- Contributed by
- Stockport Libraries
- People in story:
- Edna Hodgson
- Location of story:
- France 1944 - Versailles, Paris, Rheims
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 February 2004
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Elizabeth Perez of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Edna Stafford and has been added to the site with her husband Bill Stafford's permission. Bill Stafford fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
"On the morning of 21st September, 1944 I was bundled into a lorry with my overseas kit and eventually found myself on Heaton airfield which was being run by the Americans. About 12.30 p.m. after being "fed and watered" we boarded a plane and took off. The day was very sunny and clear and as we flew, the American Officer, who was sitting next to me, who had made the journey many times pointed out various landmarks. On looking down and about me, I realised that anything on the ground, i.e. vehicles, people, could easily be seen and that any enemy aircraft would have little difficulty in observing a target, unless it be under the ground or well camouflaged.
Eventually we touched down at Orly airfield for refuelling and arrived at Versailles at 5 o'clock - after half-an-hour road journey. Having heard that the girls who had previously come across were moving into Versailles that day, I naturally made my first job one of looking for Elsie and sure enough after a few enquiries, I found her in one of the barracks, which originally belonged to the French Artillery. The barracks had only recently been evacuated by the Germans and consequently they were not in a very good state of cleanliness. Mattresses were unclean and we suffered.
Versailles is unique in itself and I enjoyed my time there. Needless to say we went many times in to Paris. Versailles Palace, about which so much has already been written in history books. was the place in which the Treaty of the First World War was signed. It is a wonderful building and as one strolled through the numerous rooms in which there were so many paintings of interest, one inwardly marvelled that such beauty came about from someone's imagination and work.
There were two barracks, one on either side of the main road, which led into Paris. We were billeted in one of these, know as the "Petit Ecurie" and although we were crowded, it was fun and on the whole people were happy. We stayed for a few weeks and then we were moved round the corner to some other barracks. Some coloured men were stationed in the adjoining barracks and they often caused some excitement. Once they must have decided that life was becoming dull, so one evening they formed themselves into groups and attacked the gendarmes with the result that all the female personnel were escorted home by soldiers and airmen armed with sten guns etc. We were still under the command of the Americans so this meant that we dined in the W.A.C. mess. The food was very good even though most of it appeared to be tinned. We enjoyed it and had no complaints. I shared a room above the stables, with four other girls. There were two bunks and a single camp bed. Elsie and I shared a bunk but she was on the top and many laughs were had at her expense as she was shot and pushed onto her bed.
Shopping in Versailles was reasonable as it was quite a large place. There was one store rather on the lines of an English "Woolworths" with lots of odd little things to sell. About 10 minutes walk away we had our offices. These offices were in the "Trianon Hotel" which was very palatial and General Eisenhower also had an office apart from his "caravan" standing in the grounds. One's feet sunk into plush carpets, and each office had a small bathroom attached. It was a pleasure to go to the office and in the lunchtime break there was a small coach driven by a Frenchman to transport us back to the billets.
Often we saw Gen. Eisenhower and he never seemed to mind being asked to stand by the high gates for a snap to be taken. He and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder had their respective offices on the first floor, with the office of General Spaatz close by. Outside each office stood a Military Policeman on guard all "spic and span" with white gloves, white belt with brass all a-shine, and white spats over highly polished boots. Next to our Intelligence Office was the American Photographic Section. During the time spent there, one or two ceremonial parades were held, with the British Guards bringing up the rear of the American M.Ps. Although the Americans were smart, the British Guards were far more militaristic in their dress and marching, and to see them obey an order as one man was indeed a sight to remember. We all felt very proud of them.
Paris being only half-an-hour's journey away I eagerly awaited my first visit to that great city, famous for its fashions, architecture, designs, beautiful jewellery, and of course, theatres and its night life. Although the war was not over there seemed to be plenty of entertainment. Paris was termed as being "off limits" and we were controlled as to when and where we could go. This was due to minor disturbances and "check-ups" for deserters, both American and British. I shall never forget my first trip into Paris as I did it in a fashion, which had not been planned. Buses were organised to convey service personnel from Versailles to Paris and these were supposed to run every half-hour, but on this particular day, something unforeseen had occurred to prevent the bus turning up.
After waiting for some time, my friend and I, together with others decided to hitch a lift. After standing on the road "thumbing" a lift a lorry came along. Several of the men climbed on the tailboard and then realised that there were one or two girls who also wanted a lift, but the thought of undoing the back of the lorry to make things easier never entered their heads. So we began to struggle aboard in a most ungainly manner. Service skirts were never made to be stretched and certainly not to allow for being hauled over the back of a lorry. Strangely it was not my skirt, which came to grief but the knees of my stockings, for having attained the precarious position of hanging half on and half out of the lorry, I was unceremoniously hauled inside resulting in my knees scraping over the tailboard. My friends looked at me with sad expressions on their faces, but really they were laughing. After a bumpy journey we arrived at the other side of Paris and my first thought was to darn or patch up the holes across my knees as best as I could, as I felt so embarrassed and that I was "letting the side down". British Service girls were of course a novelty, causing many inquisitive glances. We strolled down one street and I noticed a French lady standing at her door. Going up to her, I pointed to my knees and indicated if she had any wool or thread. Immediately she took us inside and out came the mending basket and I was able to mend my stockings. She was so pleased to help and of course, I was extremely grateful that no longer would I spend time in Paris feeling embarrassed.
