- Contributed by
- Stockport Libraries
- People in story:
- Mary Pettit
- Location of story:
- R.A.F. Kirton Lindsey, Lincolnshire
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 June 2004
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Elizabeth Perez of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Mary Blood and has been added to the site with her permission. She fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
Mary’s story, together with the war story of her husband, Harry Blood, was transcribed onto a floppy disc by Fred Kennington, thereby saving Stockport Library Service staff an immense amount of work!
The winter of late 1943 and early 1944 was a bad one. Now, unless you have stood on an east coast airfield that lacks any natural shelter and felt the winds coming from Siberia you may not understand the feeling. I had joined the W.A.A.Fs. to serve my country and I didn’t mind doing that, but I was not happy to freeze for my country. My billet was in the end house in the block and thus had three exterior walls. We had finished work at 2 o’clock and went back to the billet. Arriving there we found that some of the pipes had frozen, the tank had partially frozen and the inlet pipe into the tank was overflowing and running down the interior walls of the bedrooms. ‘Running’ was not the right word. It had run down the walls and frozen leaving a wall covered with ice an inch thick. The billets were heated by coal fires for which we were allowed one bag of coal per house per week. Enquiring at the Guardroom we were told to go round the empty houses and collect all the coal, which we did. Instructions were given to light all fires and keep them going all the time. I’m uncertain what we actually did as there was a back boiler – which didn’t explode. We collected all this coal and then a double ration of coal was given out. Even with the fires on you had to get undressed quickly, put on a pair of socks, a jumper over your pyjamas, a scarf, a balaclava and a pair of gloves on, and then put your greatcoat on top of the blankets. If you had made yourself a mug of cocoa and left the dregs, they were frozen solid next morning. Washing was not easy either. It was a lick and a promise and then a proper wash in the wash room at the Mess. One girl managed to get a hot water bottle, but that eventually froze and there were icicles under her bed when it burst. Where attempts had been made to clear the road to the Mess, the residue had become frozen solid. I was unwise enough to go on my bike and, turning a corner, the bike went and I went straight on. I was on my way to duty as ‘Duty N.C.O.’, asking for ‘Any complaints?’ Yes, I had one! When I had got rid of the Duty Officer I went into the Mess, had a good wash and got cleaned up. I followed that with a big mug of tea and a bowl of porridge.
On a lighter vein, Mac, our friend, produced a toboggan, no questions asked. ‘Do you want to go tobogganing?’ Yes, of course we did, and along we went to the steep hill in the village. What happened to the steering is a matter of doubt, but we all finished in a heap somewhere other than where we intended.
Hitherto, in the Mess, we could only wash as far down as possible and we were not squeaky clean. The billet had a small copper in a corner of the kitchen. We got the copper filled with water, lit the fire and got the water very hot, if not boiling. Taking the lid off the copper, we let the hot steam circulate and it thawed the place out. There was not enough to fill a bath so, a novel solution. We got these big metal fire buckets; filled them with water and we had the nearest thing to a bath in a fire bucket. Try sitting down with one foot in a fire bucket and trying to wash upwards!
Winter ended and in April 1944, I had served the four years for which I had signed on. Seeking my discharge at that time when I was twenty-two was not a good idea. I was entitled to go but, having gone, I would have been called up immediately either to return to the forces in a service I might not want or I would have been directed into munitions. Lincoln was full of engineering works on wartime production. But I also enjoyed the W.A.A.F. so, why leave, given the circumstances. Thus I signed on again, this time ‘for the duration’.
In late summer 1944 volunteers were sought for overseas postings. In normal circumstances you didn’t volunteer. The call was ‘one volunteer, you’ll do!’ However, while I was ‘comfortable’ at Kirton with many friends and near home, I thought an overseas posting would be an adventure. So I volunteered. Shortly afterwards I was told to report to the Orderly Room to meet an officer who was coming down from 12 Group HQ. Much polishing necessary the night before! She went through details of my service, etc., and said, ‘We can’t send anybody, we have to be careful who we send, as you have to be an ambassador for Britain’. That was more or less it and you had to wait to be told if you had been accepted. I didn’t get word about posting until about Christmas.
