- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Catherine Cokeham
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 April 2004
I joined the WAAFs in 1944 at the age of 18. I went with a friend to the Recruitment Office to volunteer our services. The recruiting officer told us they were short of carpenters at that time, and would we like to be carpenters? As we just fancied ourselves in WAAF uniform, we were willing to take any trade they suggested if it would get us in, so we agreed.
We were called up in February 1944 and went to RAF Wilmslow for our ‘square bashing’ course. While there, we had an interview to find out which trades were open to us - there was no mention of carpentry. After taking a test, we were interviewed by a Careers Officer and I was asked what I would like to do. I said I would like to do clerical work, thinking this would give me some training towards a job in ‘Civvy Street’. However, the officer said by the results of my test, I was too intelligent for office work and would I like to be a flight mechanic? I was quite astonished by this as I had no leanings in that direction. She then said flight mechanic was a Grade Two trade and would pay more money, so that clinched it for me and I agreed to this option. The pay then was two shillings a day, out of which I made an allowance to my mother of nine pence per day.
Becoming a flight mechanic
I was posted to RAF Halton, which was a permanent camp for the training of Air Force cadets. This was a great camp with loads of amenities - cinema, swimming pool, dances and plenty of entertainment. It really did seem like a holiday camp to me.
I was a flight mechanic rigger, and the course lasted 18 weeks. This was in place of the three-year course for the male cadets. It was broken up into phases, none lasting more than two weeks. I do remember the first one was filing, which was quite difficult for most of us, who had never handled a file in our lives before. At the end of each phase we had an exam with instructors and, needless to say, we all passed. Thinking about it now, I don’t know what we would have had to do to fail.
I must confess that during the course the instructors would tell us that when we got on a station we would be responsible for the maintenance of the aircraft, but I never believed them. I really thought we would just be fitters’ mates, handing the men the tools while they did the real work.
RAF East Fortune
At the end of 18 weeks we all duly passed out as fully fledged flight mechanics. I was posted, along with another WAAF who had been on the course with me, to RAF East Fortune - a remote spot near Edinburgh. It was a widely dispersed camp, with miles between everything, and came as something of a shock after all the comforts of RAF Halton. It was like going from heaven to hell. Everyone was issued with bikes to get around the camp but we had to wait a few days before we got ours and I have never walked so many miles before or since.
I was assigned to work in the hangar, where the planes came in for different inspections according to how many air miles they had flown. That was when I received another shock - we were responsible for the work we carried out and as the sergeant, whose team I had been allocated to, made it clear he didn’t rate WAAF mechanics (I didn’t blame him, neither did I) I didn’t look to him for assistance. I got through the first inspections with some trepidations, but all seemed to go well and I gradually gained confidence.
I was later transferred from the hangar on to the airfield. There they ran training courses and our job was to see the aircraft off and bring them in on return. We also had to do daily inspections on all the planes. I liked it better than working in the hangar, even though we mostly worked outside. It was a Spartan existence on an airfield in a Scottish winter. To start the engines we had to plug in a battery charger and on cold, frosty mornings, sitting on a trolley pressing a button until the engines turned over, you really felt like a block of ice. Tears used to run down my cheeks with the cold.
At the other end of the scale, on night flying we had to re-fuel the planes when they came in and that was another freezing experience. We had to climb on the wing of the plane to re-fuel and, if you were unlucky enough to get a petrol bowser which leaked, you could end up with petrol seeping through your trousers. When we finished, we had to cycle miles back to the billet, partly through a wood, in the dark. What it is to be young! We never seemed to bother about it. Writing this, and looking back, it seems horrendous.
To Wales and the 'mozzies'
My next station was in Wales, where I worked on Mosquitos. Again there were training courses, although I never worked on an ‘ops’ station. With the better weather it was more enjoyable. I really enjoyed working on ‘mozzies’, as they were affectionately known, although some of the pilots found them dreadful to climb into. The aperture they had to climb through was so small that they had to be contortionists. There was one Australian pilot, well over six feet tall, who used such foul language when he climbed into the 'mozzie' that the airmen never let WAAFs see him off. It shows that we were treated as the gentle sex in those days, even though we were working side by side.
One of the highlights of my life is that I have been up in a Mosquito. If the pilots were flying alone and were agreeable, we were able to have a trip with them. It’s my one claim to fame, as I guess that not many women have had a flight in a Mosquito.
When the war ended in 1945, we continued working on the aircraft for a while but the WAAFs were gradually taken off that work and transferred to other duties. I was given a job in the technical library which I really enjoyed, as at heart I was never a mechanic. Still, it was a very interesting time and I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything.
When I was demobbed in 1947, I did finally achieve my office job. I applied for an EVT (Educational Vocational Training) course and spent six months at a commercial college in my home town, paid for by the government. It seems a bit ironic that I had only 18 weeks' training to be a flight mechanic, with all the responsibility that this entailed, and I had six months training to be a shorthand typist. I suppose you could sum it up by saying that desperate times call for desperate measures.
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