Sunday, October 31, 2010

24. I join the WAAF - Training

I do not know how the information came my way, but the WAAF was recruiting young women into the ranks. Between June 1945 and the end of 1946 over 100,000 girls were demobbed; they wanted to be released so that they could return to their husbands or marry boyfriends or just return to civilian life. I wonder what happened to all those uniforms! Even in peacetime admin work had to be done, and the WAAF were paid a much lower rate than the men for doing the same job so, as usual, females provided cheap labour. It was not a comfortable way of living, in fact by 1950 there were only 517 members of the WAAF left! But conditions had to improve and today there are even women pilots in the service, and I imagine the pay is equal.

The recruiting officer interviewed me and, on seeing my American Red Cross Uniform and hearing my phoney southern accent asked me, “Will your country allow you to join the WAAF?” Having explained that I was English, she next asked why I wanted to join up. So I said “To tell you the honest truth, I need three square meals a day and somewhere to sleep.” Well, the war was over so I could hardly give patriotism as my reason. My nomadic life and frequent changes of job, plus early school leaving, made supplying referees difficult. The Club Director would give me a reference when I left, but I was still employed there. I did have Mrs Evan’s school leaving letter written almost five years before and goodness knows how many addresses previously. But, I suppose, most of the girls applying to join up at this time were pieces of flotsam and jetsam, cut loose when the war ended. None of the new recruits I met came from happy homes or had successful careers with a solid social background. After replying honestly to all her questions, and after a medical to see that my heart was beating and that I had no nasty diseases, I was accepted. Because I was under 21, my father’s permission was required, and this he gave, reluctantly. He certainly had no better way of life to offer me.

Father had been fired from the off-licence (bottle store) and, as they had lived in a flat above the premises, they were homeless again. Housing was at a premium, so Father decided to build a bungalow and while they waited for it to be finished Mother, Father and Maureen were staying with Aunt Doris in her small bungalow in Thundersley, together with her three very horrible little boys. I travelled down to see them all before reporting for duty and stayed for a couple of days, so we were again sleeping four to a bedroom and when Uncle Albert returned from the Far East the following day, there were five in their bedroom, which must have been very frustrating, even for the puritanical Albert. I returned to Earls Court to await my instructions from the RAF which, when they arrived, contained a travel warrant and instructions for catching the train to Wilmslow.

While awaiting the train a few of us were interviewed by the Press, and that was my first experience of misreporting in the newspapers. Having told the reporter that I had previously worked for the American Red Cross he asked me “Would you like to serve overseas?” “Yes, of course” I replied. “I suppose you would like to go to America?” was his next question. “Yes, I would, but there are no WAAF postings there”. The report in the paper stated that I hoped to go to America so that I could catch up with all my American service friends! Pictures were taken of us boarding the train; Mother’s only comment was that I had a button missing from my coat, and Father said something about brains missing from my head as well.

The WAAF training camp at Wilmslow looked like the concentration camps I had seen on the news. Rows and rows of bare, uninviting wooden huts, standing on clinker bases. We reported to reception where we were issued with blankets, sheets, pillows and pillow cases for our beds, an enamel mug and a knife, fork and spoon, hereafter referred to as eating irons. We were greeted at our allocated hut by the Corporal in charge who read from her list of names alphabetically, and allocated a bed and locker to each of us. I was dying for a pee but there was no toilet in the hut, the bathrooms and toilets, hereafter referred to as the ablution block, were at the end of the line of huts. In the service one does not wash, one performs ones ablutions. The Corporal demonstrated the correct way to make our beds using the three ‘biscuits’, which were placed end to end to form an excuse for a mattress, and how to tuck in the sheets and blankets using hospital corners. We were also shown how to fold the bedding in the morning because, apart from Sunday mornings, bedding was stripped and stacked before going to breakfast.
Step one: Blankets to be folded lengthwise to the same width as a biscuit, blanket folds facing outwards, edges folded inwards, and placed across the width of the bed.
Step two: Stack in the middle of the folded blankets the three “biscuits”.
Step three: Fold sheets to the same square size as a "biscuit", with folds as per blankets.
Step four: Fold blankets, one by one, over the three biscuits with open ends at the top to form a perfect block resembling a square, Bassets liquorice allsorts.
Step five: Push stack to the head of the bed and place the pillow squarely on top. With luck you should now have a perfect bedding square that will pass the morning hut inspection carried out by the duty officer and the corporal i.c. of the hut.

That little bit of instruction over, we picked up our mugs and eating irons and marched... well, straggled because marching lessons had not yet begun, over to the dining hall. We were given a very unappetising meal, after which we left the dining hall, past a metal tub filled with boiling water in which we washed our cutlery. Doing this without scalding oneself was tricky especially if there was a bit of jam stuck to the handle of the knife, on the rare occasions that there was jam. Picking up my irons became such a habit that later on when I was eating at home or in a restaurant, I would absentmindedly get up from the table and walk off with the cutlery!

