|History :: Oral History : Iris Burgess, WAAF (2)|
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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 part two her story. (read part one here)
Accidents Will Happen
On the whole our section was quite lucky in that we had very few accidents by comparison. One Drogue operator got caught in the towing wire, losing his thumb and part of his hand. We also had a Flight Commander who left to fly Hudsons in Coastal Command and was posted as missing believed killed which saddened us all very much as he was very well liked by everyone. A mechanic walked into a moving propeller and lost his arm. A Wellington caught fire as it was coming into land. The fire engines raced over and all the crew jumped out but as the plane flew low over a farmhouse a woman ran out and was engulfed in burning fuel. Her aged mother ran out and on seeing her daughter in flames had a heart attack and died too.
Of course as is always the case in war, some were not so lucky as others. I remember a young mechanic named Alan who wished to return home to Newark to see his family for the weekend. On Sunday when he had still not returned we all became very concerned. The following day his cap was found next to the site of a crater where a bomb had landed a couple of days before beside the road he was thought to have been hitch-hiking along. No other trace of him was ever found. His parents had not heard from him on Friday, nor had he told them that he was coming home. It seems that he had wanted to surprise them.
On another occasion Madge contracted appendicitis and had to go for an operation in Louth Hospital. Benny and I went to visit her. In the same ward were housed several mentally handicapped babies. They just lay there, not moving or reacting at all. One, I remember had the head of a two year old but a babies body. We used to go to play with them to try and get a reaction. By the time Madge left they had been moved to a hospital further North. We also went to visit an air gunner friend of Benny’s brother. He was in a hospital in Bourne, Cambridgeshire with shell shock. He had lost all memory of the war and talked of being late for school. Some other men were playing on the floor with toy bicycle or train sets. It was extremely sad to see but fortunately Benny’s friend made a complete recovery and went back on to ops as if nothing had happened. Benny lived in London. Her father worked at the docks for a tea company, her mother was no longer alive. Once when we came to visit we got stuck in an air raid and had to spend a long time in the Kings Cross Underground. Afterwards we went sightseeing and went to the Rainbow Club which was packed with Americans. We sat on the balcony watching them jiving, which was all new to us. We spent the night in the Salvation Army Hostel then tried to get to the docks but never made it as we had to get the train back to camp.
Going on Leave
Whenever I returned home on leave I caught the train to Peterborough. At that time I had to walk from Peterborough North to Peterborough East for the Ipswich train. I remember on one occasion I was on my own and the Ipswich train was packed with rowdy drunken Americans. The Guard said he did not like the thought of me being on my own amongst them and so took me to the guards van. When we got to Ipswich he asked the porter to let me into the ladies waiting room which was locked after 10pm. By then another girl arrived so we were both locked up until our train to Darsham left at 6.30am. On my way home I always looked out for Ely Cathedral. It was a wonderful sight from the train and even when it was dark it stood out. I remember thinking ‘as long as Ely Cathedral stands there we shall be alright.’
At Christmas people were asked to stay on duty to let the married men with families get home. As a result I spent all my Christmases on camp. Until 1943 we had very grand Christmas dinners (turkey and roast pork with all the trimmings followed by Christmas pudding with brandy butter), with menus, paper hats and the officers waiting on us for a change! After 1943, although the officers continued to wait on us, the event was not held on nearly as grand a scale. Notwithstanding there was always a dance and as each new year dawned we included traditional Scottish reels in the celebrations. At midnight Old Father Time came in complete with scythe, followed closely by the New Year Fairy, carried in on a throne by the airmen. We all sang Auld Lang Syne and went around kissing everyone! It was all great fun and nobody ever got drunk!