But there was another occasion when this officer came on a routine inspection. She arranged to meet the W.A.A.F. N.C.Os. and was unwise enough to ask ‘Were there any complaints?’ There was an outstanding matter concerning fire pickets. The way they were organised was that you were on fire picket for seven consecutive days, i.e., that you were confined to camp for that period. It had not gone down well. This matter was raised and was making no more progress than um-ah-um. ‘It was the rules,’ she said. It was suggested that rules existed to be broken or, at least, bent. That didn’t get any further. Now my job required me and the other Corporal, Olive, to be on duty at meal times. Here was my chance. ‘It is also a rule, Ma’am, that airmen and airwomen must eat’, said I. Olive quickly added, ‘off clean tables and forms’. She would think about it. Think about it, she did. Thereafter none of the staff from the Airmens Mess ever did another fire picket!
Christmas 1944 was my fifth Christmas as a W.A.A.F. and I had worked every Christmas Day. There was a war on and Christmas was the same as any other day in that personnel were on duty. Anybody who got Christmas leave was very lucky. It was always the practice to attempt to save rations up so that a ‘good’ show could be put on. Breakfast would, if possible, be bacon and egg; a traditional Christmas dinner with turkey, etc., and Christmas pudding was served; and there was a barrel of beer on the end of the servery. Tea was cold meats, pickles, tinned fruit with evaporated milk, and perhaps cakes and pastries made by the cooks. It was also the tradition that officers and senior N.C.Os. served the men at the table and not at the servery. It was a lot of work for us, but also a lot of fun. The idea was to get breakfast out of the way and prepare for dinner. On one occasion a couple of W.A.A.Fs. off the flights who had been on night duty came in for late breakfast. After their meal they came to me and asked, ‘Could we stay and help you to get ready for the dinner?’ That was gratefully received and they worked like Trojans. The cookhouse and mess staff had their own party another evening. When the girls were ready to go, I asked if they would like to come to our party – which they did. People tended to ‘muck in’ like that. A sergeant was washing plates and we were running short of them. I told him to hurry up and get more plates. He pushed a glass of beer into my hand and said, ‘I’m not washing any more plates until you drink that!’ So I drank and I’m not really partial to beer. It was the quickest thing to do instead of arguing.
Another occasion I was putting up the dinners for the W.A.A.F. Equipment Officer to serve. She said, ‘That looks good!’ ‘Well, would you like one?’ ‘Oh, I daren’t do that, I’ll get into trouble. You can’t have an officer eating in the Airmen’ Mess’. I said to one of the girls, ‘Go and get my tunic’. I took my white overall off, put on my Corporal’s tunic and gave the officer my white overall. She sat down on the form while I sat on the end next to her so that she was well hidden. She enjoyed that dinner. It would have very good consequences for me shortly afterwards.
We did have the occasional problem too. We were busy and one of the girls was missing. ‘Where’s so-and-so?’ I asked. ‘Oh, she’s had too much to drink and she’s in the rest room not feeling very well’. I went to the rest room and, yes, the girl was there. ‘Bring me a mug of water with a couple of teaspoons of salt in it.’ That was brought and I said to the girl, ‘Drink that’. ‘No, I can’t’. ‘Either drink that or I’ll put you on a charge for being drunk on duty!’. So she did drink it, was violently sick, and, within half an hour, she was back on duty and enjoyed the rest of the day.
One of the airmen, who worked in the Mess had done something wrong and got himself on ‘jankers’ over Christmas. But on the day they were excused from the usual unpleasant duties, but had to report to the Guardroom every hour right through the day. That prevented him from enjoying the day. He came to me and asked if I could do anything about it. ‘You shouldn’t have been so daft as to get yourself into trouble but, I’ll see what I can do’. I stuck my neck on the line and saw one of the R.A.F. Police and said that I needed him for duty. With some reluctance he said, ‘OK, if you take responsibility for him, he need not report to the Guardroom until 6 pm’. I told my chap what I had done and threatened, ‘If you do anything you shouldn’t and let me down, I’ll break your ruddy neck!’ He still has a neck!
When I went to Kirton, it was a Fighter Command Station, much used to rest crews from active service during and after the Battle of Britain, but also a fighter station in its own right. As the war in the air changed, Kirton’s use as an operational fighter station decreased and it turned increasingly to house a training function. From 1942, it was a training base for the R.A.F. Regiment, of which my friend, Mac was an Instructor. He had already seen service in the Middle East. In May 1943 it became the home of 53 OTU (Operational Training Unit). They used some of the older Spitfires as well as basic training aircraft. At that time, the Station Commander was Group Captain Hawtrey, a cousin of Charles Hawtrey, of ‘Carry On’ fame. He was remembered as being eccentric!
