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Joan Quibell's Diary - Part Six - 1943

by Joan Quibell

Contributed by 
Joan Quibell
People in story: 
Joan Lindsell, Doris Keane, Queenie Hastie, Helen Kopelman, Anne Butler, Betty Taylor, Jean Poynter,Marjorie McIver, Marie Holden, Freda Harris.
Location of story: 
Uxbridge
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3365886
Contributed on: 
04 December 2004

G(int) Uxbridge. (L-R Marjorie McIver, Marie Holden, Freda Harris, Doris Keane, Joan Lindsell)

The year started off well, even though we were frantically busy at work. I had my leave very soon to look forward to but first I celebrated my 19th birthday on the 6th January. I had letters and cards from home, and at lunchtime Mary, Marion, Rita and I adjourned to the Express Dairy for my birthday banquet. They sang “Happy Birthday to You” at the tops of their voices and treated me to Fresh Fruit Trifle! There was a lot of jelly about this concoction and ersatz cream, but we loved it and it was always reserved for special occasions. It was a sparkling day, surpassed only by the excitement of going on leave shortly afterwards. That leave followed the familiar pattern of previous ones and as always the days flew. In no time it was back to Uxbridge and once more into the fray.

Soon after this I was on night duty when we had an air raid, and the anti-aircraft barrage was terrific. Seven enemy bombers were shot down and I found it fascinating to be actually “in” on a raid, with the various A.A. Batteries being controlled from our H.Q.

I spent most of March in Harefield R.A.F. Hospital where I had been sent for several X-rays and tests after feeling off-colour. Their verdict was a slightly inflamed appendix which, with luck, should settle down. They decided to keep me in for the entire month, being stabilised they said. It was a very long, slow and frustrating month during which I was kept sane by the visits from my comrades. I had a 48 hour pass before resuming work, thus I was able to dash home and assure them I was fine.

But, on my return to Uxbridge, I was presented with a shock, for I had been posted to the “Y” list. This was something that happened automatically if you were sick for three weeks or more, and it meant that I was now available for re-posting, liable to be sent anywhere. The thought of leaving Uxbridge filled me with dismay, but fortunately it did not come to that. I was posted instead to another department to “G”. How can I begin to describe “G”? Well, the latter stood for Gunnery, and there were three sections — “G (Ops)” which covered the deployment of artillery: “G (Int)” — short for Intelligence: - and “G (Training)”. The Department was housed away from Hillingdon House in literally a Jerry-built building — it had been constructed by German Prisoners of War who had long since disappeared from the scene. It appeared to have been built of breeze blocks with windows so high up the walls it was impossible to see through them. There were various small offices where the Officers were housed, a large room which was the general office and a slightly smaller one, the typing pool. In here were three shorthand-typists for each of the three sections, making nine of us in all, with a desk and typewriter apiece. There was, in addition, a cast iron coke stove, very similar to the one in Hut 6, and a couple of duplicating machines, one a Gameter Multigraph which ran off stencils, and the other a Fordigraph which was a strange contraption that involved copious amounts of purple liquid to do its copying.

It was here in “G” typing pool that I met Marjorie McIver (known as Mac), Joan Lindsell (known as Lindy), Doris Keane, Queenie Hastie, Helen Kopelman, Anne Butler, Betty Taylor and Jean Poynter. Ma, Lindy and Doris worked for G(Int). One of their daily chores was to go down The Hole, as it was known, to obtain the weather forecast. The Hole, because it was situated underground, was the main operations room for R.A.F. No. 11 Fighter Group Command. To this inner sanctum every morning, Mac and Lindy and Doris went in turn to get the meteorological report. They also typed screeds of highly secret intelligence information pertaining to Ant Aircraft.

Queenie, Betty and Jean were in G (Training) team which was responsible, as its name implies, for organising the training rotas for A.A. officers and batteries within the Group.

That just leaves G (Ops) and it was in this section that Helen, Anne and myself held sway. The nine of us lived quite harmoniously in that dingy typing pool and, in between working, would natter, niggle, moan and groan, laugh and giggle, to our hearts’ content.

We were true to our sex, as when we did not possess a window from which we could perceive life passing by, we wanted one. But when, after much trouble, the GD men knocked out a piece of the wall to disclose a very dirty window, we decided we did not want people to see us sitting by the fire, so we immediately “bunged” it up with any old pieces of cardboard we could find, to obstruct their view.

We actually worked quite hard. Mid-morning we would go in relays to the NAAFI for coffee or tea. Tea was 1d and coffee 1 ½ d and neither bore the slightest resemblance to the actual beverage it was supposed to be.

