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WAAF Arm Chair Spies

by Elizabeth Lister

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
Elizabeth Lister
People in story: 
Hazel Scott nee Furney
Location of story: 
North Africa and Italy
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 December 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by a volunteer from csvberkshire on behalf of Hazel Scott and has been added to the site with her permission. Hazel Scott fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

WAAF Arm Chair Spies.
Having joined the WAAF at the outbreak of the war, the first five,the vanguard of ten, I found myself commissioned as a Photographic Interpreter in 1940. We were trained to examine aerial photographs identifying ships, aircraft, train movements, bomb damage and many other things. Our pilots flew spitfires and, later on, mosquitoes - being the fastest ‘planes available. They flew at 40,000 feet to avoid encounters carrying nothing but a camera underneath; no radio and no armaments. Having reached their target they switched on the camera and did a series of runs taking stereoscopic cover. Their photos were of very good quality, much better than the German ones which we examined at the end of the war. We were fortunate in not having many casualties but sadly those whom we did lose just vanished we knew not where.

North Africa Algiers and Tunis 1943
In 1943 I was one of 10 WAAF Photographic Interpreters sent to Algiers as soon as the fighting had ended there. We were the first Service women to get there and got VIP treatment from the “8th Army News” and our photographs made the front page! The 8th Army were also getting their first leave after the Desert Campaign and were amazed like us at this sophisticated French town, carrying on as if nothing had happened. They homed in on us , saying how lovely it was to hear English voices and how wonderful (General) Montgomery was. We then moved on to Tunis and eventually to Italy after the invasion.

Italy 1943-1945
We lived for 2 years in a small market town in Apulia, Southern Italy, called San Severo. Our squadrons consisted of a South African Mosquito squadron, fresh from the desert, 2 RAF squadrons, one from Malta and one of our own. We worked largely at night when the day’s photographs were ready, and, as the weather was usually good, that was most nights. However when we had 10/10 cloud is was party time — 10/10 parties were fun particularly the South African ones!
We had no transport but we were able to hitch-hike everywhere, in fact when we went for walks all passing transport stopped to offer us lifts and the American ones were dumbfounded when we replied “We’re walking for pleasure”. We got to see Florence and Rome when we had a week’s leave and I and another girl managed to arrive in Venice the day after the New Zealanders liberated it. We were stunned to pass the senior German Officers being escorted out of Venice by our Military Police and we then ran the gauntlet of loads of New Zealanders in Gondolas waving and cheering us. The VE celebrations there were great. The Italians were delighted and lit a huge bonfire in St. Marks Square using all the stuff that had been protecting their statues, and danced around it, whilst the Partisans who had come out of their hideouts fired their rifles in all directions — and we stood and watched! One of many people we’d got to know earlier said that ‘crossing the Po’, the last great Military achievement, was nothing like so frightening as those trigger happy Partisans.

An Amusing Incident at San Severo.
In San Severo we were living in a house that consisted of four flats so it was a Mess for all of us. The following incident happened when we had been there for two years.
One evening there was a terrible screaming and shouting coming out of a house nearby and thinking it was something that needed looking into our Commanding Officer, a middle-aged Wing Commander, and his second in command, sallied forth armed with revolvers. They flung open the door of the house and shouted “Silencio”. There was an instant hush in a room full of people, and after a minute of silence a small boy pulled at their trousers and said “La Signora e morte” and pointed at a table in the middle of the room on which lay the corpse of a woman. It was a Wake!
When they came back and told us of this we all found it very funny.

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