But there was another incident about flying training. As I mentioned, Kirton had a satellite airfield at nearby Hibaldstow. This was in April 1945, not long I had been posted from Kirton and was in Brussels. It involved a W.A.A.F. flight mechanic, ACW Margaret Horton, and a veteran Spitfire. When an aircraft engine had been serviced, the practice was for the training instructors to run the engine and do a particular test. Margaret had finished work on the Spitfire, when the pilot began this test. It was necessary, if it was windy, for a mechanic to sit on the tail of the aircraft while it taxied to the end of the runway ready for take-off. The mechanics were given the order, ‘Tails’. Having got to the runway, the aircraft would pause for the mechanic to drop off. This time the pilot did not pause. Whether he was unaware that the order to ‘tail’ had been given, nobody knows. He just carried on with Margaret Horton hanging on for grim death, and him unaware that he had a ‘passenger’ on the tail. ‘I thought the aircraft was tail-heavy’, he said later. The Spitfire had risen to 800 feet or more when the strange shape of the tailplane was noticed from the ground. The emergency services were called out and the pilot talked back in without being told what had happened. The aircraft landed safely with Margaret Horton still in one piece. Just how daft the machinery of the R.A.F. could be was shown when she was reprimanded for her unofficial flight and charged for the loss of her beret! She was posted later to West Raynham and, despite her ordeal, survived into her eighties.
Just after Christmas 1944, I was told that I had been accepted for overseas posting but not where I would be going. I was told I could go on seven days embarkation leave on 19th January, but before which I had to get my ‘clearance chit’ completed and all my farewells said. I had been at Kirton for a long time and had made many friends both in the camp and in the village, so it was something of a break. One made friends in the services, in many respects more closely than one would in civilian life. Alma Banks, from the mill at Kirton, threw a leaving party for me. My bike was still there but, after I had gone, Mac kindly rode it back to my home at Lincoln. Good friends; some of them were in touch with me for years after and some are still in touch sixty years later.
The ‘clearance chit’ was a little bit of a problem. When I had been ill, I had been sent to Scunthorpe Hospital for a chest x-ray. Whatever it was had not been resolved, no more than that sick bay had not had a report. I had to be sent back for another which still didn’t come through before my departure. The Equipment Section had to clear you and this is where I had a bit of a bonus. I had got a Christmas dinner for the Equipment Officer a couple of weeks earlier. When I went to be cleared, she said to me, ‘I do envy you going overseas’. She took a look at my greatcoat, new in 1940, and said, ‘That looks a bit the worse for wear, I wonder if I can get another one for you’. She duly produced another greatcoat so I was one of the few W.A.A.Fs. to have two such coats. I also did quite well with the rest of the kit. As they say, one good turn deserves another!
I went home to Lincoln on 19th January as planned and who should be there, also on embarkation leave, but my brother, Frank. We had an excellent leave, but still neither of us knew where we were going. As it turned out his destination was Palestine, but he soon came back to Germany, somewhere in the Magdeburg area. On 26th January, Frank left home in the morning and I returned to Kirton that afternoon. Mum and Dad had to say ‘goodbye’ to both of us without knowing where we were going. The war was still on and we were going to ‘a theatre of war’.
I left Kirton on 28th January with destination ‘West Kirby’. This was a W.A.A.F. Transit Camp in the Wirral. The train took the now familiar route to Manchester and then to Liverpool. I had been joined by other girls all heading for West Kirby. From Liverpool it was via the Mersey Tunnel, a new experience. We stayed at West Kirby for four days during which time we got landed with more kit. I think I had about sixty articles of kit before I went there but now we had all sorts. I had to return certain items but got wellies, fishermen’s stockings and Heaven knows what else. The kitbag I had arrived with was now supplemented by another large holdall. It was an early attempt at going on safari. One particular change in uniform was that I lost a skirt and navy slacks. They were replaced by battledress of a similar design to that of the men. It left me with only battledress and a ‘best blue’ and less need to polish buttons.
The expected four days turned out to be longer. We found out later that the delay took place because of the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, in Belgium. About 14th February we heard the good news that we were off in the morning. It was the culmination of what we had dreamt about for months. It had finally arrived! We needed no alarm clock. Given that we had this mountain of luggage, we were taken by truck from West Kirby to Liverpool, seeing the Mersey road tunnel this time. It was all very new to us at the time. Reserved coaches on a train took us to London, where transport was waiting to take us to No. 6 PTC that turned out to be the Endsleigh Hotel, not far from the British Museum. We had a wash and a meal before reporting to Airways House for final instructions. On the way back to the Endsleigh, we had the unique experience of (almost) being knocked down by the Royal Daimler with the King and Queen inside. We were in too much of a hurry to get out of the way to see them.
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