In RAF Kenley by Peter Flint, the author recalls an interview with Pamela Rust, a W.A.A.F. A.C.W.2, who was eighteen years old at the time, discussing what life was like in 1940. It provides an insightful look into what people got up to when they were off-duty.
We were on shift work: afternoon, morning, all night, day off—and repeat, so this gave us daytime freedom to go up to London for our entertainment (lunchtime ballet, National Gallery concerts, theatres, etc.) or to go down to Brighton for the day. We were fairly mobile—hitch-hiking was a way of life and in time we had regular “lifts” to town from the bottom of Whyteleafe Hill (one a chauffeur-driven Daimler, but mostly lorries and service transport). We also cycled a great deal—the weather was fabulous that late summer; we explored the Surrey woods, rode horses from the stables not far away, swam at the Banstead open-air pool and played tennis at the Coulsdon golf club.
At that time girls did not go to pubs on their own—at any rate my friends and I didn’t. Good food, well served in comfortable surroundings, was much more in our line—and I note from my diary that one could eat home-made scones round an open fire in a Caterham cafe in October, 1940. After the Operations Room moved to “The Grange” there was a nearby cafe where the proprietor would go outside to “squeeze” the hens so that he could give us an egg supper. I forget the name, but the food was splendid—and cheap.
We did a lot of walking too, in that cold, crisp autumn. Among our indoor haunts, a favourite was the ice rink at Purley; as struggling beginners, we would be suddenly whirled round the ice by hefty members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who, as expert ice-hockey players, were more at home on the ice than we were (A W.A.A.F. friend of mine received a nasty crack on the skull and was behaving very oddly in the Ops Room that night and was sent off to recover). We used to go into Croydon, have lunch at the Greyhound Hotel and then go on to the Davis Cinema. There, for an inclusive one-shilling-and-sixpence ticket, we saw a double-feature programme, had tea in the restaurant and danced.
It was often more hazardous for us to return to our quarters (“Grove House,” at the gates of Kenley airfield, was my first billet; “Hillhurst” and “Greenlands” were other nearby houses “taken over” by us) past the “Vandoos” (a particularly wild collection of Canadian troops who tended to fire off their guns and grab at passing W.A.A.F.s) than it was to brave the bombs and ack-ack (it is not often remembered that falling shrapnel from our anti-aircraft batteries presented quite a risk if one was in their vicinity).
At night we would cycle to the Ops Room in convoy—the first hike had a front lamp and the last of perhaps eight cycles had a rear light. I think the Grenadier Guardsman doing sentry duty at the gates of “The Grange” would rather have faced the Germans than this convoy of W.A.A.F.s, pedalling full tilt, heads down, ignoring his command to “Halt. Who goes there?” The only reply was a jangling of bicycle bells and the poor soldier was left lying in the hedge. The business of cycling in the dark created another amusing incident—one W.A.A.F. discovered that a ball of knitting wool had fallen from her basket, the other end was attached to the needles and caught up in her handle bars. So, in the pitch dark, with the help of matches, we all got down on hands and knees and crawled back, paying in the wool hand over hand until we’d wound up the whole ball. One learned to preserve items in short supply!
This may, rightly, give the impression that we all had a great deal of fun. Indeed we did—both inside and outside the Ops Room. I remember on one dull night when the table was clear of enemy plots and the weather closed in, the controller on duty (a squadron leader temporarily off flying duty with an injured leg in plaster) sat on the Ops Room table with us and played tiddlywinks with the discs used for plotting. When the pressure was on, we worked hard, and when there was bombing as well, the tension was really high. Off duty, we relaxed accordingly. Everyone (there were so few exceptions that one cannot recall them) was wonderful, full of fun and enjoyment, of purpose and concern.
Thank you for your service, Pamela Rust.
With thanks to Dr Robert Warner at Bourne Society for granting the Kenley Revival Project permission to use this excerpt for Women’s History Month 2019 on behalf of Peter and Iris Flint.
Extract from Raf Kenley by Peter Flint. pp. 115/117