- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Kathleen Kinmonth Warren (née Godfrey)
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 March 2004
I was sixteen and still at school when war broke out on September 3rd 1939. Our house in Kent was obviously in a vulnerable area and was let for the duration of the war. We went back a few months later and saw above us in the sky the vapour trails of the Spitfires and Hurricanes, the start of the Battle of Britain. We never lived there again. My two sisters, aged fourteen and ten were evacuated to safer parts of the country and we became separated only seeing each other occasionally. My friends all left school and my closest friend, much against her will was shipped off to Canada to look after her grandmother and youngest brother. At a later date she returned to England, thus twice being in danger when crossing the Atlantic. My education came to an abrupt halt not much regretted at the time but looking back on my life a source of much regret and sometimes envy.
I don’t remember any discussion about my future and it was decided that the easiest thing was to send me to what was called a Domestic Science School. For a few months I endured this dreadful place where we were taught some of the rudiments of cooking such as rendering down fat from bacon rinds and scraps of meat, skinning rabbits and even doing some dressmaking. I chose to make a pair of white satin pants, called ‘French knickers’ with fashionably wide legs. No elastic at the waist. They were kept up with one pearl button,the cause of much embarrassment some years later when the button flew off on the platform at Tottenham Court Road Station,allowing the knickers to slip to the ground round my ankles. Impossible to conceal what was happening from the current boy friend. Covered in confusion I picked them up and stuffed them into my bag.
My father, Admiral John Godfrey, had been appointed Director of Naval Intelligence in 1939, the year before the outbreak of war. He accepted the task of building up this crucial area — long neglected in the years of disarmament and unpreparedness between the wars — with his usual determination and skill, recruiting a powerful team from the Navy and from Oxford and Cambridge and from the City. His chief assistant and right-hand man was Ian Fleming. In later life after the war Ian is said to have modelled 007’s redoubtable chief, ‘M’, on my father and sent him advance copies of every book as it was published. But in September 1939 my father became a distant figure living and working in London. My mother who was only thirty-eight went to the School of Geography in Oxford where for the next four years she worked in the Department of the Admiralty which assembled and produced highly secret information about coastlines with maps, pictures, measurements and every sort of data which might be needed for operations and invasions in Europe and the Mediterranean. The public were asked to send all their holiday snap shots of the coast and also to lend or it might have been to give their copies of the Times Atlas to help the war effort. One was often asked to do things ‘for the war effort’.
Parlez moi d’amour
Looking back on our lives an extraordinary episode springs to life. In May 1940 during what was sometimes called the Phoney War my parents sent me to France to stay with a family living in a little village just outside Tours. I went by sea across the channel and thence by train, changing in Paris just as we had always done before the war. I met some friends in Paris and there heard the melting sounds of ‘Parlez moi d’amour’ which was all the rage just then. I stayed for about six weeks in Tours; having music lessons, bicycling about the countryside and improving my French. The father in this family was a retired General and as the war got closer to us he brought out a map and marked the progress of the enemy with little flags which bulged out towards us in an increasingly alarming way. As the curving line of the German advance, plotted on the map came relentlessly nearer it became obvious that I would have to leave France and go home. This was left so much to the last minute that I could not return by Calais or Dieppe. The only ferry crossing the channel left from Le Havre. After a long, slow and somewhat uncertain train journey with many delays I arrived at Caen where there was an air raid as the train stopped at the station. There I was met by a charming young lieutenant who had been sent from England to escort me back home. We arrived safely and after about a week in London there was a ring on the front door bell. My bike and the large green canvas trunk which I had taken over with me were being delivered by Carter Patterson. They had arrived in London just as the Germans reached Paris.
On the Farm
That summer I went to live with my godmother and worked as a land girl on her husband’s farm in Somerset in the remote village of Spaxton at the foot of the Quantocks. The ancient farm house with its stone mullioned windows stood next to the church. There was no electricity in the village and in the hall a row of polished brass oil lamps with glass shades gave off a characteristic paraffin smell. The long, dark corridor upstairs, full of shadows in the flickering candlelight, led to my bedroom. A second candle on my dressing-table filled the room with reassuring light.
At breakfast, we were given jobs for the day: feeding the hens and pigs and sometimes grooming the horses. I learned how to milk the cows and then how to turn the milk into clotted cream in the cool dairy with its slate shelves and wide pans of milk. Making butter in the summer, with no ice or a fridge, took ages as I slapped the cream to and fro with my hands in a wooden tub. It always came right in the end and I would pat it into shape with the wooden hands into perfect pounds of yellow butter. We had the clotted cream on our porridge for breakfast and fed the remaining skim milk to the squealing piglets.
