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15 October 2014
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Memories of London and the WRAF

by waafairforce

Contributed by 
waafairforce
People in story: 
Joan and Norman Gray
Location of story: 
London and Lincolnshire
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A2920286
Contributed on: 
15 August 2004

This is an extract from a life story that my mum wrote for my brother Richard and myself and ultimately grand and great-grand children to read. She charted her life from her early childhood through to the year 2000 when she lost her beloved husband Norman. The chapter entitled “The War Years” provided us with a fascinating and somewhat frightening view of her life alone in London at the beginning of the war to my parents meeting and the birth of my brother during the war. I was born in 1949 after the war had ended so was not featured in this part of their lives.

As the story begins my mum was just 23 years old. She had moved to London from her home town of Grimsby and was working in the Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square………………………………………

I well remember listening to the radio all alone in my bedsit on that fateful day, 11 am on 3rd September 1939. Shortly afterwards the sirens sounded for the first time. I think most people in London thought it was their last hour. I know I did. I grabbed all my possessions including the photographs of my mother and brother and went into the air raid shelter thinking I would never see them again. Fortunately it was a false alarm and soon the all clear sounded. There was a lull for some time before we all began to return to normal routine.

At Peter Jones department store they formed a fire squad — most of us joined and as a result spent many nights on the roof on duty. The restaurant and lounge were on the floor below so it was not too bad, at least we had plenty to eat, which saved me buying an evening meal. I remember one of the directors was Scottish and he brought along a record player and some recordings of Scottish reels. He taught us the steps and we had great fun learning. At one of the annual balls we were able to give a demonstration. We were all dressed in long evening gowns. It was wonderful, the gowns were part of the show wardrobe and afterwards we were able to buy the gowns. Mine was to become my wedding dress.

However, it was not all fun in those days, but we made the most of it. The bombing had not started but I remember one night looking down from the railings of the roof and seeing the army from the Chelsea Barracks marching off to war. Later I was to see those lads returning from the disaster of Dunkirk. At one point someone got up a little concert party and we toured the sites of the barrage balloons cheering on all the troops.

THE BLITZ

Things weren’t too bad until the blitz started. I always remember coming home from a visit to my home town of Grimsby one Saturday night. The train was held up for a couple of hours outside Kings Cross Station. When we did eventually get off the train it looked as if the whole of London was ablaze. I was terrified as I made my way back to Victoria. Later my current boyfriend came to pick me up and take me out for a meal. We went to a restaurant where we often went. It was in a basement and I felt quite safe there even though there was an alert on — I could have stayed there all night. Eventually we decided to make a dash for it as I was only about 10 minutes walk away from my flat. As we were walking over the bridge there was a sound like a train on the line below. Suddenly we both realised what the sound was. It was coming from above not below. Fortunately there was a shelter on the bridge. We ran as fast as we could and threw ourselves into it. The bomb landed in front of the restaurant that we had just left. That was my first dice with death. I was to have many more near misses before I left London.

For several months it was not possible to get a good nights sleep in London. I passed more and more bombed areas on my way to work each day. Once I felt I must get some sleep, so I went into one of the tube stations with my blanket but I would have been better staying at home. It was awful, so many people laid on the floor all trying to sleep. Then I tried to shelter under one of the big London buildings but I could not sleep due to the awful smell of so many bodies so I picked up my blanket and walked through the black-out back to my flat. Then one night a friend suggested I go home with her for the night. She lived in Ealing — I went and as a result had a good nights sleep. However, a few nights later they were bombed, not a direct hit but it caused a lot of damage.

Another night I went my good friends Jack and Elsie. They had a ground floor flat in Maidavale. I felt quite safe there but even they were bombed a few nights after. The bombing was following me around! It was awful. The top flat was badly damaged and a family with a young girl who lived there was killed. They only found the little girls arm. Jack and Elsie moved out to the country after that.

One Saturday night I was getting ready to go out. I had just got in the bath and there was a terrible screaming noise. That was the start of the raids with screaming bombs. I soon got out of the bath and got dressed. I still went out though. We were getting used to the raids and not going into the shelters much.

Fortunately I missed the buzz bombs. I was fed up with the whole thing and decided to join up before I was called up. I chose the Womens Royal Air Force. For no particular reason — fate must have taken a hand in my destiny. I was on my way to meet my future husband. After nine years at Peter Jones, I handed in my notice, said goodbye to all my friends and was on my way.

