- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Diana Mary Horner (nee Charlton)
- Location of story:
- Salisbury Plain
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 July 2005
This story has been written onto the BBC People’s War site by CSV Storygatherer Callington U3A on behalf of (Diana Mary Horner). They fully understand the terms and conditions of the site.
Enrolled at No 884859 ACW2 WAAF (47 Wilts)
(Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) on 19 September 1939 at RAF Old Sarum
Called up and posted to RAF Rollestone — the RAF Anti-Gas School on October 27 1939.
Memories from ACW2 Charlton, Diana Mary No 884859 WAAF
Having enlisted on September 19 1939 at RAF Old Sarum, I was called back there, with about thirty others, on October 27 1939. Here we were given our service numbers, never forgotten, and issued with gas-masks, gas capes and identity discs — one red, one green, proof against fire and water, before piling into an open-backed three-ton lorry, our baggage thrown in after us, and driven out into the wilds of Salisbury Plain. I think we had been told we would be stationed at RAF Rollestone — the RAF Anti-Gas School — half-way between the Army artillery camp at Larkhill and the village of Shrewton.
Here we quite literally fell into the arms of the waiting airmen as they helped us down from the lorry, and we were officially welcomed by our WAAF Officer, Assistant Section Officer Margaret Wade, in her smartly tailored uniform. She was usually referred to at ‘Maggie’ of formally at Ma’am.
We were to be housed in a row of woodehuts, previously Airmen’s Married Quarters, about six of us to a hut. You entered directly into a scullery, which had a large white china sink and a cold tap, also a copper which had to be filled with a hand basin from the tap — and a fire, literally our only means of hot water. We had a coal allowance in a large cast-iron bin, and kindling had to be foraged for. The bathroom had a cold water tap in the bath, and a lavatory led off. There was a large living-room with a coal fired range, our only source of heating. The room took three beds, and in addition there was a small single-bedded room and a twin-bedded room.
The bed were cast-iron, springless ‘Macdonalds’, left over from World War I. The lower half left telescoped up under the top half. If they still exist, I hope they are in a RAF museum at ‘ancient relics’. We were instructed in the art of making them up from the three biscuits — hard mattresses about two feet square, with four brown blankets of doubtful cleanliness, two coarse narrow sheets and a sausage-shaped straw-filled pillow.
Spread a blanket crosswise over the bed — place the mattresses down the centre — then the sheets and finally add the other blankets, folding them over to make a cocoon which was surprisingly snug and comfortable once you get the hang of it. All this to be made up by bedtime, dismantled and stacked before breakfast.
Directed down to the cookhouse for tea, we were given tinned kidneys in gravy (never seen before or since), coarse bread with marge and mugs of sweet, Carnation milked tea, from a bucket.
Following this we were assembled in a lecture room for a pep talk from Maggie and given some of our duties.
After an uncomfortable night and breakfast, we were assembled on the parade ground still in our civilian clothes, high-heels and stockings, tight short skirts and hats. It was a music hall act, an absolute shambles. Our poor station Drill Sergeant! After this performance, down to the stores where we were issued with some items of equipment. Knife, fork and spoon (irons), button stick (brass), shoe-brushes (I still have mine — all stamped with our number) and a hussie (housewife — mending kit). Also, surprisingly, two officer material shirts and collars (detached, needing studs), two pairs of grey lisle thread stockings, one pair of black lace-up shoes, one black necktie, two pairs of navy-blue directoire knickers (P.K.s — passion killers) two Vedonis lock-knit vests reaching to the knees, an air-force blue cardigan, navy cotton overalls, navy blue slacks, air-force blue raincoat and a navy beret and RAF cap bridge — brass — to be highly burnished. A proud possession.
We were a very mixed bunch from the Hon. Lady Lettice Ashley Cooper (immediately promoted to Corporal in charge of the Orderly Room) to a little scullery maid from the Isle of Wight who had to be forced to have a bath and supervised. However, we all settled down remarkably well. It was certainly a culture shock from our mostly comfortable houses to something approaching St Trinian’s. We had cooks, clerks, M.T. drivers and three telephonists — Ruby Elliot, a very pretty girl and a shop assistant from Weymouth, Tommy Ferguson a colourful girl and a laundress from Portsmouth (an expert on starching collars and ironing) and me who had been rather idling about at home, doing odd jobs, while waiting for the inevitable. We had a brief training session with our local GPO exchanges and could always ask politely ‘Number, please’ but whether we could ever get through was another matter.
It was a very hard winter and bitterly cold up on our windswept plain, with deep snow over Christmas and in the New Year. We had torrential rain which froze as it fell on the cold ground, encasing everything with ice. The scenery was spectacular, but tree branches came down, unable to carry the weight. So also did our telephone wires, so we were jobless. This also coincided with a bout of German measles so we were deployed to other tasks, self to the cookhouse tin room, washing up large greasy cooking tins, including a cast-iron porridge pot which took two to lift. I had only my own stove to light and stoke for hot water, shovelling coke from under the snow to fuel it. There were no detergents in those days (they had not been invented) so a large bar of hard yellow soap from which you shaved off flakes for lather with a potato peeler was the only addition to the water. I found it hard going and was thankful when our ‘phone lines were restored and we were back to our cosy sandbagged exchange hut, but still with our own stove to stoke.
As the weather improved, we became more active outdoors. The old balloon hanger had been used for badminton, netball and volley ball and the airmen had a good soccer field but in that more religious age it was not encouraged to play on a Sunday, so those off duty would often, as a group, walk over the Plain, picking up mangol wurzels en route and kick them along towards Stonehenge which in those days was open to everyone with many of the top stones on the ground and in some disarray. Here we would have an impromptu game of soccer, using the stones as goal posts.
Along the road, in the hedge, were cast-iron commemorative plaques to the many young Army pilots who had lost their lives attempting to fly in the lethal early aircraft. They are no longer there so I hope they are safe somewhere in a museum.
This pleasant state of affairs ended abruptly with the invasion of the Low Countries and the evacuation of Dunkirk in May and June.
I will never forget the endless busloads of exhausted and battered soldiers brought back on to the Plain from the Channel Ports. They just slept out on the grass in the glorious weather. One of them gave me a sixpence with a hole in it as a good luck token. It had got him through. I still have it.
And so ended the Phoney War — from then on the War began in earnest.
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