I worked on the land doing most of the things which the men did. The young farm workers had all been called up leaving a motley crew to work on the farm. Huge cart-horses with feathery fetlocks pulled the lumbering wooden wagons and smaller horses were used for riding or for other work in the fields. One of the jobs I was given was called shamming, this meant harnessing the horse to a heavy hoe and leading it to and fro up and down a vast field of young turnips or cabbages hoeing up the weeds between the rows. At the end of each row by the hedge, a circular turn brought us to the beginning of the next endless row. I learnt how to drive a tractor and even learned how to sharpen and use a scythe to slice through the nettles. As the summer advanced we helped with the hay-making with many an anxious look up at the sky wondering if it would rain before the hay was cut. After the cutting, the long rows of hay had to be turned and then raked into big piles ready to be heaved with pitch-forks up on top of the wagon, which would be hauled into the barn. Later on came the harvesting of the corn: sheaves of wheat, oats or barley to be stacked into stooks in neat rows. The sheaves were heavy and the barley very prickly. If the thrashing machine, which came with its team from farm to farm, had not yet come to us the harvest had to taken into the barn. Then we would ride back on the swaying wagons loaded high with sheaves before making them into a rick with its thatch of straw. We would heave each sheaf high up to be grabbed and carefully placed in position so there was no danger of the rick falling over. The thrashing machine with its whirring wheels and clouds of dust and chaff flying all over the place, brought on paroxysms of hay fever
One day, everyone collected in the village hall to receive the evacuees who were coming by train from London where the bombing had started. These sad little children with labels round their necks and gas masks in cardboard boxes, each clutching a small suitcase and sometimes a Teddy bear or the hand of a brother or sister waited anxiously some of them in tears to see where they were to go. It was probably the first time they’d ever been parted from their parents or been on a train; all silent, apprehensive, miserable. They looked hungry and someone went round giving each child a biscuit and some orangeade. As my godmother already had a house full of people, she had not been chosen to have any of these children, but at the end of the day there were four children standing and still waiting: two brothers, one of whom could not have been more than five and a pair of girls in their early teens. Nancy took pity on them and we walked back with them to the farm. Soon they were sitting silently in the kitchen having cups of tea with slices of bread and jam. But the girls were a problem. They wanted to go back to London and tried to run away, packing their bags and climbing out of an upstairs window. They didn’t stay long and very soon were sent home. The boys stayed for the whole war, visited only occasionally by their mother when she could manage it. The journey which today we’d hardly think twice about was something that most people never did. ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ It was too far. Years later, when the boys were grown up they came back to see the farm where they had been happy, bringing their own children with them.
Blood,Toil and Sweat
Each week we would listen to Churchill’s voice on the wireless: ‘Blood, toil and sweat.’ Although we were many miles from the conflict and the hardships of war, it was a daily background to our lives. One morning, the letter which we had all been secretly dreading came from my mother. She told us that her brother Ralph, our favourite uncle, had been killed He was in a Hurricane squadron which went up on hundreds of sorties from aerodromes in the south of England. When he was shot down over Croydon he stayed at the controls until his plane was near an open space in order not to crash into houses. By that time, it was skimming over the treetops, too low for his parachute to open.
I loved working on the farm and being in the country and I might just have gone on doing that, but as a result of Ralph’s death I decided that I too would join up. I tried the Wrens but was told I was too young and in any case they said they only wanted cooks. So I tried again as soon as I was eighteen and thought the Air Force would be better. None of the girls were being called up. We all just rushed into the fray. One of my friends was in the WAAF and she encouraged me. Tragically she was killed in one of the raids on Southampton the following year. I took her advice and went off to Victory House in Holborn where queues of girls were waiting to enlist. After the usual string of questions we had to have a medical exam and were told that we had to give a specimen. Nervousness made it impossible for me to produce a single drop. Not a very propitious start to my new career. So I rang up my father at the Admiralty and he took me out to lunch at the Savoy. My last decent meal for a long time. After lunch and a second visit to the Air Ministry I was successful and so began five years in uniform.
Aircraftwoman 2nd class Godfrey
All the new recruits boarded a train to Yorkshire, bound for Harrogate. We stayed at the Grand Hotel and were enrolled. I became a number, which I can easily remember to this day: 427823. Aircraftwoman 2nd Class. Godfrey. It was imprinted on a red tag hanging on a piece of cord round our necks to identify us in case we were killed. We queued up for our uniforms which made no concession to our shapes as they were modelled exactly on the men’s, even buttoning from left to right. The belted jacket in Air Force blue had four square pockets, eliminating any curves which might have been visible; then came a knee-length straight skirt and a blue cotton shirt with separate collar which, as it had to be stiffly starched, left an unattractive red mark on the neck. There were inspections every day and woe betide if a collar stud went missing it never occurred to me to have spare one. The tie was black, in mourning for the men of the Royal Flying Corps who had fallen in the Great War. The rest of the outfit consisted of thick dark-grey cotton stockings, suspender belts, bras and even black knickers, with elastic at the knee known as ‘anti-passions’. The black lace-up shoes rubbed horribly, and all the clothes tended to be scratchy and uncomfortable. As snow lay on the ground, we were issued with thick double-breasted great-coats which had a full complement of brass buttons with embossed eagles on them. All of them had to be polished every day. Lastly came a peaked hat with RAF badge, yet another piece of brass to be cleaned. In addition, we carried cumbersome gas masks everywhere with threats of horrible punishments if we put anything else like a book or make-up in with the gas mask.
