- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Cpl. Ruth Mary Parker (now Matthews)
- Location of story:
- Colne, Lancashire and airfields throughout Britain
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 July 2005
Photograph of me in uniform
(Please note that this piece was originally written for a meeting with Year 4 at Archbishop Runcie First School in Newcastle upon Tyne, so there are a few explanations of what some may regard as a rather familiar terms )
When war was declared in 1939 I was 16 years of age, about 7 years older than many of you. I had started work in the Library in Colne, the town in Lancashire where I live. I got this job because one of the lads who worked there was nearly 20 and had been conscripted by the government or ‘called up’, as it was known. All young men from the age of 18 years, unless in a reserved occupation, had to go into one of the three services, Army, Navy or Air Force. Reserved occupations were jobs that had to be done even though there was a war on. Examples might be miners, because Britain needed a lot of coal in the war, or a medical student, because there was an urgent need to train more doctors.
Eventually, as more and more men were killed or missing in action or badly wounded, women were also called up. On Christmas Eve 1943 I received the dreaded buff-coloured envelope with the letters O.H.M.S (On His Majesty’s Service) printed in the left hand corner. This called me to go to the W.A.A.F Station at Wilmslow in Chesire on 1 January 1944. The letters W.A.A.F stood for Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The other services were the Army (A.T.S.), the Navy (W.R.N.S.) or the Land Army. The Land Army was where you were billeted on farms, doing the work of farmers and farm labourers who had been called up.
It was on a bitterly cold morning, white with snow, that I arrived at Wilmslow to do my six weeks initial service training. There were about 50-70 of us and the first thing we had to do was line up for our FFI (Free From Infection) inspection and to be vaccinated. We each received a number, mine was 491031, which was always used after your name when you were on duty. You were given a rank, such as ACW1 (Aircraft Woman 1st class), then one to LACW (Leading Aircraft Woman) and, in my case, I was made Corporal before leaving the WAAF. You always had to give your name, followed by your rank and then your number.
You were presented with a knife, fork and spoon and a mug. You kept these throughout your time in the WAAF. We were kitted out with two uniforms and a very heavy coat. The jackets and coat had brass buttons and the cap had a brass badge. These had to be cleaned every night with duraglit polish and a brush. Your shoes had to be shining bright and the space around your bed needed to be polished every day. This used up most the spare time in the evenings.
During the first six weeks we had a lot of physical exercise and were taught to march in various orders — in straight lines of four an then eight and on to 24 — not easy. Slow marching was something I never really mastered. All this was done in a freezing hangar and was overseen by a very strict RAF sergeant who shouted at us a great deal. He whacked us on our newly vaccinated arms if we did not get them up to shoulder level.
We had meals in a canteen sitting on forms at long trestle tables. The food was pretty grim — baked beans were quite a treat. Breakfast was usually jam and bread and in summer we had a battle with the wasps, who insisted on sharing the jam with us.
After our six-week basic training we were posted to an operational R.A.F. station. Life here was very different — you really knew there was a war on. The place was full of aircrew, engineers, technicians and armourers, as well as the cooks, cleaners and administrators who helped to keep the station running. There was the constant presence of hundreds of aircraft that were taking off, landing or being maintained, repaired, re-armed or refuelled. The aerodromes were usually miles away from towns and villages because of the need for long runways. This was especially true of those stations which were bases for bombers, because these planes were larger and heavier than fighters and had to get into the air carrying huge weights of bombs.
In August 1944, just two months after the D-Day landing in Normandy, I was posted to R.A.F. Fairford in Gloucestershire. This airfield had the longest runways in the country and had been used by the United States Army Air Force (U.S.A.A.F.) as a base. The billets where we slept and spent much of our off-duty time were built of corrugated metal shaped like long tunnels, with the door and only windows at each end. The bedsteads we used were made of iron and had previously been used by the Americans. The Yanks, as we called them, who were well known for their gum-chewing habit, had left dollops of this stuck all round the frames! Mind you, they also left us some delicious tinned peaches, pineapples and Spam, which were at that time unobtainable in Britain because of the rationing.
When I arrived at Fairford everyone was immediately confined to camp and letters home were all censored (don’t forget, long distance telephone calls were a rarity in the war and those in the forces were not allowed to call home). The phrase ‘Careless talk costs lives’ was used widely by the government during the war: it was an attempt to make sure that no-one let slip anything which a German spy might find useful. The reason we were not allowed to leave the camp was because Fairford was going to be involved in a top secret operation intended to shorten the War.
