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  History :: Oral History : Iris Burgess, WAAF (1)

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Updated: 1 Oct 13

On a narrow country road in the obscure Suffolk village of Sibton, a young girl just two months shy of her eighteenth birthday was making her way home from church when she met an excited man on his bicycle who frantically informed her that Britain and France had just declared war on Germany. This girl’s name was Iris Margaret Burgess; and this is her story.

Outbreak of World War I – Signing Up

In November 1940 I volunteered for the WAAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and was called up in February 1941. I reported to the recruitment office in Ipswich and was given a rail ticket to London and told to report to Adastral House along with six other girls.
When we got to Liverpool Street we were met by a RAF Sergeant who told us that Adastral House had been bombed and that we had to get into a lorry and go to some other place. I cannot remember where, but this building had also suffered bomb damage. On the way there we passed smouldering ruins and saw men digging in the rubble of houses.

The walls of the medical examination room were badly damaged and a poor job had been made of trying to repair them. As a result it was very draughty which meant that we were freezing when we had to strip for our medical examination. Only I and two others passed the examination and we were given tea and sandwiches before being taken along with several others to a room consisting of a stage and a Union Jack. Here we had to swear allegiance to the crown and were given the kings shilling. I was amongst the last to take that ceremony as the conscription of women followed soon afterwards. I never spent that shilling but I believe it to have since been lost amongst my collectables.

First Posting – Training at Innsworth

Soon afterwards we were sent to Innsworth Lane in Gloucestershire for training. On the journey down we were stopped in the Severn Tunnel for some time and to make matters worse all the lights were out. It was rather scary but fortunately a soldier in our carriage had a cigarette lighter so it was not so bad. We eventually arrived at Innsworth House in the dark and pouring rain. We were taken to the mess room where we were given a knife, fork, spoon and pint mug which we were told to guard with our lives as we would get no more.

Throughout my years of service I kept them with me at all times. Our first meal at Innsworth was very lumpy semolina cheese accompanied with bread and margarine, the first of many such meals I was to endure throughout my time there. We were then escorted by torchlight to our huts where we found three biscuits, three blankets and a pillow on our beds. We were looking forward to the ‘biscuits’ after enduring the semolina but were very disappointed to discover that they actually referred to three square mattresses which fitted on to our beds. It took a while to make up a bed. Each morning the mattresses had to be placed one on top of the other, the blankets folded (one lengthways and wrapped around the other two) and placed on top of the ‘biscuits’ (no edges allowed)!

The next day we were issued with our uniforms and gas masks etc. along with some paper and string with which to send our civilian clothes home. Following lectures on how we were expected to behave, we started square bashing. From the start I really enjoyed this and was chosen to be an escort to the Duchess of Gloucester when she came to inspect us.

In the event of an air raid warning at night we were told that we were all to get underneath our beds. On one occasion during a raid an airmen’s billet was hit. There were certainly some casualties and I remember seeing stretchers being loaded into ambulances although we never heard any other details.

It was whilst at Innsworth that I first became aware of the existence of ‘Working Men’s Clubs’ through chatting to several girls who were from the north. Coming from a sleepy place like Suffolk it was quite a surprise to see some of these girls getting up on the tables in the mess room and ‘doing a turn.’

Posting – RAF Manby

After a fortnight of marching and Physical Education we received our postings. Mine was to Manby near Louth in Lincolnshire. I was joined by two other girls called Joan and Daisy who were from Hartlepool and Middlesborough respectively. To me they seemed to be talking a different language but I soon got used to it and I suppose they got used to my accent as well. We were met at Louth station and taken to WAAF HQ at Manby. As we were struggling up the driveway with our kit bags some girls, who were clearly cooks, peered out of the door and greeted us with the words “Not more bloody WAAFS.” At that time there were a total of twenty four WAAFS, including ourselves, though in the years that followed that number rose to hundreds. Indeed when I first arrived at Manby there were so few of us WAAFS that each week the commanding officer, Group Captain Ivens and his wife, invited six of us to dinner at his house. After dinner we all played charades and a pleasant time was had by all. This all stopped of course as numbers increased, but the group captain always remembered us girls who had gone to dinner a few times and would stop to speak to us. Lots of people were glad when he left as they felt he ran too tight a ship but I always liked him. His successor was a Commodore whom we very rarely saw.

