WAAFs At WAR

The Women’s Aux­il­iary Air Force (WAAF) Formed in 1939. dur­ing The BAT­TLE of Bri­tain it proved To Be A vi­tal part of The RAF

History of War - - THE FORGOTTEN MANY -

The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) had ex­isted from 1918-1920 be­fore fall­ing foul of de­fence cuts. In 1939 a new WAAF was formed from RAF com­pa­nies of the Aux­il­iary Ter­ri­to­rial Ser­vice. Although they car­ried out tra­di­tional ‘women’s’ do­mes­tic and cler­i­cal work, they also staffed op­er­a­tions rooms, radar sites and bar­rage bal­loon units.

The Bat­tle of Bri­tain showed the WAAF to be a highly valu­able re­source, and soon women were also engaged in tech­ni­cal and engi­neer­ing trades (as the WRAF had been), work­ing on air­craft and heavy equip­ment.

Although Cor­po­ral Daphne Pear­son had al­ready won the Ge­orge Cross in May 1940 for res­cu­ing crew mem­bers from a burn­ing bomber, the Bat­tle of Bri­tain would give the WAAF a chance to prove their courage un­der fire en masse. Dur­ing the Bat­tle of Bri­tain six WAAFS would be awarded Mil­i­tary Medals, three of them at RAF Big­gin Hill.

On 18 Au­gust 1940, Sergeant El­iz­a­beth

Mor­timer stayed at her post in the sta­tion ar­moury dur­ing an air raid, manning a tele­phone switch­board that was vi­tal for co-or­di­nat­ing the de­fence of the sta­tion. De­spite be­ing or­dered to take cover, she sat through the air raid, and then joined teams plant­ing red flags by un­ex­ploded bombs, so that land­ing pi­lots could avoid them.

On 30 Au­gust the sta­tion was at­tacked again and two air raid shel­ters were hit by bombs. In one, 39 ground staff were killed, while in the other one WAAF was killed and many more were buried alive for sev­eral hours un­til res­cued. On 31 Au­gust yet an­other raid hit Big­gin Hill and two WAAFS, Sergeant He­len Turner (EX-WRAF) and Cor­po­ral El­speth Hen­der­son, both ig­nored or­ders to take shel­ter and re­mained at their posts in the op­er­a­tions room. As bombs fell around them, they kept the cru­cial lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion open.

“DE­SPITE BE­ING OR­DERED TO TAKE COVER, SHE SAT THROUGH THE AIR RAID, AND THEN JOINED TEAMS PLANT­ING RED FLAGS NEXT TO UN­EX­PLODED BOMBS”

de­stroy, due to the re­silient struc­ture of the radar masts – blast waves mostly went straight through them – and the small size of the huts where the op­er­a­tors and equip­ment sat. The vi­tal fil­ter rooms and dif­fer­ent level op­er­a­tions rooms, which sifted and made sense of in­com­ing in­for­ma­tion and di­rected air­craft ac­cord­ingly, were also small, dis­persed and some­times un­der­ground.

Like­wise the lo­gis­tics net­work that re­paired air­craft, re­placed ex­pend­ables (such as fuel, am­mu­ni­tion, oxy­gen and spare parts) and pro­vided new air­craft was also mas­sive and widely spread out. RAF Main­te­nance Com­mand con­sisted of four groups, plus some an­cil­lary units. No. 40 Group had some 23 de­pots amount­ing to 790,000 square me­tres (8.5 mil­lion square feet) to con­tain and is­sue equip­ment of all types, from trucks to but­ton sticks. No. 41 Group had 11 stor­age de­pots hold­ing and is­su­ing spare air­craft, the flow of which greatly in­creased as Bri­tish air­craft pro­duc­tion tripled in the first half of 1940.

Sup­port­ing them was the Air Trans­port Aux­il­iary, a civil­ian or­gan­i­sa­tion that flew air­craft from fac­tory to de­pot, and then from de­pot to front­line sta­tion. In June 1940 it had about 100 pi­lots who were in some way in­el­i­gi­ble for RAF ser­vice; some were for­eign, some were over­age, and one-fifth were women. By the end of the bat­tle, its strength had grown to 250 pi­lots and 350 air­crew and sup­port staff, who freed up RAF pi­lots to join front­line units.

