- Contributed by
- Dalma Flanders
- People in story:
- Dalma Flanders (nee Darnley Taylor
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 March 2004
WAAF 'Y' Service. Capel
In 1941, while typing in the brick department of the Associated Portland Cement Co. Ltd., I realized that I did not appear to be helping with any war effort at all. There and then I decided to go and ‘sign up’ for the Forces. So, the following day I took a day off and went up to London, to the Air Ministry in Kingsway. I had an interview with a recruiting officer for the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), and when she read on my application form that I was a German linguist, she got very excited, and said there was a new section that had just been formed, and that I would be hearing from them very shortly as there was a dearth of German speakers. Sure enough, three days later a letter came summoning me to the Kingsway office, from where I would be sent to another location for three weeks training. During the intervening days my parents had become acclimatized to the idea of my joining up, although they were a bit apprehensive about it. But I had turned 21 that year and I had spent the last three months squashed in the downstairs lavatory learning to play chess with my father, and two cats, because of the bombing. I was determined to get away.
I arrived at the Kingsway office at the appointed time with about ten other girls, who were all rather excited. We were taken in an Air Force lorry to Paddington Station where we boarded a train to Gloucester, and finally landed up at a little-known airfield at Innsworth. We were met by a uniformed Sergeant who showed us to a long hut with about 30 beds in it. We each chose one, dumped our bags and were then shown to another long hut to be kitted out. This meant quite a long wait as there were others there before us and fitting different shapes and sizes took time, and caused a lot of amusement. We were there about two hours, trying on different items, and finally went back to our hut with two skirts, two shirts, two tunics, vests, bras and knickers (‘twilights and blackouts’ as they were known, and in those days we wore linings as well as bloomers!), two pairs of beige lisle stockings, two pairs of shoes, black tie, a cap with a brass badge, a mug and two pairs of pyjamas, blue and white stripes (prison ones we thought). By the time we were all ready to return to our hut, it was lucky that our Sergeant guide had waited for us, as otherwise we would not have found our way back, because the blackout meant that no lights at all were to be shown at any time by anyone.
Of course, we had all experienced the blackout since the outbreak of war. All signposts had been removed; even the railway station names had been taken away (so counting the stations became routine in order to leave the train at the right station, especially if the stationmaster forgot to shout it out). Even traffic lights were only allowed to show a hooded slit, torches were not allowed and it was not easy to get around. The volunteer wardens who patrolled the streets dealt with any lights showing from houses. Only the rivers were really visible to help the enemy find their positions from the air.
Back at Innsworth, we returned to our hut and were shown how to deal with our uniforms, that meant how to tie a tie… polish our brass buttons, polish our black shoes, which incidentally we had to put on then and there, steep them and our stockinged feet in warm water, and go to our dinner with them wet, so that by the morning, they fitted our feet! And no one complained at drill the following morning. After our first dinner we were allowed to make our beds, which consisted of three 30-inch square blocks (called ‘biscuits’) which felt as though they were made of wood and which when laid in a line formed the mattress, white sheets, three grey blankets and one pillow. Despite the hardness of the beds and the scratchy blankets I think most of us slept pretty well.
In the morning we were all struggling with our new uniforms, ties, polished buttons and shoes, and feeling very self-conscious. For breakfast, and indeed for all meals, we had to cross the parade ground to the canteen, yet another long hut, where the noise was unbelievable — hundreds (literally) of people all talking at once. We were offered cereal, a cooked dish or toast or bread and marmalade, and large mugs of tea which had been provided for us by the cooking staff — also in uniform, but with hideous white overalls and haircatchers (for hygienic reasons). After breakfast, it was back to the hut to undo our beds. The ‘biscuits’ had to be stacked tidily, and the sheets, blankets and pillow placed on top of them so that the rest of the bed was available for inspection. Everything, and I mean everything, was inspected. Not just the beds but also everything else we had been provided with: knife, fork and spoon, mug, button stick (a wooden gadget which stopped the polish getting on to our uniforms during cleaning — a quite ingenious invention), a woollen jumper, a scarf, two towels and a toothbrush. All these things had to be folded and placed in the correct position every day at inspection before drill on the parade ground.
On the parade ground we were sorted into sizes, and divided into squads of about 24, with a Sergeant in charge of each squad. And we proceeded to learn (with divers results) to march in unison and learn how to follow commands and drill together. It was amazing how many people did not know even how to walk, and they swung their arms in the same direction as their legs, making it look very awkward. We had Sergeants shouting at us most of the time and spent at least two hours at a time trying to get it right, those who were hopeless had to have their own squad. Strange how so many people did not know their right from their left. Exhausted after these two hours we went back to our hut, with a Sergeant accompanying us, she had been allotted to our hut for the time being and looked after us very well. There were complaints, of course. ‘Why so much drill?’ ‘Why are there so many people always telling us what to do?’ And so on. It had all happened so suddenly that it was easy to forget we were in the Armed Forces now, and as such, had to follow orders whether we liked it or not. Some of the girls who had joined up with me, fell out and went home, but I found it all very new and exciting. All our spare time, which was not very much, was spent in polishing… shoes, buttons and badges. The shoes were made of very good, strong leather, which had a grooved pattern on it, which we had to polish to get rid of and then they really would shine. It was very hard work for days and days, but finally it worked and we were complimented on our shiny shoes. It was a real accolade and felt like my first military honour.