Manby had existed prior to the war as a permanent station complete with large brick built barracks, large headquarters and classrooms. When I first arrived Manby was guarded by the army, the Sherwood Foresters and the Durham Light Infantry. Later on the RAF took over and the army left. We used to enjoy watching the army drilling on the parade ground as they marched in double time.

Operational Life at Manby

At this stage Manby was the No 1 Air Armament School, training air gunners, bomb aimers and navigators. Joan, Daisy and myself were sent to the air gunnery section, which consisted of Drogue operators and pilots. The planes used were Blenheims and Wellingtons (or Wimpys as they were more commonly known). The Drogue towing planes were called Lysanders and Jainey Batiles (sic).

The air gunners were on weekly courses and after lectures performed gunnery practice. They flew in Wellingtons, the guns of which were loaded with different coloured bullet tips. The Drogue planes flew up and down over a course at nearby Theddlethorpe, each plane carrying three Drogues which were streamed from the plane by a long wire. The gunnery planes flew alongside the Drogues with the gunners taking it in turns to fire at them with their different coloured bullets. Afterwards the Drogues were returned to Theddlethorpe where the holes were counted and accorded to the gunner who had fired the colours. Each man had to make a certain number of hits to pass. Resources being scarce the Drogues were then repaired for future use on another occasion in much the same way as parachutes. My task in all this was to record the number of the planes, the names of the pilot and his crew, take off and landing times and, at the end of it all, to count up the scores. First flights usually took place around 8am and exercises often finished as late as 10.30pm meaning that it was often after eleven when we left off. It was quite a walk to the WAAF houses and the mess staff were not always happy at having to stay up so late to serve us food. On days when the weather prevented flying I helped out on a number of tasks including splicing loops on the towing wires, rewinding spools or replacing cords on the Drogues. Sometimes I even helped out in the control tower.

We worked an eight day week, that is to say seven days on and one day off. When it came to flight duty we were more or less a law unto ourselves as the hours we worked depended on the flying times. Eventually the Blenheims and Wimpys were replaced by the Lancaster and the Halifax, and the towing plane by the Masters. As a result our section was moved from the hangars and from then on we worked from three or four Nissen huts. Conditions there in the winters were awful, this being the Fens, and the icy winds blew over the airfield as if in the Arctic, a single Tortoise Stove(A free standing wood burner) providing our only heat.

Although the camp was non-operational damaged planes returning from a raid on the continent frequently landed on the runway, which had to be kept clear at all times. If there had been heavy snow a system code-named ‘Exercise Snowflake’ was put in place during which all those on watch duty had to report to the hangars, collect a spade and start clearing. It was so cold out there and I have never enjoyed anything more than the hot cocoa that the NAAFI wagons came up with whilst we worked.

Our Commanding Officer, ‘Groupy’ was extremely strict and everything had to be extremely well rehearsed. One unforgettable morning at 3am on the 5th June the tannoys sounded for Exercise Snowflake. We decided that Groupy was expecting too much to get us out on a mock call out so did not get up. After a second call we looked out to see deep snow! Needless to say we got to the hangars in record time, but as we were late our names were taken and we had to run around the perimeter track once carrying a spade. The snow lasted all day, with thunder and lightning to boot which made the snow look bright pink. One winter it was so bad that nothing could get in or out of the camp and we had to get by on hard biscuits and cheese. In the mornings our eye lashes were frozen to our cheeks and our face cloths were as hard as boards. We were allowed just one fire in each house. Our quarters were at the end of the runway and so received the full force of the wind. On some days we had no water and had to melt the snow in order to wash. Arriving for duty on time often meant having to struggle through deep drifts.

