Mrs Phyllis Hill.
She also served at RAF Exeter during 1941-45.
We thank Phyllis and her son Keith Hill for sharing.
WAAF. AIR FORCE PLOTTER FIGHTER COMMAND 1941-1945.AUGUST 19th 1939.
My Wedding Day aged 20 years. We were on our honeymoon when war was declared.
Returning to our new house in Devizes, Wiltshire, our first visitor was a Catholic nun with a housing officer and small girl about 8 years old, who was to be our evacuee.
Lily was a sweet, quiet, girl, not used to home comforts, and owning nothing. We bought her gifts, took her to the seaside, cinema, had her little friends to tea; could not spoil her enough.
Alas, the nuns were not happy with this change of life, and after a few months, they were all collected up and returned to the orphanage. We tried to keep in touch, but no way – a closed door.
Towards the end of 1940, my husband was enlisted into the RAF, posted to Blackpool, then to a wireless operator’s school, mostly to learn Morse code. Within a few months, he was on the high seas, destination unknown.
I decided to store our furniture, let the house, and store our clothes at my parents’, and join the RAF.
The nearest recruiting office was Bath, and I reported there. A male officer asked me a whole lot of questions – spelling, mental arithmetic and IQ; he told me that I would receive my papers and a railway warrant in a few days. I did – Gloucester was the destination, it was May 2nd 1941.
Arriving at Gloucester, there were RAF police calling “WAAF Recruits” – that was me! We were taken to a RAF lorry, I had my first experience of climbing up the tailboard, also my first lesson – be first up the tailboard to get a side seat – alas, I was on a form down the middle!
Arriving at Insworth Lane, we were checked, shown into huts of about 20 beds, 10 each side. On each bed were three square mattresses known as “biscuits”, 3 hairy air force blue blankets, 2 unbleached sheets and a roly poly pillow filled with hay.
A sergeant entered, “stand by your beds and listen to the rules”. Lights out by 10 pm, beds stacked, washed, outside by 8 am, ready to march to the Mess.
All a bit strange, but most of us slept well.
Morning arrived, we found the ablutions, nothing private here, stacked our beds blanket sheet, blanket sheet, 3rd blanket folded long ways wrapped around with the ends underneath all folds to the front, it did look neat when done properly.
Sergeant tried to teach us to “get fell in” and find our left foot to start our first march to the mess.
The next few days were a test on our stamina, drill, march, fitted with uniforms, vaccinations, tests on our brains – oh those blistered heels, NAAFI sold out of plasters, we were all limping – at this time several high tailed it back home!
About my fourth day, one morning among the sea of faces, I saw one I knew. She saw me at the same time. We fought our way together – she had just time to say “try to be a plotter”. I don’t know what it is, bit I am to be one!
My interview time came, two male officers sat behind a desk. I boldly said “I would like to be a plotter”. “Do you know what a plotter is?” they ask. A little less boldly I said “No, but I’ve a friend who is going to be one”. Questions followed some more spelling, maths. “Would you be calm under fire?” I said “Yes”, was passed. “Clerk, Special Duties” was the title, we, nor anyone else, knew what it was!
We passed it all, were soon on a train to Leighton Buzzard, and finally arrived at a Plotters School, a building resembling a prison.
On the first morning we were shown into a large room full of maps and telephones. We had to make an oath on the Bible that we would never talk of our work, or make any notes; we began to feel collywobbles at this stage.
The teaching did prove very intensive, especially as we could not make notes – we lay in bed testing each other – I cannot remember any free time at all, but never thought of giving up.
At last a list was presented of stations needing plotters; these were fighter command operational stations.
Most girls wanted to be near London, so Colerne in Wiltshire did not receive many names. We were pretty sure we would be going there, and we were.
We said our farewells, and caught a train to Bath; here we were met, quite used now to living out of a kitbag, and climbing tailboards.
