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Joan Quibell's Diary Part Five - May to December 1942icon for Recommended story

by Joan Quibell

Contributed by 
Joan Quibell
People in story: 
Joan Cattell, Dora Farrer and Kathleen Foley, Corporal Mary Chambers, Major Nobel, Marion Stevens, Mary Fairclough, Rita Marks, Eveline Bird, Doris Crick, Ruby Carter, Joan Illes, Lois Hammond, Joyce Tighe-Umbers, Lyn Hurricks, Doris Bolwell, Madge Osborne, Elizabeth Stewart, Bodil Gertz
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Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
20 November 2004

Joan (back left) with Rita (back right) amd other girls from AQ Uxbridge.

After our arrival at Kings Cross, Joan Cattell and I went our separate ways, she to Hammersmith and I to the ATS HQ at Kensington. From there I was posted to HQ 1st AA Corps at Uxbridge and told to proceed to the ATS Camp there, in Hercies Road. Two other girls at Kensington were to come with me as Office Orderlies, but they weren't from the York Training Centre. They had trained at Catterick and were both from Yorkshire, Dora Farrer and Kathleen Foley.

Hercies Road ATS Camp at that time consisted of only a few Nissen huts. Three were used for sleeping accommodation, one served as a Mess, another as a cookhouse, yet another for bath and showers.

Bedding down in a potting shed

Corporal Mary Chambers greeted us at the gate and took us into the very small Orderly Room where our identities were checked and we were ticked off her list. 'Right,' she said when this had been accomplished. 'All the huts are full. Some more are being built but until they are ready you'll be in temporary accommodation.' She didn't elucidate further at that point, merely indicated that we were to follow her. She led us across a field separating the camp from the gardens of some houses, opened a small gate into one of the gardens, and we trooped in behind her.

To our complete astonishment, she then opened the door of a fairly large wooden erection, painted green, and ushered us inside. The Army had requisitioned someone's Potting Shed. It was furnished with three iron beds, piled with bedding, three soldiers' boxes, three wooden chairs, and — a touch of luxury here — a mat on the floor. 'Here you are,' she said, 'This is where you'll sleep for the time being. Of course you'll have to come over to Camp to wash and use the loos, and for your meals.' She went on to warn us that we were not to be a nuisance to the householders, who hadn't been too pleased to have us at the bottom of their garden.

Corporal Mary Chambers departed, leaving us to sort ourselves out. Eventually we set about unpacking and stowing our belongings into our soldiers' boxes. Then we made our beds and wended our way across the field to the Mess. We ate in silence, miserable as sin.

Corporal Chambers re-appeared to give us our instructions for the morning. 'You'll work at Hillingdon House,' she said, 'That's HQ 1st AA Corps, which is situated in the RAF Camp. Breakfast is 7 until 8, in here, and you parade on that ground across the road at 8.30.' Away she went.

We left the Mess and looked across the road to where a small tarmac square had been laid for the purpose of assembling and then we made our way back to the Potting Shed.

Next morning we scrambled over to the Camp to wash and eat breakfast and managed to present ourselves on the parade ground at the appointed time. An ATS Officer, Miss Lathewaite, took the parade, formed us up, brought us to attention, and then marched us off. Along Hercies Road we went, up Honeypot Hill and into the gates of the RAF Camp. We marched to a parade ground in front of Hillingdon House where we were brought to a halt and dismissed.

Hillingdon House

Hillingdon House used to be a stately home of Lord and Lady Hillingdon, a large imposing mansion, but had been commandeered by the War Office some time previously. Its many rooms were now used as offices. It must have been a lovely house in pre-war days. Now its gracious furnishings had been replaced with trestle tables piled high with documents and papers, filing cabinets marked CONFIDENTIAL, or SECRET, or TOP SECRET. The place was a hive of activity, into which we were led by Miss Lathewaite, to the presence of the Chief Clerk, Sergeant Major Young. He consulted his list and informed Dora and Kathleen they were to go to Signals and I was in MS. I had no idea what MS stood for but soon found out. It was Medical. I was to work for a Major Nobel, a doctor, and the job entailed plenty of shorthand and typing. I was kept very busy all day but Major Nobel was very civil and treated me most courteously. At lunchtime we went in two sittings back to the Camp in Hercies Road for food and then returned for the afternoon stint. At the end of the day I felt reasonably happy, cheered up no end that things had gone tolerably well.