Allocated to a Section

Upon arriving in Manby we were allocated sections. My section included three men from Norwich, three from Wales and two Geordies. When I mentioned that I came from Suffolk the Welsh lot told me “Oh, I bet you believe that us Welsh have ponies in the pits!” When I replied that I did indeed believe this they started up a great argument about how this was all untrue. This carried on until I realised they were all just pulling my leg. It was their favourite way of teasing newcomers, and with three girls among twenty to thirty men we got a lot of teasing, but often found a way of getting our own back. Once one of the Drogue operators crawled into the office as I was working alone at the table and grabbed hold of my legs. I was so scared (and he was laughing so hard that) I told him it would cool him off if he came down in the sea. A day or two later he came storming into the office shouting ”Where is she the witch?” He had come down in the sea! It turned out that the plane had come down just off a nearby beach which had been mined and so the army had had to come out and rescue them. They did not get wet but nonetheless I was careful not to tempt fate again!

On one occasion we had a new adjutant who rang one morning to say that he would be coming to look around the section and would our Flight Commander show him around. I went into the crew room to warn them as I knew they sometimes played cards which was not allowed. They asked what the adjutant was like so I told them to look out for somebody who was short and fat. In the event he turned out to be quite tall, and caught them with money on the table. He actually turned a blind eye (some officers would have had them charged for gambling) but the crew came after me anyway! It had been snowing heavily so they opened the windows and threw me out despite my protesting that he had sounded short and fat on the phone!

One day three Spitfires landed from Binbrook where there was thick fog. One of the Drogue operators came in to say that one of the planes had DB registration so it must be Douglas Bader. We all watched out for them to leave and managed to see Douglas stomp over and climb into his plane. Naturally he did a low level pass over the airfield which pleased us all. Even more pleasing was when we were all allowed on to the airfield by the runway to see one of the first Meteors. It was thrilling to see the pilot carry out all sorts of manoeuvres. It was great when he switched on the burners as he climbed.

Stepping Out

Our gunnery section was beside the main road to Louth and across the road was a farm. Being the only country girl I was persuaded to go across in order to ask to buy some eggs. The old lady who ran the farm along with her bachelor son, Harold, took a great liking to me and provided me with eggs, pies and cakes. It was not long however before I came to suspect that she wanted to pair me up with Harold, who always seemed to appear whenever I went over. I was not best pleased with this and so told the other girls in my quarters that I wouldn’t go over anymore. Eventually Joan said that she would go but unfortunately she was caught and put on a charge for breaking out of camp. That was the end of the eggs but it was not the end of Harold. A little later the villagers living near the camp were invited to a big camp dance and the minute I walked in there was Harold looking very smart in his evening suit. He made a bee line to me straight away, asking me to dance. Although he was a very good dancer I managed to persuade the boys from our section to keep asking me to dance so that he could not monopolise me. Soon afterwards he invited me to the Harvest Supper. I said I would go only on the condition that my pal Benny could come too. We cycled there and had a marvellous time. I told Harold that he was not my type and that I did not want to date. “Mother will be upset!” was his reply.

Then there was Ronald. We all used to go to the village shop which was owned by a widowed lady. She would save me tins of soup, fruit and meat paste which were rationed and in very short supply. I got on very well with her and learned that she had once been to Southwold, which gave us some common ground. One day she was very excited because her son was coming home from Canada where he had lived for several years. She called him from the back room to introduce him to me. When we shook hands I took an instant dislike to him. His hands were so soft and flabby and for some reason I became convinced he was a spy. He was a handsome man with steel rimmed glasses and his hair was plastered down with brylcreem. He too was invited to the dances and asked me to dance a lot. Luckily however he spent a lot of time in the company of the camp officers and as different ranks were discouraged from mixing with each-other it was easy for me to avoid him. Benny agreed that he was certainly a spy and vowed to keep me away from doting mothers in the future!

After a long and hard week dancing was how most of us chose to get away from it all and relax. Myself, Benny and the other girls went dancing every week, Louth Town Hall on Saturdays, the Camp on Sundays, duty permitting of course. We usually went around in the group of people whom we worked with and so knew well, meaning that none of us ever formed any potentially perilous attachments.