Threat of Invasion
Throughout the early stages of the war the threat of a German invasion was extremely real and on several occasions all leave was cancelled. On one occasion the Luftwaffe dropped thousands of leaflets on Manby and the surrounding area announcing that Hitler would be making his headquarters at nearby Burghley House. Myself and the other WAAFS were given courses in unarmed combat involving mock gas attacks during which we had to walk through specially constructed gas chambers both with and without our masks on. After this we had to practise going through the decontamination process. This involved stripping off before being thoroughly hosed down. We also had to practise first aid in the field which meant carrying stretchers around ditches and getting parachutes down from trees etc. To keep us fit we had PE once every week which involved an arduous run around the perimeter track. Fortunately, as a member of the ‘permanent staff’ I was usually able to get out of this if there was a lot of flying on! It was in the midst of all this that we awoke one night to hear a terrible noise echoing around our quarters. Terrified that the invasion had come it was up to me as leader of the House to investigate and when I tentatively opened the door you can imagine my relief when I saw a barrage balloon with its wires tangled around the chimney! Before we could get dressed and get help however it broke away and went flying over the countryside until it was shot down by British Fighters. It later emerged the thing had broken loose from Hull.
Life on Camp
Of course, life on the base was not all bad. Manby had two canteens: a NAAFI canteen and a Salvation Army Canteen. On the whole we tended to favour the Sally, as it did scallops, that is to say potatoes fried in batter by comparison to which all other foodstuffs seemed to pale into insignificance. In the evenings there was always somebody to play the piano for a sing-song and on Sundays there was always a service. When I first arrived at Manby there was a Drum Head service between two hangars, in which we paraded with the band, something which I always enjoyed. As numbers increased these services were held in the camp chapel, and later in Manby Church itself. Every Friday, come rain or shine we had Station Parade on the Square for the ceremonial hoisting of the flag. The whole camp, officers and other ranks, were inspected and had to march past the Group Captain et al.
The band usually included Colonel Bogey in its marches for which many of us had invented rude words! One morning somebody had cut the rope used for hoisting the flag. Groupy went mad and gave five minutes for the culprit to own up and when nobody did he ordered the whole parade to march to Theddlethorpe, which was seven miles away. We were forced to carry gas masks and steel helmets and whenever the band struck up as we approached the various villages everybody came out of their houses to watch, they had never seen so many air men and women out on the march before! Very few people had to fall out and when we got to Theddlethorpe we were allowed to rest. Groupy in the meantime got worried and, feeling guilty, sent lorries to pick up the WAAFS but we all refused to ride back. In the end we marched back on to the parade ground in the proper order and he had to dismiss us in the official manner. I never even got a blister but others were in agony. One WAAF officer collapsed and was rushed to hospital. A poem went around:
Group Captain strode upon the square
That is all I can remember although there were more verses.
Aside from this somewhat impromptu march several organised parades did take place through the town of Louth. The Station Warrant Officer, whose name was Watkins, was a strict disciplinarian and fanatical about marching. Before every special occasion he would have the WAAFS out on the square for drills in order to pick out a squad for parade. He was shorter than me (no mean feat considering that I measure barely five feet tall) and a Cockney to boot. I remember him going mad and shouting things like “Whatcha fink this is, a WAAFS playground? I can drill ya!” everyone stood in awe of him and I for one never missed a single parade.
At Manby we formed several inter-section sports teams. I myself was a cricketer but played very few matches due to the amount of flying in the summer. At that time we had ‘double summer time’ which meant that we had more time before lights out. Lights out in the winter was 10.30pm. One night I and three others were writing letters after lights out when we heard the duty officer coming up the stairs. One of the other girls quickly put out the lights but stupidly I was still sitting up with my writing pad and pen when the duty officer walked in. “Its good to see that Burgess can still write in the dark” she declared. We had a good laugh about that after she had gone and no charges were brought against me. In fact I only did one lot of ‘jankers’ in all my five years and that was for being late back from leave. My train from Ipswich got to Peterborough on time but we were told that the Louth train had broken down and that the next one would be at 7am. We got our passes signed by the RTO then went to a canteen for the night. Unfortunately however it turned out that a train had left for Louth at midnight and that the RTO had gone around the waiting rooms informing people about it but did not get around to our canteen. When we returned we were put on a charge and had to polish the corridor floors in headquarters for two nights.
