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15 October 2014
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Woman Driver

by Ian Billingsley

Contributed by 
Ian Billingsley
People in story: 
Joyce Sargeant
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 May 2005

Private Joyce Sargeant W/120296 A.T.S. (Royal Enfield '350 cc.) Early 1945.

My name was Joyce Preece, and I was born in 1921 in Essex.
When I was twenty I joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army in 1941. I was seriously thinking of joining, when the announcement was made that all women over twenty one, would be required to join the services; unless of course they were in a reserved occupation. So, My mind was made up for me.
I reported to Northampton training camp, which was to be my home for the next six weeks. I then became a number. W120296. The training was very tough. Some of the women instructors were bullies. Many were the times when I was ready for heading off home. I was not alone in this thought. Although I never did, of course, I did write home stating that I was having a great time. (What a fibber I was.)
After the six weeks were completed, we were asked which jobs we wanted to do. When I first joined, I didn’t really know what I wanted, but by the time my training had ended, I knew exactly. I was going to be a driver. I had never sat behind a wheel before, but I think that it could have been something to do with my dear old dad being a London bus driver for thirty one years.
I can still remember the feeling of joy I had, on being told that I had been selected for the course. Along with several other girls, I was packed off to a camp near Gresford, North Wales. I can’t remember the duration of the course, perhaps it was twelve weeks, but I do remember that we had all men instructors. They were a good bunch and they treated us all well.
I remember our very first driving lesson, and being told to mount up and sit behind the wheel with our instructors at the side of us. I remember the amazement on all our faces, as we climbed into the three ton lorries. We all passed our test first time.
I remember best of all, and still very clearly, when we were allowed to drive solo for the first time. I was to drive a small two seater car, or ‘Bug’ as we nicknamed them, but I was far from happy in driving it for the steering kept pulling towards the middle of the road. I was so worried about it, I complained three times in all to the corporal in charge, only to be told, “It’s OK. It’s just nerves”. Half way through the journey, the car suddenly took off on its own and there was no way I could control it. The poor girl behind me thought that I had gone completely crazy. We veered across the road and turned upside down in a ditch. Crawling out of the car unhurt, I didn’t even feel shaken; just mad as hell, as the battery acid had tipped all over my slacks and ruined them. The wheels were still spinning violently, as two farm labourers rushed over to help us. I remember quite clearly, one of them saying.

