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1940s Society Shop >  History >  Wartime Recollections >  Margerts Memories

Margerts Memories

Some of Margaret's wartime memories, as a civilian, as a member of the ARP and then as a member of the WAAF.


Some Memories of Margaret Wilson
Written By Jan Baylay

Some Memories of Margaret Wilson   These are the memories of Margaret Wilson (nee Braiden), who we met at a 1940's big band weekend.

She very kindly took the time to tell us how she felt about the prospect of war in 1938 and how she and her family prepared for war.

We hear of her near misses with the German Air Force and how after a bad raid in Portsmouth near her home she was eventually allowed to join the WAAF.

She tells of her life in the Royal Air Force and how she coped with the various challenges of living and working within wartime Britain.

These memories of her life are a tribute to the many women who just got on with it!

The Beginning

The Beginning

Margaret in ARP
  The Munich Crisis and 'peace in our time' was the first indication, we, young people had that all was not right with our world in 1938. But by the middle of 1939 leaflets were coming through the door encouraging us to 'do our bit' in the war effort. Of course, it will be over by Christmas, said those who knew - how wrong they were! Nearly six years to go before it would end.

As August 1939 came round most of us were joining something - Dad was a Local Defence Volunteer (later became the Home Guard). My sister was evacuated with her job to Basingstoke. Mum being mum looked after my younger brother and us all very well. Dearly as I would have liked to join the forces, Mum said NO! - (those days we did mostly what mum said) so I joined the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precaution - Civil Defence) part-time and worked on a First Aid Station. I was working in Havant so went several nights a week to training sessions, which were given by a doctor and his wife. They talked a lot about 'gas', which had been used in the 1st World War, the various types, and what to do if there were any casualties. We had lots of tests and got certificates - but we fortunately never got to use this information.

I was assigned to Emsworth First Aid post not far from Havant. When we turned up and got our gas masks etc. we felt quite proud of ourselves. We never thought the war would be so soon.
We felt something would come and prevent it.

At 11am September 3rd, 1939 war was declared, the waiting was over. The civilian dances all closed down and we concentrated on more serious matters - helping with the blackout, and smartening up our first aid - I still have a couple of vegetable bags made from blackout material!

After a month or so, troops were posted into the area and they marched up and down the side streets of Havant. Entertainment that had been restricted when war was declared had been re-started so there was plenty of partners at the local dances. We were able to attend dances at the local airmen's' NAAFI at Thorney Island. The open days at the RAF airfield were a big local attraction for the surrounding population. Though as the war clouds gathered it was not possible to go to the island without a special pass. A lot of the lads couldn't dance but wanted to learn. We had perpetual sore feet - as they only had army boots. (No civvy shoes allowed at that time). There were plenty of service canteens and picture houses - so really more to do in spare time than there is now (1998).

1940

1940

Margaret in the Air Raid Shelter.
  The war such as it was, dragged on into 1940 and things became very hectic after the return of the men from Dunkirk.

Hitler had invaded the Low Countries in May 1940. The army in France was pushed towards the channel ports and the amazing miracle of Dunkirk took place. H.M.S. Havant was sunk off Dunkirk in the evacuation; she had been built for another country and had been taken back for the war effort but saw very little service. There are still 1 or 2 survivors from her living locally.

France and the Low Countries all fell and Britain stood alone, defence was the major attention and all were busy 'digging for victory', filling sandbags and constructing air raid shelters. My dad dug up the back lawn and dug 6ft. down and constructed our own shelter. I hated it, I much preferred to stay in bed at night. Though my mum and brother used it.
mag paragraph 5

The Conway St. Area of Landport (Dec. 1940).
  Rationing was being discussed, the food we had imported from overseas was cut down by loss of shipping to German submarines - oranges, bananas and tinned fruit were beginning to disappear. One could still buy chocolate and sweets as I remember doing in my lunch hour. We were lucky, mum rationed our sugar/saccharin, she had also began to store what she could before war was declared just in case (sugar, tea). We had a big garden and had a lot of fruit trees which mum made into jam. Mum used to also preserve eggs in a water glass in a large stone crock. Margarine was placed in a pan of salt water (still in the packet) which kept quite well for a bit.