FALLING IN LOVE

I went to Gloucester for five weeks training after which I was given a choice of two postings. I chose London and Lincoln. I was sent to Scampton in Linconshire and there at the gate to the base I met him — Norman Gray. I did not realise at the time but after a few days we had a date. He took me out to tea and to the picture house in Lincoln.

We now saw a lot of each other during the next two or three weeks. It was a warm September and in the evenings we would go for lovely country walks. Each week we went to the dance in the gym and danced to the RAF band. We had some great times there and I made two very good friends — Betty and Dorothy. Dorothy was the mothering type and looked after me. We had to sleep off camp in an old country house, which was said to be haunted. It was very cold there and Dorothy always used to go on the early transport from the camp to put the hot water bottle in my bed. Of course Betty and I were always on the late bus.

I think Norman and I both knew from the start that this was the real thing and we would marry. He had told me that he had already been married, that he got married young and that his wife had had a terminal illness and died soon after. So we were both free and we planned to get married as soon as possible.

We were marred on 8th November 1941. We had a nice wedding in Grimsby and my grandfather gave me away. Betty and Dorothy and another friend were there and three pals of Norman’s, his best man was Les Taylor his best friend.

We had a lovely reception at Blundell Park House and stayed the night in the Bridal Suite. We then spent a few days at Quarry Bank meeting Norman’s mother and sister Lily with her husband Jack and baby John. They made me very welcome and we had a pleasant stay. Our leave was soon over and we had to get back to camp.

EXPECTING OUR FIRST CHILD

It wasn’t long before I became pregnant and had to get my discharge from the WRAF. We went to live at my mother’s house in Grimsby. Norman got a living out permit and we found accommodation with a young couple sharing their house in Bealey Road in Old Clee, a little area between Cleethorpes and Grimsby. It was not far from the sea front and near to the Danesbury Nursing Home where my baby was due to be born. From there it was a very nice country walk to my mothers and grandmothers, passing the little Old Clee Church where my baby was later christened.

One morning early, when I was very pregnant suddenly without warning a German plane crossed the coast and started dropping bombs. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs, flinging myself in the air raid shelter. I was very concerned that my baby was all right however a week or so later on the 17th September 1942 my beautiful little boy (Richard) arrived safe and sound.

After I left Scampton, Norman managed to get a living away pass and we shared a house with a very old widower. Norman used to cycle the 12 miles to Grimsby from the RAF Base.

ANOTHER NEAR MISS

We had another near miss when Richard was about a year old. We were still living with the old widower, he was a keen gardener. He hadn’t got a shelter so we used to go across his garden to the next door neighbours Anderson shelter. The old man stayed at home under the table. He was angry with us for going across his garden and told us we should go round the front of the house but we took no notice which was just as well for one night the German bombers used anti personnel bombs. After the raid was over we had just returned to the house via the garden when there was a terrific explosion outside the front of the house. When we later went up to Richard’s room, we found the window had blown in and Richard’s cot was full of glass. Apparently one of the bombs had failed to go off and a man was walking in the street outside our house and must have kicked the unexploded bomb and it went off, blowing him to pieces. If we had returned by way of the front of the house, it could have been the three of us that was blown to pieces. So our dear little baby had two miracle escapes that night and that was not the end of it. A few days later Norman noticed a peculiar hole in the garden just outside the kitchen window. He got a stick and was poking it down the hole when he suddenly realised what it was — another unexploded bomb. What a shock — We had a to get the army in to detonate it — everyone was evacuated from the area.

Later Norman managed to find us accommodation at a farm house in Tetley which was not far from the aerodrome.

One night Norman was cycling home along a tree lined road where apparently a German airman had just parachuted down and been captured by the police. Another time one of the German planes started to shoot up the base. I was in bed while Norman was being shot at! The Germans favourite trick was to follow our planes back to their bases and then shoot up the runway. One of Norman’s jobs was to light up the runway with the Aldis lamps when our planes returned from their missions. That particular night he dropped the lamp and ran very quickly!!

We were very happy at the farmhouse, the villagers were very friendly and we were taken into their little community. We used to go to the local whist drives when we were able. Once, I remember, we won a huge home made pork pie, it was delicious, we halved it with the farmer and his family. We had plenty of good food there especially home cured bacon. When Norman came back after night duty, he gathered lovely big mushrooms in the fields so we had lovely breakfasts. Richard liked it too with all the animals, he learnt to walk and talk a lot there. I was sad to leave there. When we left we went to keep house for the widower who I had always thought of as a granddad. I had lived with him and his wife when I was very young, before being adopted.