By August 1944 the Allies had broken out of the beachhead they had established in Normandy on D-Day and in the weeks following. However, the Battle of Normandy had been a lot harder than some of the Allies had expected and progress had been slower than they had hoped. At this rate it would be a long time before they got to Berlin. Indeed, the Russians looked likely to get there first! The Allies noticed that if they controlled a series of key bridges across various waterways in Holland then they would have much more rapid access to the heart of Germany and the war in Europe might be shortened by many months. The plan to capture these bridges was known as “Operation Market Garden”. It was perhaps the most heroic Allied failure of the war, as the plan failed when the British 1st Airborne Division were unable to hold the Bridge at Arnhem against ferocious German counterattack.
The British paratroops of the 1st Airborne Division and members of the Polish Paratroop Brigade took off for Holland from RAF Fairford. Some paratroops parachuted into battle from aircraft and some flew in on special gliders, which were towed to the area of the battle by a mixture of Stirling or Halifax bombers. The combination of glider and bomber was very heavy and took a long time to get into the air, which was why they needed the very long runways at Fairford.
All the preparations for Operation Market Garden were very hush-hush, as we did not want the Germans to learn about the airborne assault and bring in reinforcements before we landed! This was why we were not allowed to leave camp once we got there. In fact, we were confined to camp rather longer than the generals had intended. The operation was due to start in late August or early September but owing to bad weather it was not until the night of 16/17 September that things got under way. The first wave was an unbelievable sight: four squadrons, each of over 100 aircraft, each towing a glider: the sky seemed full of aircraft! The same number of aircraft also took off from nearby RAF Brize Norton.
As you may know, perhaps from seeing the film “A Bridge Too Far”, this mission was a disaster for the Allies. Of the 10,000 men of the 1st Airborne Division dropped into enemy territory, over 1,500 were killed and over 6,000 were captured, including the commanding officer of 2nd Battalion of the 1st Airborne Division, Lt. Col John Frost.
Back at Fairford my task was to type the letters informing the next of kin that their son or husband was missing, believed killed on active service — a very sad task but one which had to be done. The atmosphere was very sombre because many of us had known those who never returned. One happy memory I have was that about two to three weeks after the end of the operation some of the pilots of the gliders and some of the paratroopers turned up on the station. They had been hiding in Holland, some in drainpipes, some in farm out-buildings. All had been helped by the courageous Dutch people and the Dutch Resistance, who had risked their lives to shelter and feed these soldiers and airmen. Those who returned were a dishevelled lot but we were so delighted to see them again. They all wore a piece of orange material in the buttonholes of their battledress, as a symbol of their wonderful Dutch friends.
It was 60 years last September since the Battle of Arnhem and almost all of us who were involved in one way or another are now in their eighties. Some returned to meet their old friends and to honour their comrades who were killed and are buried in the beautifully kept cemetery at Oosterbeek. Among those present was Jean Frost, the widow of Col. Frost. Mrs Frost stood on the new bridge at Arnhem, which is now called ‘John Frost Bridge’ in memory of her illustrious husband.
After Arnhem many of us were posted elsewhere. I moved from Gloucestershire to RAF Great Dunmow in Essex. This had been used by the American airforce, for their Flying Fortresses, until they left for France in October 1944. The station became a base for RAF Transport Command. The billets were smaller than at Fairford but were still made of the same corrugated material. They were on the edge of a wood and they were very damp. It was soon winter and the only heat we had was from two stoves which tried to burn very wet coke or sticks we gathered from the woods. They were wonderfully warm when they eventually got going, but it took ages to get them going and then you had to keep them stoked up. Often our water tap was frozen solid and we had to scrape snow into tin bowls and heat this on the top of the stoves. Often you had two inches of water to wash in, and then you used the water to wash your stockings and your knickers! These then had to be dried from a piece of string hanging over the stove. No tumble driers then!
One morning in the Spring of 1945 I was awakened by what I thought was a tractor ploughing the fields near our billet. Over my bed was a wooden shelf where I kept a few photos and other possessions. As I lay drowsily listening I began to think that that tractor was getting awfully close, when there was terrific explosion and the content of all our shelves fell on top of us. It was only later I learnt that a ‘buzz bomb’ or V1 bomb had landed about a mile away and made a huge crater in a field. It could so easily have landed on our billet.
Before being ‘demobbed’ (short for demobilised, the term for being allowed to leave the forces and become a civilian once again) I spent some time on Salibury Plain. By then the War was almost over. It was a dreadful war, as are all wars, and so many of my generation gave their lives. I pray to God that nothing of the kind happens to your generation.
Mary Matthews (née Parker 491031, Corporal, WAAF, retired)
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