Working Lives

Life in the wartime WAF and a lifelong love of local history (1940s-2021)

Location: Norwich

Helen tells about her mother’s experience in the WAF during the Second World War and about her own work as a local historian and writer.

My mother’s work in the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce

When mum joined the WAF she was approaching the age of 19 – or perhaps a bit older. I’ve found her joining-up papers, where she signed on to go into the WAF. Initially she was sent up with the other recruits  to Morecambe, Lancashire, to do their “square bashing”, their initial training and then they were assigned to the different air stations and sent to work at them.

She had to do an intelligence test and they decided from the result of that she’d be suitable for working in the plotting room – she actually later on became a radar t operator – and she was sent down to Worcestershire. At first she was based at a place called RAF Wick and then she was sent to RAF Comberton. They are both near Defford, in Worcestershire, and actually substations of Defford I believe from what I’ve managed to work out.

Curiously enough, when I first met Bill, he was talking about his work at Malvern and kept mentioning that they used Defford for testing stuff. And I said ‘Defford?’ and he went ‘Yes’ and I said ‘Mum used to talk about Defford an awful lot’. Eventually when we were going over to Wales to see my daughter we stayed in Malvern and we went and had a look around and there’s a National Trust property near there called Croome Park. It’s very near Defford and mother had talked about a big hall there and what they actually did. She said ‘We were a crew at Comberton and we had an opposite crew at Croome Park. We were not allowed to communicate with them and were not allowed to go up to Croome Park, under any circumstances as they were our duplicate crew and if one of the crews had been knocked out the other would’ve        taken over. This was where we were doing the radar work’. It was all very secret. She had to sign the Official Secrets Act.

When she worked in the plotting room they were plotting the enemy aircraft coming in, seeing where they were and the Royal Artillery officer they were attached to was sending messages to the Ack Ack guns to get the planes as they came over. This was to protect the RAF Station at Defford. She said they were living in a house called “Van Dyke Court” in Wick, which I’ve actually been to as we managed to find it once when we went to Malvern. She said, ‘When we walked out of the house we always had to go in pairs – and no more than pairs – so it didn’t look suspicious, walk up the road, go through a hole in a hedge, go across two ploughed fields and then down 25 steps into a big underground bunker’. She didn’t tell me the exact location of the bunker, but I presume from what she said that it’s still there.

She said there was a military guard on the door all the time. And she said, ‘All of us were trained to use hand pistols and military guns before we went there’. They were taught to fire and practised on a military firing range. She also said that only volunteers were armed. Conscripts weren’t. She was a WAF volunteer and said, ‘We were armed and had to carry our guns with us at all times’.

I get the impression she worked in a large team. She said there were an awful lot of ladies there who were pretending to be younger than they were and that a lot of them were  Jewish or had Jewish husbands, because they knew that, of all the people there, they would be the last to say anything to anybody. She also said that a lot of the ladies there were serving RAF officers’ wives or fiancés. Her fiancé was my dad who was in the army and actually, by that time, he was well on the way to becoming a prisoner of war, but she didn’t realise at the time.

She didn’t really talk about how she felt about her work, whether she was frightened or excited. She would chat in general about the time she spent with her friends and about how one night, when she went back to her billet hut at Comberton, she put her feet on the stove to warm them and burned a hole in the sole of her WAAF issue boots. She then had to go and explain – ‘Can you give me new boots?’, ‘Well, what have you done?’ and ‘Well, my feet were cold so I burnt them against the stove’. She would chat about things like that.

She worked night shifts sometimes. In fact, when she was a radar  operator they had  a scanner mounted on a mobile hut,  which would get dragged hither and thither into the middle of a field or wherever and then they would have to spend the night pedalling the scanner – because it was a pedal scanner – and they had to make the sure the scanner kept going when it was out in a field in the middle of goodness knows where. She said ‘That’s how we were working’.

It was intense, but they did get time off. On her days off would go into Worcester or Pershore. They’d cycle there. I think she said that coming home, when they got a leave pass, she would come home through Coventry or Birmingham and she said at Birmingham you got off the train to change the trains to come this way and the towns were  completely in ruins, bombed out.

She had to keep very quiet about the work she did. And this is the interesting part. Her father didn’t want her to go in the first place and wouldn’t even go to the station to wave her off; he refused to. He said he wanted her to stay at home because he’d had a bad experience in the First World War with losing friends so he was very anxious. He’d got two sons in the military at that time and he really didn’t want her to go. And when she came back they said, ‘Well, what are you doing? What job have you got?’ They had uniform jackets with nothing on the sleeves to indicate what they did – that patch on the sleeve was empty. ‘Well, I’m a cleaner.’ ‘So, what do you do, her father asked?’ ‘I spend my days sweeping.’ (Oh yes, sweeping the sky not the floor! ) But she said, ‘I couldn’t divulge anything. We’d been warned that if we divulged anything we’ll be lined up and shot!’