We also went in relays down to the Camp in Hercies Road for our lunches. The first lunchers would meet the second lunchers who would ask “What is it today?” and “What’s for sweet?” If the answer to the latter was “Plonk” our hearts would sink, for that was our name for Tapioca Pudding which appeared all too frequently on the menu and which we loathed. We formed the opinion the Army had enormous reserves of tapioca somewhere. It looked like frogspawn in the big mess tins and tasted quite revolting.

I was getting slightly more money now. What with my first year’s increment and passing my Grade I Trade Test, I felt I was doing well. Rita celebrated her 21st birthday on 31st July with a party given by her parents in Frascati’s Italian Restaurant in London. I was invited and greatly enjoyed the occasion. I gave her 10/- as I couldn’t think what to buy her. As that represented almost half my weekly pay, it was quite a sacrifice, but she was a good friend and I made it gladly.

About this time, the first of the Americans arrived in Uxbridge. Some of them worked in our office and we found them an absolute phenomena. They chewed gum ceaselessly, had scant regard for discipline, were very casual in their dress, seemed to have a personal issue of Jeeps and called their officers by their Christian names. We were astonished, never having encountered anything like them before.

In August the Army laid on something special. They decided that H.Q. staff would benefit from visiting an actual operational gun site on the South Coast. On 10th August Mac, Lindy, Betty, Anne and I clambered aboard the lorry which was to take us to Rye. We sang as we lurched along. At last the cry went up “There’s the sea” and sure enough, there it was. Our first glimpse of the sea for such an age, grey and menacing with barbed wire rolls all along the beaches. The lorry drew to a halt and we jumped or clambered down. We were given an escorted tour around the gun site and then issued with ear plugs. Feeling slightly silly, we stuffed them into our ears, and then the guns thundered forth. Even with the plugs, the mighty noise was shattering. We ducked and flinched and cowed much to the amusement of the Gunners. “Thank you ever so much” we said when the barrage had ceased. “It has been most interesting”. We said goodbye to the sea, then it was back into the covered wagon for our journey home. It had been a break from the usual routine.

Platoon evening continued of course, with compulsory attendance at various lectures, but on 18th August we had one with a difference. It was decreed we would all go out blackberrying. We had a marvellous time and bore the fruit back to the Camp cooks who turned it into jam. This would be doled out in large soup dishes in the Mess, a positive magnet for the wasps. Sitting in the Mess was hazardous at such times, you were constantly flailing and swatting.

The War news was distinctly better now, and we said the tide seemed at last to be turning.

On Friday, 3rd September, we had a service to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the War, and British troops invaded Italy.

On Tuesday, 7th September, I woke in a happy mood, for it was my day off and Ruby and I had arranged to spend it together in London. We made our way to the Services Club, there to have lunch and play some table tennis. After our meal we went over to the Games Room and sat down to await our turn. A sailor and an Air Force chap were using the table at the time, playing a cracking game which we watched with interest. Suddenly the ball ricocheted off the sailor’s bat, came flying across the room, to land fairly and squarely in my lap. The sailor, grinning broadly, came over to retrieve it. “Sorry about that” he said, as I handed him the ball, and I liked the way his brown eyes twinkled. When their game was completed, Ruby and I played, and then the sailor and the Air Force chap challenged us to a game of doubles. Ruby partnered the Air Force lad, whose name was Jack Kenyon — “But I’m always known as Ken” he said. I partnered the sailor with the twinkling brown eyes, called Les. We played several games, and then had a break for tea, during which we learned a little more about our new acquaintances. Ken was a Yorkshire man, a radio operator stationed in London at the Air Ministry. Les was a Londoner, home on survivor’s leave. He was serving in Light Coastal Forces and his boat had been sunk in action in the Channel two days before. He made light of the incident, saying it had earned him 14 days respite. He was 23 years old and a Leading Telegraphist who had been serving on MLs, MGBs and MTBs since entering the Navy at the age of 20. I took to him enormously and readily agreed to come up to London to meet him again on the following Friday evening.

Friday evening saw me hot-footing to Baker Street, without a pass I might add, fingers tightly crossed I wouldn’t encounter a Red Cap. At Baker Street Les was waiting and we had a couple of delightful hours, just talking. He afterwards escorted me on the train back to Uxbridge and made a date to meet again the very next night. We got on so well together. He had such an honest face, such a dependable air about him, I instinctively knew I could put my whole life in his hands. We talked about our dreams for the future, and he said he always hoped that he would marry one day and have a family, but questioned the wisdom of getting romantically involved while he was doing such a dangerous job. He then declared, despite cautioning himself against it, he had fallen in love with me and I said I felt exactly the same. I returned to Uxbridge on wings.

