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How to Stay Married in Wartime

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Frank and Theo Cook
Location of story: 
London and Ceylon
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
30 December 2005

We were both living in Tufnell Park, London, and had met through singing in the church choir. When war broke out we were both over at the church and heard the sirens go.

Theo worked in Exchange Control and had to be ready (as a Bank of England employee) to leave immediately to go to Whitchurch, Hampshire chosen for its proximity to the paper mills (Overton Mills), which printed bank notes for the Bank of England. There was a train, or coaches reserved on a train, ready for the employees to leave at a moment’s notice. At 3 pm Theo left, taking her bicycle with her.

Frank was in a reserved occupation as engineer for Patterson Hughes Engineering Co. “They kept renewing my reservation period. It was 1942 when I finally was called up aged 20 (one of the older recruits!)”.

Everything at Whitchurch Priory, seemed ready and set up for our arrival; beds made up wherever there was space, which meant communal living for us. I remember walking through the grounds and that there used to be a line of trophies hanging on the railings — rats! Caught and displayed. I was lucky because I stayed in the main building but some of us were in wooden huts we called ‘hutments’.
I came back to HO in London after about 6-9 months. On my return to the bank the gentlemen that used to stand around wearing a ‘uniform’ of black trousers and a long coat (like morning dress) in a strawberry colour, and top hats, had changed to wearing an army uniform with fixed bayonets. When there was an air raid we were all rushed down to the vaults which made a very good air raid shelter (only they’d removed all the gold bars!!) There was also a fully set up operating theatre down there.

Frank: There was a bomb fell at the large intersection near the Bank of England, a very important junction, which damaged the bank a little — not too much fortunately. The hole went down into the booking hall of Bank underground station and I remember seeing a photo in the paper of a double-decker that had tipped into the hole when the road collapsed. A ramp was constructed over the hole temporarily, to keep the traffic flowing through the City to London Bridge

February 1942 — We were married but we couldn’t be married in Theo’s local church, ‘All Saints’ which was just opposite her home, because an incendiary bomb had destroyed the roof of the church. Our reception was held at Wilson’s Restaurant, Crouch End. We don’t remember there being any difficulty over supplies for our wedding breakfast, and suppose that restaurants were always able to obtain what they needed, as long as the customers could pay.
Before this, I remember a 150lb (a ‘small’ bomb) landed but didn’t explode just 100yards from Theo’s house. It was embedded under the bay of another house and they had to evacuate the area. I recall carrying Aunty Nancy, in her 70’s, (who was living with Theo’s parents) out of the house and to another relative (Auntie Alice) whose windows were frequently broken not by bombs or air-raids but by choirboys playing with a ball!

I went into the RAF, and was posted to Cardington, Beds, where the airships were. This was the Reception Centre where we were issued uniforms and sworn in except I never was! Sworn in, that is. They were just so busy, there was a whole group of us and we were just waved through. Then we went to Skegness for “square bashing”. We were billeted in houses commandeered from the civilians. I remember 2 Scotsmen that none of us could understand a word they said and they didn’t understand each other! They hated each other! (from opposite ends of the country I don’t wonder). We were a shambles, our drill was awful! We used to march up and down the sea-front and now and again there’d be lone raiders and the sergeant would shout “scramble” and we’d try to hide ourselves behind anything, but on that flat coast there wasn’t much!
If Theo came up to stay, one of the fellows would double up so we could have a room to ourselves.

Next was Snodland in Kent, where the cement works meant that everywhere was always covered with a grey/yellow dust, looked like London after snow (dirty grey). We were billeted with ordinary householders and Theo was able to come every weekend. I was billeted with this elderly couple (Mr and Mrs Taylor) and the old chap’s idea of evening entertainment was to set an old chipped enamel bowl on the oil-cloth covered table, onto which he then put a zither, and he’d strum away on this, accompanying it with his rather nasal voice!

We were waiting to go on a flight mechanics’ course, and whilst there we were stacking bombs in the quarries, ordinary explosive bombs, 250-500 lbs bombs mostly suitable for fighter planes (we weren’t far from Manston airfield). Also there was an ex-nursery site where the gas-bombs and incendiaries were stored — in the glasshouses. The squadron leader was an odd chap not altogether “with us”, I think. He had a series of bells fitted up ranged along the glasshouses. If anyone saw a fire they had to ring the bell, but which bell? Any bell? Then, if the bell rang, you couldn’t tell where the fire was or anything. The fire engine was a joke! It was a compressor pump which you hitched onto a van and neither the pump nor the van would ever start when you wanted them to!

Theo: On one of my many journeys to visit Frank, I remember being in the company of a lighthouse keeper from the Rock of Gibraltar. You met all sorts of people when travelling around the country.

Now qualified as a flight mechanic, I was posted to Hendon and got a “living out pass”. We were living at Muswell Hill which was actually a little further away than allowed, but I told the bloke his map was wrong! Hendon wasn’t much good as an airfield as it was always foggy. There was no control tower, but a chap in a caravan at the end of the runway would fire off a red or a green light (half the time you couldn’t see him for fog). He would shout “QBI conditions are in force — no more flying”.We never knew what QBI stood for. “Quite bloody impossible” maybe! He’d later shout “QBI conditions lifted”. There was never any large aircraft fortunately, because the runway wasn’t long enough. We were flying Dakotas, Oxfords, Ansons, just small aircraft for short trips. We had Monty’s Dakota for a while. He said it was too noisy. They were unlined carcasses, so these chaps were trying to line the plane with carpet — that was a pantomime!

