- Contributed by
- BBC Radio Foyle
- People in story:
- EILEEN STARRAT
- Location of story:
- LONDONDERRY, BELFAST AND OVERSEAS
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 December 2005
Eileen Starrat joined the wrens after the bombing of belfast and spent some time in Derry working at the command centre for The Battle of The Atlantic at Magee College
This story is taken from an interview with Eileen Starratt, and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions. The interview was by Deirdre Donnelly, and transcription was by Bruce Logan.
I was 20 when I came to Derry, or I went abroad. I suppose I was 18.
I can remember the blitz. Because I feel very strongly that my impetus ton go abroad, or join up as we say, was fuelled then buy the blitz. That was May 12th 1941, Belfast was blitzed. And it was one of the worst bombings anywhere. So many people were killed. It wasn’t expected nobody seemed to be prepared for it. There wasn’t the guns and so on to deter the bombers. And we knew the sound of the bombers, a sort of a 2-beat sound. Because we’d heard it before on another occasion that year, and we knew this was a real bombing raid. And I was the eldest of 6 girls. We lived with our mother in a house in N Belfast. Very near as the crow flies where Mary McAleese comes from. Just across the road, almost. I could point you to where she lived. And I had just come back from a holiday in Donegal, where I was born. And there was a little air-raid shelter built outside the house. It was so fragile, that nobody would dream of trusting it. And then a lot of people went to the school across the road for shelter. But my mother wouldn’t move. And she put us all under the stairs in a little, tine … you can imagine what “under the stairs” looked like. 6 of us, and she had a mattress, and stood with the mattress. Well, in middle of the raid I know I fainted. I was the eldest, but I shouldn’t have done that, but I fainted. And mother ran out to the front door to get a drink of water for me. And the ARP warden shouted “woman, would you for god’s sake get back”. There are 2 parachute bombs were floating down. One of them — and he could see them, of course. One of them completely wiped out a row of houses not very far from where we lived. Where we knew everybody, and everybody was killed. The other one, as luck would have it, it hit a row of empty shops on the Cliftonville Road. Incidentally we never ever lived in this house again, and I don’t think anybody ever did. We were totally and utterly blitzed out. Next morning I took my — I had 5 sisters, I took 4 of them to Omagh where we had relatives. And we have since thought very much of each. They weren’t in the same house, they weren’t with the same people. They were well looked after, but at the same time they were affected in totally different ways, and we … My sisters and I have worked out how each one of us was affected. Now, I wasn’t anywhere. I came back to Belfast. My sister Muriel who was next to me in age, she stayed with my mother and we both stayed with mother. But my other 4 sisters stayed around Omagh for maybe 4 years. How I came back, I was determined to join up, and I went to the wherever it was, and I said I wanted to join the Land Army. This was a romantic idea, I can assure you. And they looked at me, and they looked I suppose at my school record, and they said “you’d be better off joining the WAAFs or the WRENS. So the WRENS were stationed in Belfast Castle, which wasn’t nearly so far away. It was in the same part of Belfast, and I could be, I could live at home if I was there. I was mobile, in other words. I went there, and I was there for 2 years. And then I got this feeling that I would like to go abroad. Of course they were asking people all the time about that. I was … I had crossed flags on my arm, and I was in communications branch. Mostly concerned with telephones. And the ops room for that was in the cellars at Belfast Castle, and has since become a restaurant I believe.
I can see the switchboards, yes.
The first room was occupied by young sailors, and they were teleprinter operators. We were the telephone operators. And the next room, teleprinter operators. Upstairs there were — I can’t remember, but it was all Operations. And we were in touch with so many places that were all just names, really. But we travelled, I walked in the blackout about a mile or so to get a bus when I was on duty. And I stood at the top of the cave Hill Rd in Belfast. I remember it so clearly, I can even see it. And there’s not the same now. And you stood there in the blackout and you didn’t think anything about it. And this little truck came along. And it had a seat on 1 side and a seat on the other side and that was it. And it took you away up the Antrim Rd and turned left, up an avenue to Belfast Castle, and then brought us back whenever the Watch was over, to the Cave Hill Road. But walking in the blackout, you were wary but that’s about all. There was none of this feeling that I’m sure there is in Belfast or Derry or any of the cities around, of fear.
So then I went to Derry. They were looking for someone to come to Derry for a short time, so I came to Derry. And I was in Broom Hall. And Broom hall … 2-3 months ago I saw an article in the paper about a Hall, and I thought “I must write and tell them that it wasn’t always goats, that there was WRENS there”.