Colerne was a fairly large station of concrete blocks. We were shown into “B” Block. Outside our window, was a runway to a hanger. We were soon to get used to Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitoes taxi-ing by to the hanger; some girls wore earplugs.
One day a Mosquito overran into the hanger and burst into flames. They were mostly wood, so no hope, although fire engines were always on standby, of saviour – our first sad experience.
We were both on “A” Watch, and were to be called the “heavenly twins”; we worked side by side, slept side by side, ate side by side, went on leave together, and were always spoken of as “Rudd” or “Hill”. Christian names were seldom used.
The “Ops” was underground, most of them were, sentry at the door, code number given, which was changed each day. We left our coats, caps etc in the cloakroom. Filed into “Ops”, collected a headset from a row of them, and plugged in next to the WAAF we were taking over from.
When you were plotting in rhythm, she would unplug, disinfect her headset and hang it on the peg. Headsets were adjustable to fit snugly over our ears. Plotting rods were adjustable in length and magnetic. A speaking tube hung round our necks, we were given a position to plug into, and would be responsible for information for that section. Every aircraft in the sky should be shown on the table, as were all air balloons.
At the height of the raids, certain stands were used, 50-100 or even more would be shown on one stand. It was very special when a pilot called “Tallyho” – this meant that he had shot down a German – smiles all round the table!
Above the plotting table were two daises; centre top would be the Controller, a RAF Officer in direct contact with pilots. Others would be setting wind velocity against aircraft climbing to find the correct course to send our fighters on. There were several states of aircraft – Release, 1 hour, 30 minutes, 10 minutes, Readiness, 2 minutes, Patrol, Airborne, In Position, and Detailed Raid. Whole squadrons had to be plotted, and directed on its course. Also on the dais were Army Officers in control of their guns – in all of the plotting rooms there was a hive of activity.
We were also detailed P.T. to get fresh air.
One day I took the place of a girl who had booked a horse at some riding stables; she could not go, so to save her losing her money, I went. I had to borrow her jodhpurs; we were about the same size. I had never been on horseback – it seemed a long way from the ground! However, she gave me some instructions, heels out, back straight, reins loose, my horse followed hers; if she trotted, we did; if she galloped, we did; I just hung on, and ducked the low branches.
I witnessed a very sad incident at Colerne. We were to be picked up by an Air Force bus, and as it stopped to back and turn, some of us jumped on. One girl, for some unknown reason, was slow going round the back of the bus. The driver did not see her; we felt the bump as it knocked her down and ran over her. The ambulance was there in minutes to rush her to hospital, but sadly she died on the way.
We were all very happy at Colerne, but the time came when we were on the move to Middle Wallop. For some reason unknown, we never warmed to Middle Wallop, so welcomed the call for plotters at Exeter, and volunteered top of the list. Transport awaited us at Exeter Central and we were driven about 6-7 miles the other side of Exeter City, a pretty village called Pinhoe.
Pinhoe was small, with two pubs – “Poltimore Arms” was the one the Army favoured, “Hearth of Oak” the RAF – you never found a mix in either pub. Ours had a cat – it seemed to sense when I was there and would appear, thread its way through the people to find my lap, where it could curl up.
Devon was noted for its cider. I didn’t know how strong it was!!! After an evening of many glasses, I was so ill the next morning that I could not move from my bed. Nothing to be sick in but my tin hat!!! The girls kindly emptied it for me, and I have never tasted cider since that evening.
Another incident was when we went to the airfield to a dance on a hot evening. We took a walk along a runway and suddenly planes that were training to tow gliders flew over. They had left the gliders and were trailing the heavy chains – we had to run for our lives!
A large house and park was our destination, a few huts nestled in this park, our new home. There was around 20 beds in each hut, 10 each side. The most coveted beds were the ends ones, under the small windows. The WAAF vacating a hut space would delegate who was to have it after her! I remember this happening, she had written –
To Phyllis Hill I bequeath this corner
Before I go I’d better warn her
There’s not much room to meet
Discuss our Yanks
And how they are sweet!