At Christmas 1940 there was a bad raid on Portsmouth and friends of ours who had a sweet shop were bombed out. Mother had previously invited them for the Christmas and they came laden with boxes of undamaged chocolate.
So we were very lucky to have that. They later re-opened another business but not sweets!
By then they were also rationed.
mag parapgraph 6

Margaret (1940).
  I changed my job in Havant to one in Portsmouth for a rise of 5/- weekly, this meant my salary was 30/- for a 5 and a half day week. My half-day was Wednesday when I finished at 1pm. I was working from 9-6, with one hour for lunch.

I cycled from Havant to Portsmouth, as the trains were unreliable because of the blackout. The trains were full of people from Portsmouth leaving the city at night because of the air raids.

My mother's sister died in London and had wanted to be buried in Havant. The funeral had to be postponed for a week because of the delays of the trains in transporting her remains to us.

We spent so much time in the shelters we had to take our work down with us unfortunately the ledgers were very heavy. We wanted to take our personal possessions with us too, so it became quite an obstacle race to get all down before the guns or bombs started. We were having a 'Cuppa' one afternoon when the first bombs fell on Portsmouth and the other woman and I just dived under the table - tea and all. The office of Woods and Company coal Merchants, which we worked in liaison with, had been hit. I was quite upset, as I had just returned from there on an errand. Fortunately there were no casualties. So I was very lucky! On another occasion, I was rather upset when I lost my dressing gown as it was at the cleaners being cleaned when they had a direct hit.

I continued to do my A.R.P. stint at night. We were allocated so many duties - 3 one week and 4 the next and were on night call if the sirens went. Some nights the raids were frequent so we had to turn out more than once - it was a mile for me to cycle to the post. It was quite a tiring experience to get the first aid post during the night. Mostly these times there was no enemy action in Emsworth. So it was decided those of us who had full time jobs would sleep in the F.A.P. (First Aid Post) on our duty nights' which was much appreciated all round as we got some sleep. We could also sneak out to a dance at the British Legion Hall if things were quiet. I was quite upset several years ago as they renewed the floor of the local church hall (which during the war served as the first aid post) - it served well as my bed for many a night way back in 1940 without any problems.
mag parapgraph 8

Margaret in group (1940).
  Mainly while a raid was taking place we had to take shelter and I remember one night taking shelter from shrapnel from the guns from Hayling Island, under an archway and after the 'all clear' I found that we had been standing on the petrol tanks of the local garage. Another time we heard gunfire and a plane came over the main road from Portsmouth - it was German, I saw the swastika and the pilot, either he had run out of ammo or hadn't seen me. I took shelter but he apparently was out of fuel and decided to take some of his enemies with him. He later crashed. I once again failed to find an appropriate refuge as I was standing in a shop doorway surrounded by plate glass.

Fortunately Emsworth was untouched by bombing until after I had joined the W.A.A.F. (Women's Auxiliary Air Force).

1941 -1943

1941 -1943

Commercial Road, Portsmouth.
  January 10th I had been off sick with flu for several days and had planned to go back to work on the 11th. The fires were so bad in Portsmouth after a devastating raid; we could see the glare in the sky at Westbourne nearly 12 miles away.

I got down to the city by train but the scene was horrific - especially as I wasn't really very fit - had to walk nearly 2 miles to the office as there was no buses. Hose pipes all over the road and several diversions. I was very late for work and greeted by "did not expect you to get here today", the boss was okay, and they let me leave early before dark to make the journey back. Fortunately I made it okay and got a train (this was of course packed with people leaving Portsmouth for the night).

So this decided me. Monday I went to the RAF recruiting office and applied to join the W.A.A.F. Conscription was in the air for women later that year so mum let me go. I was accepted and on March 27th went off to London for medical and testing. There was a party of about 20 young girls who left Portsmouth for London where we went to Victory House for a medical and were asked about our work experience. One girl was heartbroken they wouldn't take her - her teeth were decayed - ' come back when you have had treatment and dentures' - maybe they expected us to bite the enemy. Then we went on to training camp at Innsworth, Gloucester.