After our final third-week parade we assembled in our various huts to be told where we were being posted. I was to be sent to Morecambe on the wild and windy shores of Lancashire with two of the other girls… and off we went, just like that. We were billeted in a large house. There were about 16 of us there, a wide mixture of people from all over England, some of whom could not read or write (at the age of 17 or over), what an eye-opener that was. Lucky for them the Sergeant in charge of us set up classes for them to learn. I shared a room with two other girls, both of whom had been with me at Innsworth, but one soon got fed up with everything and swanned off with her farmer boyfriend in his Bentley. Her name was Joan Dickinson, who went on to become a farmer’s wife, no surprise there, and we have remained friends ever since (that’s 60 years now!).
Because of the blackout and the fact that we had no curtains on our windows, we had the smallest dark blue light bulb in one corner high up on the ceiling, so we could hardly see and certainly could not read in bed. As we were on the seafront and it was freezing cold with no heating at all, hot water bottles were very much in demand. The one bathroom was on the first floor, with the bath on a dais in the middle of an unfurnished room, was also freezing cold. The landlord had one wooden leg, and when one was in the bath it was rather eerie to hear him going up and down on the uncarpeted stairs, bump-bang, bump-bang, and hoped he would not stop outside the bathroom, which had no key! The girl who left (Joan) had an aunt in Morecambe, and she invited us out for dinner and a bath from time to time, it seemed very civilized.
After three more weeks of drilling, along the front and on the beach, sometimes in pouring rain and wind, the other girl (Eva Goldsmith, also a linguist, from Austria) and I were sent to a place in Kent called West Kingsdown, the then Headquarters of the ‘Y’ Service. We discovered to our amazement that we were to listen in to German aircraft and write down all the things the pilots said. I was astonished at the prospect of such a job, and also what a huge responsibility it was to take on at the age of 21. However, I felt quite pleased that I was so trusted. I must have been doing all right so far.
The HQ consisted of a large mansion and numerous temporary huts with camouflaged roofs arranged around the estate. Some of the rooms were lined inside with about 30 metal radio receivers, handed down from fighter pilots. The watch rooms had wires everywhere, all over the ceilings and walls, and the radio sets had various knobs for ‘twiddling’ the frequencies on which the German pilots were talking to the ground stations and other pilots. The sets we used gave us frequent shocks as they did not appear to be earthed very well, however, we soon got used to handling them. We were allotted shifts, and understood why as listening and taking down everything we heard was very exhausting. Our scribblings had to be re-written in legible longhand before sending to Group 11 HQ at Stanmore on the north west outskirts of London for assessing and initiating. These watches consisted of the hours 1p.m.—6p.m., 6p.m.—12a.m., 12a.m.—8a.m., and 8a.m.—1p.m., after which we had a 33-hour break. Our unit covered the whole of northern France and the south east of England, and there were many things to learn. The German air force, like our own, had grids for maps, and they all had code names, and we had to crack these grids very quickly to find out where the German planes were, so that we could hand the messages on for our own air force to deal with, as quickly as possible. We also had our own wireless operators taking bearings on the planes we heard so that we knew where they were at any given time, and could ‘see’ a picture of the air battles going on. It was rather scary at times, particularly when a pilot had been shot and wounded and was in a hurry to get back to his ground station. There was a lot of shouting and screaming.
We only had three weeks at Kingsdown and were more or less fully fledged by then. I was posted to Capel-le-Ferne, a small village on the top of the cliffs between Folkestone and Dover. I billeted with a civilian family, who had two charming children. I am still in touch with them too. The routine was exactly the same as at Kingsdown, but as Folkestone was on the main line to London, I managed to see my family more frequently, although our ‘pay’ was not very much, actually it was 5 shillings per week, we had no expenses and spent our money on ‘luxuries’ like sweets and make up. It’s strange to think that I once worked for 25 pence a week! However, we were soon promoted to the rank of Sergeant as our rank — Clerk/Signals/Linguist — had been recognized as being useful. Our pay then increased and we were both proud to have three stripes on our tunics.
