- Contributed by
- Hazel Yeadon
- People in story:
- Audrey Burrows (nee Cox)
- Location of story:
- South of England
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 January 2006
Audrey and Clarence on their wedding day
AUDREY BURROWS (nee Cox)
WOMEN’S AUXILLARY AIR FORCE
Audrey, an only one, was born in Peckham and brought up in East Dulwich. Her father was a coal depot manager. After leaving school she worked as a cashier in an office.
As war was announced I was walking down the street with a school friend who I am still in touch with. The job I was doing was regarded as a ‘reserved occupation’ so I wasn’t released at first. However, eventually I volunteered, doing my initial training in Morecambe and then going to Compton Basset in Wiltshire to learn to be a wireless operator. The usual two year training was condensed into six months.
We learnt all about electricity ~ how to repair faults, put plugs on, recharge batteries and soldering. However, once I became an operator I wasn’t allowed to touch the wireless, as we had mechanics. When querying why we learnt it all, we were told that if there was an invasion we would be out in a field and would have to do everything ourselves! We also learnt procedure and Morse code, how to send messages and keep a log book. We learnt Morse code by having a machine played to us. We got our ‘sparks’, badges which were worn on our arm, as soon as we passed our exams. We had to get over 18 wpm (words per minute) to pass the Morse code test. We were asked if anyone wanted to try for 20 wpm and I passed and became an Aircraft Woman 1, which meant 6d. a day extra. I earned 2s. a day when training, then 3s. a day when working as a wireless operator. However, we got stoppages for ‘barrack room damages’ and 6d. a week went to the RAF Benevolent Fund.
I passed my exams and chose to go to Westmalling Airfield in Kent, near my home, in 11 Group ~ The Battle of Britain Group. Here we gradually took over from the men. There were Spitfires and Mosquito planes and the night fighters were painted navy blue and were kept in hangers during the day so we never saw them. We lived in the hospital section of an old workhouse, off the camp. We worked in the wireless cabin and teleprinter room. It looked like a grassy mound on the outside, but was a proper building inside. T he wireless rooms had windows, but they had sandbags on the outside. We would receive papers with messages from the Cypher Room along with a call up number. We would then send the message in code and enter it in a logbook.
Several of us were sent to Chichester for six weeks and we lived and worked in a girls’ college attached to Tangmere Aerodrome. Inside the building there was a temporary plotting room and radio station. We assumed this had been set up in case the aerodrome was bombed. Here we had to send ‘speaking’ messages, rather than Morse code, which I didn’t like as it could be very upsetting. I once heard a pilot on fire over the intercom ~ I assumed he was saying ‘May Day’ and then he said in English ‘I’m on fire’ then it went blank. There were lighter moments. Sometimes the pilots left the intercom on and we could hear their banter and I remember the CO telling them off and saying ‘You’ve left your intercom on and there are WAAF’S listening in’. When you sent a message in code you didn’t know what you were sending or receiving.
I was posted to Stanmore, the HQ of Group 11. We worked with ‘Yanks’ who were good to work with and their Morse was excellent. They were all Top Sergeants. I felt sad here as many private houses had been taken over by the military and I wondered what had happened to the people who had lived in them. We changed our billet every month. Villa Valentine was a nice big Victorian house that we lived in and then we had a modern house with a bidet ~ the first time I had seen one and the Corporal had to explain what it was for. The V1 and V2’s started coming over and I remember hearing there were ‘double spies’ who gave wrong instructions to divert them. Two of us from our watch were chosen to go to Hill House, a mansion with a big lake. A cabin had been built on the tennis court and was set up with wireless sets, again we presumed as a back up in case the nearby station was bombed.
At midnight on 5 July we went to start work and saw a lot of men with ‘scrambled egg’ on their hats (our word for the braid worn by the higher ranks) and I thought ‘Oh, my God it’s on’ as we all knew D Day was imminent. When we got in our room there was a plotter sitting with each operator and we were very nervous. We were sending messages to the boats and were told that we had to be exact as we wouldn’t be getting replies that night. The plotter had earphones on and was getting information ~ she had paper with squares on and she was writing down numbers and letters and I had to send this information.
In the break I went to the plotting table to see what the situation was as I was worried about my husband. They were pushing our ‘ships’ nearer to the coast all the time, then at 5 am they were there. We were told to tune in to BBC at 7 am but it was never mentioned and a Corporal said ‘it looks as though it’s been a flop’. I went off duty at 8 am and should have gone to sleep but was in a state, so went home on the underground. Everyone was sitting reading the paper as though nothing had happened. Mum was just leaving for work when I arrived and said ‘What are you doing home?’. I listened to the news at 10 am then went to bed until 2 pm when I heard on the news that we had invaded. I was back at work for 6 pm.
I had met my husband before I joined up and I knew almost straight away that he was ‘the one’ but it was some time before we got married. Clarence with in the Navy and he was out in Italy for six months as a signal man when the invasions were going on. We needed my father’s permission to get a special licence, as I was only 20 (thought 21 two months’ later). We didn’t know when we could get married but had the bans called before the three months licence ran out. We kept in touch by telegram and eventually the date was 23 April 1944. The local Church had been bombed so we got married at the temporary Chapel in East Dulwick and had 40 guests at the reception in a small hall. Mum did the catering with some help from friends. Clary’s uncle was a catering manager on the railways and contributed a shoulder of ham and we asked the cook at the station for rations and got a tin of Carnation milk and a little butter. Mum also went to the food office for extra rations and got a little extra sugar and butter.
When buying my dress, we were shown filthy ones because of the bombings, but were able to buy a good one elsewhere. Some girls
in the services were able to loan dresses which Mrs Roosevelt had sent over from America. I had a long white plain satin dress with rooching round the high neck and lace sleeves. I also wore a pointed headdress with borrowed veil and silver sandals. Clary’s cousin was a bridesmaid. We stayed with friends in Calne in Wiltshire for our honeymoon.
When I became pregnant I went to the MO and he said I could go on light duties, then be discharged. However, I didn’t want light duties and stayed where I was, then eventually got compassionate leave which my colleagues called ‘passionate leave’!
Audrey and Clarence lived in the South whilst he was a surveyor and brought up their family, then retired up here. In the 50’s Audrey returned to office work as a book-keeper. She now spends her time, amongst other things, painting delightful portraits of animals
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