I was there for 2 weeks 'square bashing' - lectures and issue of uniform. Had more examinations, inoculations, lectures and anything else they could cram into us in 14 days. Do wish they had taught us to salute before they let us loose in uniform in public. On meeting an army officer in Cheltenham I had to throw up a Girl Guide salute which he gravely returned - he was with a lady- so guess they had a good laugh afterwards.

Time went quickly and we were posted to units all over Britain. Uniforms were not very plentiful - I only got a skirt at first and had to wear a civilian jacket. We were issued with one uniform initially so we could only get our uniform cleaned while on leave.

I was lucky to be posted at Andover where I was not too far from home. We arrived at the local RAF station but they were not expecting us so they redirected us to a large country house 3 miles away, still carrying kit bags, steel helmets and all the other gear. Having eventually reached our destination we were billeted in the cottage on the grounds of the large stately manor, a far cry from huts and hangers. This lovely house was were we worked. Though only the officers were allowed to live in it.

We were given jobs according to experience. I was called 'clerk G.D.' which meant General Duties, this ranged from clerical work to lighting fires in the rooms (there was no other form of heating in the house), from handling Top Secret files to cleaning the ablution blocks. Getting up with duty airwoman to call the cooks at 0430hrs. I used to spend one night and on some occasions 2 nights as fire watch or duty clerk or duty airwoman and we had to work right through.

From here it was quite easy to get home on a 24hour pass though the journey by train usually took about 4 hours and had several changes and a bus trip the other end if lucky. There was a small local bus from Andover Station, which only ran in the afternoon on weekends. It was always crowded as our billet was several miles past Andover airfield and the boys from there used it too. We were lucky to get on, never mind get a seat. My leaves were mostly spent at home where I used to get around to visiting relations and friends. My mum never let me go back without a few cakes and I obtained an electric kettle ring and cocoa was available, powdered milk and saccharine so could make hot drinks in the cold weather.

Fortunately I got leave in May for 7 days, so I didn't have to wear too dirty an outfit. We got another 'best dress' in a month or two so I was okay for getting cleaned up. We had 3 pairs of stockings; 1 pair of shoes (a second pair was issued several months later); 2 towels; a cap; greatcoat and gloves. The most unwanted gear of all - gas capes and hoods, they were stiff and horrid and hung by our beds for most of the war and were only used when we had 'gas drill' and had to go through a chamber where a chemical had been released.
paragraph 11

Margaret's Sister.
  My sister thought she would join up too. She did enlist later though she was stationed up north for most of her service.

We did meet when she was at Thruxton (near where the motor racing circuit is nowadays). I saw them build the airfield there as we were only a few fields away. The Americans used it as a satellite when they moved into Andover. The glider pilots who went on D-Day were also there for a time.

If we didn't go home on pass, we went into Andover town for the day and did a round of the service canteens in search of perhaps sweets or even cigarettes. I didn't smoke a lot (about 4 or 5 a week) but the lads in the office were pleased if we got any. On a very good day we might even get egg on toast at the local canteen, though it was usually beans or tinned fish, Spam sandwiches or anything that the good ladies at the canteen could get hold of.

Really we didn't do too badly from the NAAFI. I always had liked their rock cakes- WADS as they were called and even enjoyed NAAFI tea. The NAAFI also used to provide a hairdressing service so we didn't need much else. We used to go on trips to Chichester and Portsmouth when on leave to look at the shops not that there was much to buy as we had no clothing coupons and there was no makeup available.