MOVING TO THE MIDLANDS

After the bombing we went on a visit to Norman’s mother’s house in Quarry Bank. He felt I would be safer there. We went back and packed all our things and we stayed all the rest of the war years in Quarry Bank, Staffordshire. Mind you I did wonder one night when I lay in bed and heard all the German bombers going overhead on their way to bomb Coventry. I hated being parted from Norman, but he wrote to me every day to cheer me up. He would come and see us as often as he could usually unexpected. I could always hear his footsteps coming down the entry at the side of the house. He used to come in and grab Richard and throw him in the air. I was always frightened he was going to hit the low ceiling. I was always very unhappy after seeing him off at the station. It was an awfully long lonely walk back in the pitch dark, but I was never frightened.

It was very strange at first, living in the Midlands. I felt I was in a foreign country, but I soon got used to the way they talked and I made many friends especially at the clinic with Richard every week. Of course I got to know my new sister in law Lily with her little boy John. We always got on very well together and in later years became more like sisters.

RAF LIFE

During Norman’s time in the RAF he was sent on many courses. At one time I went down to London for a week when he was stationed at Uxbridge. Then another time he was in Loughborough and he got us temporary accommodation near by with a local gamekeeper and his wife — we had some lovely meals there too.

Another time he was sent to Blackpool and again he got us accommodation with an elderly lady in a cottage. We had a few visits into Blackpool — it was during May 1944 so even though we were still at war a few places remained open. We went into Blackpool Tower and listened to the organ but not played by Reginald Dixon at that time. Richard would play on the sands. He was about 18 months old then. On the day I returned with him to Quarry Bank, I got on the train and it was packed with American soldiers all celebrating the fact that we had invaded Normandy - it was ‘D’ Day. They all made a fuss of Richard — I expect many of them were missing their own families.

The next move for Norman was to London and he was stationed near the Albert Hall. He hated being there but it was not for long. The war with Germany ended and he was there outside Buckingham Palace celebrating with all the crowds. From there he was sent to Yorkshire and I was hoping he would soon be sent home, but the war with Japan was still on and one day he came home suddenly and he had to have inoculations ready to be sent out to India. I couldn’t believe it.

We enjoyed his embarkation leave as much as we could. Luckily however, he didn’t go to India and some time later he was demobbed and we had him home again. So for the first time we were able to start our normal married life.

We enjoyed almost 60 years of happy married life until my beloved Norman died aged 84 in October 2000

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Message 1 - Blackpool during WW2

Posted on: 16 August 2004 by John Phillip Thornton

Dear Joan

Ref; waafairforce

In 1939, my father aged 22, youngest of seven children, enlisted and fought with Britain’s 7th armoured division in North Africa. Later with the 8th army in Cyrenaica, Libya, Tripolitanaia and Tunisia, across the Mediterranean Sea and through Sicily to the mountains of Italy ( the American 5th army joined in at Salerno). Then came the battle of Normandy, each invasion followed by ferocious inland battles.

I were 8 months old when WW 2 commenced. My mother and I experienced the loss of two dwellings during the Blitz of New Cross Gate and Deptford, South-East London. Monica, my sister was born in August during the 1940 Bombardment.

We were fortunate to survive the 57 day, incessant 24 hour blitz throughout 1940. During this nobody apart from the emergency services and air-raid wardens had the nerve to emerged from their shelters. Albeit wartime records show that Criminals didn’t baulk at seizing the ‘ fresh opportunities ‘ offered.

Apart from the nuisance of loosing ones abode, all, or most of our possessions were destroyed. Everything — clothing and food, were now rationed by the government and, without ration books, one were unable ( unless using the highly priced black market ) to purchase food etc.

Mum was a housewife and looking after we children. Her income were a percentage of my fathers wage - a military allowance to his spouse, allocated from his monthly earnings whilst in the armed forces.

My mother, now aged 26 were the oldest of three sisters. Molly aged 24, and Polly at 21. All were married, their husbands fighting abroad with the British army and, making provision for their wives, albeit neither Polly or Molly had children at this time.