Several pilots who arrived at the base had done two stints of operations. Thirty raids was the number before they were allowed a break so the strict discipline at Manby did not go down well. Most of them were doing instruction courses and the pilots flew the training planes. We had several Polish pilots who only understood English when it suited them! I helped some of them with their log books, as I did with one Indian who wore a turban and had a jewel on his forehead. When he needed to have his log book made up he would bring me an orange and the Daily Sketch. We never found out where he got the orange from but I shared it with the other girls. Other foreigners came and went as well. Over the years Manby played host to Free French, Czechs, Norwegians, Australians, New Zealanders; even one or two from the Seychelles and Mauritius. Towards the end of the war even a few Italian prisoners worked in the camp, delivering coal and gardening.
One evening I was among a group of volunteers who were called upon to make tea and sandwiches in response to what we were assured was an emergency. We were taken to Saltfleet where we found several hundred Dutchmen who had escaped from their destroyer and were cold and hungry, having on their person no extra food or clothes. I have never seen such thick cheese sandwiches (there being no sliced bread in those days) and our wrists became very sore from spreading margarine and spreading cheese. They were housed at Saltfleet for just one night before being interrogated and sent to proper billets and, I hoped, better food.
At one time we also had a squad of Canadians at the base. They were a wild lot with very little discipline. When ordered to strip and report to the sports hangar for PE they literally stripped naked and ran up to the hangar (fortunately I did not witness this incident personally). They were so unruly that a guard was put on the WAAF quarters. Once one of the Drogue operators rushed in a panic to report that they had been firing at the towing plane instead of the Drogues. Everyone was relieved when they finished their course and left. Soon after this we had some Russian officers who were just visiting and being shown around. Our flight commander told us they were disappointed that they did not have access to WAAF quarters!
Thursday night was domestic night during which time we had to stay in our billets, polish our bed spaces, the kitchen, bathroom and any other stains we might find. Our kit was inspected and had to be laid out on our beds in a certain order. We had sewing kits which were known as ‘housewives.’ Everything had to be mended and badges, buttons and shoes polished. If anybody laid their kit in the wrong order the duty official would tip it off the bed and make them do it all again. Benny lived in a different house to me. She was always losing things and never mended stockings, so she would wait for the officer to leave my house for another before rushing over and borrowing the things she had lost! Although she was personally disorganised I think she was reliable enough in her job as a parachute packer. I helped her with this sometimes and we became friendly with a pilot and his wife, June, who lived in a nearby village. The wife got rather lonely at times and so would ask us to tea. Sometimes we would also go out with her when her husband was on duty. However things were not all that they seemed as we discovered one day when another pilot arrived bringing with him a bag filled with silver plates, candle sticks, shoes and clothes. June seemed rather embarrassed and it soon became clear that these items were probably stolen with June’s knowledge. Not wishing to become involved with this sort of thing we ended our friendship with June soon afterwards.
As must often be the case in wartime friends can come and go at the drop of a hat. I often went into Louth on my day off and to the WVS canteen which was located there. It had a lovely lounge with lots of books and magazines. It was there that I met an ATS girl named Joan. She was with the Middlesex regiment in a camp just outside Louth. We went to the pictures sometimes before going to her billet for tea. She was in a Nissen hut with six other girls. The men were in tents. We got on very well together and met up on our days off. One day we had arranged to meet at the bus stop and go up to Lincoln together. When she did not turn up I walked to her camp to see what had happened. The sentry on the gate told me that the whole company had moved out suddenly at 3am. As we had never exchanged addresses I never heard from her again. I knew she was a Londoner, but from which part I never knew.
Other people I met during the war however I have managed to stay in touch with ever since. One such friend was a girl named Elsie. She lived at Sutton Bridge and I spent several weekends with her at her father’s smallholding. One of her brothers was tragically killed after peace was declared. He was in the Royal Marines and was shot dead along with several of his comrades by treacherous German sailors whilst approaching them to request their surrender.