As we walked through various streets, gazing here and there, marvelling at some of the buildings, my interest was held chiefly by the women. To look at them one would not have thought that the country and city had been under German rule for so long. I expected to see possibly more signs of hardship. Of course there were signs of German occupation, both physically and mentally, but on the whole, Paris looked quite bright. Credit must of course, be given to the French people as once Paris had been liberated everyone tried to make up for lost time. The women were wearing, what appeared to me, to be the most ridiculous of hats and clothes but this was very likely reflecting their happiness to wear clothes which possibly had been hidden whilst under German rule, and it made them feel good. From what I saw dresses were to the knee, stockings, high-heeled shoes but in the wedge-shape design, small tailored jacket, scarf or coloured neckerchief. Hair was either piled up on top or hanging loose, with a hat perched at an angle over one eye. Some of the ladies, and I thought these to be the slightly "older ones", wore turbans wound round the head to a depth of about six inches and some had tassels hanging either down the back or at the side, others decided that a few flowers looked attractive. The French women found round the markets were to be seen with laced hats made in the style of a funnel and tied under the chin and this made quite a contrast to the blackness of their full skirts, which seemed to hide countless pockets. The perfumery counters in the large shops were well stocked and it was a pleasure to walk round. Necklaces of all descriptions, watches, bracelets, pendants, millinery designs, etc. were all there. Artificial silk night-dresses decorated shop windows but on service pay £10 for such an article was too much. Trips into Paris were taken as often as possible, usually on our day off.
In September 1944 the Arnheim drop took place, which unfortunately did not go as planned and a great many lives were lost. We still worked at Hotel Trianon and one day an airman from the Armament Section came into the office with a rifle. He laid it down on the Wing Commander's desk and said it was to be used in an emergency. We saw the humorous side of this and somebody hurriedly wrote on a piece of paper "One rifle between six of us - thank heaven there's no more of us" and pinned it on to the wall, where in deed the rifle was hung. The situation was unbelievable.
Casualties from the offensive were arriving at the Military Hospital about three or four miles away. We collected our books and magazines and saved some of our rations to make up Christmas parcels for the troops. Christmas that year was white and I remember lying on the bunk on Christmas Eve 1944, listening to the carols being played and sung and of course, thinking of home, as indeed we all were. One evening we were taken to the hospital to see the patients. They were delighted to see us and appreciated what we had taken them, no matter how small we felt our offerings to be. We stayed with them for as long as we could, and either played cards, or table tennis, but some were only able to lie in their beds.
In November of 1944, news was received that one of our greatest men, Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory, was missing on a flight to take up his new appointment in the East. For days telephone bells rang, and eventually news was given that he had lost his life. In 1946 a memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey in London for him. I could only recall the time of seeing him at Norfolk House. Prior to his posting out East, and with the aid of his Personal Assistant, Lady Freeman, he had the task of writing the history of Fighter Command, and many pages were written well into the early hours of the morning.
Christmas Eve, 1944, was spent with some of my friends in a little café, and as I have already said, after lying on our bunks, about 12.30 a.m. on Christmas morning, we could hear carols being sung. It was a lovely crisp night so I got out of bed to see what was going on, and in the barrack square a V.W.C.A. van was parked from which records were being played. It gave me a feeling of home-sickness as I know that my mother was thinking of my older brother and me, both being abroad. Elsie came into the room and we sat talking.
Christmas morning in the office was busy, as reports on bombing missions still had to be presented to the "Chiefs". When I arrived in my office, I was touched to find a bottle of perfume given to me by the Officers in the Section. The Wing Commander managed to produce some Champagne from somewhere and at one time I had 3 glasses on my desk, which I had to drink one after the other. I think they were all waiting to see the result, but they were disappointed.
Christmas lunch, as per the usual custom, meant that the Officers waited on "the other ranks" so the Air Commodore told me to get into his car, and drove me back to the mess. There was a great deal of fun and it was a comical sight to see the officers, no matter what their rank with little aprons tied round them acting as "waiters". Over the Christmas there was no such thing as "time limits", as there were dances and parties, apart from little groups of people celebrating by themselves in cafes. Altogether, Christmas 1944 was very enjoyable."
Sadly Edna Stafford passed away on 22 February 2004. Her husband, Bill, has requested that no further messages are left in response to her stories.
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