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U3A Writing: My War Years

...It was decided that the office I had previously shared was too big for one little lady and I was moved to a small hut next to the stores. The head store keeper was a big man with the improbable name of Dai Jesus and who not only had a strong Welsh accent but also a cleft palate. Conversation with him was fraught...

Joan Henry recalls her wartime days as a film projectionist.

When I left school the country had been at war for some years. My brother and his contemporaries were already in the forces and I wanted to do my bit. Reluctant to move far from home I looked for war work locally. I heard that Gaumont British were successfully showing films to war workers during their meal breaks and were about to start at my local Royal Ordnance Factory.

I applied immediately and at seventeen found myself in London learning to be a mobile film projectionist. I returned home and duly presented myself at ROF Rhigos to meet my supervisor, a red haired Canadian who had men fluttering around her like bees around a honey pot.

We did three shows a day at 11 am, 5 pm, and 1 am four days a week and a longer show in the staff canteen on the fifth. We showed a mixture of newsreels, interest films and cartoons. As I was under 18 I could not work nights so we came to an agreement where I did the morning shift and she did the nights.

My first solo performance very nearly did not happen. Having set up my equipment I switched off the projector at the main socket and settled down to wait. The men came in, got their food, and sat down. I rose to my feet, signalled for the lights to be turned off and switched on the projector. Nothing!

Panicking slightly I accusingly said someone's foot or chair must be standing on the cable preventing the electricity from coming through. To a man they rose to their feet to check who was the culprit even though as members of the Electrical Trades Union they must have known how ridiculous that was. I eventually realised what I had done and the show finally got under way. One of the day's films was a Mickey Mouse cartoon and from that day, to those men in that shift, I was known as Mickey Mouse. 'It's Mickey Mouse today, boys' they would shout as they came in through the doors.

When I was eighteen my Canadian friend was moved on and I was left to do all three shifts myself. Transport sent a car for me for the night shift and I shared that car with many interesting visiting speakers. Wonderful RAF pilots, cheeky American servicemen, all sent to encourage the workers to greater production. My greatest thrill was meeting Jean Batten, the famous air woman, I had long envied the women who drove a car, but to meet one who actually flew a plane was magic.

Any spare time I had in the afternoon was spent in the radio room with the radio girls who broadcast music to the various shop floors. One of them came from down west, a place called Gwaen-Cae-Gurwen, and spoke little English. Another was a well known local soprano, known as 'The Silver Voiced Songstress'. A third shared my love of classical music and she played many of our favourite pieces over the air. They were all well received on the shop floor, the Welsh being a very musical nation.

It was decided that the office I had previously shared was too big for one little lady and I was moved to a small hut next to the stores. The head store keeper was a big man with the improbable name of Dai Jesus and who not only had a strong Welsh accent but also a cleft palate. Conversation with him was fraught; with much exasperation on both sides; but understanding him came with time. A drinking pal of my father, he appointed himself as my 'minder' and monitored my comings and goings more religiously than my own father. Our doors were directly opposite each other and occasionally on fine days we would open our doors wide and sing along with the music coming over the speakers in the stores. After each song he would shout loudly 'Another pint of half and half, please'. A great character.

After D day things changed. Workers no longer wanted to be entertained, they wanted news and pictures of the fighting over in Europe. My news reels became longer, cutting out Popeye and Mickey Mouse in order to follow the progress of the Allies through France. Although I was employed by Gaumont British, I deferred to the wishes of the Factory Entertainment Manager who did not hesitate to cancel my show if there was momentous news to be broadcast. The day Paris was liberated stands out in my memory. We stood crying and cheering at the same time. A wonderful day.

When the allies crossed the Rhine I realised my job was coming to an end and so it was. Shortly before VE day I said my sad good byes to Reg and Norman, my drivers, to Dai Jesus and the Radio girls. I collected my P45 (yes, PAYE started in 1944/45) and went in search of what my father called a proper job. I found it…..in the Tax office! But that is another story.

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