I can’t remember a great deal about it except that it was … I know where I slept, and you see it was a question of coming off-duty and going in and getting something to eat. And then possibly going out again. Derry, I remember going to dances in the Guildhall. I remember going to the Guildhall, and I’ve written down a name here that I’ve asked my husband several times who he was. He was Ralf reader and the Gang, the Gang show. And I could show you the seat I sat on in the Guildhall. The left-hand side, the very last seat. And I was paralysed with laughing, because it was such a relief to be in such a place where there was such life and so much fun. However, I remember that and I remember going for tea in the city café. As I say, going to the guildhall for a dance. And Victoria Hall, which you passed up there.
Into a dance there. But that was because I was a Methodist and I went to the Methodist Church, and the Methodist Church had a little hall beside it — maybe it still has. Carlisle Rd, it is. Or was then. And they had a sort of a supper after the service. And I went to the service and I met a woman who, I didn’t know her but she was a relative. She was Mrs Austen-Shaw. She’s long gone, of course. But she welcomed me to her house, and I went several times and stayed with her overnight. And she invited me to this supper at the Methodist Church hall. And I have somewhere the little menu, a little programme about that.
[Boom Hall is now in ruins. Can you remember the layout?]
it was very imposing, and I can remember where I slept,. The staircase was beautiful, and the cabin or whatever it was called was on the right-hand side and I slept in the furthest bed. The kitchens were, as the door opened to the left, and then further on. But I didn’t spend a lot of time there. I suppose in was someone who was just passing through, as it were.
[How did Derry compare to Belfast?]
There you were in the heart of Derry in no time. And in Belfast I principally remember the north side of the city. The waterworks, where just beside where I lived. And I knew all, I had a lot of friends there though it’s one area of Belfast that I remember. I don’t remember too much about in Belfast town. But I do remember Derry. It was just full of life. To me, it was just full of life.
I went to Broom hall by one of those trucks, as I say. And then … the draft came through for me.
[Magee — THERE ARE stories of bunkers, Ops rooms and all sorts of underground rooms …]
it wasn’t very different from Belfast ops room. I remember going up steps to the building, and then going underground. And I remember the huge operations map on the wall. And then that’s where we worked, beside that map. That’s about all I remembered.
The entrance was from the stern. There was a little gate-house and the road swung round it, and … it was underground. It was like Belfast, a cellar, I suppose. You could more or less take the roof off and you could see it.
[Strategically and planning the Battle of the Atlantic, Derry was more important than Belfast]
it was a very strategic position. It was called the NW approaches. The next stop was America, really. Well, we knew where all the bases were in the north of England, the NE particularly, and knew where they were. And of course, Belfast. And ships that were at sea. But I don’t remember a great deal about that sort of thing. I saw the ships from the Strand, across to the other side of the river, side by side where it was said that you could walk across. And I believe that to be true. I suppose we had to be very alert. Also, calls and direct them.
[The PO dealt with civilian phones and telegrams. Were you entirely military]
Yes. But we didn’t have any knowledge of radar or anything like that at all. But the radar masts were visible on the ships we could see. We saw all this, and it was so out of this world, not real, to look at those ships. It wasn’t real. I had no idea that what I had volunteered for, what was ahead of me. That I was actually, if there was a tunnel through from Derry to the port there, which there is, but there isn’t visible. A mental tunnel. Out to the Irish sea. Because, I don’t know. I can’t be more explicit about that …
[was everyone there in uniform?]
oh yes! Absolutely. I haven’t got …
That’s myself in uniform, and … in Belfast.
[display of photos]
That’s the sort of hats we wore. And then we wore the usual sort of sailors hats. That’s my husband. He was in bomber command, and he was in Africa too. And he was a wireless operator, sat at the back of the plane and was bombed out a couple of times and survived. He was a Flt Lt. He went to the RAF, he found that he was far more clinical of living than the other boys because he had been to boarding school before. He was sick for 6 years, he wasn’t very old when he went. We were both volunteers, no compulsion, and he lived, his address was in Donegal. Then …
He just felt that he … when he was very young, maybe about 17, and I can’t remember the details of it, but he lived in Derry with an aunt briefly. And he won a competition, and the prize for the competition was a flight in an airplane. So you see, that fueled his desire to join the airforce. And Bomber Command was very very busy, and he would since tell you of how futile war is. Because they bombed so many places on the continent, and of course I’ve seen, I went on a trip of the Normandy beach-heads with another student the year before I was married. She and I went across the Normandy beach-heads and saw the damage that was done, especially in Caen. It was just unbelievable, even though it was 7 years after the war was over. But … there you are.
In Altnagelvin in intensive care he thought he was back in the AF, because a woman was admitted with burns and he had helped to rescue some men from a burning plane in N Africa, and he and his comrades buried those men. Afterwards it was totally condemned, and they were told “never do that again”. It was a dreadful, he said it was awful because of the sand, you couldn’t dig. And he thought, when he was in Altnagelvin, that’s where he was. Because of the smell of the burning. So you see, all these things leave scars.
At times he would be very … when he would be sleeping he would be obviously dreaming of something that …
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