Jean Smith knew that the Second World War was coming, long before it started. She remembers well the day the balloon finally went up. Seventeen years old, she was working as a secretary for the Ministry of Aircraft Production in Barkley Square, London. For the past year, she’d been preparing contracts for, among other things, the construction of Wellingtons and Spitfires for the RAF. It was the first Sunday in September 1939. “They said to us girls, we’re all going down to the big hall because there’s going to be a speech by the Prime Minister,” she said. “We sat in the hall and the speech came on and [Chamberlain] said ‘we are now at war’. And we all said ‘Whoopee!’ – and then the air raid siren went.”
Instead of going to the shelters like they were told, Jean and her colleagues rushed to the big windows and looked over Barkley Square. It was completely deserted, Jean says – except for “a great big fat barrage balloon, going slowly up…”
The balloon really did go up when the Second World War started – and Jean saw it. I thought this an irresistibly evocative image. It was one of many beautifully vivid vignettes that she shared with me during an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre in 2016.
As soon as the war started, Jean told me, she wanted to go into the Air Force. But her father (himself a veteran of the trenches of WWI) wouldn’t let her – “not until you’re 21.” So she stayed at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, while also volunteering in the Services Canteen at the local Town Hall three nights a week to pour tea or serve baked beans to any servicemen who dropped in. “We had troops everywhere!”
In the end Jean managed to enlist at the beginning of 1942 when she was 20. She wanted to be flight mechanic or a radio operator, but given her pre-existing skills she went in as a secretary. “So all I did was my two months’ training at Innsworth camp, with thousands of other girls.” Similar to the syllabus at (male) aircrew Initial Training Schools, Jean learned to march and salute, and studied subjects like hygiene and Air Force law. Unlike aircrew though, Jean was also expected to do her hair and put on ties and make-up while using only a little compact mirror.
Jean was quickly posted to 27 Operational Training Unit at RAF Lichfield, as the personal secretary to the Chief Flying Instructor. Her office was part of the Orderly Room of Training Wing – in the Flying Control tower at the edge of the airfield. The reality of life on an RAF training station during the war was brought home very quickly: “As soon as I’d settled into my office, my first job was to type out a Form 765C… five copies.” This was the standard accident report form used in Bomber Command. The particular accident was what was known as a “Cat E” – a total write-off – and all the crew were killed. “When I’d done those, I asked the Sergeant in Charge of the Orderly Room, ‘does this happen often?’ ‘Oh yes’, he said. ‘we’ve had one accident this week, we’re sure to have another two.’” Sure enough, Jean says, that’s exactly what happened. Her task the next morning was to sit down with the CFI and type out letters of condolence to the families of the dead.
On another occasion, Jean described witnessing, from her desk, the immediate aftermath of a Wellington crash. First there was a thud. “You knew it was a crash [from] that metal noise,” she said. “We looked out of the side window and there were flames and it was sliding across the airfield… And we just stood there, rooted to the spot.” Worse was to come, though. The radio operator WAAFs upstairs in the tower had left the intercom switched on. “The crew were screaming and we could hear it [through the intercom]… it was horrible.”
Though the threat of German invasion had abated somewhat by the time Jean reached Lichfield, it was still top of mind among the powers that were, and preparations were made just in case. Members of the WAAF couldn’t be compelled to carry arms, but there was one occasion when Jean was among a large group of women given the opportunity to learn how to reload and fire a Lee-Enfield rifle, in case of a desperate last-minute stand. “We all came back with a big bruised shoulder!” Jean chuckled. It would be the only time she ever fired a weapon. She also remembers being sent to guard Wellingtons that had been dispersed in farmers’ fields, armed with nothing more than a truncheon. “It was so absurd,” Jean said. “Three girls with truncheons, and we’d be out in the rain and mud, parading around these Wimpeys…”
But life at Lichfield wasn’t all bad. Every day at 10:30 the NAAFI van would come round and toot its horn, and everyone would go out with their mugs and ask for “tea and a wad”. And of course there were young men everywhere. “I was struck dumb… all these young heroes breezing in – and they really did say ‘jolly good show’ when they came in after doing something well…” Jean lived two miles down the road at the “Waafery,” which was surrounded by barbed wire and had sentries at the gate. “I used to tell the aircrew that it was to keep you randy Aussies out!” Between the Waafery and the airfield was a little pub called The Anchor, which became a regular stop for a quick drink. On winter nights when it was too foggy or rainy to fly, the message would go out over the Tannoy:
“ALL NIGHT FLYING CANCELLED – ALL NIGHT FLYING SCRUBBED – OVER AND OUT!:
“And we’d all say whoopee,” said Jean, “and get the curlers out and put all the glamour on, and dash to the pub.” Having visited the bar for half-pints of beer, the women would wait there until the sound of bikes going bang, bang, bang outside against the pub wall announced the arrival of all the boys. “They’d all come streaming in, and in half an hour the whole place would be a thick fug, you could hardly see across the room from the cigarette smoke.” There was always a big fire on in the lounge bar, Jean remembered, and “the old piano would be going like mad with all the songs getting naughtier and naughtier as the night went on…”
On 30/31 May 1942, Bomber Command sent its biggest ever force to attack Cologne. Aircraft and crews from the Operational Training Units, including Lichfield, were sent to supplement the Main Force in an effort to reach, mostly for the propaganda value, the magical number of one thousand. Possibly because she was never posted to a front-line squadron, Jean remembers the night well. “That was very exciting,” she said. “Suddenly everybody was called on deck and you were just told to do all sorts of jobs. I was giving out sealed maps and all the Red Cross parcels to the navigators and pilots.”