The wall was covered in such writings.
We took pride in our hut. Each polished the floor space under her bed, we stacked our bedding neatly, kitbags with everything we owned, like sentries to the left and head of each bed. We put our shoes on outside, or walked on dusters, the floor shone like a sheet of glass.
It was a private park, we never saw the public there, and we were marched through it to duty, and marched back again; we never loitered there, or went in any other time; only WAAF “ops” lived in these huts.
The “Ops” building was a short march away, a very busy “Ops”. We would start plotting the “Germans” from the coast of France over the water to our shores, 50-100-500 at the time; our table was full, plots came fast and furious. Each plotter was responsible for a section of the map, colour of arrows changed each 5 minutes – Red, Yellow, Blue. Never kept on Red when you started Blue, to be exactly accurate and on time was vital for our controllers to send our fighters on the course we were plotting. We were very aware of our responsibility; I realised why the interviewer asked if I would stay calm under fire! No room for nerves on these nights!
Airfields, especially “Ops” were a target, they did get some, and WAAF lost their lives. We used to say “if our name is on it…..” I can never remember being frightened – no good to be!
Great excitement – the “Yanks” were here! Right in our “Ops” putting up their own plotting table.
They were young, fresh and smart. Night duty was never the same! We had been issued with navy trousers for night duty. Knife edge creases appeared, starched shirts and collars, make-up carefully applied, precious perfume shared – how exciting life became.
Unknown at the time was that they were encouraged to date us WAAF; they knew we had regular FFI inspections and were clean, and they were, I believe, issued with condoms.
However, invitations to their dances were frequent – transport provided, masses of food and drink, we tasted chocolate as never before, we lived life to the full, learnt to Jitterbug, taught them to waltz and foxtrot.
We were lacking sleep; soon to be noted, new rules were issued. We were checked and inspected that we were in bed after night duty especially. A good thing really, cannot keep burning the candle at both ends. One good thing – we never put any fat on!
The Yanks were new to bombs and sirens – who were first down the shelters when the sirens went off? We often never bothered to go down.
While at Exeter, we were sent to Brixham on a course, to see how we got our information. Radar stations on the edge of the cliffs were even more secret; we had a code number or word given each shift, changed each time. We sat in front of a television screen; a needle was revolving picking up information on a grid. It was very tiring on our eyes as, except for the screens, the room was dark. We were pleased when we returned to Exeter.
While at Brixham, though, the first night we went to a dance in the town hall, and danced with every nationality of serviceman. We were surprised that there were only two of us there – until we told the other girls, that is! They said it was out of bounds – we never knew why.
On another night, we missed the last bus from Exeter to the village – we were used to hitching a lift, and a lorry stopped for us. After he started again, we realised that he was drunk as he was driving erratically. At the next pub on the road, he stopped and invited us in for a drink. We said “no, we will wait here” and as soon as he went in, we clambered down and decided to walk – 5 miles at about 10.30 pm. We were late sneaking under the barbed wire that night!
We decided to spend one leave in Blackpool. We had been to the Lower Ballroom, dancing to Reginald Dixon, and were making our way back to our boarding house in Lord Street, where RAF recruits were boarded, when we spied 2 MPs. We slipped down a side street, I don’t know why, just an automatic reaction! But they had seen us and a little way on we came face to face. They thought they had a catch, but when we showed that we were stationed all the way down in Somerset/Devon, they gave up reluctantly and let us on our way.
When I got repeated sore throats, the MO decided that I needed my tonsils removed, so I enjoyed a spell in the Royal Exeter and Devon Hospital. I had to have “junket” which I do not like. (Junket is milk, sugar, rennet, cinnamon, brandy and clotted cream). As I was going on the operating table, the air raid sirens went but no-one took any notice! The next thing I knew was being back in bed minus my tonsils.
I then made the mistake of going AWOL. I was caught, put on a charge and posted to Kirkwall, Orkney. We were to part.