No. 42 Group was re­spon­si­ble for the stor­age, move­ment and is­sue of mu­ni­tions, oxy­gen and fuel, all of which were cru­cial to keep air­craft fly­ing and fight­ing. It had 95

“WRECK RE­COV­ERY HAD TO BE CON­TRACTED OUT TO ANY CIVIL­IAN OR­GAN­I­SA­TION WITH SUIT­ABLE VE­HI­CLES, IN­CLUD­ING DE­LIV­ERY AND RE­MOVALS FIRMS LIKE PICKFORDS”

fuel de­pots and five mu­ni­tions dumps spread around the coun­try, and the han­dling and trans­porta­tion of all of th­ese com­modi­ties was danger­ous and skilled work.

No. 43 Group dealt with re­pair and sal­vage. Sup­ported by the Civil­ian Re­pair Or­gan­i­sa­tion, the 35 units of the group were spread around the coun­try to pro­vide the men and equip­ment for the re­pair of air­craft that were too dam­aged to be patched up by their own ground crews. They also over­saw the col­lec­tion of wrecked air­craft. Crashed RAF air­craft were of course pri­ori­tised – not only would wrecked Bri­tish air­craft lit­ter­ing the coun­try­side be bad for pub­lic morale, but they could also be stripped for parts that could be re­fur­bished and reused, and the rest of the ma­te­ri­als sent for re­cy­cling.

Downed Ger­man air­craft would be as­sessed for in­tel­li­gence value. Dur­ing the bat­tle, the de­mand for sal­vage crews out­stripped the RAF’S re­sources, so much so that wreck re­cov­ery had to be con­tracted out any to civil­ian or­gan­i­sa­tion with suit­able ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing de­liv­ery and re­movals firms like Pickfords.

Into ac­tion

In the sum­mer of 1940, the day started well be­fore dawn for fighter sta­tion ground staff. They could be haul­ing them­selves out of bed as early as be­tween 3am-4am, dress­ing and go­ing to the can­teen for break­fast. Then they would pre­pare their sta­tion or squadron for ac­tion.

The per­son­nel ded­i­cated to car­ing for air­craft would set about pre­par­ing ‘their’ air­craft. Each fighter had a ded­i­cated two-man ground crew – a rig­ger and a fitter. A flight sergeant with No. 249 Squadron re­called that, “Each air­craft had its own crew. As a re­sult ev­ery­body is very proud of the fighter in his charge. And a healthy ri­valry de­vel­ops, too. They are like the boys in rac­ing sta­bles who groom their own par­tic­u­lar horse, call it pet names, slap it af­fec­tion­ately and kiss it when it wins a race… Once a pi­lot came back from a bat­tle after shoot­ing down a Junkers 88 and two Messer­schmitts. The crew that ser­viced that Hur­ri­cane did a war dance and went about swank­ing to the other crews. They re­garded the three at one crack as THEIR work.”

Crews would re­move canopy and wing cov­ers, then start the en­gine to warm it up, be­fore con­duct­ing ba­sic checks. Spe­cial­ists who cared for par­tic­u­lar parts of sev­eral air­craft – ar­mour­ers, in­stru­ment fit­ters and wire­less me­chan­ics among oth­ers – would also do their rounds. Starter mo­tors would be plugged in to make sure the air­craft could be in­stantly started and run­ning by the time a scram­bling pi­lot ar­rived. The same flight sergeant re­called, “If it takes more than two-and-a-half min­utes from the warn­ing to the time all the air­craft are in the air – well, there is usu­ally an in­quest, at which I am the coroner.”

After a long, tense wait, their air­craft would hope­fully re­turn, when more min­utes of fran­tic ac­tiv­ity fol­lowed, even if it was not dam­aged. The anony­mous flight sergeant also said, “As soon as the first one lands it taxis to­wards the wait­ing ground crew. A tanker goes along­side to fill up the petrol tanks. At the same time the ar­mour­ers re-arm the eight Brown­ing guns. The rig­ger changes the oxy­gen bot­tles and fits the start­ing-mo­tor to the air­craft so that it is ready for the next take-off. Then the rig­ger takes some strips of fab­ric which he has brought with him from the crew-room and places them over the gun holes. It helps keep the guns clean and also helps to keep the air­craft 100 per cent ef­fi­cient in the air un­til the guns are fired.

