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Working at the Air Ministry Unit and Norfolk House by Edna Stafford (nee Hodgson)

by Stockport Libraries

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
Stockport Libraries
People in story: 
Edna Hodgson
Location of story: 
London 1942-1943
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A2290673
Contributed on: 
12 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.

"During the time from September 1942 until February 1943 I was billeted at Air Ministry Unit in Hallam Street, London where I shared a room with another girl. As my home was then in North Cheam, Surrey, having a few months earlier moved from 21 Rhodesia Road, Stockwell, about 5 miles from the centre of London, life was quite pleasant as on a number of weekends, and sometimes on an odd evening, I was able to get home.

Whilst I was stationed at the A.M.U. in London, I had to take what was called "A trade test" and upon passing I was told by our lady Warrant Officer (W.O. McIntyre) to report to a place called "Norfolk House". She told me it would be a very special job involving secrecy of some importance as the highest of the officers of all Services would, at times, be seen. Although I did not know it at that particular time, I knew it would be very interesting work and I looked forward to reporting for duty. W.O .McIntyre was a very pleasant lady, standing about 5' 6" tall, greying hair but always extremely smart and for someone to be in charge of so many girls, she was very popular and well liked. She told me that one of her sons was also in the R.A.F. I was sad to leave her.

The six months spent at A.M.U. were very happy ones and I found myself attached to General Eisenhower's H.Q. along with a few others. We received the best of both worlds, as apart from having our own British N.A.A.F.I. rations, we also received some "goodies" from the American P.X. Every three weeks we used to receive a small carrier bag filled with tinned fruit and other goods, which were not available outside. My mother looked forward to those particular weekends when I returned home with my carrier bag.

Upon arriving at Norfolk House I was provided with a security pass and I found myself one of six W.A.A.Fs. in the typing pool. Our N.C.O. was a Cpl. Pam Hanford. I had been interviewed by a Sqdn. Officer who told me that all the work which I, along with the other Shorthand/Typists, would be doing would be extremely secret. There was the necessity of being sworn to secrecy and that I would not be released from that responsibility until much later on.

Within a few days, it became apparent that the invasion plans were being dealt with and over the months that followed, the work became more and more intense, working extremely long hours, often well into the early hours of the morning, and back again at 9.00 a.m. We often said amongst ourselves that if we had time enough to piece together all our notes, as we did not always work for the same officers or sections, there would have been a very interesting picture. Of course we never did - plans were made, scrapped and remade, until eventually the day everyone had been waiting for, arrived - D.Day - 6th June 1944.

Norfolk House, to us all remains a pleasant memory and those of us who met up again overseas often recalled the hours spent in the building - the pressure of work - but none of us would have changed our circumstances. The building was guarded by the R.A.F. Regiment which was pitched in the middle of St. James's Square. We all agreed that the officers, for whom we were privileged to work, were the best. Most of them had been aircrew, which obviously had a great deal to do with their personalities. Most of them had been in air battles and had suffered but despite their injuries each longed to be back in the air again and not doing a desk job - but what was to be, was to be. Sometimes they were very trying, and of course a great deal of responsibility lay on their shoulders.

We often saw General Eisenhower, General Montgomery and A.C.M Tedder. I recall on one occasion being called into the office of A.C.M. Leigh-Mallory, his Personal Assistant was away for a short while and I found myself taking dictation from him. He was a man who dictated with a pipe in his mouth and looking out of the window. Obviously he was in deep thought but it did not make it easy to take shorthand when listening.

More hours were spent in Norfolk House than anywhere else, and after a time, when we arrived back at the billet in the early hours of the morning, those of us who had to travel to and from Norfolk House, were moved to another place of residence known as St. Regis, in Cork St, Piccadilly, London.

I soon became friendly with a girl named Elsie Foreman, and we remained close friends even though we went separate ways when going abroad to France. We met up again at Rheims in France. Also at St Regis there were many airmen, including members of the Free French Air Force as well as a few Polish airmen.

As Norfolk House was secret and well guarded by the R.A.F. Regiment we each had special passes and each of us became privileged to wear the S.H.A.E.F. emblems on our uniforms as we were attached to Gen. Eisenhower's H.Q. S.H.A.E.F. stood for Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force and we often saw high-ranking officers such as Gen. Montgomery, Gen. Eisenhower and others, whom I will deal with later on.

Norfolk House will bring back very many pleasant memories, not only of the interesting work which we were engaged in doing, but of the people themselves. The officers, although on a tiring job, often found time to crack a joke or pass some comment to somebody else, especially when one of us was in for dictation. Although one found oneself working for high ranking officers and no matter if one was the lowest of ranks, without exception both Army, Naval and RAF personnel, would always acknowledge one, and a mere typist was never ignored, after all where would they be if a typist wasn't around.

As I have said, it was generally appreciated that the working hours were very long and often we used to go to the office at Norfolk House for 8.30 am, break off for lunch for about an hour or whatever time could be spared, and finally leave again in the early hours, having made do with some snack for tea. At first it was tiring but somehow one became used to it and I personally found that to have three or four hours sleep every night was sufficient. However, one cannot altogether cheat nature and later on the strain began to tell. Slight, really silly mistakes occurred in the typing, people became short-tempered because there were insufficient typists, until towards the nearing of D.Day, when more typists were called in. I used to look forward to the weekend, simply to catch up on some sleep but we survived.

As new girls arrived each Section was allocated one typist and I found myself working for the Intelligence Section. The Group Capt. in charge of this Section was a very trying man but I liked working for him. He was one of those people who would say he would be back at a certain time in the evening, ask that I wait for him in case he wanted to dictate something, only to arrive back about 2 or 3 hours later and simply enquire why I was still waiting for him. He was not very popular amongst the typists but he certainly tested my own patience. I remained with him from February 1943 until September 1944 when I left England to go to France. This particular Group Captain (G.C. Urmston) had lost an arm but had an artificial one. Apart from officially being shorthand typists, we were often asked to "clean the buttons" and I recall one of the typists, who was a bit squeamish, being called into his office, as the rest of us thought, to take dictation. Suddenly the bell went again and I was sent along, only to find on opening his office door, that the W.A.A.F. typist was on the floor in a faint because he had unscrewed his arm, slipped his jacket off before asking her to polish up the buttons. Needless to say - after the initial surprise, everyone in the pool had a good laugh. "Don't send in that girl again", he said.

The Guinea Pig Club
The one person who was the favourite amongst us was a certain G.Capt. Tom P. Gleave. Everyone liked and respected him. In some ways he was a forgetful man but everyone made allowances for him as he had and was still suffering from terrible burns when he was shot down in a "dog fight". He was in the Battle of Britain and was shot down over the Kentish coast. He sustained severe burns all over his body and this resulted in him being disfigured, and yet somehow one did not notice this. I remember the first time I met him, it was my turn to answer the next bell in the typing pool and he indicated that he wanted some work doing. He was one of a few officers in this very large room and as I was about to open the door he opened it from the other side and said "Are you the typist I've just rung for - take a seat at the top desk and I'll be back".

He wrote a book called "I had a row with a German" and having known him personally and worked for him, as did other typists, subconsciously when reading his book one could add more details and imagination. A Club was formed called "The Guinea Pig Club" which consisted of Air Crew who had been burned in battle and he was the Chief Guinea Pig. A great surgeon who carried out operations and plastic surgery was called Archie McIndoe and because of his great work, experimenting here and there on the victims, they were known as "McIndoes Guinea Pigs"."

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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