My faithful kitbag was packed, goodbyes made and I started on the long journey from the South coast to the North coast, over the water. It took me two days.
I left the train in London, found a RAF MP, and asked his advice about my destination. He said I would catch a morning train to Scotland, but meanwhile he would take me to a Service hostel for the night; this he did. Of course it was blackout. I had never been to London so was very grateful; otherwise I would have stayed on the station.
I slept well, found my way back and caught the train for Scotland. It was packed – all service people.
A Naval lad saved a seat by him for me. I was so grateful, we were to be in this seat all that day and all night, dozing at times, dashing in turn to the loos on the station – one had to guard the seat! We bought sandwiches and tea on the stations we stopped at.
We arrived at the borders the top of Scotland. He was going to a naval base over the water too, so we caught the ferry together.
Landing the other side, we found a café, shared a breakfast, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways. We never even asked names, but I was glad to share the long journey with him. I think it was the Scapa Flow he was based at.
I shouldered my kitbag, asked the way to the airfield, and made my way, longing to wash, and change the clothes that I had worn 2 days and 2 nights without removing.
Kirkwall did not have a lot in its favour for me – no trees, windy, bleak, could hardly understand the language, but I was there to stay.
I reported in, was given a bed, a watch I would be on – they were on duty at the time. I got unpacked, managed a bath, met them as they returned from duty, and slept well as usual.
Next morning I joined them for breakfast, and then it was on parade to march to “Ops”. I now had two new plotting tables to learn, one filter for shipping subs etc. This was new area.
About two months later, as I was walking through the camp I spied a WAAF Officer coming my way. As I prepared to pass and salute her, we realised we knew one another as she had been at Exeter. She asked me if I was happy at Kirkwall, I said “yes, but I do miss Exeter”. “Leave it to me” she said. I did not think much about this, but sure enough a few weeks later my papers came – a posting to Exeter. I never saw her again to thank her.
I collected my papers, ship and train passes, said my goodbyes, and made my way to the docks. No companion this time, so a lonely journey, just a repetition of the one to Kirkwall, but in reverses. Two days later I was back at Exeter, same watch, same hut – great rejoicing!!!
It was drawing near to D-Day. We noticed extra activity around the coast, and one day we were called to a meeting to be told that we would be confined to camp, all letters and phone calls monitored and censored. The yanks were, too, except of course air crew.
We passed the time mostly playing cards when off duty. One day a low plane flew over our roof tops, bringing us outside to look up to the sky. The plane made a circle, and as it again flew low, it dropped a sack dead on target. We waved to the pilot, clearly visible. This sack contained letters, candies, chocolate and Camel cigarettes – how welcome of them to do it.
This was a time of mixed feelings. We knew “D-Day” was near, our boys would be invading France, some would not return; would it succeed or fail? These were among our thoughts.
It came. It did not fail, but at what cost. The lives that were lost, not to enjoy the freedom and victory they gave, some not to return home to America.
We had other thoughts, too. Back to civilian life. We had lived over 4 years with just a kit bag, 2 sets of uniform, rules to live by. I had a husband to meet whom I had not seen for 4 years.
On his return to this country, he got leave. I did also. We met on Bristol station. He had never seen me in uniform, but there I was in RAF blue like him. We felt like strangers. We had a lot of catching up to do.
We got our demobs, and stayed with my parents. We never went back to the house we bought. We sold it to buy a sweet and cigarette shop, but really fancied a village post office and shop.
We viewed one in a village just outside of Salisbury, Wiltshire, liked it, and moved there. We bought and sold three more village stores, and had a baby boy, before retiring to a flat near Bournemouth.
A few photos remind me of my life in the air force. I am glad to have these memories.
To Enlarge THE PHOTOS DOUBLE CLICK ON THE IMAGE you wish to view.
Anyone who remembers serving with any of these young ladies, please contact us we would be delighted to hear from you or your families.