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
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.
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