Back in the hut, hereafter referred to as ‘The Billet’, some enterprising recruit had tried to light a fire in the huge black stove which stood in the middle of the room. With very little wood and hardly any coal, her efforts were not rewarded, so we unpacked our little suitcases and crawled into the cold, uncomfortable beds under an inadequate number of blankets. Regulations stipulated that at least one window in the hut must be open at all times so, in November with no heating and only three blankets, we were very cold. We laid our coats on top of the blankets, put on our stockings and cardigans and curled up into shivering little pre natal position balls. And, thus ended the first day, and more than one young recruit cried herself to sleep, but I was not one of them.

They had a delightful way of waking us up in the morning. The night orderly would burst into the hut at 6.00 a.m. turning on all the lights, banging something metal that sounded like a dustbin lid, while shouting “Everybody up!” After a while we learned to dress while still asleep and slept in our underclothes. With a kit allocation of three pairs of knickers, (one on, one at the laundry and one spare) we wore our knickers for a week, night and day. In the morning it was still dark as we walked to the ablution block, which housed a row of concrete sinks with pipes and taps running above them, and just about managed to wash the tips of our hands and the tips of our noses. I challenge anyone, other than tough little boys from English public schools, to strip wash in November in an unheated brick wash house with a concrete floor. We were allowed one bath a week, allocated by roster, and how I longed to wallow in a deep, hot bath.

To begin our first day as raw recruits we made up our bed squares, as instructed, ate a stodgy breakfast and then reported to the stores for our uniforms. Two skirts, five inches below the knee, no matter how near the knees were to the ankles; two jackets, with brass buttons and buckles which would need frequent cleaning with metal polish; one hat; one overcoat; one pair of gloves; three shirts; six shirt collars with collar studs and bones; three pairs of knickers; three vests;three pairs of thick, air force blue cotton stockings, three pairs of blue and white striped flannel pyjamas (in which we looked like a fugitives from a chain gang); three towels; two pairs of shoes; one pair of plimsolls; one button holder for cleaning buttons; one kit bag. And an item which filled me with joy, one packet of sanitary towels. What a luxury, I even remember the make, ‘Southalls’. Until then I had mainly used strips of old sheeting, held up with a wide elastic band, which had to be washed and reused. These proper disposable jobs were worth joining up for, and we were issued with a packet every month! The knickers/bloomers were called “passion killers” because they were air force blue silk knit and would have fitted most really big grandmothers. Each item had to be marked with name and service number (Lawley - 2170968) and laundry was collected once a week.

There were frequent Kit Inspections where, on a blanket spread out over the bare bed springs, everything had to be laid out in a specified order so that the duty officer and duty sergeant could check and count each item. One item missing and the loser would be charged to appear before the Flight Officer for just punishment. Many a single stocking was stuffed up with paper to make it look like a pair!

There were eighteen of us in the billet, all from different backgrounds and pretty well all there because we had either been unhappy at home, had lost our jobs or were lost souls with nowhere else to go. The girl in the next bed was a strikingly beautiful girl called Mary who just had to get away from home, no reason given. She had been a trainee at an Elizabeth Arden salon in the West End, and from what she told me about the discipline and rules there, the Air Force would be a picnic. We became very close during the eight weeks of training and I remember her every morning, when I try to copy her method for getting up. She would lie in her bed and say “I will get up, I will get up – one, two, three.” And on the count of three she would jump out of bed. The only difference is that nowadays I do not jump very often, and never very high. It is strange that I think of that girl every morning of my life, while she has long since forgotten me, or may even be dead by now.

There were rosters for everything. The two hardest tasks were finding, hereafter referred to as ‘scrounging’, fuel for the hut boiler and wood for burning S.T.s which had to be collected from the ablution block daily and burned in a specific place. Nothing, but nothing is harder to burn than a bucket full of them! At one time, due to being posted and also moving huts, I was on burning duty for three months! Tampax were not yet invented and later it was said that you could not use them if you were still a virgin!

I soon got into the routine of marching (which I enjoyed very much), kitchen duty, IQ tests, weekly medical examinations, trips to the NAFFI for a cuppa tea and a wad (anything edible that could be smacked between two slices of bread), and having absolutely no privacy. And the endless polishing, polishing, polishing, shoes, buttons, floors and lavatories. We were always cold and always hungry, but I was happy. It was all a big challenge and there was nothing I would not try to do better than everyone else. I was marker on the parade ground, top of my course, and was even asked if I would like to be considered for a commission. I said yes, but when they discovered that I had left school at fourteen they realised that I did not have the necessary education required, so that was that. My lack of education has cost me many opportunities. The course finished in January and we received our postings. Mine was to Records Office, Gloucester, which was not so much a posting as a sentence. Word was that anyone sent there never escaped.

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