“Mean­while, an­other mem­ber of the crew searches the air­craft for bul­let holes, and the elec­tri­cian goes over the wiring and the wire­less me­chanic tests the ra­dio set. Ev­ery lit­tle part of the air­craft is OK be­fore the ma­chine is pro­nounced ser­vice­able again. All this process should take no more than five min­utes, but we al­low seven min­utes for the whole job… Once we ser­viced a squadron which came back more or less together in eight and a half min­utes.

“If a Hur­ri­cane comes down with a few bul­let holes, it is my job to see if the in­juries are su­per­fi­cial or not. If there are holes through the fab­ric, we quickly patch them up. If there is a bul­let thought the main spar, then it is a case of a new wing.”

In be­tween th­ese pe­ri­ods of in­tense ac­tiv­ity, while the pi­lots waited for the call to scram­ble or tried to un­wind after land­ing, the ground crews would still be busy. Work would be car­ried out to make grounded air­craft air­wor­thy

“THE LOUD­SPEAKER... AP­PEALED, ‘TAKE COVER! TAKE COVER!’ WITHIN THREE MIN­UTES OF THAT WARN­ING I SAW THE FIRST OF THE JUNKERS COM­ING STRAIGHT DOWN ON THE ‘DROME IN A VER­TI­CAL DIVE”

again, rou­tine main­te­nance would be done on the air­craft that were not fly­ing (even on the busiest of days it was un­likely the whole squadron would fly at once), bomb craters could be filled in, and prepa­ra­tions made for the next scram­ble. In quiet mo­ments a cup of tea and a sand­wich (‘char and a wad’) might be grabbed from the can­teen or a NAAFI van.

While the ground crews worked on the air­craft, the other ground staff at the sta­tion would carry on their rou­tine tasks to keep the air­field run­ning. Cooks, clean­ers and main­te­nance staff would go about their daily rou­tines. Clerks would sort, com­plete and send off the pa­per­work that would keep cru­cial sup­plies and re­place­ment parts flow­ing in. Days over that sum­mer would be long, ex­haust­ing marathons un­til the sun slipped be­neath the hori­zon. The flight sergeant re­called, “Fi­nally, at night­fall, we make the daily in­spec­tion. The ar­mour­ers clean the guns, the fitter checks the en­gine over, the rig­ger checks round the fuse­lage and cleans it, and the wire­less man checks the ra­dio set. The in­stru­ments man checks the in­stru­ments. When ev­ery­thing is OK and the nec­es­sary pa­pers signed, then the ma­chine can be put to bed. The sleeves are put on the wings, the cover is put over the cock­pit, the pick­ets are pegged into the ground and the ma­chine left, head­ing into the wind, un­til dawn… Dur­ing the sum­mer-time our hours are from about 3.30am un­til 10.30pm.”

Be­tween 13 Au­gust-6 Septem­ber 1940, the ground in­stal­la­tions of the RAF were the Luft­waffe’s main target. Dur­ing this pe­riod, and to a lesser ex­tent even after­wards, the ground crews at sites in south­ern Eng­land of­ten had to work un­der air at­tack, and spo­radic at­tacks were made on sta­tions fur­ther north too.

On many of th­ese days the ground crews suf­fered higher ca­su­al­ties than the air­crews, and some sta­tions were badly dam­aged. On 16 Au­gust, RAF Tang­mere was tar­geted: LAC Maurice Haf­fenden, an en­gine fitter with No. 43 Squadron, re­called, “At 1pm the loud­speaker, with a greater ur­gency than be­fore, sud­denly ap­pealed, ‘Take cover! Take cover!’ Within three min­utes of that warn­ing I saw the first of the Junkers com­ing straight down on the ‘drome in a ver­ti­cal dive. The leader was within 2,000 feet (610 me­tres) of the ground – long wing span – fixed un­der­car­riage – sin­gle en­gine – and then w-h-e-e-e-z… I went head-first down a man­hole as the first bomb landed on the cook­house.

For seven min­utes their 1,000-pounders were scor­ing di­rect hits and ev­ery­thing was swept away by ma­chine gun bul­lets. I never be­lieved such des­o­la­tion and de­struc­tion to be pos­si­ble. Ev­ery­thing is wrecked – the hangars, the stores, the hos­pi­tal, the ar­moury, the cook­houses, the can­teen – well, ev­ery­thing.”