“A whole host of us went down to wave them off. And I always remember that night, a mass of people all standing underneath the balcony of Flying Control, and all the top brass of the station were all out on the balcony […] you’d hear that coughing and choking sound of each engine starting up and revving up and then slowly slowly the first aircraft came weaving down past the control tower.”
Jean watched the aircraft take off in turn into the dusk, with “all the dust and leaves and twigs flying.” Once they had all gone and an unsettled silence descended once again over the airfield, “long after the groundstaff had put out the flarepath and long after the dim lights on the balcony had gone off and all the officers had gone in, we all stood there, not speaking…”
Jean stayed at Lichfield until she was hospitalised by a bout of pneumonia, probably brought on by the extreme cold and damp in the Nissen huts they had been moved to. To aid her recovery she was posted to more salubrious accommodation at 93 Group Headquarters. Jean was sitting at her desk there one day in November 1944, typing on a big heavy long-carriage typewriter, when “this funny rumble went through my feet – and suddenly this rumble got bigger and my typewriter really jumped.” Jean sat back and watched, astonished, as a great big crack started at the top of the wall and came down in a big curve. She had witnessed the effects of the “Fauld Explosion“, when more than 3,500 tonnes of explosives accidentally went up at a large bomb storage depot. “I just watched it,” she said. “In an air raid when you see bombs, you tend to watch them. You’re sort of rooted to the spot. It was like that.”
The presence of women on the front-line stations was, of course, one of the more unique things about the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I’ve heard plenty of stories about that from the point of view of aircrew, but as the only WAAF I’ve interviewed, Jean was always going to have a different perspective. And, as I discovered is typical, she was very direct about it, too:
“Oh, I was a terrible flirt in the Air Force!”
Jean had a little address book with names and addresses for aircrew from all over the world – “Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders” – to whom she would write letters. “They all wanted you to write to them,” she said – “all these different boys who you never saw again.” She told me about how she met a young fitter at a a fancy-dress dance that was put on by the WAAF. This was Jock, “and of course I really fell for him.” But after they had five dates he went off to train as a flight engineer.
“Jock wanted me to be his steady girlfriend,” Jean said, “but most of us WAAF didn’t want to be serious.” This was as much out of concern for the aircrew than to protect the feelings of the WAAFs (though that undoubtedly played a role, too): “Once [aircrew] got married they became very serious and much more careful – and we all felt, talking to the aircrew boys, that to be careful was the worst thing [on ops] – it was far better to be gung-ho and able to take risks, and not have to think about a wife or serious girlfriend.”
Once he’d completed his aircrew training, Jock was posted to 90 Squadron, where he flew a complete tour of operations on Stirlings. (This explained several framed prints of that aircraft that were on Jean’s living room wall). They wrote to each other throughout that time – “I still have all his letters” – but it was not until Jock was screened and posted as an instructor at an Operational Training Unit at RAF Woolfox Lodge that the romance was re-kindled. Jean had just been posted herself, to 3 and 5 Group Headquarters in Grantham: about fifteen miles up the Great North Road from Jock’s new airfield. He had somehow acquired a motorbike so visits were easy. Jean confided that there was a little bench in a park in Grantham which in the wartime blackout was in an agreeably dark place. “That was our Snogging Seat, and we used to kiss and cuddle there,” she said with eyes sparkling. Alas, come VE Day in May 1945, all the street lights were turned on for the first time in six years… “and our Snogging Seat was no good anymore because there was a big lamp above it and it was lit up!”
Jean and Jock married in 1946, once both had been demobbed. Life was not easy in the immediate post-war period. “You went back into civvy street and you had this awful feeling that you weren’t wanted,” Jean told me. Jobs that had been held throughout the war by civilians were jealously guarded and rationing was severe – even more so than during the conflict. “I queued for hours for bread and onions and potatoes.” Jock managed to find a job as a ground engineer for British European Airways, but jumped at an opportunity to immigrate to Australia to work with Australian National Airways in Essendon, Melbourne. Jock came out to Australia in 1952 and Jean followed six months later, and they never looked back. “We laughed our way through life, Jean said. “It was all giggle, giggle, giggle the whole time.” Jock died several years ago, and Jean’s wartime training was once again pressed into service. “A WAAF never cries,” she was told. In public, one must appear stoic. “So I didn’t even cry at his funeral,” she said. “That came later.”
“It was the best days of our lives,” Jean says now of her service. “The majority of people were all pulling together, we had one ideal, [and] everyone was working together and helping each other.” Bomber Command, she says, was Britain’s “one big bastion against Germany” before the invasion. “And if it hadn’t been for Bomber Command bombing the factories, roads, keeping them on their toes and keeping them short of things, it would have been terrible on D-Day…”
I always try to take a photo of my interview subjects after we finish. “Oooh!” said Jean when I pulled out my camera, and she rushed out to fix up her make-up (with, I presume, a full-sized mirror). I spotted a little model of a Wellington, made out of solid brass. It’s a genuine piece of trench art, crafted at RAF Lichfield while Jean was posted there. So we incorporated it into the photo:
Being the only WAAF I’ve interviewed, Jean had a very different story to what might be considered the “usual” Bomber Command narrative I’ve been used to hearing. She tells her story well, eyes twinkling at all the important moments, and five hours flew by as we chatted.
“I’m glad I got all that off my chest,” she said as I packed up my lightstand, “to someone who wanted to hear it.”
And I’m glad I got to hear it.
Words and colour photo (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photos courtesy Jean Smith.
Jean died in December 2020.