“My God. Look at the state of that kingpin. It’s sheered right off, it’s no wonder you crashed. You could never have prevented it.”
These are the words that I would always remember. Our corporal came running up to me and asked if I wanted a cigarette. He was shaking like a leaf so I suggested that it would probably do him more good than me as I didn’t smoke.
I don’t remember the trip back to camp, but I do remember the mechanic saying that the car had better be taken to the workshop for repair as soon as possible. The next thing I knew was being told to report to the A.T.S. Officer, as I was being put on a charge for crashing the car. I was terrified. I had never been on a charge before. I began to tremble with worry, but need not have, for as I saluted her, she stood me at ease and then gave me a bar of chocolate. It’s strange how I can still remember that bar of chocolate. We stood munching, as we continued the interview.
I was asked, and told truthfully, my account of the accident. I told of how I could not control the car, and of the farm labourers remarks on the missing kingpin. Then, as to how the car had been taken to the workshops for immediate repairs. I asked her to check this out, as it would confirm my story. I was then dismissed and ordered to report to her the following day. This I did, and was cleared of all charges much to my great relief. She had checked out my story and believed it to be true. She then shook my hand and I left.
Along with six other girls I was then posted to Chatham. The base was, 123 Company, R.A.S.C. Southill Barracks. We girls were billeted just five minutes away in a large Victorian house. Some as staff car drivers, some as lorry drivers and others as ambulance drivers; chosen, as we were told, for our slow and steady driving.
I enjoyed driving the ambulance. I learned to love the work, even though we were often on a night call rota. It was pretty grim, picking up seriously ill people during the Blackout, especially as air raids often threatened.
Again, all of the men were a good bunch, especially our mechanics who were supposed to supervise us when it came to cleaning and simple repairs on the vehicles. Of course, being women, we could wrap them around our little fingers when it came to asking for their help; mechanical or other wise. We got away with blue murder.
A year or so passed very happily, even though it was wartime. One day, a memo appeared on the notice board, asking if anyone was interested in becoming a dispatch rider. I think we all put our names forward, but once again, only six of us were chosen. I was one of the lucky ones. I was thrilled to pieces, more so than my parents. They were worried sick but didn’t try to stop me.
We were sent to a camp at Cowdray Park, Midhurst. Sussex. Once again we were billeted around the village. I was to live with a lovely couple. A retired colonel and his wife. They treated me well. The Colonel had recently had a stroke and could only speak with difficulty, but he and I were able to communicate fine. I spent many a happy Sunday afternoon, playing card games with him. He was a dear man, and it pleased him so much because I tried so hard to understand all he tried to say to me.
As always, we had men instructors to guide us through our motor cycle course and remember how, when we first handled the bikes, we were amazed at just how easy they felt. It didn’t take us long to learn how to ride them.
As for our meals, we were spoilt rotten by the cooks. If we were due out for a long run, they would call out and ask,
“What would you like for supper tonight girls?” We would all reply: “Steak and chips.” We would get just that. The course passed all too quickly and once again we were soon on our way back to Chatham.
scowled at me and went on his way. Then I came to the Regimental Sergeant Major I had to deliver the package to, when to my amazement, he bawled at me at the top of his voice.
“What’s the matter with you soldier, don’t you salute an Officer when you see one?”
I was so shocked, I couldn’t answer him. I just blushed scarlet, dropped the package on his desk and fled. I reached my bike and kicked the engine over to start it up. I was furious to hear roars of laughter coming from the office. Then a Sergeant came out and said he had been sent to apologise. All the others in the office had realised the Regimental Sergeant Major had made a mistake. I was still very angry and told him to go back and tell his R.S.M, “Yes! I did salute officers, but only A.T.S. officers!” and with that, I roared away on my bike.
I was though, to see again, my lovely blonde Officer. He was to attend one of our dances a week later. He came up to me and said.
“I have to speak to you. When I bumped into you at our barracks, I had just been into the office to ask if there was a motor bike available for me to ride and was refused. I went out sulking, and of course when I saw your bike parked there I thought, typical. There's no bike for me to ride but this slip of a girl is riding around barracks on one. I was livid.”
I told him what I thought of his R.S.M and we both finished up having a good laugh. I was to see Blondie often, for we became very good friends. He told me quietly one evening, that all the barracks were moving on. By morning, they would be gone. We said our goodbyes.
Many months later, several of his men arrived back at our barracks. Sadly, they told me that Blondie had been killed over in France. He had been on his beloved motorcycle and had ridden straight over a land mine. He was killed instantly. My pillow was wet with tears that night. I will always remember him fondly as an Officer and a Gentleman.
Before we were married, we had to be in by 2300 hrs. We all used to have our own little bushes where we'd talk and say goodnight to our boyfriends. We had heard rumours that the ‘Red Caps’ were waiting to catch our lads with us, and they intended to charge them all with being on A.T.S. property after hours. This happened one evening, just as they planned it, taking us all by surprise.
We were asked our names and numbers, but luckily for us, our own A.T.S. Officer was on duty. She quickly came out to see what all the rumpus was about. The ‘Red Caps’ explained why they were there. She simply told them to get lost, as it was only 22.55hrs. They had mis-timed their raid five minutes.
“Five minutes”, as our officer said, “was time enough for all these girls to sign the book, and time enough for the lads to be off our property”. Needless to say, there were no charges. Our officer was great, a lovely lady. I can still remember her name even today. It was Miss Hartigan.
Now I must close my story for I came out of the A.T.S. about six months after I married. By then, the girls were being released back into ‘Civvy Street’. The married girls were allowed to leave first. I had two sons and eight years later, my beloved daughter was born. Sadly, I never did get to sit behind the wheel again, I have been in the passenger seat ever since. I now live alone My husband died fourteen years ago, but I still have my family, including my two grandchildren who are the love of my life. At 73, I know I am happy enough, but will always remember my war years.

Joyce Sargeant.

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