Squadron Leader Sandy John­stone of

No. 602 Squadron, based at nearby RAF Westhamp­nett, vis­ited Tang­mere that evening and “found the place in ut­ter sham­bles, with wisps of smoke still ris­ing from the shat­tered build­ings. Lit­tle knots of peo­ple were wan­der­ing about with dazed looks on their faces, ob­vi­ously deeply af­fected by the events of the day. I even­tu­ally tracked down the sta­tion com­man­der stand­ing on the lawn in front of the of­fi­cer’s mess with a par­rot sit­ting on his shoul­der.

Jack was cov­ered with grime and the wretched bird was screech­ing its im­i­ta­tion of a Stuka at the height of the at­tack! The once-im­mac­u­late grass was lit­tered with per­sonal be­long­ings which had been blasted from the wing which had re­ceived a di­rect hit. Shirts, tow­els, socks and a por­ta­ble gramo­phone – a lit­tle pri­vate world for all to see… Rub­ble was every­where and all three hangars had been wrecked.”

A to­tal of 19 ground staff were killed at Tang­mere, but de­spite the dam­age the sta­tion re­mained op­er­a­tional. Only RAF Manston would be closed for any ex­tended pe­riod of time, after re­peated heavy raids. The story of what has be­come known as the ‘Manston Mutiny’ was re­counted by Len Deighton in his 1977 book Fighter, where it is said mem­bers of the ground staff re­fused to leave shel­ters and had to be forced out at gun­point. There is no ev­i­dence for this at all. Deighton has al­ways re­fused to re­veal his source, and no other ev­i­dence has ever come to light.

‘Spirit of Dunkirk’

In fact, morale held up in­cred­i­bly well in most ar­eas. It is tempt­ing to look back on 1940’s ‘Spirit of Dunkirk’, or later the ‘Blitz Spirit’ with scep­ti­cism, won­der­ing how much is myth based on pro­pa­ganda. But there is plenty of ev­i­dence of the na­tion pulling together.

An anony­mous WAAF at Rye Radar Sta­tion wit­nessed this sto­icism when her site was bombed on 13 Au­gust: “The deep, snarling roar of the bombers and the pro­tect­ing fight­ers grew closer and closer till the whole hut vi­brated with it. The Watch con­tin­ued steadily giv­ing height and speed and di­rec­tion of at­tack­ing hos­tile air­craft to Fighter Com­mand with­out a tremor in their voices. Sud­denly the RAF Of­fi­cer-in­charge called; “They’re div­ing! Get down!” and only then did those air­women move, and they moved as if you’d pressed a but­ton! We all fell flat on the floor as the first stick of bombs burst… Ev­ery­thing loose shot off the ta­bles, shut­ters were blown in, and glass flew in ev­ery di­rec­tion. The floor and hut shud­dered, and chairs and ta­bles over­turned on to us. Through clouds of dust I saw legs and arms pro­trud­ing from un­der­neath the de­bris; to those in reach I gave a friendly pat and an as­sur­ance that they were all right and must re­main still… At last, after what seemed like hours, we dared to raise our heads… What a scene of wreck­age and dev­as­ta­tion it was!

“THE DEEP, SNARLING ROAR OF THE BOMBERS AND THE PRO­TECT­ING FIGHT­ERS GREW CLOSER AND CLOSER TILL THE WHOLE HUT VI­BRATED”

“The Sta­tion build­ings were all wrecked… and there were enor­mous craters all over the place. But… we were back on the air in twenty min­utes,” she re­counted.

Sergeant Iain Hutchin­son was a pi­lot with No. 54 Squadron at RAF Hornchurch, and wit­nessed an­other ex­am­ple of the strong team spirit: “The air­field was un­der at­tack and chunks of shrap­nel were rain­ing down on the air­field. When I tax­ied to­wards the dis­per­sal no one was to be seen; they were all in the air-raid shel­ters tak­ing cover. Be­fore I rolled to a halt and cut the en­gine, ‘B’ Flight ground crew, un­der their flight sergeant, were swarm­ing around my Spit­fire; the bowser was rac­ing out to re­fuel the air­craft, while the ar­ma­ment men, laden with am­mu­ni­tion, were reload­ing the guns. The noise from the ex­plo­sions go­ing on around us was ter­ri­fy­ing, but not one of those mag­nif­i­cent men fal­tered for a moment in their tasks. I was frankly re­lieved to be tak­ing off again.”