Having kitted us out, they started to knock us into shape. A fearsome male drill-sergeant marched up and down stamping his feet with arms swinging to a predetermined height and bellowing at the unlikely looking group of recruits across an immense parade ground. No more casual walking anywhere — marching was the order of the day. One week later came pay-day: Fourteen shillings and sixpence. The first money I had ever earned.
After one week in the Grand Hotel, things changed for the worse and we were moved to a spartan boys’ school in the country, just outside Harrogate. Forty of us shared a long room. Snow came in through the windows onto our narrow beds. I think there was one tap and a basin for us to wash in. I can’t remember a bathroom but there must have been one because it was there that I learned to carry around with me that most essential piece of equipment, a bath plug. Try blocking up the waste with your heel? It doesn’t work at all well.
Every morning, we had an inspection which involved unmaking the bed and taking our bedding apart. The mattress was divided into three square sections, each about two inches thick and quite hard. These biscuits, as they were called had to be put in a pile at the top of the bed on the wire springs through which the state of the floor beneath was clearly visible. This had to be mopped and polished. After assembling the biscuits in a neat pile, the heavy brown blankets and thick sheets had to be folded carefully and added to the pile in exactly the right order with the pillow on top. After that we had to polish one pair of shoes, one belt buckle, one cap badge and fourteen brass buttons, then stand to attention for the daily inspection by a procession of officers and their attendant NCOs.
‘Step forward Godfrey. Your hair is too long. Go to the barber and have it cut straight away. Two inches above the collar.’
Our Commanding officer was called Conan Doyle and I wish I had had the courage to talk to her about her ancestor.
Having survived the first four weeks and avoided being ‘put on a charge’, a threat which hung over us and which we understood would certainly lead to a blot on our record or even something worse, we were summoned to the office and given our orders. First we had to salute. If no-one was in the room, we had to salute the adjutant’s desk. ‘No, you won’t be able to be a plotter (the job I had asked for). We need radio operators.’
So we were sent without further explanation to Yatesbury, a training camp on Salisbury Plain. Before the long cold train journey, our breakfast on that frigid morning consisted of a plate of tepid prunes. At the camp were seventy airwomen and seven thousand airmen. Rows of barracks stretched to the horizon. We marched everywhere, even into a gas filled hut with and without our gas masks,just to show us how important they were. I was left spluttering and coughing for several days. At Yatesbury under a vow of secrecy we were told the astonishing facts about radar.
One day my father drove down from London to see me. Father, always so handsome in his admiral’s uniform with the wide gold bands on his sleeve. I was very proud of him. After picking me up at the camp we drove to Marlborough a few miles away and found a tea shop which in those days were always furnished with gate legged tables,dark oak furniture and chintz curtains. The kind of place where little old ladies baked home made scones and cakes,very nice after the rigours of camp life. In the past Father had always noticed what I was wearing and said something complimentary about my clothes. He hadn’t ever seen me in uniform before and I suppose that must have been quite a surprise. Over a cup of tea he asked me how I was getting on. ‘What are you doing with yourself all the time, Kathleen?’ he asked me.
‘I can’t possibly tell you, Father. It’s a secret.’ I answered. He was of course delighted.
After six weeks training I was a radio operator and could sew the lightning flash on my right arm. I was sent to Ventnor, high on the southern cliffs of the Isle of Wight, one of a chain of radar stations looking out over the channel towards France. When I arrived in the spring of 1941 there had been bombing raids a few months earlier on all the chain of stations on the south coast At Ventnor there was a mass of wreckage and bomb craters but it was still functioning. The tall transmission masts and the smaller receivers were standing sentinels keeping watch. We worked underground in shifts far from any airfield. Sometimes if we were not busy at night we’d have an hours sleep on the floor under the table. While scanning the Cathode Ray screens with their brilliant green blips and the circles marking off the distances, we might be given an order from the plotting station at Stanmore in London to have a look outside. ‘Go up and get a visual, and see if you can identify the German planes overhead.’ So we’d pop up to the surface with the drone of engines above us to see what we could see.
