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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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The War Years

by Kathleen Harrison

Contributed by 
Kathleen Harrison
People in story: 
Kathleen Harrison
Location of story: 
Gosport, Hampshire
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 October 2004

I was 17 years old when the war started and was working for the Air Ministry in London.

I grew up in Southampton Water with Hamble on one side and Woolston on the other. Hamble was where the early famous aviators learned their night flying so I was used to the droning sound of small aircraft all night long. Woolston was the home of the Spitfire factory, which later was bombed by the Germans, killing a great many of my fellow Grammar school students.

I was in London on the night of the Surrey Docks fire and other frightening nights. I remember walking out with a boyfriend — a Naavik survivor who failed to give me his army tin hat when shrapnel from Hyde Park guns fell thickly around us. Another night the whole of Oxford Street seemed to be ablaze, and we thought that any moment could be our last. The crippled girls in my youth hostel could never take their leg-irons off otherwise they could not have escaped from the building in an emergency.

On another occasion a stick of bombs straddled Vauxhall Bridge when I worked on Millbank. Lord Beaverbook and Winston Churchill both worked from 104 Millbank House but 3 floors below ground. We office workers 9 floors above them were more vulnerable! Some young friends of mine used to taunt the RAF Regiment personnel who guarded the main floors. “Thank God we've got a Navy” as we watched the dog fights overhead between RAF and German planes.

In 1942, tired of office work, I volunteered for the WRAF (Women's Royal Air Force) and trained to be a fitter Airframe. At one of my training units RAF Halton we used to visit the injured Aircrew in the nearby hospital. They seemed mainly to have head injuries and many had jaws and skulls wired up but it did not seem to stop them from larking about and the nursing staff had a full time job keeping them in order.

Many Polish personnel were there also under training. Later I was posted to RAF Gosport on the south coast, fitting modifications to all types of aircraft. I remember the Flying Fortress main planes (wings to you) were so high above the hangar floor that I had to tie a rope around my waist attached to something permanent to stop myself sliding off. I was made to crawl into small spaces to do repairs as I was smaller than all the Airmen.

There were no such things as electric de-icers in those days so we, (mostly the girls) had to lay de-icing paste all along the leading edge of the main-planes. This was a hard job but it was even harder to remove when dirty and oily, and I spent hours on hands and knees scraping the paste off with the help of gunk (a grease remover). I could never get the black heads off my knees during this time.

We were bombed several times but it did not stop the off duty fun in the local pubs with the rival Navy personnel. One pub had a stuffed crocodile that was regularly stolen and brought back to the barracks but always taken back for the next week-end to see which force would get away with it the following week.

On trips across the ferry to Portsmouth and back Navy and RAF did their best to rock the boat, often quite frighteningly dangerous.

I was married and living out of barracks when the preparations for D Day were being made and my route in was close to the beach. I was subject to all sorts of rude remarks when walking past the troops getting ready to embark but distinctly remember the tins of fruit and corned beef. It was certainly true that “they stormed up the beaches on corned beef and peaches”.

My husband, also in the RAF, was then posted to the North of Scotland and we found lodgings in a blacksmith's house. Happily rationing was not so severe as in other parts of the country and would could buy extra basic foods except sugar. This was because we were on a local laird's estate and so there were grouse, salmon, rabbits, etc. and most local people could not afford shop prices anyway. I presume they took what they wanted from the estate! Certainly the Aircrew helped themselves by putting detonators in the local salmon river and kept their messes well supplied.

The commanding officer of the RAF station was Lord Beaverbrook's son, Max Aitkin. When victory was declared a great bonfire was built and he personally helped to load on a few planes among other things.

We missed out on a normal adolescence and youth, but it was not a bad war provided that you were not injured yourself or lost loved ones.

By Kathleen Harrison of Felixstowe, Suffolk

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The Blitz Category
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