WAAF Frances Cherry: Life at Kenley 1940-42

Frances Cherry was a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and in 1994 she conducted an interview with Colin Burgess recounting her time at Kenley. There were lots of twists and turns along the way, working hard, having fun off-duty, facing injuries and experiencing the Hardest Day.

Life At RAF Kenley 1940-42 by Frances Cherry WAAF No. 891322 as told to Colin Burgess in 1994 and recorded in the Bourne Society Local History Records

“I was stationed at Kenley from January 1940 to March 1942 and I was a cook in the erks mess. Not that I knew much about cooking but the powers-that-be decided that was my forte, but according to the boys, it was quite untrue that I could not cook. I tried my best with dried eggs, milk, sawdust sausages and margarine – at least we did not starve. We were more concerned for our pilot that to worry about petty complaints about food there were beyond out means to resolve. There were dogfights all around and Jerry planes strafing and dropping the odd bomb or two as a warning of worse to come.

In the meantime, being young and healthy, we went in search of more cheerful pursuits – with the Guards at their Depot in Caterham. We were well entertained and would rush off on Thursday evening to be the first in the queue for fish and chips, once a week and for 1s6d and live Woodbines for 2½d, then off to the pub. We would make our way back to the airfield, often finding our way by Jerries dropping Very lights when they also were looking for the airfield. On one occasion I had to explain on Inspection Parade the next morning why my helmet had a large dent and I did not have a headache. I dared not tell them that the helmet saved another part of my body whilst it was hanging over my respirator. I had that piece of shrapnel for many years, along with other mementoes and photographs. Unfortunately, they all went up in smoke when there was a fire at my home after the war.

I was walking across the common one sunny afternoon, minding my own business, when a Jerry plane suddenly appeared. There was no place to hide so I just stood rooted to the spot. The pilot had the cheek to wave to me – he was flying very low, so low in fact that he was shot down as he went past the ack-ack guns. The police told me he was dead when they arrived – I have my doubts about that but at least his cheek for waving was well taken care of, poor chap. I suppose he was like our own lads, but we did not think that way in those days.

After all that excitement had worn off, I went to our billet and slept soundly, not hearing a sound and most surprised the next morning to find all our beds covered in glass. In fact, glass was everywhere as all the windows had been blown in and we stayed in bed until a(n) NCO came to find out why we were not on duty. They had to sweep a path from each bed, and we all had to have a medical inspection. Apart from a few small cuts there were no problems but there was a good telling off afterwards for not going to a shelter.

On the subject of not being on duty, on one occasion we all went off to Croydon, which was out of bounds to all RAF Personnel. On the way back by bus, the bus was strafed right down the middle by a lone plane. Missing the seats, the bullets went straight down the gangway and left us all looing rather grey and green with fright. We received no sympathy when word got back, and we had to peel potatoes and do other dogsbody jobs for three days.

We did worry about our aircrew lads – we used to chat to them whilst they were sitting around waiting for a scramble, making jokes, being cheeky, drinking gallons of tea and knowing we might not see them again.

The Battle of Britain was really going full blast now, and when we were lying in bed we would count the aircraft leaving early in the morning and later count them coming back, then when we were up we would go to see who was missing. These were some of the bad times. Whilst this was going on we were in good spirits really – being young. I suppose we did not really take the bad too much to heart as there was always something else to think about.

One day, I was returning from sick quarters with my arm in a sling, all bandaged up as I had burnt it quite badly whilst cooking. A bright young newly-fledged RAF officer put me on a charge for not saluting him. I asked the Sergeant, how could I salute him with one arm in a sling, while in the other I had by tunic jacket, gas mask, helmet and other things? “Nod in the future”, I was told and then put on four days sick leave. I understand the officer was reprimanded for bringing a stupid charge.

There was only one really terrible day, 18 August 1940. Jerry had bombed Biggin Hill one Sunday and Croydon the next; we were told it would be our turn that Sunday and we all expected it. They came in their droves, all of them at dinner time when everyone was in camp. There was no panic, the sirens went, and all moved pretty damned quick into the shelters.

Once again I was in the wrong place instead of in my allotted shelter. I was once again at sick quarters, having a couple of stitches put on a cut finger, so I was in the sick quarters’ shelter, which was the only one that had a direct hit. We were buried for almost six hours. Two medical officers lost their lives, one WAAF officer lost her leg, and the rest of us were just bruised and shaken – I never did have my finger stitched and still have the scars and damaged nail to prove it. By the time we were recued, most of the fires were out, not one building was left standing, there were huge craters everywhere, and the petrol pumps were still burning. The locals and other people had by this time organised tea and wads, we all went back to our billets and the boys were all put under canvas, having lost their huts. However, within a week, all was back to normal. Good job we had good summers in those days! We lost a number of aircraft, nine people were killed and a further 10 injured. The pilots too their aeroplanes to other airfields until the chaos was over. The raid took about 15-20 minutes to flatten the whole airfield, then followed the worst of the London Blitz.”

Thank you for your service, Frances Cherry.

With thanks to the Bourne Society and Colin Burgess for letting us use this content for Women’s History Month 2019.

Sources:

Bourne Society, Local History Records no. 41, p59-62

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