After almost a year on radar stations I was moved to Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire where a large team of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel as well as civilians had been working ever since the beginning of the war on breaking the Enigma code used by Germany for all the operational messages on land and in the U-boats. Secrecy about our work and the whereabouts of BP (Bletchley Park), or Station X as it was sometimes called was of the utmost importance. When one of my grandsons asked me how we used to decode messages it took me a little while to explain. During the war we never kept diaries and never talked about our work to anyone. After twenty five years of silence the secret or parts of it emerged and I felt at liberty to mention it to my husband He was not particularly interested. How such a secret was kept when so many people knew about it remains one of the war’s great mysteries and triumphs.
These fading memories suddenly focus onto my twenty-first birthday in October 1943. With both parents in India, we had been without a proper home for the whole war, but my most stylish and beloved grandfather, who must have been nearly eighty at the time, threw a party for me at the Savoy Hotel in one of those opulent private rooms named after Gilbert and Sullivan operas — ours was ‘The Gondoliers’. My grandfather presided over the feast at the end of the table. I wore my first long evening dress; sparkling black net with yards of material in the skirt. All the current boyfriends were in uniform, and we danced away the evening in the adjoining ballroom. The band made us forget about the dangers and uncertainties of the real world outside.
The real world caught up with me on my return to Bletchley the next day. I had worked my way up the ranks and by this time after two-and-a-half years was a sergeant with three stripes on my arm. I was sent with some of my friends to Lake Windermere in the Lake District for an officers’ training course. There we were marched to and fro just like recruits all over again. At the end of the course I was given my commission and became an Assistant Section Officer, the lowest rank and the equivalent of a Pilot Officer in the RAF. My first expedition was to a tailor in London to have my new uniform made for me. It had a red silk lining and an almost invisibly thin stripe on the cuff which denoted my new status. Actually, most of us, while in the ranks, had already had our uniforms tailored in officers’ cloth for wearing on days off. This, combined with the occasional pair of silk stockings and civilian shoes, meant that we felt quite presentable.
We all returned newly fledged to Bletchley Park and carried on at the same tasks. We did no more marching there. Most of us worked in watches and when these changed over at 4.0 pm, midnight and 8.0 am a fleet of busses and vans fanned out into the countryside to where we were all billeted. I resurrected my old bike and one evening, or rather one dark night after work I was sailing merrily along, no lights of course, when I realised that someone was following me. I pedalled furiously but as I was living at the end of a long dark lane, there was no escape. My pursuer turned out to be a policeman who caught me up and fined me the large sum of ten shillings, and told me not to go without lights again. My first encounter with the law.
As soon as the war in Europe was over in 1945 we were all out of work but still in the Air Force. No more code-breaking, so after having some leave we dispersed in all directions. Some went home and some like me waiting to be demobilised were sent to new stations and different jobs. My destiny lay at Uxbridge just outside London where I was given an administrative job. The old-fashioned pre-war Air Force station consisted of a collection of large stone barracks with echoing floors, long corridors and high windows, more like a prison than anything else. It was a dull and ugly place. No gardens or trees, just concrete parade grounds surrounded by a high fence with a massive gate. My job — something I had always managed to avoid until that moment — consisted of marching around in charge of 150 women, inspecting barrack rooms and counting sheets and blankets. A lot of time was taken up in signing passes, filling in forms and trying to make sure that every one came in at night, which of course they didn’t. ‘Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am.’ All officers were addressed as ma’am. In the officer’s quarters I had a small ice-cold bedroom in a narrow passage of other small ice-cold rooms. I managed to scrounge an electric fire which looked like a toaster lying on its side. It was a great luxury and kept the room above freezing point. I had been promoted and was now a Section Officer. When out of doors, we always had to wear brown leather gloves and a peaked cap with a gold embroidered badge. In winter, a thick great-coat with epaulettes on the shoulders, showing our rank, kept us warm. There was always a lot of saluting when we were out of doors. We travelled up to London on our days off, but had to live on the station during the week.
My mother had just returned from three years in India with my father. During the war we as a family, had hardly seen each other. Now we had a home together in London for the first time in many years. Soon I was discharged from the WAAF. I discovered that I was totally unqualified for anything, and was going to have to think seriously about what to do next. But it was here in the last months of my spell in the Air Force that for the first time I fell in love and six months later we were married
These flickering glimpses into the past all happened over half a century ago when the country had been ravaged by war. I have only chosen incidents and recalled events which are totally different from our experiences today. Now it seems hard to imagine or even remember the shabbiness of our lives. Travel, particularly by train, was slow and cold, with many changes, and it was hard to see the dimly lit names of the stations through the fogged-up windows. All the signposts in the country had been removed in case of an invasion. We had got used to living in cold cheerless places and walking along dirty unlit streets; gloomy, dark and ugly. No houses had been painted for years, no trees planted, no roads repaired. In cities, where the parks should have been protected with elegant railings there was either barbed wire or nothing at all. The railings and even saucepans had all gone to win the war and in London most buildings which had been bombed were still standing in ruins. Weeds struggled and some even flowered. We all had to start a new life.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.