One evening, I was unlucky - we went to a dance at a local army camp. They used to send a large truck for us girls; they had no A.T.S. (Auxiliary Transport Section) girls there, so a good time was had. On returning to the billet I remembered CO's parade the next morning so I decided to clean up my buttons and shoes in the ablution block where there was a dim light. On leaving I slipped on the wet step with my arms full, couldn't save myself from falling and caught my right knee on the shoe-cleaning grating. I bled a lot which I washed off and tied a clean hanky round it and made my way to bed. It looked 'dicey' the next day so I had to go to sick quarters and got told off by the M.O. (Medical Officer) for not going sooner. I needed 3 stitches. No wonder I still have trouble with arthritis in that knee. This is referred to as Auntie's War wound. The M.O. had asked if I had been drinking, yes, NAAFI tea.

I couldn't dance for a while, so when one of the men from signals - they usually danced with their own section girls, asked me to dance. I said yes - but I'm still sure he only asked because he knew I couldn't because of my sore knee. He never asked me for a further date.

I was 21 in June that year and the family all clubbed together and bought me a watch. Mum provided a bottle of home made wine and a cake. I got a few sandwiches from the NAAFI and about a dozen of us had a picnic in the fields behind our hut. One of the girl's boyfriends had a record player so we had music and a few games. The greatest birthday gift as I saw it - Hitler decided to invade Russia that week. We now know that was his second greatest mistake of the war: the first being not invading Great Britain after Dunkirk.

We were billeted first in a cottage, then the stables (upstairs in what had been the loft). The NAAFI was located in a long, low barn, the house had been well known as a horse and dog breeding estate pre-war. We used to listen to the owls at night and a wonderful dawn chorus and all the other noises of the country.

We had plenty of entertainment on the camp, Vera Lynn opened a new NAAFI, but unfortunately I was away on a course when she came so I didn't see her. The Squadronaires Dance Band was there for longer so I saw them when I got back.

Being command headquarters, it was a bit top heavy, all officers and NCO's and not many other ranks. In our office we had: One RAF Warrant Officer One Flight Sergeant/Sergeant One WAAF Sergeant Three WAAF Corporals There were airwomen and airmen stationed at headquarters in other jobs but mostly NCO's with officers. We gradually became nearly an all women group as W.A.A.F. replaced men who had been sent overseas. We had maintenance units where all the gear was kept. But I have never met anyone who knew that this command existed nor have I read very much about it in history books.

We did have civilian typists for a time but WAAF replaced them as they were not subject to RAF discipline or had any other duties except 9-6 office hours. We had one wedding at the village church, an airwoman and airman G/D were married - but they were soon separated, the service didn't permit married personnel on the camp, we have one other couple who also had to face being parted - he was I believe posted overseas eventually.

One night we had an excursion with the fire pump and hose. One of the hoses must have had a hole in it. The duty officer bent over to inspect it and out splashed the water. He got very wet.

By now all the quaint places we had lived in 'the Cottage', 'The Stables', and 'The Bothy' were all vacated so more new huts could be built. We had new huts built so the floors had to be made to shine - with very heavy 'crumbers'. It wouldn't have been too bad, only they had thoughtfully given us a vaccination in one arm and a jab in the other. Just couldn't raise my arm high enough to hold the brushes so just sat down and had a good cry. The floors shone but I don't know if the tears made any difference.

Of course the Americans invaded Andover and treated us girls with great respect as they didn't know how we ranked in those days. We got saluted and were called Ma'am but they soon found out, it was funny to meet those who said we outranked them when they seemed to have so many stripes and medals. We thought they had seen action, which they hadn't then - they had got their medals for efficiency. They used to have all their food on one plate: main meal and pudding.

1944


The preparation of Bomber Command before the big raids started on Germany and making airfields ready for the Lancaster Bombers. "All this activity would have been impossible without the labours of Maintenance Command as its name implies its function was to provide the RAF with all its needs from cartridges to carburettors to towels and transport, bombs and bathtubs."

"The story goes that the first 4,000 LB bomb the famous 'block buster' arrived at Bomber Unit without any accompanying instructions as it had neither fins or nose and was a large cylinder, the equipment secretary looked at it and charged under the heading of kitchen boiler. Fortunately it was not set up in the cookhouse!"