Myself and Elsie were going back to camp from Sutton Bridge one Sunday (via a train which connected with our train at Spalding) when the train was stopped by a herd of cattle on the line. Apparently the driver of the train rang Spalding to say he would be late and that he had some troops on his train to make the Grimsby connection, so would they mind waiting? It was a hot day and when the train finally arrived we ran over the bridge to meet the guard at the waiting train. He asked where the troops were and when we explained that they consisted of just us he was not best pleased. It turned out that the train was full of mothers and children who were being evacuated from London because of the Doodlebug raids. Naturally this caused us a great deal of embarrassment and we stood in the corridor all the way to Louth, hot and thirsty just like all the others!
Thousand Bomber Raid
In 1944 the RAF took part in a 1000 bomber raid on Berlin. All available aircraft took part, including one of our Lancasters, crewed up by ex op volunteers. I was in the watch office filling in forms when my pencil point broke. I asked if anybody had a spare penknife and one of the gunners leant me his just as he was leaving. “Don’t forget your knife Johnny;” I said. “Keep it to remember me by if I don’t come back” he replied. He did not come back and yet survived the raid, being shot down over Berlin and taken prisoner. I still have the knife to this day.
Beach Time and Morale
Throughout this time, as the war slowly turned in our favour, we had been working long hours and some of us had had no leave for six months. As a reward we were commandeered a hotel on the seafront at Mablethorpe. The army even cleared a section of beach for us in order that we could swim and play games in the sand. It was a lovely weekend when I went and the rest did everyone good. My friends and I all agreed that it had seemed like years since we had set foot on a beach.
Of course, trips to the beach was not the only method of raising morale. The Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) visited us frequently bringing with it stars such as Robert Donat, Max Bygraves, Denny Dennis, and most memorably of all Ralph Reader and his gang show, who each signed their autographs for me in return for my distributing their programmes. In addition to these set piece events there were other more localised gatherings. One of the Corporals started ballroom dancing classes from which I learned the Tango and became so accomplished at it that to my surprise he chose me as his partner in a Tango competition which we went on to win. We also came second in the Waltzing competition (we would have come first had the boys from our section not shouted and whistled and all round put me off). Looking back now I cannot even remember the name of my dancing partner. He had a wife who did not dance but was perfectly happy for him to do so with me. This may have been because I used to let her have my cigarette ration, myself not being a smoker.
One day a sense of great excitement gripped the entire camp. None other
than Winston Churchill himself was coming to Manby in order to inspect
the troops. We had spent the past few days making sure the whole camp
was spotless and now formed a guard of honour from the main gates. We
in our ranks, first at ease and then ‘stand easy,’ in order
that we could fidget a little. As time wore on the officers began pacing
up and down looking more and more worried. Finally the Air Commodore
came out to make the announcement we had all been dreading. The visit
We were all dismissed. Nobody knew why until later. For this day was
the 6th June 1944: D-Day.
Victory in Europe
On the 7th May 1945 I came off duty late, and as I had a radio in my room I switched it on to be greeted with the news that the war in Europe was over and that the lights could go on again! I woke everyone in the house and we ran out to meet with the others, we ran over the sports field, joining up with many other men and women as we did so. We got into the NAAFI through a window and started a sing song. Suddenly the Air Commodore walked in. To our surprise he and the other officers joined in for a while before announcing that we were all to return to our billets, having first sung God Save the King. On the way back we saw that some stupid girl had set fire to the blackout curtains which we all had to pay for afterwards. The next day the official statement was made by Churchill and the next week we had a victory parade through Louth. It was terrific. After the parade we were allowed to stay in Louth for the celebrations. Three months later came VJ day and in January 1946 I was demobbed. I was twenty four years old.
Throughout my entire adult life I had known nothing but war. Now,
in common with millions of others it was time to join in the
and to find out for myself just what sort of brave new world
I had helped to create.
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