|RAF Digby : Recollections of an Ops Room Plotter|
Updated: 3 Mar 08
ACW2 Margaret Balfour (886437) (Operations room Plotter)
Whilst the fuss caused by the call-up of reservists was subsiding another was caused by the arrival of WAAFs who were drafted in from August 1939: all occupants of married quarters were ordered to vacate them so that they could be used to house the WAAFs. One can imagine the wives not being very happy with this arrangement.
Arrival at Digby
The Guardroom, Digby - my first sight of it, and of the airfield in the distance. We had arrived — the first “batch of WAAF” for the Ops room. And a strange sight we must have looked - still in raincoats - no uniform, blue berets and those big black shoes! We were made to feel, standing there to sign in, that we belonged to the Station - that we were accepted. Our airfield, everyone was friendly from the start.
Of course, we were longing to look around, but we were marched off to our billets - shown the Mess and had the Ops room pointed out to us. Then we were left to get ourselves organised.
Never shall I forget the look of utter astonishment when we were left in a little bunch outside our billets - we dropped our suitcases and stared in disbelief, complete silence! Then our sense of humour, fortunately never far away, rose to the occasion. We were convulsed with quite uncontrollable laughter, we simply howled with mirth. Whatever had we let ourselves in for this time? A row of little married quarter houses, the 2 up/2 down sort. A kitchen with a copper, and a bath full of spiders. No promise of hot water, no heating of any kind - just a fireplace in each room - the old married quarters’ beds and very little else. How should we cope?
My (secret) flight experience
Near to two aircraft, chatted two or three Pilots, I went over and joined them. I asked if they kindly had time to take me up. They seemed utterly stunned, I remember, and then they burst out laughing. “Why not”, said one of them, “hop up”. I was in that cockpit before we had finished speaking. It was a small trainer aircraft I learned later. We were airborne for all of five minutes - absolutely pure heaven to me, and seemed so forever. I think we just circled and came into land. I was completely overcome with joy. I thought, in time, given the chance, I could do this on my own. Those Pilots swore me to secrecy, never to breathe a word about it - to forget it utterly. I never did mention it to anyone, but I never forgot! Those unknown Pilots sealed my love for Digby from that moment. The first Plotter to fly from there - and for all I know, the last.
Winter 1939/1940 Operations room
I do remember all the Ops room people were great fun - the Controllers, the Ops B’s and Ops A’s, and the Army Liaison Officers. We were well looked after.
I was the first WAAF plotter to take my place sitting around the plotting table on that cold morning of 8th December 1939 - my mind boggles at the thought of what we must have looked like then - we did not even have any uniform - great excitement we caused on the top deck! I can remember those first few weeks in Ops. We took it all very seriously, and scarcely spoke a word on duty. We were new to it all and expected it be very interesting. What amusement we must have caused on the Top Deck (Upper ops floor) . There we sat around the plotting table, in silence, headphones on listening intently, hoping for just one plot to come through. Nothing! The weather was frightful. Everything had closed down. In time we relaxed, and were able to read or knit, and talk. I always wondered what went on up on the top deck. It always looked so interesting to me - many people coming and going.
It was now becoming even more interesting in Ops. More flying, and many more aircraft coming and going. We were learning the Ops language, so we could pick up more of what went on around us. And then one day - I don’t know how it happened - I was told I could go and work on the top deck of the ops room. I wish I could remember more. Now my secret wish had been granted, and I was at last to work on Ops A to start with, and I was determined to make myself useful. There were Ops A’s and Ops B’s and Controllers - the Army Liaison Officers, and many more coming and going all the time when we were busy. It was Ops B work I thought the most interesting. That is what I wanted to do myself one day. From the top deck I had a bird’s eye view of the table - all the raids taking place. Everyone was very friendly and helpful, I was doing something I enjoyed and had wanted to do since the very first day I went into Ops. I was very, very happy.