She never mentioned about being paid less than the men were paid for doing the same job. I would ask her things about radar and things like that and she said ‘I’m not telling you. It’s probably still a state secret, some of it. There are things I can tell you and things I’ll never tell anybody’. She just said ‘No, I’m not saying anything’. And in a way she was right, from talking to Bill about radar. He said she couldn’t tell me  much, because up until probably the early 1980s they were still basically using the same equipment. He said she couldn’t have talked about it.

She talked about her off duty days sometimes – at RAF Comberton – but she said ‘There were jobs we could do on our off days, either going and painting the aircraft wings with dope to waterproof them’ and the other thing they could do was, when the planes were scrambled, go out and turn the propellors as they went. I said ‘What?’ and she said ‘Yes, you had a choice. You could do one or the other, whichever, and other days we would go off to Pershore.

She wasn’t based in the same place all the time, but she just moved from  Wick to  Comberton . I actually keep meaning to get her RAF records just to see what she did and where she really went. I didn’t know until probably seven or eight years ago that she had ever been a plotter either. She’d never really said, but she was very ill and probably thought she wasn’t going to last much longer – she actually did – and she was talking to me and my son and it all just came out. And she had a mysterious New Zealander fiancé that she mentioned  briefly. When we were children she would never watch a war film involving planes. She’d go out of the room and do something else. I didn’t understand why and then in the fullness of time it all came out, didn’t it? My dad was a prisoner of war. She thought he died on the Burma railway and she manged to find herself a New Zealander – I think he was an RAF pilot and I think he was based at Swanton Morley and his name was John, but she vnever confirmed it. All she said was that he’d flown his due number of missions and volunteered for a last one and was killed and that’s all I know about him. When she died I thought there might be something in her paperwork, but there wasn’t a trace.

I have the letters that she wrote to my father during the war, which I think he finally got at the end of the war when he was released. There is nary a mention of a New Zealander.

My school days

I grew up in a village near Aylsham called Cawston and initially I went to the primary school in Cawston and then – I don’t know why – my parents decided they’d pack me off to school in Buxton. Not very far, but you certainly wouldn’t be doing that now. I wouldn’t do that with my grandson certainly and he’s about the same age. My aunt was teaching there so that was alright and she’d see me onto the bus coming home. Then I went to a tiny village school in Heydon. The total number of children in the school when I was there was, I think, 25. There were two classrooms – a big classroom and a small classroom. I have the school photos. We used to walk  round the village on May Day giving out bunches of flowers to everybody in the village, which was sweet and very nice. I have the press photo of that with all of us lined up. I can name everybody in the photo except, I think, two children because they tended to come in batches of family – you know, whole families. Mother taught there briefly at the end of the war and she actually taught the elder brothers and sisters of the ones I went to school with. That photo would’ve been about 1958. In 1959 my granny, and then my aunt, paid for me to go to prep school in Norwich – Notre Dame – so I stayed there, took my Eleven Plus, was destined to go to high school – the senior department – and I point blank refused. I said “No thanks very much. I’ve passed my Eleven Plus. I’m going off to the county grammar school at North Walsham with my friends, thanks very much’” and I duly went to the North Walsham High School for Girls.

Getting to North Walsham was interesting. We had a local coach firm in the village called Easton’s. They did the bus journeys. They picked us all up who were either going to North Walsham High School for Girls or the boys who were going to Paston and then we did a very scenic journey. I think we set off at 8 o’clock in the morning and did a journey through Aylsham from Cawston. We didn’t pick anyone up from there as another company picked up the ones from Aylsham. Then we went through Banningham and Colby and Skeyton and picked up all the way along and then were deposited at the back entrance of the school. I can’t think of the name of the road. Anyway, Paston School was down the other end of the road, but if you were caught attempting to leave the school premises during the day and wandering down the road to Paston School you were given detention. You were not allowed to go anywhere near where the boys might be despite the fact you’d just travelled to school on the bus with them!

My growing interest in history and volunteering at museums

When I left North Walsham school I ended up back at Notre Dame in Norwich and I didn’t get on very well there. Going there again was a very bad mistake, but not withstanding that, after I’d officially left school, I went back because I was doing an ‘O’ level and they allowed me to go back. I think I used to go about three mornings a week to complete this course and, in the meantime, I’d been volunteering in the Norwich museums. I’d been volunteering at the Bridewell since I was 16. I’d always had an interest in history and I was volunteering at the Bridewell – Rachel Young was in charge and she was lovely.

So, when I wasn’t at school or at tech doing my ‘A’ levels I was volunteering at the museums again and  I used to have quite busy weeks. I never quite knew where I was supposed to be, but dad worked in Norwich so he would bring me in and take me home. My brother and sister, by then, were at school in Norwich as well. My sister was at Notre Dame and my brother at Bracondale so he’d sort of ferry us in and out. That was fine. But by the time I was thinking of getting engaged to my boyfriend and I didn’t get on very well at home, so I decided to get a job with the Inland Revenue, knowing full well they would transfer me to where my boyfriend lived. So, after I’d been at the Revenue probably three months I applied for a job in Manchester and by June 1970 I was living in Manchester working for the Inland Revenue.

