One of the last of the WAAF plotters on duty in the operations room during the Battle of Britain
JOAN Fanshawe, who has died aged 98, was on duty as a WAAF plotter in the operations room at RAF Uxbridge when Winston Churchill visited at the height of the Battle of Britain.
The weather was fine on September 15, 1940 when the British prime minister decided to visit the Air Officer Commanding No 11 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, at his headquarters. Shortly after his arrival, the Luftwaffe launched the first of a series of major attacks against targets in London during the day.
Joan was one of 10 WAAFs surrounding the plotting table in the underground operations room, when soon after 11am the first reports of an enemy raid were received. Using a stick like a croupier’s rake, she plotted movements in the Calais-Dover sector, which proved to be the main axis of the attack.
Park skilfully deployed his squadrons and they inflicted significant damage on the bomber force. Churchill, monitoring the movements on the plotting table with Park from the controller’s balcony, expressed his delight at the results.
Shortly before 2pm, a much bigger raid was detected by the early warning radar system. Park launched his squadrons and soon had 250 fighters in the air, but they were still outnumbered two to one. Park and Churchill watched as the WAAF plotters moved the blocks to show details of the attacking force approaching London. Seeing that every squadron in 11 Group was in the air, Churchill turned to Park to ask what reserves were available. Park gave his now-famous reply — that all his squadrons were airborne.
Although the claims of successes against Luftwaffe forces were exaggerated, the day was a clear victory for the RAF, and September 15 has subsequently been commemorated as “Battle of Britain Day”. Joan remembered the day as special, but noted in her diary that she was “rather annoyed” that Churchill’s visit had extended her shift by an hour.
The daughter of a clergyman, Joan Margaret Moxon was born in Leicester on September 5, 1920. She attended Hastings and St Leonards Ladies’ College, where she was deputy head girl, and then studied at the London School of Economics. On the outbreak of war, she joined the Civil Defence.
After reading an ad for girls with “good educational qualifications” to join the special duties branch of the WAAF, she enlisted — insisting that since her father had no sons to volunteer, she would instead. She began her training in the summer of 1940 and by the end of July, she and 13 others had been sent to the operations room at Uxbridge.
In January 1942 she was posted to the RAF fighter airfield at Kenley, where she worked as a supervisor in the control room. She was commissioned in November and moved to Tangmere near Chichester, where she became an assistant controller. In addition to her duties with the fighter squadrons, she used a confidential telephone line to a top-secret cottage to coordinate the carrying of agents to France by Lysander aircraft.
In February 1943 she was sad to leave Tangmere for the fighter airfield at Debden, Essex, but she did not realise at the time how this move would shape the rest of her life. In September, visiting friends of her father, she met their son, Lieutenant Tom Fanshawe DSC, RNR, on leave from his frigate HMS Rother. They quickly established a close relationship before Fanshawe returned to duty on the Atlantic Convoys.
Joan returned to Tangmere at the end of 1943, by which time preparation for D-Day was well advanced. The couple’s plans to marry in June had to be postponed as Fanshawe took command of the corvette Clover, which formed part of the vanguard of naval ships to sail for the Normandy beaches. On the afternoon of June 5, after watching the convoys building up in Portsmouth, she attended a conference of commanders, when she learnt that the invasion was to take place the next day. She recorded in her diary: “At last it has come! I am so terribly thrilled to be here helping to get fighter cover into the air to protect Tommy escorting the invasion troops.”
They were married on August 14 and Joan Fanshawe spent the rest of the war serving on fighter stations, before leaving the WAAF as a section officer. Her husband was granted a permanent commission and she began a long life as a naval officer’s wife, in Italy, Bahrain and South Africa.
Joan Fanshawe was an accomplished church organist and played at her church at Stroud in Hampshire and two other rural churches. In the last 10 years, she became something of a celebrity as one of the last of the Battle of Britain WAAF plotters.
She gave a reading at the Westminster Abbey Battle of Britain Day service in 2015 and was an honoured guest at the RAF’s Centenary celebrations in 2018. That year she also attended the premiere of the documentary Spitfire ,in which she appeared.
Joan Fanshawe possessed a great spirit and sense of adventure. To celebrate her 97 th birthday, she flew in an aerobatic aircraft from Goodwood. After her husband’s death in 2000, she made regular trips to New Zealand to visit her two daughters, and it was there that she fell ill, while helping to bake a Christmas cake. Joan Fanshawe died on December 21 and is survived by her son and the two daughters.
SPIRIT: Joan Fanshawe had a great sense of adventure