I was then drafted to HMS Merlin in Scotland, where my job was to re-equip or repair all the radio equipment on planes that were brought back from aircraft carriers escorting the ships on Atlantic and Russian convoys. After servicing the radio we flew in the plane to test the equipment in the air, sometimes flying out over the North Sea to test the radar from a signal on a rocky island.
One day I was horrified to be told that one of the planes I had sent back to a carrier had arrived with the glass broken on the tuning meter on the transmitter and I was on Captain’s Report. I knew it had been OK when I had done the last daily inspection, but how could I prove it? Help was at hand; the pilot who had flown it off to the carrier had arrived back with another plane to be repaired. He heard of the trouble and came over to tell our duty officer that he had been standing by me, waiting to climb aboard when I did the last inspection and signed the Form 700 — the plane’s life history — and everything had been OK and it must have been equipment that was put in the open cockpit afterwards that had broken the glass. It was very worrying to think that I was being held responsible for the radio being wrong, which meant that the plane would be out of service and the squadron was not up to full strength, so the carrier was not fully operational. My relief at knowing I wasn’t guilty was immense, because I really loved that job in the Wrens and the swordfish planes and was very disappointed, months later, when I was drafted down to Yeovilton because my mother was very ill and I would be nearer to visit her.
At Yeovilton I was at the Fighter Direction Centre at a farm off the main air station, training Fighter Direction Officers to control planes in battle from ships. There were three of us Wrens and our duties were to look after all the radio equipment, teach the trainee officers the basic elements of radio reception and help in the transformation of farm buildings to mock ship control rooms. It was our duty every evening to switch off the radio sets that had been used on actual exercises with planes from the station, flown by trainee pilots. One evening, when I went to the radio rooms to switch off for the evening, one R/T wren was still sitting at her set calling one of the planes. She was anxious to catch her transport back to the house in a village where she was billeted, so the duty officer said I could take over. I sat and called “Hello Red 2, this is zebra, are you receiving me” over and over again, but no reply. The ‘phone rang in the radio room and the duty officer looked over to me and shook his head. “You can switch off now, he won’t be answering, he has crashed.” For ages afterwards, I could hear my voice making that call into the air. It was quite sad. In the churchyard of Yeovilton church which is now the FAA church, there is a grave of a pilot from the date. I think it is likely to be the pilot I tried to call; I took some flowers the last time I went, and told him I tried to bring him home.
So, even though we were not in a battle, young, full of life people were being killed — giving their lives for their Country. There’s one more plane story. In the FAA Museum, there is an Albacore, a really old FAA World War 2 plane, but part of that relic came from Scotland and is very probably part of the plane in which two Wren friends of mine were killed, doing the same job I had done at HMS Merlin. I learned of their deaths in the farmyard of the FCF. The same ferry pilot who had backed me in Scotland had flown down to Yeovilton on duty and came across to tell me the very sad news. When the Duke of York gave the Book of Remembrance of FAA air crews who died in the war, to be kept at the FAA church, I was instrumental in ensuring that the names of Joan Ashburner and Peggy Batchelor were included in that book.
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