In March 1942 my mother was ordered to leave the London area, to be relocated (evacuated). We were classic escapees; with mother, her infant daughter and her son not old enough for school, keeping our family together proved to be impossible.

In 1942, I were evacuated from the city in a convoy of three London double — decker, red buses, from a school playground at New Cross - South East London, to rural Batley in Yorkshire. A woman named Mrs Lilley-White became my surrogate mother and insisted I address her as mum.

A seaside holiday.

In view of the flying bomb scare in 1944, Mrs Lilley took me for a protracted holiday out of reach of the V1 and V2 rockets, to a village in the west of England called Blackpool ( the name meant mucky pond). It were very peaceful, unlike nowadays with its Pleasure Beach and nightlife clubs etc. I relished the sight of an anti aircraft gun and its crew, albeit never witnessing the weapon used in combat.

Following breakfast at the hotel, mum and I would stroll along part of the beach or promenades, safe from military hard-wear. We often saw the home guard, known as the Local Defence Volunteers ( look-duck and vanish, mum called them). I recall two shops in the immediate area, one being a greengrocer - grocer, the other a tobacconist. The latter we visited often. On show were dozens of empty sweet jars, but mum seemed able to purchase something for me to chew or suck. I knew nothing of the need for coupons and persons being allowed just 3 ounces of sweets per week.

We often visited Blackpool’s three piers, most of the time something were going on involving uniformed personnel. We climbed the Blackpool Tower, at 518 ft, the tallest structure in Britain and, often had a fish and chip lunch and paddle in the sea.

A woman named Mrs Barnacle graced the Hotel as receptionist. During a walk one day, I asked mum about surnames, especially that of the woman Barnacle ? Mum explained the reason for surnames, my own included and, that barnacles were crustaceans that lived in the sea. I remember musing how apt, this was the seaside. From then onwards I couldn’t help grin when passing Mrs Barnacle. who wouldn’t know why I smiled, possibly thinking I was pleasant, or simple?

war-games

I made friends with a number of children, one of these a girl of 12, more or less babysat. One morning whilst playing with my friends we witnessed an aeroplane skim across a hedge and crash into a field close by. At four years of age, I had little knowledge, but knew the results of air war combat. Rushing to the area and finding the aeroplane smoking, pilot-less and unsupervised, we began to nudge and play upon it. This at my age, was possibly the happiest and most important moment of my young life, until the “ here comes the police, ” warning , whereupon I fell upon the aeroplane wing, injuring myself.

“ The police” happened to be two air-raid wardens, one of whom escorted me to the hospital. I needed seven stitches (sutures) and remained as a patient for a week. I have the scar to my left eyebrow and arm to this day. It goes without saying, mum ( Mrs Lilley ) was horrified when she visited me when I regained consciousness that evening.

During mid 1944, Mrs Lilley, received news that my real mother now resided, and more importantly was settled at Kingston - upon -Thames, Surrey.

Soon after my birthday in January 1945, Mrs Lilley and I left Blackpool and travelled to Hampton Wick railway station in Surrey. Here my real mother and my sister awaited us. After much hugging and kissing from my mother, who was amused at my Yorkshire exclamation of “ ee - baa-gum.” My sister Monica being shy, she being an infant when we parted.

We walked ¾ of a mile to where my mother now resided. This were at 35 Cedars Road, adjacent to Bushy Park, separated by a 5 mile road called Sandy Lane. My mother was renting the top floor of this huge three storey, hunting type lodge. The section mum used were a redundant, gas lit billiard room. Without tables and carpet, the timber flooring retained the marks where the tables once stood. This room now served as mums Kitchen and living room. Adjacent ether side of the landing were two (possibly ex-cloakrooms) now serving as my mother and sisters bedrooms.

Whatever were discussed overnight between my mother and Mrs Lilley, my guardian had departed when I awoke the following morning. I cried that evening in the solitude of my bedroom, and a few more evenings after that.

From then I took up life as a normal youngster with my mother, sister, Uncle, Aunt and cousins, almost an island of relatives, unlike the recent past as the only child.

Fatality training

Throughout the war, Bushy Park housed a Royal Air Force camp and laboratory. The Kingston camp within Bushy Park, were the troops living and recreation quarters. The Twickenham camp, being the industrial section, where scientific work were performed

We were able to watch from our top floor windows the parachute training within Busy Park, having a grandstand view of the site being just 100 metres or so from our abode.

