- Contributed by
- Bridport Museum
- People in story:
- Mary Boyd
- Location of story:
- Great Yarmouth
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 December 2005
Mary Boyd (date of birth) 7.1.22
So, at the beginning of the War you were 17.
That's right, left school.
So, what were you doing?
Wondering what to do, I would say. My three older brothers were involved pretty quickly, and I was wondering what to do. So my mother said I could, as it was quiet, I could go up to London and get some shoes, on the bus, and learn how to do these things.
Where were you living at the time?
Oxford - near Burford. So I went up there, not knowing very much about war or anything like that; although I'd heard some tales from my mother about the First War, and people she had known who were killed. And as I walked down the street, no tin hat, no nothing, shopping, suddenly an ack-ack shell burst over my head, about nine inches from my face. So that was my introduction to war. I wasn't touched, I was quite all right and I never told my parents (laughs). One doesn't worry them with things that hadn't happened!
Was there an air raid at the time?
No, all was quiet in London. I don't know actually what caused it. It couldn't have been enemy aircraft because it was quiet. So I suppose an ack-ack gun, being tested....
I wouldn't have thought they'd test it over London. But still, you were very lucky.
Yes I was! (laughs). So anyway, I went home and a few days later we did have "our bomb". This was in Hathercrop, a village near Burford. It killed one duck! And it was a V1, the winged kind, a doodlebug.
That was quite late in the War?
Was it, then I've got the dates mixed...
The doodlebugs started coming over in 1944.
There were V1s and V2s.
The V2s were the rockets. They came at the same time, or a little later.
But I can't quite fix this in, because we had got our evacuees by that time.
Let me just set the chronology for you. The evacuees were sent out on September the 2nd.
1939. The day before the declaration of War.
Well in actual fact that's when the evacuees reached our village.
Indeed. And then there was the quiet period, the Phoney War.
Yes, well they arrived almost at the end of our summer holiday, and there was Charlie aged five, who didn't get a home anywhere else. He was from Hoxton. My mother always liked little boys, so she chose him as our evacuee. And from then on we had a sort of growing number of evacuees, we had Charlie who had "afters" every day; and he was delightful, straight East London.
At the same time we had a mother with two children, two boys the same sort of age - came from East Kent - they were too near Manston Airfield so Eric made sure his wife and children went somewhere safe, which was near, in the Cotswolds for a time. And when our buzz bomb dropped all our windows were blown in. Well, two dropped. One tangled in a parachute in the trees at the end of the village, and was duly defused by the Army squad, and the one that got the duck exploded, and we spent the morning sweeping up glass in our own houses and in the afternoon we went through to the Church and swept up the plaster and lath.
You say that one of them was tangled up in parachute lines. Did it come down on a parachute?
Oh, that would have been a land mine.
Yes, probably was a land mine.
That would account for it being so much earlier during the War.
Yes, because I was still at home, a schoolgirl. That would be it. We only had those two landmines.
They were big.
Yes, they were big If they had been a bit nearer, they would have caught more than one duck.
They landed in farmland. Interestingly, in due course there was a memorial in Swindel (?) Church, near Burford, to my father who started collecting up all the bits of broken glass, and I helped of course, and an artist friend turned it into a window which went back into the Church and is now a notable thing for people to go and see, in Swindel Church.
So there you were, 17 or 18 and still at Burford.
Yes, I got a little job, helping the Headmaster of the Grammar School and filled in with.... now Chislehurst Caves is a fairly early thing. There was a need of course for any safe cave at night, for East London, and so lots of them went out to Chislehurst Caves, which as you probably know is a chalky.... it's chalk anyway. And so some of the caves were already there and some more got tunnelled out to make nicer homes. And the Red Cross went down and supplied tea by the cupful so they could have something to drink (in the morning they went back aloft and worked of course). But it was a haven for night time. And the Red Cross said their workers desperately needed a holiday, so a group of Guides, older Girl Guides, of which I was one, went down into the caves and served the cups of tea, jam jars of tea. And unfortunately, I got diphtheria down there which took me rather out of circulation for about a year really. By the time I was fit enough to join the Wrens it was a year later.
How old were you when you joined, 19 or 20?
I was still 18, 19. And then I went through the usual training in the Wrens, and was a Leading Wren Plotter during most of my time in the Wrens, in Great Yarmouth. We went up to Shetland first because we thought the War was going to develop there, but it didn't, so they sent us back, and then it was on the North Sea, Great Yarmouth, for the rest of the time.
That's where we saw the zigzag lines, across the sky where the V1s were being launched And several enemy bombers dropped their bombs, which they hadn't managed to reach the targets, in the Midlands, on Great Yarmouth. And hit two Wrenneries at various times. There was one where I don't think anyone was killed. But there were eight Wrens killed (they swapped us around, I just had left that Wrennery and moved up the road to another one) and I remember Vera said, looking up there, "well there's enough of the floor left for the bed..." and I looked down there and thought "we would have been there".
So what was your job in the Wrens?
Leading Wren Plotter.
Were you working on a RADAR installation?
No, that was the RAF did the RADAR installations. (They) phoned us, the Navy, through with their plots of what they thought was happening. And we were plotting it out and part of the line that the escorting destroyers for the convoys up and down the east coast. They went at night of course, one up, one down, and were on the lookout for E-boats. So we kept a check of all the merchantmen that went up.