The pattern was four or five of us to each inspection. One would be on the wings or main plane, one on the fuselage, one the tail-plane, I was mostly undercarriage, then of course a team for wireless, engine, etc. We had one chap who had a Phillips screwdriver, so he was on the main plane. There would be at least a hundred screws to a panel 3 foot square so that would be his sole job. I got quite friendly with the Americans, so I could beg or borrow from them — they weren’t short of anything! Once one of their large aircraft, a Flying Fortress, had to make a forced landing at Hendon because it hadn’t enough fuel to get to (wherever), so it went to the farthest end of the runway with the YMCA hut just behind it. They gave it just enough fuel to get to Ruislip, and when it revved the engines for take-off, it lifted the edge, nearly took off the roof of the hut!

Theo: Early in 1943, instead of being called up, I was transferred to the Ministry of Information. This was because I had a husband living at home, Frank having got his ‘living out pass’. We were filing war pictures in the library and doing propaganda work using photos and pictures. The Head of this department was Charles Henry Gibb-Smith, Keeper of Museum Extensions at the V. and A. Always known as ‘G-S’ or ‘the old boy’ — very pleasant and friendly.
There were a lot of artistic people involved in it, such as Patrick Campbell, and Helen Binyon the daughter of Laurence Binyon the poet, (she was a dream) she was very artistic, as you can imagine.

Frank: I remember a tragic accident involving two friends mad on flying — one was Ken Ding whose wedding we had attended not long before. They took off from Hendon but developed low oil pressure, so lost height and got caught or struck a barrage cable which took 12 foot off the wing, they managed to head towards Regents Park and were going to make a steady emergency landing but they crashed into a small building — a tea-house - and they were both killed. It was at St Joseph’s Retreat ( Known as ‘Holy Joe’s’).

So to Ceylon….

I was due to be sent out to the Far East, but we were kept hanging about for ages in the New Forest. We were waiting months so I nipped home, and when a privateer arrived from somewhere, a fellow rang me up in the early hours to alert me. Fortunately I was able to walk to Waterloo station and I met up with another chap (also AWOL) in Tottenham Court Rd., and we both managed to get on to the mail train which left at 2am, despite passing about five Special Police who were just coming up the stairs at Waterloo as we were going down.
This was late June or early July, we were to be posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Large aircraft were wanted for transporting supplies in enormous great crates for the Navy. The Navy used large aero engines and these would fit into our Skymasters, which in our case were mostly American thanks to the Lease-Lend scheme.
We flew off heading for Cairo, one night there to re-fuel and the only night I’ve ever spent in a tent! Then a stopover for a couple of nights in India at Mauripur, outskirts of Delhi, the aircraft needed to acclimatise because of the dramatic change in temperature. Then we flew to the southern end of Ceylon, Ratmalana. We were there quite a while, the climate was such that it was either so wet nothing could move, (as when the runway was undermined so a new airfield was built at Negombo) or so hot and dry that we liked nothing better than dowsing ourselves with a bucket of water — if we could. There was a very deep well, we’d get a length of rope for the bucket, when finally it came up about ten of us would be grouped around the well and we’d fling it over ourselves! I being one of the few amongst us who could drive, had volunteered to move our stuff to the new airfield and would also sometimes drive a lorry with the chaps over to a beach at Mount Lavinia when we were off duty in the afternoon.
When on leave most of us went up into the hills where it was cooler, but I didn’t fancy twiddling my thumbs up there, so I volunteered for maintenance work on aircraft in Perth, Australia. We flew quite a lot of ‘planes to and fro, often taking Naval personnel. We had to refuel at Cocos Island, a dot on the Indian Ocean with only just enough room for a metal landing strip. Radio contact had to be made before landing but communication was so difficult and the radio link so weak, that you were near enough almost to shout at them before making contact! If this didn’t happen, we’d have to return to Ceylon, so there always had to be enough fuel to get back to base.
An electrician I’d worked with had a brother in Freemantle, so when in Perth he would take us around in his car if we, in return, let him have a drop or two of 100 octane fuel. They were running their cars on paraffin and if they stalled they were the very devil to get going again, but a little aeroplane fuel worked wonders! They weren’t short of much in Australia, but petrol and cigarettes were very hard to obtain. I went to the Navy stores in Freemantle to get cigarettes and was given a box of 250. I could get a jolly good meal for a packet of cigarettes.

Theo: This was when Frank was able to get stockings for me. He cleverly managed to slip them into his airmail letters to me — one at a time! Because of course you weren’t supposed to put any enclosures into the airmails. He numbered the letters so that I would be able to pair them up correctly. Do you know — not one went missing!

Frank: I wasn’t de-mobbed until January ’47. I remained in Negombo because there had to be a skeleton crew of engineers and we mixed in with regular crew. By then the Americans were asking for their Skymasters back, and it was becoming difficult to get spares. Down to about four aircraft, we used one for spares to keep the others going. It got really bad when one of them had bicycle parts to operate the throttle control on the one engine that it had left!
As I was never officially sworn in, similarly I was never officially discharged.

With a last word from Theo “do you think he’s still on the RAF payroll? We could claim all that back pay”!

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - How to stay married in War Time.

Posted on: 30 December 2005 by Audrey Lewis - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Folk!
I was so interested in your story. It looks as if you had quite a lot of experiences. So pleased you remembered to write them down for us.
'Paraffin instead of petrol' reminded me of my father who ran his car on it in the war. Sometimes he tried Metholated Spirit and ruined the tank.
Thank you very much.
Audrey Lewis

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