Monthly, lorries hauled a large winch, an oval basket, a silver dirigible (Barrage Balloon) and gas cylinders into the park. The Dirigible, once attached to the basket was inflated. Then up-to ten of the fifty of so troopers assembled, would enter the basket with their back-packs. The balloon ascended to possibly 300 metres.

My cousins and I would hear an instructor shouting advice then the wo/men would fall from the basket at short intervals, leaving white straps hanging from the basket, these seemingly operated the parachute. The wo/men took minutes to reach the ground where they would gather their parachute and a lorry returned them to their base. The dirigible were lowered to earth, further wo/men embarked, before the balloon returned to its ceiling, whereupon another parachute exercise began.

One day, we saw two parachutists , the second from one basket and, the seventh from another fall to the ground, the parachute streaming above them but failing to open correctly. It took us kids minutes to reach the area to view the victim, dressed in a grey/brown boiler suit and hard hat, with the white parachute floating as s/he lay in a shallow stream, ten foot or so from where three military policemen had cordoned off the area, we couldn’t observe a great deal and a small jeep type covered vehicle arrived and removed the corpse. We weren’t allowed within 50 feet of the second victim who had fallen into the forest shattering a silver birch tree. Despite these accidents the parachuting persisted until the exercise finished that day.

Later the RAF camps were assigned to the American Arm Air force (AAF)
From our home we would observe the occasional yank and his female companion, scramble through the metal railings surrounding the forest and, make their way to one or the numerous chestnut trees where they made mutual contact. Often in the late evenings, my mother would admonish and urge the lovers to move on as they argued loudly over payment of said coupling, performed against the fence surrounding our dwelling.

The school we attended were three miles (almost an hour ) walk from our home. My sister and I would walk this stretch, using the Sandy Lane route. We didn’t see any vehicles apart from that of the military. Occasionally a Jeep would screech to a halt alongside us, usually as we reached the bleakest one mile stretch between the Park and, the Gas-works walls. A yank would ask “wanner lift kids?” and we would be lifted and sat behind the driver and his companion. We often rocked backwards into the seat, as the Jeep flew along the lane and, we reached our objective minutes later. Here we would be placed upon the path, with the obligatory stick of chewing gum.

A handsome stranger.

Very early one morning in 1945, mum awakened my sister and I. Dad had arrived home on his first leave from combat, throughout the five years of his participation in the war. His allowance being a five day ( including travel) leave period prior to his demobilisation.

When mum led me and carried my sister into the billiard room, we were confronted with a very tanned man in his immaculate battle dress browns. His jacket with sergeant stripes and campaign ribbons, were hanging from a chair back and, a steel helmet lay across the seat of the chair. Alongside this was dads Lee-Enfield SMLE rifle, ( of which I was most interested ). Dad took the rifle minus the activating bolt, and hung it from a hook well out of reach of my inquisitive hands.

My sister and I were each embraced in turn, I being an infant and, my sister unborn when Dad went off to war. What joy, Dad had with him a medium size biscuit-tin, full of chocolate bars. After tucking into one, I being very tired, mum urged me to return to bed. My sister didn’t, until she fell asleep in dads arms.

I often reflect on our joy at this meeting and, of other children who were never to
meet their father again, who had paid the ultimate price during the hostilities.

Dad had received a number of wounds to his neck, chest, hip and leg during his campaigns. I remarked on the scars, on seeing some of them as he performed his ablutions. Dad never divulged how he received them or the length taken for injury to heal, just mentioning the countries where he was wounded, but I felt he had lost interest in the war.

After tea the following day, dad left again to re join his Division. He returned to us upon his demobilization in 1946.

I well remember and we laugh at a photograph taken of dad on his return home wearing a brand new demob issue, double breasted, grey pinstriped suit. Also a grey trilby hat, black shoes and carrying an overcoat and a glossy brown cardboard suitcase.

Dad would shake his head in disbelief at the media reports of the Korea and Suez crisis. He died revealing little more than being present when Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, also General Bernard Montgomery, visited Britain’s Eighth Army in North Africa. Dad also watched as Pope Pius X11 give his blessing and spoke in seven languages from his throne at the Vatican city following the relief of Rome.

I now realise ex-servicemen such as my father, after six years of front line action wanted nothing more to do with militarism. Joining veterans’ links and regimental exhibitionists were unthinkable.

Yours fraternally

John Thornton ID No; 785835

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