We gradually settled in and our spirits lifted visibly as the days progressed. I enjoyed my work, letters from home were a precious link and the Potting Shed had its compensations which we quickly learned to exploit. As we didn't come in for Camp inspections, all attempts at tidiness were very soon abandoned. The garden in which our Potting Shed stood was ablaze with flowers and blossom and the weather was beautiful. After work we would often carry our wooden chairs outside in order to sit and enjoy the balmy evenings, being careful, of course, to keep well out of sight of the house. We never ever encountered the occupants.

Uxbridge I found to be a delightful town. It consisted of a main High Street, which contained three cinemas — the Regal, the Odeon and the Savoy — several shops including a WH Smith and Woollies, a super Public Library, a Market, and most importantly to us, quite a variety of eating places. We always needed to supplement our Army fare, and most of our pay seemed to go in this direction. There was Pam's Pantry or the Fairy Belle if we were in the money, the Express Dairy if we were reasonably flush, and the Red Shield or the Sally-Anne if we were broke. The latter were Service Clubs. We consumed vast quantities of chips with everything. Nobody had heard of cholesterol in those days.

To the Nissen hut

For three months Dora, Kathleen and I were occupants of the Potting Shed but then one day in late July our lazy life came to an end. The new Nissen huts were complete and we were ordered to pack our belongings to take up residence in Hut 6. The huts were constructed of corrugated iron, dome-shaped, rather like an enlarged version of our Anderson shelter. Immediately inside the door was a small washroom to the left and on the right were two lavatories. Then you went through another door into the hut proper. Six beds lined either side of a central aisle and by each bed a locker. Under each bed a soldier's box. Above the beds, running the length of the hut, a narrow wooden shelf and right in the middle of the room there was a black cast-iron stove, with a chimney pipe that went up through the roof. This monstrosity was our only form of heating. It consumed coal or coke, was extremely dirty and smelly, but could, if in the mood, get red hot.

Into this residence Dora, Kathleen and I shifted our gear and at the same time were joined by Marion Stevens and Mary Fairclough. Rita Marks also arrived, newly posted from Stanmore and so did Birdie, the oldest AT in the business. Her name was really Eveline Bird and she had joined the peacetime Territorials. She must have been in her mid-40s but was called up when war was declared. Doris Crick was the hut Corporal, responsible, poor girl, for keeping some semblance of order. And also making up the numbers were Ruby Carter, Joan Illes and Lois Hammond. Completing the crew was Joyce Tighe-Umbers from New Zealand who was a PT instructor.

Thus we were all assembled, the occupants of Hut 6. From varied walks of life, so different in our backgrounds and our characters. I often thought afterwards what a lucky stroke of fate it was that brought us all together.

We had one day off a week which was fine for the girls who lived near as it meant they could go home and stay the night. For me it was a day of freedom from duties to spend exploring Uxbridge. Later on I discovered the delights of London. I was eagerly awaiting my first leave, ten whole days at home. Finally in August the great day dawned. I worked until 4 and then was allowed to go, my case already packed complete with my travel warrant and my ration card. The reunion with my family was marvellous. My first long leave was everything I could have wished. But the time passed all too quickly and the day for my return soon dawned. I did feel very woebegone as I sat in the train heading for Euston. I arrived back in Camp to an enthusiastic welcome from my hutmates that went some way to assuage the hurt.

Changes at the Camp

Next morning it was back to the old routine with a vengeance. But changes were afoot. More huts had for some time been under construction at Hercies Road — not Nissens like ours but wooden dormitories that radiated from a central building, rather like spiders' legs, so that is what they were called — the spiders. Very soon a large contingent of ATS arrived and took up residence in the spiders, and 1st Anti Aircraft Corps became HQ 2nd Anti Aircraft Group. We were now a very much larger organisation. There were moves all round. I was taken from MS and sent to work in AQ — Adjutants and Quartermasters. I found myself in a typing pool, working mainly for Major Craif and Q officers in general. I wasn't too happy at first, as I'd liked MS, but I soon settled in and found the girls I worked with an extremely amenable bunch. There was Lyn Hurricks, Doris Bolwell and Madge Osborne. My hut mate Rita Marks also worked in A.Q. We all got along very well.

The war, by contrast, wasn't going at all well, at least not for us. The Russians were fighting fiercely and were starting to push the Germans back, but we still weren't achieving much in the East. There was talk of a Second Front being imminent.

