- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Written by ANTOINETTE PORTER, nee Hampton and submitted by S Rowat
- Location of story:
- WRNS, Felixstowe
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 October 2004
“TUPPENCE A DAY DANGER MONEY”
Now at this point in my young life, May 1943, came two Wren Officers and their driver to ask for volunteers for a ‘very dangerous and secret’ job. Out of 30 or so of us, half volunteered immediately (foolhardy twits) and jostled to be first in the queue outside the Admin office, temporarily made into a ‘job opportunity’ room. I was halfway down the queue and, when it was my turn, marched in breathlessly with eyes shining and said I was keen. I saw myself parachuting into France to help the resistance movement. The girl behind approached me afterwards, saying, “you didn’t sound very keen”. I was horrified, tacked myself onto the end of the diminishing line of applicants and reapplied. “Ma’am, one of the others said I didn’t sound keen...but I am...very, Ma’am!’
Incidentally we weren't told what the job was, only that it would be on the east coast outside Felixstowe. I imagined repulsing the would-be invaders and my heart raced with boundless enthusiasm! We were told to muster at 18.00 for the results so we spent the intervening time mooching, fantasising and awaiting the outcome with impatience. We were all waiting outside the job opportunity room at 17.55 and were told that four girls had been chosen. Yes, children, your little Mama was one of them! Talk about thrilled! You must remember all of us were prepared to lay down our lives for King and Country. Amazing, but then of course it was our country and we were fighting for ourselves, not an outside cause, or oil. I think I’d feel differently about volunteering today.
So a few days went by and we four, by now firm friends, were feeling very superior. We were issued with rail vouchers and entrained for Felixstowe. It was a lovely summer day and we went via London Liverpool Street Station where several more volunteers joined us...and I made a lifelong friend of Rosemary Brough, later Sessions. I saw this amazing girl on the station and was transfixed by the fact that her hair was a good six inches longer than mine (which was way over my collar) and she wore a white stock and looked very glamorous. The fact that she was obviously a rebel of the first order was very attractive to my own rebellious soul. By the time we arrived in Felixstowe we were firm friends. The fact that her brother was a Fleet Air Arm pilot, and from his photo a dazzling creature, didn’t go against her either!
The ubiquitous 3-tonner was at the station to meet us. We clambered in and were whisked off to the old Suffolk Convalescent Home on the sea front which was, of course, heavily barbwired. Felixstowe itself was totally closed to civilians and all houses ‘mothballed’. We were shown to various cabins named after ships; Rosemary and I were allotted to ‘Illustrious’. Sixteen girls per cabin in double-decker bunks with neat navy and white, anchor embroidered Vantona bedspreads. We had one broken piece of mirror to share and there were various small chests of drawers. One Wren brought a battery radio which endlessly churned out lovely music... ‘Perfidia’, ‘Frenesi’, Glen Miller, Vera Lynn, and the song, ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire’ which we adopted as own Boom Defence song and sang in our lorries. I particularly remember ‘You’d be so nice to come home to, and ‘Coming in on a wing and a prayer’.
We unpacked and readied ourselves for the moment of truth and revelations of what we were actually to do. Some girls there were actually already doing it, but they didn’t give anything away. So it was in ignorance that about ten of us found ourselves in a small room with incumbent Wren officer, blond haired and middle aged (actually she was about 30!) Our briefing was about to begin! What follows has been the butt of family jokes ever since, and if I were you, I think I should have joined in the incredulous mirth too!
BOOM DEFENCE....secret category...DANGEROUS WORK
Our briefing began and silently, if not open-mouthed, we listened. Apparently we, teenagers to a girl, were to launch attacks on Germany from a disused golf course two to three miles from the Suffolk Convalescent Home... and be taught to handle and fire lewis guns and rifles in defence of the site. The plan was to inflate 10 to 12 foot white latex rubber balloons in three-sided housings, attach various rather nasty devices to them and, when the wind was right, dispatch them to Germany. We were aghast!
We were to be divided into Port and Starboard watches, issued with bellbottoms, square-rig shirts, navy blue ones with collar attached (mine lasted me until Robert was five), duffel coats and big navy blue, Guernsey-like sweaters, and we were to begin operating as soon as the weather was right. Through our cabin windows we could see the big, grey barrage balloons and by their position we were soon able to tell if, and where, we were working. Triple tails out to sea-off to work; tails reversed - off to a disused Butlin’s camp a mile down the road to sort and assemble the balloons, which were about two to three feet in size before inflation. We attached black Bakelite necks to these with twisty bits and little things called pip-settings’ which were meant to control their performance when they reached a certain height over the (rather random, I guess,) target. As the 10-12 feet baloons were launched we attached (or not, depending on the prevailing weather) rain weights, which have remained a complete mystery to me! Also to be sent, prior to the big B’s were small radio sonds, to ascertain direction and rate of ascent.
The balloons were packed in french chalk which got into the back of your throat rather badly. We used to put the residue on the floor and, during our cocoa break, slide up and down and fall over. We also wrote (very tame but we thought very daring and rude) messages on the balloons to Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and any other poor German who saw them. And of course, the black messages, when inflated, became very large. I remember such things as, ‘Death to all Germans’, ‘Balls to Hitler,Goering and Goebbels’, and, ’Take this you Bastards’. Taking into account that some landed in Belgium, France and Holland, the locals must have been a bit puzzled! Not to mention the village in the Midlands that we once set on fire. Fortunately there were no messages on that batch as we had to smuggle the marked balloons away a bit, for such behaviour was disallowed and punishable. In fact a tabloid paper described that attack as ‘Hitler’s Fiendish New Weapon’. Our response was to believe our little efforts really worked, and we were secretly quite pleased and flattered! We even managed to disrupt East Anglian railways for 24 hours. (Wrong sort of balloons on the line?) This was also blamed on the Gerry's though any nearby resident could probably see our balloons ascending into the beautiful blue skies looking for all the world like pearls as they got higher and higher.