And then catastrophe! They made me a Corporal. The horror still stands
out clearly through the mists of memory. I don’t think I had
ever before been so completely and utterly devastated.
The Sector Operations Room Museum Opening - 1997
After a lapse of 57 years - a return to RAF Digby - quite miraculous. During a normal life-span so many things happen that time passes quickly, with only little excitements and surprises turning up from day to day. A return to Digby had never crossed my mind, in fact I scarcely realised that RAF Digby was still on the map - so ignorant was I of what had happened to many of the old RAF Fighter Stations t'wix 1940 and 1997.
And then one day, very unexpectedly, and the result of many coincidences, I found myself invited to the ceremony of the reopening-up of the ops room bunker at Digby, and I wondered, could it possibly resemble now, what I only vaguely remember it looked like so long ago.
Passing through the guard gates - and there it was, the Station still standing - remote in the flat Fenlands of Lincolnshire. Only today there was no freezing East Winds howling round hut and hanger, or leaden skies, grey, overhead. Today just sunshine, and wonderfully warm glorious weather. On looking back, that is how I remember that summer of 1940 - sunshine, the smell of newly-mown grass from the airfield, and the ever present sound of aircraft coming and going overhead. All the tremendous fun we seemed to find time for, and the interesting and often funny episodes of WAAF life - all these flooding back into focus again. what time we had - all of our own making during 1940.
And the reason for our gathering together - the opening ceremony of the ops room bunker. With the guests all gathered on the lawns in front of the sand-bagged entrance, the tape was cut, and we all passed through the little doorway in the side of the green mound. I could almost see the sentry standing outside there with his rifle. The sun still shining brightly outside, but once inside the ops room, we felt that we had slipped back in time - again underground in lamp light. And there was the old ops table - the same paraphernalia - telephones, blackboards, chalk and lead pencils. The whole operation had been so well planned. We inspected everything - all very exciting, meeting everyone and chatting over old times. The the climax - a quite brilliant idea, excellently executed. The plotting of an actual raid which had taken place at Digby, and the first to claim the shooting down of an enemy aircraft, and that by a Digby squadron, 57 years ago. A lively account given by Flt Sgt Curry was extremely interesting. I might well have been in the ops room on duty at that very time. I cannot remember, after so many raids which followed during that year. The plots on the table seemed very real, with the interception taking place before our eyes. And then the "all clear" siren actually sounding, and we all rushed out side ops to witness the victorious Spitfire returning to base. I felt very privileged to be escorted to the ops room rooftop - just in time to enable me to take a snap of the Spitfire approaching, overhead and departing. All that was a very splendid bonus, and the photographs actually successful.
There, from the ops room roof, the countryside looked almost as I remembered it as it was when I used to take my turn to mount sentry duty there in the days when enemy parachutists' landings seemed imminent. But not quite the same now there are many more buildings around, and trees making the camp looking picturesque and green, and very trim now from how it appeared in 1940.
It had all been a very wonderful day. The party in the mess, and meeting everyone, and chatting as of old. It was fun, ending as it did with the ?Canadian? sun-down ceremony and the departure from the laws, still warm in the still evening - very moving, peaceful and happy.
So I am glad I found RAF Digby still on the map, and well inhabited with such congenial spirits from the past and from the present. Long may it remain so, with our young people ready to carry on where we left off. It is with such re-constructions and ceremonies like this that there will always remain the true story of history for them to follow - this little glimpse of history from Digby is one of them.
I can clearly imagine us WAAFs sat around the table, chairs drawn a little closer together, chatting or reading when no plots were about - but always listening out - and then a plot through - all at readiness again. That is when, if not needed on the table, I would slip up on the top deck and take my place as Op B1. There I was blissfully happy. I would know what was going on around me on the Station and elsewhere. We were all enthusiastic, although seldom spoke about what had taken place whilst we had been on duty. Our bond of silence to which we had all so recently signed was still uppermost in our minds. I sometimes think - even today - it is somewhere there, lingering in the background!
Digby Oral Histories:
- A History
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