This article was composed in May 2005 as part of a BBC survey of women’s voluntary groups in World War 2 edited by Ian Billingsley.
In 1942, I was working in a factory making surgical corsets. I didn’t like it there very much, but in the war years you could not leave your place of employment without special permission. So I was more than pleased when I was 18 years old, and had to go and register for War Work. While I was being interviewed, I had said, that before working in the factory I had served teas in my mother’s small tea shop, which had since closed. My fate was sealed.
I was given the relevant forms and literature to join the N.A.A.F.I. Having passed my medical, I then had to get a passport photograph for a special identity card, that would allow me to gain entrance to military camps.
My first posting was to a Royal Air Force camp about eight miles from home. I arrived on my bicycle at about ten o’clock, and was then issued with a cap, overalls, sheets and blankets and told to make my bed. I was rather dubious when I found that it had lost a leg. It was propped up with a biscuit tin, but tins were tins in those days and it did the job.
I reported to the kitchen, a small Nissen hut, on the side of a larger one, which turned out to be the W.A.A.F. canteen. Morning break had just finished and it was now the staff coffee break. It was a very large kitchen with four large sinks, two on each side. In the centre was the biggest kitchen range I had ever seen. There were also, two large scrubbed top tables, and a smaller one with an aluminium top. This was called the beverage table. It was used for making tea and coffee etc. It was one of my many jobs to keep that table top highly polished with whitening.
I was just finishing my coffee and getting to know Nellie, the other assistant and the cook, when this voice seemed to come from nowhere saying,
“All R.A.F. personnel will assemble in the W.A.A.F. canteen, at 1930hrs. The bar will remain closed.”
This was my first experience of the Tannoy. It was something I would soon to get used too, as in all military camps, we were never too far away from a speaker. They were even installed in the bathrooms. Our manageress laughed.
“You will have an easy night tonight.” she said.
Nellie looked up and answered.
“Yes.We’ll have to keep the kettle boiling, just in case we have any bodies.” I kept quiet, not liking to ask what was going on.
I soon found out what they were talking about. A couple of young airmen were brought into the kitchen. They had passed out during what I thought in my innocence, was a first aid lecture. I was then informed that it had been a men only lecture on Venereal Disease.
At the lunch-time break, I was shown how to weigh the tea and coffee into white cloth bags, ready for putting into the tea urn and coffee pans. I began to adapt and was soon out on the bar serving. In the mornings, I had to be up at 0700hrs, to rake out the flu’s, clear the ashes and get the fire lit. The kettle had to be boiling on the big old range, so the girls could have a morning cuppa at 0730hrs
The cook would have breakfast ready for 0800hrs. Then there was the bar and our billet to clean. The cook had to get about 200 cakes ready for morning break. Everything was done on those ranges. There was always a constant supply of hot water for the tea urns and large pans of coffee. The only electricity we used, was for the lights.
After morning break, there would be more cleaning to do in readiness, for the lunch break. During this time, the cook would be making pies and puddings for the evening suppers.
One of my jobs, was to make sure that the big yellow boiler was kept stoked up with coke.
“Watch the dial.” I was often warned. “Watch the dial.”
Nobody told me why, until one night I found out for myself. It began rumbling like thunder and spat all the hot water, out onto the roof. It didn’t stop until it had completely emptied and filled with cold water again. As you can imagine, I wasn’t very popular that night. It was nearly closing time and we still had all the washing up to do.
We used to serve about 200 suppers a night. Each one having to be carried from the kitchen through to the bar. We also sold beer. It came in quart bottles and there was a special way to tip the glasses, so that each one, held a full pint. You could soon hear the loud complaints, if someone had a short measure.
Sweets, soap and cigarettes were all rationed. We had to collect special coupons. We were sent an assortment of brands which were quite unheard of: Robins, Walters and Sunripe are three that I remember. I think that the ration may have been 40 each, twenty of the more popular brands like Players, Craven A, or Senior Service and twenty of whatever else we had. Most of the girls would just take the well known brands, so we used to keep the rest in a box for the lads.
We got into trouble one day when the supervisor was paying us a visit, as she’d heard one of the airmen asking for cigs off ration. I told her, that we had already collected the coupons. She knew what was going on, and told us to make sure that we sold them to the W.A.A.F.’s. first. Then the lads could have them.
Occasionally we got a consignment of cosmetics. The girls always had first choice, but after a week, they would be available to the airmen, to buy for their wives.
It was always very hard work. Some of the larger N.A.A.F.I.’s had more staff, but the girls often got posted or left. We really needed our three hours off in the afternoon; although we had to take turns in starting back half an hour early to get tea. We had one day off a week and one weekend a month.
There were no modern aids or washing up liquid. We just used to use soda or dry powders like ‘Freedom’, ‘Vim soap’ and scrubbing brushes, but as the saying was then “There’s a ruddy war on”, so we just had to get on with it. Most of us hadn’t got mod cons at home anyway, so we really appreciated having the luxury of a bathroom and hot water; at least most of the time. We did have some hard winters though, when the pipes froze and burst during the thaw. We really were flooded out.
Of course we got to know quite a few of the W.A.A.F.’s and airmen, as they spent their evenings in the canteen. A couple of the camps I was stationed at, had a piano and one or two good pianists. Once a week we would have a camp dance, when we’d serve refreshments until 2130hrs. We were convinced, that we would be too tired to go to the dance afterwards but we went just the same. The manageress would usually let our dancing partner’s come and help with the last of the washing up, while we got ourselves dressed and ready.
We were lucky, we were allowed to wear Civvies. Our hair had to be kept above our collars on duty. We used to make a head band out of the top of an old stocking and roll our hair round the band. This style was known as the ‘Victory Roll’. Afterwards, when brushed out, our hair turned under into a pageboy style quite easily.
These evenings, were very romantic affairs, with aircraft lights in the corners of the room, that shone onto a large mirrored ball in the centre of the ceiling. The coloured reflection used to flicker amongst, us as we danced to the R.A.F. Band.
Although we were not in an area suffering the air raids, we watched a lot of the devastation they were causing, on the Pathe News at the local pictures house. We heard of boys we had grown up with being wounded, killed or taken prisoner.
At one camp, there was a lot of Polish personal. Often, the new arrivals, had come straight from the Concentration Camps where they had suffered terrible injuries from the torture. Many of them didn’t have any hair. It was surprising though, how after a few weeks they looked years younger and were wanting all the best makes of shampoo and even hair nets. Their one burning ambition was to train as air crew in order to return to the fighting. Some were just boys when they were taken prisoner from their school. Probably because of their parents politics.
We hardly saw the air crews, it was mainly at the dances. It was a strange feeling seeing these young lads enjoying themselves, knowing that maybe they would soon be flying off and getting killed within a short time. We used to lay awake in bed listening to the planes taking off or going over from other bases. I can still see so clearly in my mind, how I sat up one night with the manageress, listening to them flying overhead for the D.Day landings.
During those times there were laughter and tears. We seemed to live for the post as we waited for letters from home, bringing news of brothers, boyfriends and husbands. I can also remember how we all felt one morning, when one of our staff received the sad news that her brother had been killed.
At last, it all ended. We all gathered on the airfield, Officers, Airmen and W.A.A.F.’s for an open air service, and as the camps closed, we all went back to a very much changed, ‘Civvie Street’. Things would never be quite the same again.