The WAAFS often got invitations to dances on other camps, including army units. I remember going to one at Waddington where they had a London band playing. I was greatly looking forward to it but when I got there it was so full of drunken airmen that I resolved never to go again. On another occasion we arranged to go to another camp and I was placed in charge of organising the return home. We had to be home by midnight but when it was time to leave on the bus one girl was missing. There was quite a panic until she was eventually found in the Padre’s room! On our way back we came to a level crossing which the keeper flatly refused to open for us in spite of our drivers hooting. In the end we were forced to get off the bus and open the gate ourselves. This turned out to be a mixed blessing as I was able to put the blame for our returning home late on the Crossing Keeper, thus saving the Padre’s girl from any trouble.

Number of WAAFs Grows

As the number of WAAFS increased we were moved from our ex warrant Officers Quarters into those of former airmen. I was placed in charge of my own ‘house’ which meant that I had a small room of my own. I also had the duty of making sure that all the girls were in by 10.15pm and lights out by 10.30pm. This job required a lot of vigilance and it was not long before I discovered that one girl named ‘Bubbles’ was sneaking out after dark.

After the conscription of women standards fell quite considerably. At one time there were so many pregnant girls (some were even rumoured to be prostituting themselves outside the men’s barracks) that we were all called to a special lecture from a high ranking official from London who informed us in no uncertain terms that; “You girls are privileged to wear the uniforms of heroes. It does not become a prostitute!” I do not know if the talk did any good. Most of the girls were not there long enough to tell.

Air Raids

As the gunnery courses only lasted three weeks or so, our section was classed as permanent staff, as we knew the routine so well and so I was working with the same people all the time. Air raids were few and far between although of course they did happen. One lunch time as we were walking to the Salvation Army canteen for a cup of tea, a German plane dived out of the clouds, machine guns blazing. The ground was thick with snow and I could hear the bullets sizzling all around me as I ran for cover. It only dawned on me later just how close I had come to being hit. One of the Drogue operators was manning the gun on the plotting office roof (before the days of the RAF Regiment). He fired at the plane and to his surprise he shot it down. It crashed in a field beyond the camp, killing the crew, who were buried in Manby churchyard. The funeral parade and band was exactly as would have been expected for a British crew except for the German flag on the coffin. There were several war graves at Manby, mainly deaths from flying accidents.

One night coming back from Louth on the bus we saw the whole camp lit up like day. The Germans had clearly dropped some flares prior to an attack. The bus driver refused to take us anywhere near the camp and so we rushed down the road on foot. It was then that we heard the unmistakable whistling sound of the bombs. Several bombs were dropped but not one did any damage whatsoever, each landing on the grassy areas beyond the runways or in the fields surrounding it. Nonetheless the noise from the attack guns was deafening and almost certainly helped us jump that extra few feet over the hedge and into the ditch beyond. On another day we were forced to take to the air raid shelters from where we heard a great deal of gunfire. Sgt Bbjaka, a Polish pilot, got us all singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ although in the event no bombs were dropped. Then there was the time we went to Grimsby (or GY as we called it) for our day off. Whilst waiting for a bus to take us back some sailors appeared and offered to take us to a dance they were organising. Because I was on duty at 7.30am I was unable to go but my friends Madge and Joan did decide to stay and so booked into a hostel. That night there was a German raid which did severe damage to the hostel. Madge and Joan awoke quite unharmed, balanced on a floor with no walls, having slept through the entire thing. One day when I was having a day off a Wimpy5 crashed on takeoff, ran over the perimeter track and crashed into a petrol bowser, killing the pilot and his crew member and also an airman who was on top of the bowser checking the fuel. The hut in which we kept our bicycles was also engulfed in flames. That morning I had gone to the shoemakers to get my shoes repaired but as he was not there I left them in the bicycle shed and caught the bus to Louth. When I returned they told me at the guardroom that there had been a big panic as one of my shoes had been found in the same shed that had been burnt to ashes!

continued ... >

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