From our unit at Capel, which was right on the cliffs about 100 feet up from the sea, we could see the church tower at Calais on clear days, and quite often huge German guns, called ‘Big Berthas’, would be fired across the water. By the time we had counted 15 seconds, we would all be under our desks, waiting for the shell to burst. It was very upsetting at first but we soon got used to even that. We also got used to the V1s (the pilotless planes flying bombs) which made a hell of a noise. They were horrible, because as soon as they were programmed to drop their bombs, the noise stopped and one had to wait for the explosion without knowing where it was going to come down. It was not so bad in the country as one could hear them coming, but in London, where the traffic made such a noise, one could not hear them, or even find shelter as there was no time.
And there were other dangers too. Sometimes in Capel, we would be surprised by seeing Messerschmitt fighters fly straight upwards about 100 yards from us, having flown across the Channel very low over the water to avoid being tracked by the radar. They would then head for Folkestone or Hawkinge (which was our fighter base about a mile away). We would immediately signal them by telephone to get their Spitfires and Hurricanes in the air as soon as possible to follow the Germans and have another shooting match. It seemed so stupid to me as I also had German friends on the enemy side and to be fighting ones friends was hard to come to terms with. Sometimes during a day shift we would have two or three girls on the same frequency as there might be five or six Germans talking altogether, and during our 15 minutes of translating our scribbles, we also spent time arguing who was correct in what they had heard. We had to be quick too as we had to pass the messages as soon as possible on to 11 Group. We often got writer’s cramp as we had to use some sort of shorthand in order to get everything we heard down on paper as quickly as possible, and if a pencil needed sharpening or would not write for some reason or another there was panic until we found another one. After 10 minutes of this scribbling we had about 20 minutes to write it legibly and send off. I think our signals went by teleprinter directly to 11 Group, but sometimes when really urgent they went by telephone direct to Hawkinge.
We got to know the German pilots quite well, particularly Adolf Galland who was the leader of the fighters in our area (and who has since been to England many times and made friends with our chaps who were fighting against them), as when they got excited they forgot all about their codes and mentioned where they were and which town was near by name. But every few days they changed their codes and we had quickly to break these so that our pilots would not be sent on a wild good chase. The German codes always had a strict pattern and they were never particularly difficult to break. I expect our pilots had a similar change of codes too. Sometimes during the night when there seemed to be fewer German pilots about, they would have a chat about their girlfriends and what they were going to do when they had finished their shift and which town they would visit. This would be in their ordinary language until the station commander heard them and ticked them off for acting dangerously.
Once, one of our shifts were invited to visit Stanmore to see what happened to our messages that we so laboriously wrote out, and so we were transported there by van, and shown into the ‘holy of holies’ — the Operations Room. This was a huge room in a mansion called Bentley Priory, with a balcony around the walls, from where the officers in charge would watch all proceedings. There were WAAFs with earphones on around an enormous table showing the positions of the British and German planes in model form. They moved the planes around with long poles so that information could be passed to the pilots as to the correct positions of the German planes. It was fascinating to see until we spied the officer who was receiving our messages and watched him take the sheet of paper, read it, and automatically put it in the bin (quite devastating to us, who had worked so hard to get these messages to him quickly). He seemed not to be interested at all. Maybe it was a boring day or perhaps he was due to go off duty, but it was very disappointing to us. When all four shifts had had their day at Stanmore, three shifts had a conference and talked about the day and how disgusted we were with the outcome, and what could we do about it, but because we were in the Armed Forces we had no say whatever on rules or anything like that, we had to do what we were told and nothing more. However, the fourth shift agreed with us, and we wrote to the Commanding Officer at Stanmore and told him what we thought. I recall that we received some idiotic reply about destroying the evidence for security purposes, which meant nothing to us at the time. I expect they thought we made it all up. They got their comeuppance however, on one memorable foggy night. Someone on our watch heard one of her friends on another station using the same frequency talking German to a German pilot who seemed to have got lost over England. She talked him down to land at Manston, another airfield in Kent, not far away from us. Oh! Imagine his surprise when he found himself among British Air Force personnel in England. I do not expect that he was best pleased to find himself a prisoner. Pity that 11 Group had not read the signal we sent: we felt very pleased with the ‘Y’ service that night, and hoped that 11 Group might change their attitude to our messages in the future.
But the most memorable event of my war took place on another very foggy day. I had groped my way along the street as the unit was about half a mile away from my billet, the fog was really thick, and I bumped into a sentry, who, luckily, did not have his bayonet fixed, otherwise I would have been a mess. He finally accompanied me to the unit in case I should fall over the cliff. Earlier that morning, the girls on watch had heard strange mutterings and muffled voices with odd code names and numbers, but they sent all their ‘signals’ (as our sheets were called) in the usual way. The mutterings had only lasted about half an hour, and although all the bearings were noted, no planes were heard therefore even we knew that it must have been people passing in a boat. The following afternoon, going on watch at 1p.m., we discovered that the two largest and most modern German battleships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had sailed through the 20-mile-wide English Channel in the fog undetected as no one at Stanmore had taken any notice of our signals — AGAIN… though this time it was really serious and I hope a few heads rolled at 11 Group. It would have been a golden opportunity to sink these two ships right under our noses and theirs too. Oddly enough the Navy had a unit not far from us and they had heard nothing at all. Probably having a party! Maybe our sets were more powerful than theirs. I would not be surprised as we were always having shocks, particularly when taking off our headsets or touching some abnormal part of the set.