"The badge of the Maintenance Command was a Raven, these birds ministered to the prophets as did that command to their comrades in the other branches of the service". "The Fight is Won" by H. St. G-Saunders
paragraph 14

The Dambuster Raid.
  We got some exciting signals such as the Dam Buster Raid, Overlord, D-Day and various other invasions in which the RAF played a part, these phrases had been cropping up here and there for sometime.

We being maintenance command controlled where all the equipment, bombs, aircraft ammunition and all gear necessary to equip the RAF were stored.

We saw the planes go over on the morning of D-Day, standing out on the wet grass in our pyjamas, no wonder I've got rheumatism, It was a wonderful sight. It was quite noisy as they had just taken off from the local airfield and had not gained a lot of height.

As the news of the tragedy of Arnhem in September, filled the papers I was on my way to a new posting, 4MT company London having spent 3 years at Andover. I hadn't wanted to leave my friends at Andover. I dislike big cities, can't seem to breathe so well there, always been a country girl but I had to go. I just got there in time for the V2's.
I heard the first one explode and thought this was it. But once again I was never that close.

Arrived at Waterloo so thought best have a taxi as I didn't know where the unit was and I had all my kit. This unit had a great many 'compassionate postings', with girls who lived in their own homes. They did no extra duties and once again the few who were billeted on camp had to do it all.

We still managed to get out and about quite a bit to the service clubs and theatres. I was lucky enough to hear the Glenn Miller Band at the Queensbury Club where he played several times before his fatal flight across the channel. I also managed to hear Jack Warner at the Nuffield and many stars such as Elizabeth Welch at the Stage Door Canteen. I always seemed to miss the big stars like Bing Crosby and Vera Lynn.

On Christmas night 1944 we went up to the club as usual and after the show had to walk back to the billet as all transport was on strike. It was quite a walk from Deane Street to St. John's Wood - but there were several of us, male and female so we made it safely.

1945


As the war was coming to a close in Europe, there were many joyful events all over London when it finally ended. On VE day we were all very happy and went round the West End. Trains were packed and everywhere crowded. We went to a pub for a drink to celebrate.

While there, a man even brought his horse in for a drink to celebrate. The last few months of my service was used in preparing release papers for the men and women who were being 'demobilised' - a happy job. We did our training for this at Uxbridge. There again a family connection as my nephew now in the RAF Band spent quite a period of time there (Since retired). My group number 36 came up in due course and I was home at the end November 1945.

Maintenance Command was disbanded after the war as it was only founded in 1938 to cope with the war supplies to the RAF. We were Ops 3 though we never saw the bombs, ammo, pyrotechnics, etc. we had the paperwork and directed group who passed the instruments to MV's who were situated world wide wherever the RAF were posted and of course in Britain. It was a thrill when as duty clerk special raids had taken place and we got the teleprinter messages and had to get them to the day or night ops officer.

After the Americans dropped the Atom Bomb, Victory in Japan day meant more to me as my boyfriend was serving in Burma.
paragraph 17

The Dambuster Raid.
  I had eight weeks wonderful leave where I made my wedding preparations and my fiance came home in January - he did even better. 3 months leave as he had been overseas nearly all of the war. We were given a nice sum in gratuity and 2 months leave with pay. No demob suits for women, a cash grant and clothing coupons, which helped when I got married.

We got married and began our married life with all the rationing and restrictions on what one could buy, but we still managed okay and look back on this as the most happy and wonderful time of our lives. Now nearly 40 years later with grey hair and a bit stiff in the joints, we remember the 1939-1945 war as our war in which we served.

Now I'm in the Royal British Legion, I remember those names on the role of Honour and memorials in this district especially those of Westbourne where 5 or 6 of the boys were in the same class at school. Our family were lucky all came home safely. Only one cousin was a German POW (Prisoner Of War) for several years which was remarkable as in both our families - around 30 people were in the services for both 1st and
2nd world wars.
paragraph 18

Margaret Wilson (nee Braiden).
  It was wartime service and though they were exciting events, there were boring times too.

We didn't always feel necessary to the war effort but we had jobs to do and I wouldn't have missed it.
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