1939 - 1945

World War Two

A WAAF telephonist's tale

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Posted by Ray Burston on

STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE BBC 'PEOPLE'S WAR' ARCHIVE, 2003

My name is Hilda Burston, and I was sixteen years old when the war broke out in 1939. Back then I was known by my middle name and my maiden name - Eileen Jones. It was not really until the following year that the real horror of World War II came home to me personally - both because of family members who were losing their lives in desperate campaigns on land, at sea and in the air, but also because by late 1940 the 'Blitz' was upon us, and my family and I were having to spend many nights in the air raid shelter as bombs rained down around our house in the Quinton area of Birmingham.

However, my own 'war story' began in earnest in 1942 when, impatient to do my 'bit' in the struggle against Nazism, I enlisted for the Womens' Auxiliary Air Force (as the womens' section of the RAF was known in those days). I commenced my basic training at RAF Innsworth, and well do I remember my grief at having my lovely brown locks chopped short by the camp barber. Thereafter, I was soon posted to a succession of airfields in my role as a telephonist with Bomber Command.

The scattering of airfields that peppered eastern England - such as RAF Waterbeach - were the scene of so many of my wartime adventures. Being women on an airfield miles from anywhere and which was staffed up mostly by men, suffice to say some of our most endearing friendships were those we soon established with the aircrews, many of which turned to romance. Looking back, the most dazzling loves of my life were those that blossomed amongst those brave lads whose Lancasters and Wellingtons we would wave off on missions over Germany. They were real dashing gentlemen - our heroes!

Yet the joy of such friendship so often turned to grief when news filtered back that a pilot we knew had been posted as missing, or that a gunner or navigator boyfriend of one of my fellow WAAFs had returned back so badly shot up and maimed that he was unrecognisable as the handsome young man that she had strolled hand-in-hand with a mere twenty-four hours earlier. In fact, being a telephonist, it was often my dubious privilege to find out before most who had and who hadn't returned from a mission. On nightshift, at about 3.00am or 4.00am, the first returning aircraft would arrive and the lines would go busy as reports were filed backwards and forwards between airfields. Then, at daybreak, wives or sweethearts would also call in, anxious for news of their loved ones. Procedure dictated that all we could do was wipe away any stray tears and advise them that there was no firm news of such-and-such an aircraft yet - though of course we knew that their commanding officer was even as we spoke preparing to summon up a form of words that would explain how their husband or boyfriend had courageously made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

Of course, it was not just RAF crews who we mixed with. Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians too were often stationed with us, and in between their exhausting schedule of missions the local village pub would frequently echo to their own particular songs and ribaldry. And likewise too, many of these gallant young men had their own lives cruelly cut short over skies so very far from their homes and loved ones. In fact, I well remember it was the tradition in one particular pub that each airman had his own decorated tankard that the landlord kept hung up behind the bar.

Needless to say, by the time I was posted away from the neighbouring station there were an awful lot of tankards hanging there that would never again grace their owner's lips with a refreshing pint. Paradoxically, it is sometimes trivial little details like that that bring home to one the true horror of war.That's why I get so hurt nowadays when I hear modern historians try to paint Bomber Command and its aircrews as some kind of war criminals, even though in reality they were exemplary human beings, so full of grace and character, who sought only to do their duty and defend their countries from barbarism. And they certainly paid a staggering price for that selfless devotion to duty: pro rata the highest casualty rate of any branch of our armed forces during the war.I'm sure many of us who lived through those years will testify that Britain really was a different place back then. We really did all pull together for a common cause, endeavouring in our own small way to deliver the war back to a brutal tyranny that was attempting to enslave us - as indeed we knew it had so many people across occupied Europe.

A certain fearless defiance also came over us that perhaps derived from knowing that our lives could be taken from us on the morrow. For instance, despite the mauling the Luftwaffe gave us, the only time I can remember being truly afraid was during 1944, when Hitler unleashed the first of his V1 'Doodlebug' flying bombs upon us. No-one who has ever experienced that monotone droning (followed by the eerie silent pause before the bomb impacted) will forget the sheer terror that these devices instilled in people. Thank God our airmen worked around the clock to track down and destroy the launch-pads before these pitiless weapons had chance to wreak real damage on our cities.

To be sure, no tale of life on a wartime airfield would be complete without mention of the Americans. Indeed, shortly after I joined up, the first of the USAAF air crews began arriving in England, their B17 Flying Fortresses taking off by day to complement RAF night sorties and really start taking the war to the enemy. The Americans truly were a breed apart, their humour, their gregariousness and their chivalry sweeping so many English girls off their feet. And we WAAFs were no exception. They soon taught us how to jive and jitterbug like the best of them. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Glenn Miller and his melodies became almost the background music to our daily lives.Perhaps the only sour note was that we WAAFs were totally ignorant about American racial attitudes. In the exuberance of the moment a few of my friends would unwittingly grab a shy-looking black GI and haul him onto the dancefloor, only for someone to whisper in their ear afterwards that they might just have gotten the poor chap into a lot of trouble. How sad, we thought, that we were all fighting on the same side, and yet the common courtesies of ordinary life did not seem to extend to certain airmen on account of something as trivial as the colour of their skin.

Many British servicewomen would eventually marry their handsome GI boyfriends and after the war start a new life in sunny California or somewhere equally awesome to our imagining. And such nearly happened to me. In 1944 I would meet a tall, enchanting American flyer called Nicky. They say there is always one man who is destined to be the great love of your life and who you will never forget as long as you live. If so, then Nicky was my love. I adored him. He adored me, and would pen beautiful letters to me expressing his affection, many of which I still treasure now. He would tell me how proud it would make him to be able to take me back to the United States to meet his parents (who were of Italian extraction), and how he wanted us to build a new life together after the war was over, which - with Allied armies by then rolling across the Rhine - could surely only be a few short weeks away.Sadly it was not to be. Shortly before VE Day I received the dreaded letter that informed me that my beloved Nicky would not be seeing either America, or his parents, or indeed me ever again, his plane lost without trace somewhere out at sea.I have never forgotten Nicky.

Even though I would serve in the RAF for several more years after the war, and would later marry and raise a family, I still recall those war years with fondness. And not just a selfish fondness borne of all the good times that a carefree teenage airwoman once enjoyed; but also a fondness for a time when we truly were a united people experiencing, as Churchill once remarked, our "finest hour".

That's why I still shed a tear when I watch a Remembrance Day ceremony; when I see those fields of poppies, each one symbolising a promising young life so cruelly snuffed out in its prime. Those poppies are real to me - friends I once had who never came back, or the last sight of whom I had glimpsed was of the orderlies lifting their burned and mutilated bodies down from a wrecked aircraft; people whose smiles can now only ever be a memory and whose laughter I can never share again. So while occasionally I still yearn to transport myself back to the comradeship and solidarity of those far-off wartime day, I quickly snap out of it and give thanks instead that - unlike my fallen comrades - my own grown-up son has never had to spill his precious blood upon a nameless field in order to defy one man's evil megalomania.

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