In 1944 during planning for the Arnhem push, 30 or so of us in the ‘Y’ Service were sent to Canterbury from the various stations around the coast (I think there were 15 or 16 Y units in England from Montrose in Scotland to Strete in Devon) to learn Dutch as we were going to follow the invading troops and stay in contact with the German Air Force. As soon as a bridgehead had been established we would be sent off to Holland. As it turned out Arnhem was such a disaster, we were told to learn French instead as we would actually be going to Belgium. A month or so later we were sent off by train to Liverpool, where we boarded a troopship, and sailed off in complete darkness, not a light to be seen. We all talked in whispers and there was no smoking allowed anywhere on the ship. We slept below decks in double bunks with the army at both ends of rows of girls. In the middle of the night in mid-Channel we had to stop engines for about two hours — ‘U boats about’ — we were told. We hardly dared breathe, let alone talk, neither did we sleep, and it was not all that comfortable either.
In the morning, however, we were still all in one piece. The Army boys had to fetch their tea in huge urns from the galley which was at the other end of the deck, while we, on the upper bunks, could dip our mugs into the open urns and hand us our morning tea! I think the Army boys had to make several journeys along that deck for their own tea.
On arrival in Antwerp we were met by Air Force open trucks, and the local people we passed threw flowers at us and cheered and clapped their hands, they appeared to be pleased to see us there to help them. We arrived at a little village called Genval late in the afternoon and were allotted billets in various houses which had been placed at our disposal — we had double bunks there too, with four of us to a room. At 2a.m. we heard a bomb drop on the village — it seemed as if the Germans knew we had arrived. We heard later that it was a rogue bomb dropped by a fleeing German pilot anxious to cross the border. As the Germans were getting further and further away to the east, we had very little to do, and life became a holiday for us for a short while. We made full use of the large lake in the village. Because we were all in uniform, all transport was free for us, and after VE Day (8th May, 1945) we were all given a 48-hour pass to go anywhere we wanted. So three of us (Jacqueline Hyde, Hazel Glen and I) went to Paris by train. Jacqueline had lived in Paris before the war and she and her family had escaped in 1940, getting back to England via Spain. To her surprise, she found the kitchen table exactly as it had been when they left. Everything was exactly the same as four years before (rather eerie I should think) and nothing had been touched all through the German occupation of the city. Hazel and I went to the Cite Universitaire where we had been students before the war in 1938, and found it just the same, we even lunched in the canteen.
Back in Belgium we spent the day after VJ Day (2nd September, 1945) in the local village marching with other battalions to the church all bedecked with bunting, flags and flowers, and the local band who could not keep in tune (a real umpapa umpapa umpapa band). We marched through the town to the Town Hall, where we were all marshalled together for speeches from the Mayor and other well-known dignitaries, after which everyone danced in the square to the ‘knees-up’ dance tunes. We all seemed to be dancing with everyone for hours and hours, after which we were invited into the Town Hall for a festive lunch and huge amounts of food and drink.
After the final ‘ALL CLEAR’ had sounded, our unit was shut down and we flew back from Brussels to White Waltham in an old Viking of BEA vintage, with metal seats along the fuselage (they were very uncomfortable). As we came in to land we were glad to see the twinkling of lights everywhere, so different from when we left in l944. Once more we settled into camp, it seemed like nothing had changed but everything had changed. After a day or two the authorities decided we had to be kept busy and we were given lists of courses we could take to pass the time before being demobbed. There was nursing, domestic science, cooking, catering, car maintenance, upholstery and so one. I chose domestic science as I really hated housework (and still do) and wished to learn the speediest way of doing it. Six of us went to Westgate-on-Sea in Kent, and lived in a bungalow with one tutor between us. We had a thoroughly hilarious and riotous time, and learnt a bit of domesticity for three weeks, where we all wore white aprons and hideously ugly white headcovers (they weren’t white for long). We were even let out on our own in Westgate. After these three weeks, we returned to White Waltham, were called to the main hall and were finally dismissed from the service as ‘No Longer Required’. I acutely remember the sensation of being on my own after four years in the WAAF and under instruction 24 hours a day. It was rather unnerving.
DALMA DARNLEY TAYLOR.
SERGEANT WAAF: No: 455709 — 10.12.1941 to 5.11.1945
Married Dennis Flanders 1952
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.