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U3A Writing: Memories

Margaret John recalls her wartime days in the Royal Air Force.

During my early childhood in the Twenties and Thirties how different life was - slower, with time to appreciate the wonders around us: and what a wonderful century this has been. When we look back to the days of early listening, when the grown-ups around us were building their own "wireless" with "cat's-whiskers" and ear-phones. I remember my grandmother's look of horror when she and my grandfather were sitting at the kitchen table concentrating on listening with the help of ear-phones when someone came into the shop and my grandfather went to attend to the customer - down crashed the whole contraption onto the floor! No doubt he salvaged as much as he could and started again.

The General Strike of 1926 affected most families in some way or other, but I remember happy days. Playing "school" with my dolls and building the "classroom" with bricks and pieces of wood whilst my father built our new house. He said that he "didn't want to stand around doing nothing''.

That was the year my dear brother went off to the Air Force; oh how I missed him! No more rides on the crossbar of his bike. Those years of the "depression" were desperately hard, although we children were sheltered as much as possible. In many instances it built character and determination and, in spite of hardship and poverty, the folks around me never lost their self-respect..

My first job was in London, but when my mother became ill in 1938, I was more than ready to return home. There were already signs of the impending disaster of War. It was not surprising that I was "called up" when the first batch of young women were conscripted.

I chose the Air Force to follow my brother, a beloved uncle and two cousins. My uncle had transferred to the Air Force when it was formed from the Royal Flying Corps. He had been a pilot with Sir Alan Cobham's Air Circus and I read in a recent article that this Circus had given displays and "trips" in a field here in Caldicot before the War - I wonder if he had been one of the pilots.

I had been in Innsworth to do my stint of "square bashing" and after three weeks I wanted to see my Dad, so I hitch-hiked to Pontypool one Sunday and saw him for nearly an hour! But disaster befell me, I missed the last bus from Newport to Gloucester but managed to get a lift with a car from the RNPF (Royal Navy Propellant Factory). Unfortunately when we got to Caerwent he stopped the car and announced he could take me no further! Imagine being dumped in the middle of a village, in the black-out, late evening on a Sunday, early in December! I sat on the wall outside Caerwent Post Office and said to myself "I don't suppose they'll kill me". A bus came, eventually. Little did I think at that time that I would spend years in the area.

My first posting was to a fighter station in East Yorkshire, where there were several thousand airmen and only ninety WAAFs - no wonder we were housed in an Asylum together with bars at the windows! We were all issued with bicycles, whether we could ride or not. On one occasion, I found myself wheeling my bike along a flat, perfectly good surfaced road, no other traffic around, when suddenly a swarm of airmen furiously riding to the mess, swept past me. The comments and shouted instructions were deafening, and some quite unrepeatable!

Within a short time, I was posted to Blackpool and was lucky enough to have a very good civilian billet with a landlady who encouraged us to take advantage of the wonderful shows and concerts which came to Blackpool from London. But, oh how the wind can blow in the winter months! When I joined up my brother had given me his wonderfully polished cap badge - one he had had from his early days in the service. It needed only to be breathed on and rubbed briskly and it shone like a star! Alas! One windy night I lost my hat in the swirling sea - he never forgave my carelessness.

After a year, I was posted to St. Athan and attached to the hospital there. I remember the feeling of excitement and deep-seated apprehension on the morning of D-Day - very different from the excitement and thankfulness of V E and V J days.

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