Of course, there were lim­its though. Jack Shen­field, a me­chanic with the same squadron at RAF Hornchurch, also wit­nessed a more prag­matic ap­proach in ac­tion: “I got into the shel­ter, we were all packed in there, and the sergeant had closed the door. We had been only in there a minute or so when there was a bang­ing at the door. He opened the door and it was the driver of the Bowser; this was the ve­hi­cle that car­ried all the high-oc­tane petrol for the air­craft. He’d parked the thing out­side the shel­ter with all the bombs fall­ing all around. The sergeant said, ‘Sod off, and take that bloody thing with you, and park it some­where else be­fore you blow us all to pieces.’ The driver had to go back and park it be­fore they’d let him into the shel­ter.”

Such hu­man lapses aside, the ef­forts of the RAF’S ground crew and ground staff dur­ing the Bat­tle of Bri­tain formed an in­cred­i­bly strong foun­da­tion on which the air­crews could op­er­ate.

Es­pe­cially dur­ing the pe­riod be­tween 13 Au­gust-7 Septem­ber, the RAF’S in­fra­struc­ture and ground per­son­nel were the main target of the Ger­mans, although of course raids were made on air­fields and radar sites be­fore that, and would con­tinue to be made (al­beit on a smaller scale) after­wards. In fact, in some ways the raids be­came more danger­ous, as large, eas­ily spot­ted and tracked formations of bombers gave way to in­di­vid­ual air­craft or small formations that ar­rived at low level and high speed. Lit­tle or no warn­ing could be made for th­ese raiders, and per­son­nel were reg­u­larly caught out in the open with­out a chance to reach shel­ter. For ex­am­ple, ATA pi­lot Let­tice Cur­tis would re­call be­ing caught in the open as she walked across Hat­field Air­field, near the de Hav­il­land fac­tory, on 3 Oc­to­ber 1940: “As so of­ten hap­pened, the air raid warn­ing and the bombs came at the same in­stant and one bomb fell very near in­deed to those run­ning from the of­fice to the shel­ters. Luck­ily for them it did not ex­plode on im­pact, oth­er­wise we would al­most cer­tainly have lost, amongst oth­ers, Pauline Gower, our Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer, who was near­est to the bomb at the time.

One of the bombs, how­ever, did land on a fac­tory work­shop and 21 peo­ple were killed and some 70 were in­jured. The bombs had been dropped from around 100 feet (30 me­tres) and the pi­lot had ma­chine-gunned the work­ers run­ning to the shel­ters.”

That air­craft, a Ju-88a of 1/KG77, dropped four bombs, one of which failed to ex­plode, but the el­e­ment of sur­prise al­lowed it to achieve a dis­pro­por­tion­ate ef­fect (even if it was al­most im­me­di­ately shot down and the crew cap­tured).

Although the di­rect at­tacks on sta­tions de­creased, the Bat­tle of Bri­tain would still rage for two more long, ex­haust­ing months be­fore the Ger­mans switched to night at­tacks. Though the dan­ger de­creased some­what, the long hours and gru­elling pace of work did not. The out­num­bered fighter pi­lots who would climb re­peat­edly into their air­craft to take to the skies and de­fend the na­tion could do so with the knowl­edge that they were the sharp point of a vast, well-trained and ef­fi­cient ma­chine in­tended to put them in the right place at the right time, and with their air­craft in the best pos­si­ble con­di­tion to fight.

“THE NOISE FROM THE EX­PLO­SIONS GO­ING ON AROUND US WAS TER­RI­FY­ING, BUT NOT ONE OF THOSE MAG­NIF­I­CENT MEN FAL­TERED FOR A MOMENT IN THEIR TASKS”

WAAFS Joan E. Mor­timer, El­speth C. Hen­der­son and He­len E. Turner, who all re­ceived the Mil­i­tary Medal for their ac­tions un­der fire at RAF Big­gin Hill

Some of ‘The Few’, none of whom would have been able to take off with­out the ef­forts of ‘The Many’

Ap­pren­tices at RAF Hal­ton, 1939. Th­ese men would be vi­tal to the fol­low­ing year’s vic­tory in the Bat­tle of Bri­tain

The mag­nif­i­cent Bat­tle of Bri­tain Me­mo­rial on the Em­bank­ment in Lon­don, which ac­knowl­edges the large sup­port net­work be­hind the pi­lots

Ar­mour­ers re-arm­ing a Su­per­ma­rine Spit­fire at RAF Hawkinge, July 1940. Some of the Spit­fire’s guns had to be loaded from be­low, an awk­ward op­er­a­tion

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