About this time, Kathleen and Dora were posted back to Yorkshire. I was sad to see them go. But into Hut 6 in their place came Elizabeth Stewart, a Scottish lass known as Jock, and another PT Instructor, Bodil Gertz from Denmark.

With the enlargement of the Camp came several unwelcome intrusions. To begin with, discipline was tightened up. There was to be a general smartening-up, we were told, and to help to implement this came one Company Sergeant Major who struck terror into our hearts — on the matter of Parades for instance. Thou shalt not be late on Parade. Unfortunately we nearly always were. We found getting up in the morning not the easiest of achievements. Once when I was late I was made to stand on the parade ground at 7am the next morning on my own, until the rest of the Company joined me at 8.30.

Another bone of contention was the business of barracking our beds. Each morning we had to strip our beds, and then fold the sheets and blankets separately, before stacking them up on top of the biscuits (the things we slept on, not ate). One morning Marion and I failed to barrack — it was either that or be late on parade, so we left the beds. We were unfortunate in the extreme, because there was a CO's inspection that day. We were sent for, severely reprimanded and confined to camp for 7 days.

Saluting, or failure to do so, was another dubious area. In our very early days, so eager were we to do the right thing, we bent our arm to all and sundry if they wore a remotely superior air. On one occasion I saluted a Railway Guard.

Dodging PT was another thing you were supposed not to do. Those hearty cross-country runs early in the morning were fine for the energetic folk who liked that kind of thing, but we felt they should have been optional. Marion and I were always bringing up the rear and would slope off down a side turning and make our crafty way back to camp.

Failure to attend Platoon Evening lectures was another misdemeanour that merited punishment. These lectures took place on Thursday evening when the whole of the Company would be restricted to Camp unless you were on duty at HQ. Various lectures were organised and Education Officers would descend to give talks on a variety of subjects.

Most of my weekly days off now were spent in London, especially if Rita's 24 hours coincided with mine. She knew London well and introduced me to so much. We were fortunate in having an Agency — The Forces Hospitality it was called — where free theatre tickets could be obtained and we made good use of this facility.

We were very busy at work and the days simply flew. We had to do night duty on a regular basis at Hillingdon House, which meant sleeping on a trestle bed in the office during quiet periods, but then you might be awakened to do some work. After these stints, which ended at 6am, you made your way back to Camp for breakfast and to freshen-up before commencing again at 9.

The fighting in the East was at last going in our favour and we were back in Egypt and Libya. We watched the newsreels at the cinema with cheers of delight. On Sunday 15 November, church bells all over England were rung to celebrate victory in Egypt. In Uxbridge there was a proliferation of churches, it was a joyful sound indeed.

Christmas at Camp

Parades, never enjoyable at the best of times, were now endurance tests. With freezing temperatures and the fields all around white with rime, we stood in our rows and dithered.

December brought thoughts of Christmas, my first away from home. I knew it would be difficult for me and for the family too.

Life contained small delights. Winter evenings by the hut fire, making toast on the end of a knitting pin held in a gloved hand. We would sit in a contented little circle munching away, discussing all manner of things. We went often to the pictures, luckily we got concessionary prices, and of course we were doing our Christmas shopping. Our funds didn't permit wild extravagances but mine were given a boost by a letter from Pop in which he enclosed two crisp pound notes. We dressed the hut with branches of fir and holly and tried to get into festive mood. Parcels from family and friends started to arrive.

On Christmas Eve Rita and I went up to town to have lunch and visit the theatre. We had supper at the Strand YWCA and then went on to Piccadilly. The crowds there were dense and the atmosphere was exciting. Everyone was singing and wishing everybody else a Happy Christmas.

Next day, Christmas Day, was equally enjoyable in a different way. We had a long lie-in, not getting up until around 11. Christmas lunch was wonderful, turkey and all the trimmings, served to us by THE OFFICERS. Then we sat in the Recreation Room listening to the King's Speech on the radio. I thought frequently throughout the day of my folks at home, missing them dreadfully, but, that apart, it was a wonderful Christmas Day.

Boxing Day saw a return to normal working conditions.

On New Year's Eve I reflected on the past year. I'd had my sad moments — homesickness in those first days as a new recruit. But the year held so much in recompense. I had choice and priceless memories of the totally different world into which I had been propelled, all those strange experiences and escapades. Brightest and best of all were the friendships I had made, the happy comradeship, the shared laughter and the pride in being part and parcel of the Great British Army.

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