Here are the details of my first operation. The big day dawned and I am placed in port watch, and given a bicycle. Starboard watch rode in lorries, not a very auspicious beginning, I thought. Barrage balloons correctly swinging on their hawsers with their tails out to sea, we poor port watchers, struggled up Bent Hill (1 in 3). During the long ride out to the golf course, we were passed by the starboard watch, shouting and thumbing their noses from their big three ton RN lorries. Hateful girls!
Picture this if you will, the first op of your 18 year old future mother, instructed to inflate a monstrous balloon with a highly inflammable substance from a huge cylinder (many of them loaded on an RAF trailer and observed by a couple of fag smoking erks!) They were there to help us...so God help us...when they didn’t. If pressed they would get out huge spanners and heave them around coupling and uncoupling our hoses. These monstrous balloons were housed in three sided tents which, as inflation progressed, created friction...balloon to canvas...causing a great risk on instant combustion. So out came our buckets and stirrup pumps and we sprayed balloon and tent. As the nearest tap was 100 yards away we were all forced into a chain gang. In fact we formed chain gangs for everything that had to be moved on the site, explosives included! Girl to girl, a fine line of strapping wenches in square rig and bell bottoms. No wonder you have all laughed over the years.
In spite of our simple precautions the balloons did, quite frequently, explode causing the nearer Wrens to be flash burned and the further ones to get an instant sun tan with singed eyebrows and hairline. Fortunately I was never near enough to get badly burned but many of my pals were not so lucky and were carted off to Trimley St Mary Hospital to be plastered with gentian violet or acriflavine...not a pretty sight! As teenagers we took all this in our stride which I now find unbelievable.
Once the balloon had reached its maximum size, we attached the pip setting, something called and antifreeze and a webbing strap handle. The monster was then loosed from its moorings and tent and we had to take it out to a dispersal point were a variety of nasties were attached: Sox long fused canvas bags stuffed with straw, ignition material and bottles of latex liquid rubber mixed with phosphorus (the first six packs?), Jelly cans - petrol cans with timed fuses and wires - 100 yard lengths of steel wire ( horrid if they got round your legs on take off). When these various items had been attached, we took the whole caboodle out to a further dispersal point on the golf course and let it go. Imagine a force 8 and the monstrous balloon tugging at you, changing shape with the wind and nearly taking you with it. A favourite trick was to go to the edge of a bunker and jump... thereby being airborne for a few seconds!
We operated in all weathers as long as the wind was blowing towards Germany (forgetting Belgium and the low countries). The balloons thrashed about like live things, firmly and desperately gripped by us and banging on the ground at the side of us. To let go meant being on a charge and losing a day’s pay. During rainstorms they became heavy and sluggish and threatened to suffocate us. They bumped sluggishly towards the sea before stumbling into the air. The loveliest sight was a summer day and a successful launch of two to three hundred balloons streaming into the blue sky like big fat pearls, getting smaller and smaller and eventually drifting out of sight.
Getting back to Felixstowe entailed lorries and bikes again, port and starboard watches alternating. Many were the times I let down my bicycle tyres to ensure a lorry ride back to quarters and grub time. On the menu might be eggs and chips or tinned toms and fried bread, and endless bread and jam. Our evenings were spent acquiring bars of chocolate by doing the rounds of every available shop and service outlet (NAAFI and YMCA) and then stuffing them whilst overlooking the barbed wire encrusted sea shore. There was also Millers Cafe were we gorged on lemon curd buns until we felt sick. I went up to 11 stone 3 pounds during the ten months or so I was there!
Sometimes there would be a dance in some hall or other, and we would all pitch up in our No 1’s to view the talent...Army, Navy and Air Force personel...all dancing to the songs of the day on well french-chalked bare boards. I can still hear the scrape-scrape of service boots and smell the Woodbines and the sweat! In my spare time I learnt to play the bugle and was eventually in the Wrens band. Another girl and I used to take our bugles to the nearby Martello Tower on summers days and lean against the warm brickwork to practice. A picture of Royal Navy heroines much like Drake (or was it Raleigh?) in the famous beach painting. I remember those particular bugling days as if they were yesterday.
Occasionally a 48 hour pass would free us to go home to our mothers, hitch-hiking or travelling in a posse with 12 or 24 girls and one ticket! As we went through the barriers we would say, ‘The girl behind has the tickets’ and then the girl behind...we took this in turns and would say, ‘I’m not with them’. What an enterprising bunch of little crooks we were. Another way of remaining solvent, (important when our pay was 8 shillings a fortnight and tuppence a day danger money) was to draw your soap coupons, wash very little and sell the remainder to a hygiene freak. My mother, fairly often, sent me a brown 10 shilling note which was worth a lot more than its 50p equivalent today. That meant a night out at the flicks with some of your BF’s. It was a different experience then...noisy youth subsiding raptly into the magic world of Hollywood in a smoke-filled cinema. The haze used to rise up quite prettily into the light beam of the projector. If Deanna Durbin had been showing, we pretended to be her and sang her songs...an essay in escapism.
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