- Contributed by
- euan mahy
- People in story:
- BBC Radio Cornwall listeners' stories.
- Location of story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 February 2004
This story, by Anne Hyland, forms part of a series of contributions from listeners to BBC Radio Cornwall. The author is aware of the conditions of publishing this on the website.
When the second world war began I was eighteen years old and working for the Bank of England. It was a reserved, or protected job, so I knew that I could not be conscripted. I wanted to do my bit for my country and one day decided to walk to the Strand and the offices of the Air Ministry. I wanted to join the womens' air force, but was told that recruitment was being stopped for a while. I felt dejected and on my walk back to the City bumped into a newly married friend. Her husband, a fireman, suggested I join the London Fire Brigade instead. So within a short time I was back at another recruitment office and was accepted into the Auxiliary Fire Service. We were all volunteers.
Two weeks later I was given orders to make my way to Hampstead, north London. From there I was assigned to Belsize Park. Each station was identified by a series of numbers and letters. Mine was 13BY. Each area of London had a different sector number. The City was 36, north London 34, and so on. I was told by my company officer that I was to be responsible for keeping the records for each firefighter in area 34. I could not believe that I had swapped one office job for another. Instead of working behind a desk in the City, I was stationed in the divisional headquarters in a converted maternity hospital on Hampstead Heath. Luckily, this was to be short lived.
One morning a circular was passed around asking for more volunteers for the fire fighting section of the brigade. They wanted motorcycle dispatch riders and I applied immediately. I was accepted and each morning for two weeks had to travel to New Cross in south east London to be trained by speedway riders on the track there. The bikes were old and rusty. I was at an advantage because my brother used to be a speedway rider and by the age of 16 could confidently handle his BSA. The Womens' Royal Navy Dispatch Riders were being trained at the same time as us but they had shiny new machines and proper uniforms. We had to make do with kitting ourselves out from Pride and Clark's motorbike shop at Marble Arch. Later on, we did get proper fire brigade uniforms and new machines. Mine was a 250cc Panther. A year later I was given a brand new 350cc Triumph which I kept until 1945. I loved that machine, it was very well made and I never had a mishap on it.
My first month of dispatch duty involved checking the street-side fire alarms that were placed in most London roads. My favourite was outside a house where some American servicemen were billeted. They used to give me real coffee and cookies and taught me how to jive. We had to maintain and service our motorbikes ourselves. My wages were £2. 13.4 a week and all meals were included free. I used the money to pay the rent on a bedsit which I kept throughout the war. Occasionally my parents would subsidise my wages and this often meant that I had money to pay for my friends to come to the evening dances. Our favourite Dance Hall was in the Opera House in Covent Garden. There, Allied armed forces of every nationality, including American GI's, would spend the evening. Many women met future husbands at those gatherings.
Mrs Roosevelt, the American president's wife, visited London to inspect our civil and fire defences. This was before America joined the war. She was accompanied by one of our first women MP's, Mrs Ellen Wilkinson. I remember Mrs Roosevelt being very tall. I was assigned as an outrider escort to her convoy. She visited a newly opened training college for firewomen and the brigade headquarters in Lambeth. There, twenty motorcycle riders, including me, gave a display of their bike handling skills. The tricks we learnt from the speedway riders came in useful in our daily lives when we would often have to dodge debris after air raids. I remember shaking Mrs Roosevelt's hand after the display. She was charming.
As the war progressed the bombing of London became less frequent. Until the emergence of the V1 flying bomb, nicknamed the doodle bug. I remember being out on my bike early one morning and seeing the very first of these pilotless planes flying overhead. It had orange flame and smoke coming from its tail. I continued to Kentish Town where I was told it had crashed nearby. They became a regular sight and it was worrying that over the noise of my exhaust I would not be able to hear when their engine cut out and they began to drop.
Anne Hyland (transcribed by Euan Mahy)
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.