My boyfriend knew I was interested in history and everything and went round looking for a museum where I could do voluntary work and I ended up working at the Helmshore Textile Museum. As volunteers, sometimes we’d just work on cleaning stuff up – whatever the curator wanted. He’d managed to get the mill working and the waterwheel working. This was an 18-foot-wide overshot waterwheel and the only braking system on it was a piece of wood jammed up against it so it didn’t keep going. He said in the end ‘If you come on a Sunday you can lead part of the tour round the museum’. I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and he said, ‘Well, actually if you can show them how the mill and the fulling stocks work’. A fulling stock is a big trough with huge wooden hammers where they put the cloth in with a lot of water and urine actually to bleach the cloth! So, it all sits in this bath, you get the wheel going and these hammers pound it to felt to turn into blankets. So anyway, he’d managed to get all the machinery working and I said, ‘Well, what about the wheel?’ and he said, ‘Well, they need to see the wheel going and you know how I set the wheel off’. So, what I had to do was go and squeeze down the side of the wheel, kick the stay out of the way and tell the people to keep back. I was there until the middle of 1971.

I’d always wanted to work for the museum service. When I was still in Norwich I managed, through Rachel Young, to get an interview at the British Museum to work in the Medieval History department. I didn’t get through the interview, but I did get to the last six.

Higher education and my career in publishing

By the time I left Helmshore I had a family. Of course, in those lovely long off days if you’d got children and a husband and a house you didn’t actually have to go out to work. My daughter has to go out to work now. You could stay at home and be an ‘at home’ mum then.

I’d always been keen on history ever since I was quite small though I hadn’t actually written anything. By the autumn of 1978 I was back at college. I was at the Manchester Metropolitan University as it is now – it was the ‘Poly’ then – and they did a special course for mature students called the Diploma in Higher Education. So I applied to do that, went for the interview and got straight through it. So, I was there and basically had wanted to do history, but I ended up being an art student! The chance arose so I took it. What did I do in the first year? Sociology and art. I carried on doing art into the second year and go on very well with that. And then later when I was back here (in Norfolk) and remarried and had another daughter, I started doing Open University because I knew I could transfer the credits from Manchester to OU, which meant I didn’t have to do much more work for a degree.

That was working alright and I did the first part of the degree and then I met Bill and he said he knew I was very keen on history, because that’s how we met. I was working as the honorary curator of the museum at Harleston and I met him through that. He said, ‘What have you been doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve been doing a degree and I can’t afford it anymore’. He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. You’re going to finish it’. And I managed to finish my degree with his help – you know, his financial help.

That led to me getting into publishing because his son-in-law worked for the European Commission and he said that you can actually get a commission grant to research our local history.

We started off doing little booklets about Harleston actually. First of all we did Harleston postcards of the Edwardian period. I had quite a good collection of postcards of Harleston. I’d been collecting them for quite a while and Bill said we should photograph each postcard and then write a bit about the street where it is. So I was coming up to the library in Norwich and the Record Office quite a bit. We were piecing it all together. This was in the very early days when the material you can get online nowadays just wasn’t available. We managed to do that that and we published it with the aid of a grant.

We then went on to publish a book on one of the Harleston families who’d been the solicitors in the town. We revelled in their name; the firm was called Hazard, Pratt and Hazard. They were succeeded by an equally well named firm called Lyas, Burn and Lyas. I wouldn’t have trusted either bunch frankly.

Then I was shown, through the museum, a poem about quite an interesting incident in Harleston. It was called ‘The Harleston Riot’. It wasn’t really a riot. It was some dispute that had risen between one set of neighbours and another over a patch of land supposedly. I always thought there was more to it than came out in this piece of poetry so I transcribed the poem.

The event was 1857 and it ended up with the town almost being burnt down. There was such a riot and revel. On bonfire night in 1857 they decided they would finally go and sort this poor family and another family out and they broke into their house and stole all their furniture and put it on the bonfire. In the meantime, they’d put barrels of tar all the way down the main street and lit them and, at that time, there were still thatched properties. And then the local policeman came to try to sort things out. They battered him around the head and he eventually died of his injuries.

I found out this information by looking through the local newspapers and I found the court account. They went before the magistrate first of all and they said, ‘No, that’s got to go to court at the Shirehall in Norwich. We can’t deal with this’. And, do you know, the culprits got away with it? There was no severe punishment for attempted murder or arson or whatever. They got right away with it. It’s just amazing what was going on.

At the moment I’m working on, well, one book. I started working on a book about the domestic aspects of the First World War in Diss and the men who’d served. This was quite a long time ago and it came out of a project I did to try to get the war memorial at Diss updated because I knew there were names missing. I had a colleague at Diss museum who gave me a list and I went through it and said there were a lot of names missing. We set about having the war memorial updated – Bill and I and the colleague at Diss – and it was unveiled in 2014. And then Bill said, ‘You’ve done all this research. Publish it’. And it is at the stage where I’ve almost completed it, but because of domestic things it’s not finished yet. And I’m now going to start another one probably on the Norwich textile industry.


Helen Kennett (b. 1950) talking to WISEArchive on 7th December 2021 in Norwich.

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