So it was ship movements, that you were plotting.
And the Air Force looked after the plane movements...?
Yes. But when a likely night (that means one with the moon coming through and some clouds) we had to really try, which we couldn't do, to plot the E-boats, which went at a tremendous pace, coming over from the Dutch coast, and trying to torpedo, and sometimes did succeed in hitting something or other.
Hit and run.
Hit and run. Yes.
And you did that all through the War, through the rest of the War.
Virtually throughout the War, in Yarmouth.
Three and a half years in Yarmouth. And have you been back since.
Yes (laughs) Not that we took very much of an impression afterwards, all the new houses were built up and it's back as far as I know to a holiday resort.
How did you find life in the Wrens? Coming from a civilian and peaceful background.
Yes, well I came from the Vicarage, so the first question was were we pacifists or not, and my eldest brother was in Holland, my second brother was swept up straight away from college into the tanks in North Africa and eventually was in Tobruk, about to be captured, when he and five of his mates got permission from the OC to run for it if they wanted. So they ran for it and took two vehicles, mechanics, supplies and got through to Cairo, through the German lines which were advancing on Tobruk And from there, he eventually came back to Britain, and went out with the Intelligence to Europe after the first line. But that's his War, not mine. My brothers were older than me so they were all over the place.
Martin was in tanks, Christopher went out to India with a view to joining the troops in Burma, but fortunately, I think, he got waylaid in the language school. He was being taught local language so he could lead his troops, and the government in India wanted him there. So he was looking after that oil pipeline, as a statistician supplying the Army. He enjoyed the War. My third brother was on HMS Cossack...
With Lt. Cmdr Vyan ?
Yes, that was in his Ordinary Seaman days, but then he got on to be a navigator and he was all right, he was deafened - gunnery, that's right, navigation and gunnery - and escorting convoys. So he had a moderately quiet war. I remember that I sent him a book for a present, Christmas present, and the ink got spilt all over it. He apologised when he got back, he said "I'm sorry about that, we were zigzagging" (laughs). The bottle of ink went!
But how did you find life in the Wrens, yourself?
I thoroughly enjoyed it. A lot of young people together. We had a philosophy about the air raids. There were three things that could happen to you - we couldn't avoid the air raids - there were three things: either you got through without being touched, so there was nothing to worry about; or you were killed, which you weren't in a position to worry about; or you had plenty of time in hospital to think about it afterwards. (Laughs) And on that, we kept cheerful all the time!
Indeed. And being in the Forces, you wouldn't have been over bothered with food rationing, and certainly not with clothes rationing.
No, food rationing - I went home for leave at intervals, my mother lived in Oxford by then - and I remember the triumph. I had waited for oranges, or was it bananas, for about an hour or so, and got some! To take home! (laughs) What else?
Well, I think you described your War fairly fully. What happened towards the end of the War, with the liberation of the Belgian and Dutch coast? The removal of the E-boat menace.
Well, we knew that the War was about to end, because we were plotting - we never knew who was in the boat - but the south-bound convoy had a little motor launch. (I suppose this might be against the Official Secrets Act?)
It might be, but I don't think at this stage that they're likely to prosecute you.
(Laughs) Well, anyway, the motor launch set sail, then turned around and set sail the following night because the landing on the continent was postponed because of bad weather or something. Well we don't know who was on the launch, anyway. It might have been someone important or the BBC, I don't know. Well, this was a sort of afterthought. That's why I said the BBC. It may have been the media in some form. It may have been the high-ups wanting to get a bit nearer, to see the action. But they were not expected to be in the landing, but they wanted to be after the landing and then join Intelligence down there.
Right. As your plotting role gradually wound down, what happened then?
As soon as VE was announced, we dismantled the Operations Room, tore up the maps and we destroyed everything.... The whole thing was just stripped. And we were left, a hundred young women, rather a nuisance quite honestly. And so they tried to occupy us, so that we wouldn't get a nuisance, more of a nuisance. So I remember we moved every four days to a different place: the first place was helping a farmer pick strawberries, we were sent as a squad of Wrens; and then we went to the various places of Chatham, Gillingham and The Boltons, various Naval Headquarters, and we were occupied doing nothing. We were a bit stroppy, I'm afraid. When I was polishing the floor, you know, all the way down the passage (Not for a Leading Wren!) (laughs) I took my brand new shoes - they were Naval Issue - off so that I wouldn't kick the toes out. And then I heard a voice booming up the corridor. "Whose are these shoes?!" "Please ma'm, they're mine." And I took them off to preserve them! No danger, no War danger, just polishing the floor. So then she was rather nonplussed by this stroppy little Wren, answering back to the Chief Officer WRNS, and turned to the Petty Officer, who was joining her on her rounds, and said "Deal with this". And the Petty Officer was equally nonplussed and said "Come to my office at 12 o'clock." I suppose I got a ticking off, I can't remember. Nothing else happened. (laughs) It just amused me, the way, I suppose in the way a stroppy little Wren could be an individual at the same time: although in any case, War was over by then.
But that's why they had to employ us picking strawberries.
But before VE day, you had little to do because of diminished enemy activity.
Yes, but we still steadily plotted the shipping through the area. We didn't notice any difference until VE Day had announced the War was ended.
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