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Sweet 16 in Penzance, then quickly grew up as a WAAF

by cornwallcsv

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Patricia Dennis (nee Down); Miss Fisher; the Rev William Gilpin
Location of story: 
Penzance, Normandy, Belgium, Hamburg.
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
09 July 2005

This story has been written onto the BBC People's War site by CSV Storygatherer Robin. D. Bailey on behalf of the author Patricia Dennis. They fully understand the terms and conditions of the site.

It was in 1940 when I was 16 and when we arrived in Penzance. St. Michael's Woodward School in Bognor Regis, Sussex, where I was a pupil, was deemed to be vulnerable from the "tip and run" raids on the south coast by German bombers returning home not having discharged their loads.

Our sister school in Penzance was St. Clare, at that time an Anglo-catholic Woodward School. They offered us facilities; the use of their playing fields, classrooms and teachers. We lived in what was then The Hotel Royale, which are now flats. The accommodation seemed most luxurious to us - I shared a room overlooking Mounts Bay and St. Michael's Mount.

Our first journey into Cornwall by train over the Isambard Kingdom Brunel Bridge was exciting - no road bridge then. No sooner had we arrived Penzance suffered a couple of raids - I have a mental picture of us all sitting in the corridor, our air raid shelter, and our rather eccentric art mistress wearing a tin hat going on to the roof - I can't think what for!

Some of the mothers of the youngest pupils came with us and were housed in Ponsondane - a large house where the sixth form had lessons. It was a short walk from the Hotel Royale past a drinking trough to Ponsondane. I mention the drinking trough (which I noticed the other day is still there); because it figures in some doggerel verses I wrote which are printed at the end of this story. It's not surprising that I didn't turn out to be a poet!

Miss Fisher was our French teacher who was round and dumpy and often in a bad mood, or so it seemed to us. I expect we were beastly to her. We had Latin lessons from the vicar, a William Gilpin. Our English mistress was rather "keen" on him and was always around when he arrived, and was much more charming to him than she was to us. With hindsight, I don't blame her!

We had quite a good choir and were invited by the vicar, to sing in St. Mary's church to help fill the gaps left by those serving in the forces. We used to walk in a crocodile along the front and loved it when we had to dodge the waves.

We used to go to Gulval Church in the evenings, walking across the fields, and sang in the choir there too. That was the first time I had sung Mozart's Ave Verum. We also joined forces with other schools and sang parts of the Messiah in the Cathedral.

We were taken to Land's End, which was wild and beautiful and had no commercial development that I can remember.

When I compare myself at that time with the youngsters of today, I realise how naive and immature I was. I had fallen in love with a young naval officer, a midshipman aged 19, who went off to serve on HMS Aurora in the Mediterranean. Because his parents were friends of the family, I was allowed to received letters from him at school. This was a totally innocent love affair, holding hands at the cinema and a chaste kiss or two after a dance at the local golf club.

I eventually joined the WAAF at 19 having completed a secretarial course, and the correspondence continued until he was killed in action off the island of Rhodes. At the time I was stationed at Box near Bath as a shorthand typist in the Intelligence office of H.Q. 10 Group of the RAF. His elder brother was given the unenviable task of telling me of his death whilst taking me out for a meal.

The loss of a boyfriend was, unfortunately, common and I remember the Corporal in our hut telling me to remember that I wasn't the only one. I applied for a posting to RAF Harrowbear, just outside Plymouth so that I could be near his parents who lived in Tavistock. I had my 21st birthday there, but nobody knew about it.

I contracted pneumonia whilst I was there and was sent to Derriford Hospital (I'm not sure of this) and treated with the very new drug called M & B, which just made me vomit. I think my recovery can be attributed to my own resources! Plymouth had taken a bashing and the hospital had been hit; all the wards were mixed up, and I remember the numbers of patients who died in my ward - I was convinced I would be next. I also remember the dreadful night when the young nurse on night duty got drunk and tried to carry half a dozen bedpans on top of each other, and then proceeded to give patients aperients (laxatives). She had gone to a party during her break and someone had laced her drink with gin. Fortunately, I was on the mend by then and took part in frantic efforts to get her sober with black coffee before the night Sister's round, which she managed to complete but with a large coffee stain down the front of her apron.

I eventually applied to go overseas and was with the first contingent of WAAF who landed at Arromanches, the famous man made Mulberry port in Normandy. This was D-Day +3 months, September 1944. We lived under canvas in a cider apple orchard at St. Croix - we all ate too many of the apples with disastrous results. We worked in caravans and followed the troops to Ghent in Belgium. The French people thought we were "comfort for the troops!"

We were not allowed to go to Caen, which had been very badly damaged, but we went to Bayeux and saw a replica of the tapestry.

In Ghent we made friends with Belgian families, who were extremely kind to us, I still keep up with the family who befriended me.

We used to go by train to Brussels where I saw my first opera.

We finally reached Hamburg, which was a distressing sight and where ELEPHANTS were being used to help clear rubble.

I was then posted to Blankenberg, on the coast of Belgium, to work in the orderly room of the convalescent station for troops. In stark contrast to Hamburg, it was delightful, it was summertime and there was time to go to the beach and swim.

And so ended my 4 years in the WAAF. How lucky I was to survive. The horrors of war still haunt me; One of my nightmares is of approaching bombers throbbing as they loom closer. Fortunately, I wake up when it gets unbearable.

What surprises me in my old age, is that we still have not learnt that war is not the answer, that each war is more destructive than the last and that innocent people are now the victims; that war causes famines, homelessness and poverty, and the loss of loved ones.

The Awful Poem - penned in 1940
(doggerel verses mentioned above)

When coming back from Ponsandane
I met Miss Fisher in the rain,
I guessed what sort of mood she was in
Because her hair was black and thin
It's really not surprising
As it was far from drizzling.

And as we passed the drinking trough
She gave her usual little cough;
"Pat Down" she said "where is your mask?"
"Oh! Fish" I said "Why need you ask,
the Jerry might as well drop hay
As try a gas attack today!"
It's really not surprising
As it was far from drizzling.

"How dare you speak to me, Pat Down
As though you're warden of this town -
I've never heard such downright cheek!"
"But please" I said "It's sprung a leak"
It's really not surprising
As it was far from drizzling.

She said "I don't care what it's sprung"
And eyed me like a piece of dung,
At which I really looked upset,
For then she snapped "I'm getting wet!"
It's really not surprising
As it was far from drizzling.

And off she stalked, one shoulder high,
Her hair by this time far from dry
I really felt quite sorry for
Her next class which was Lower Four
It's really not surprising
As it was far from drizzling.

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