On 14th September I was again on Night Duty. Les rang me about 8 o’clock to say he’d had a wire recalling him off leave and he had no idea when we’d see each other again. He gave me an address to which I could send mail and begged me to write.

On 16th, to my absolute joy, I got a wire from Les to say he was coming back to London again to resume his leave. I dashed up to Charing Cross — once more minus a Pass and also notwithstanding the fact it was Platoon evening. We were reunited and nothing else mattered. On Sunday 19th, he asked me to marry him and with a heart full of love and joy I said yes. We knew it couldn’t be for quite a time but we made the promise to each other that one day our dreams would come true.

On 20th October he retuned to Dover. I went to see him off at Charing Cross and met several of his crew members who were also going back.

Letters arrived from him informing me he had gone to Portsmouth but was still unsure of future movements and then he was in Brightlingsea but again didn’t think that would be for long. Then a letter arrived at the beginning of October telling me they had picked up their new boat and he would continue to be in Home Waters. That at least was some comfort. He was now on M.G.B. 695.

Then on Wednesday 6th October I began my leave. It was marvellous to be home again. I told Mother and Pop all about the love of my life. Mother made little comment but listened patiently to my eulogising. Then on the 13th I had the most thrilling and exciting surprise, in the form of a wire from Les saying he was coming to Birmingham that very day. I rushed to meet his train and then I bore him home. I ushered him in and introduced him. He looked so smart and resplendent in his naval uniform. Mom and Pop shook his hand and made him welcome.

The end of my leave soon arrived and we said Goodbye to Mother, Pop and John and caught the train back to Euston. I had been feeling so unwell that when we arrived I returned to Uxbridge straight away foregoing the few hours we were going to spend in London.

I was still the same next day, so I was told to stay in bed and a doctor was called. He had me promptly admitted to Hillingdon R.A.F. Hospital where they said it was the appendix again and this time it would have to come out. However, an observant Sister, whilst making up the bed next to me, looked at me with interest and noticed I was changing colour. She came and stood by me, peering into my face and announced I had Yellow Jaundice. This is precisely what I had. It was a nasty illness but at least I was spared the surgeon’s knife. Les had returned to his base and sent letters expressing his concern.

I felt very poorly for the first few days and slept most of the time. Gradually I began to improve.

Les was now back in action, and on the Ward radio I was sickened to hear that Light Coastal Forces had been in combat with E boats off the coast of Lowestoft and that casualties had been incurred. My prayers were answered and I heard that Les was safe.

On 30th October I was pronounced well enough to go out and was given a week’s sick leave. I went home and 7 days of Mother’s care and home cooking worked wonders.

On 7th November I spent my first day back in “G” for a month. I was soon back into the swing of things and in no time at all it was as if I’d never been away.

Letters from Les were now my chief source of pleasure. On days when they arrived I would be in seventh heaven, and on days when they didn’t I would know keen disappointment. I went to visit his family and was given a very warm reception. They clearly were all so proud of their sailor hero.

Next day I got a wire from Les disclosing he was now in Penzance. They’d had some torpedo tubes fitted and were re-designated M.T.B. 695. He sent me his photograph which I framed and put on the shelf over my bed.

Mid November saw me once more turning my thoughts to Christmas shopping. Les wrote that it looked highly unlikely he would be home for Christmas — they were doing some trails in Irish waters. His parents had invited me to spend Christmas Day with them as I couldn’t get up to Birmingham.

On 20th December I posted off all my little gifts and cards. It would be my second Christmas away from home and the thought saddened me. But I threw myself into helping to decorate the hut. We put up coloured paper chains and greenery, liberally decked with cotton wool snow. Very effective we thought.

After duty on Christmas Eve, I made my way to London to Regents Park, and spent Christmas Day with his family. My thoughts hovered between a certain person on the high seas and my own dear folks at home. Boxing Day saw me back at work and very busy.

The War news was getting better and better and a letter from Les brought the joyful tidings that he hoped to have leave in January.

And so, here we were, on Friday the 31st December, the end of a year that had, for me, been wonderful. I fervently hoped it would be the last of the War years, that 1944 would bring us peace. Rita and I dashed into town and arrived in Trafalgar Square to find the crowds already dense, swinging and swaying and laughing. You would have thought no-one had a care in the world. We joined in the singing, quickly catching the mood of revelry. The din was quite tremendous until silenced as Big Ben struck midnight. Then all hell broke loose with a giant roar. Everyone began wishing everyone else a Happy New Year, kissing, hugging and singing Auld Lang Syne. Welcome 1944. Please be good to us.

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