By Betty Walker, RAF Special Clerk
In June 1941, I joined the WAAF. I was no longer Betty Falconer and had now become 2042984 Private Falconer E.A. However, I actually wanted to drop the name Betty because the Scots used to pronounce it without the "t's"! In the WAAF, I started afresh with Elizabeth.
The basic training in Bridgnorth lasted two weeks but the first weekend we weren't allowed out because we weren't smart enough to walk out in the town. Once we'd got our uniforms, we had to parcel our civilian clothes up and send them back home. But that didn't happen to me because I was going to go on a telephonists course afterwards, and it didn't start for a few weeks. I was sent home in the meantime, and could take my clothes back with me. We even had uniform pyjamas, and we'd all be sitting up in bed in rows in the dormitory looking exactly the same! Every so often we had our kit checked by an officer and a sergeant, and it had to be all laid out in a certain way on your bed. If you hadn't got everything, you'd have to pay for it.
After the basic training, I was sent to do telephonist training in Sheffield and then was posted in Fulford, York. I didn't stay long. There were too many of us telephonists and we had a lot of time off. I went to see the WAAF Officer and said that I was wasting my time there. I'd joined up to help the war effort, only they didn't really need me. The WAAF Officer put my name forward for a new job that had just been advertised - and that's when I applied to become a Clerk, Special Duties, Watchkeeper, Bomber Command. The 'Special' part meant it was secret!
There were twelve of us and only two passed, I was one of the two. To get in to be a Special Clerk in the Operations Room, you had to be clear-headed, have a good eye for detail and be calm under pressure. You also had to pass an examination. I went on a course and we had to study this big book. However, you couldn't take it away with you to learn as it was top secret. If you didn't pass the exam, you stayed working for Operations as a Clerk, but not the 'Special' one. That was because you then knew too much secret information from the book, like how to understand the codes for all the different operations that the bombers went on.
I made some good friends when I was training, although we all moved on again afterwards. Many of these wartime friendships lasted a lifetime. But you never knew if you'd ever see your friends again, or if the men would come back from a raid.
Life as a Watchkeeper at RAF Marston
In Autumn 1941, I became a Special Clerk Watchkeeper and sent to RAF Marston Moor. We slept in Nissen huts, which were very basic indeed. They had corrugated iron on the roofs and slabs of concrete on the floor. The sound of the rain was really loud, and when planes took off, the roof rattled. In summer they were very hot, and in winter very damp and cold. Things used to freeze on the shelves above your bed! All they had for heating were little stoves in the middle of the room. We would have coke delivered to bunkers outside the huts, but people used to go round pinching it sometimes. We would get washed standing all together and you soon lost your modesty!
As a Watchkeeper, I worked in the Operations Room itself. It was known as the 'holy of holies' and when we entered it, we had to salute the room if we were wearing our caps. The telephonists worked at boards connecting people on secret lines. Where the Watchkeepers sat, there were maps on the wall behind us and at the other end of the Ops Room so we could plot where all the planes were going and what time they went. Messages would come through to say where the planes were; these were all in code and we had to decode them. There were different codes for different kinds of operations. The codes changed at different hours, and not just every day. We had to put the messages on the board and write everything into the log book, and that was like our bible. We would take messages as they came through on the wireless, then we'd locate the planes on the map on the big plotting table in the middle of the room.
Everyone in the Operations Room was an officer - a Sergeant or a Flight Sergeant. To qualify for this post, you had to pass your exam, which meant getting a mark of at least 90%. I passed the first time and heard about my result when I was at Don's mother's house. I got a telegram congratulating me, and it was addressed to 'Sergeant Walker'. That was quite a thrill!
In the Operations Room you would take down the time they set off and then wait for them to come back. We wouldn't hear straight away where they'd got to, and sometimes would have to wait and wait to hear any news. Some came down in the sea. And, of course, some of them didn't come back at all. Actually, half of them didn't come back.
Messages would come through mostly by telephone, but they also used to have pigeons. They would release them from the aircraft over enemy territory and they would fly the Resistance information back to the stations they'd come from. Other planes would fly across with leaflets on board.
On duty for the Dambusters Raid
I was on duty on the morning of 16 May from 8am until lunchtime, and then again from 5pm until the next morning. A B-Form came through in the morning to say that there would be no flying that day so the Germans wouldn't know about the planned Dambusters Raid. They were from Five Group at Scampton, Lincolnshire, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson of 617 Squadron.
I thought I'd have a quiet evening, and I was on my own. Suddenly, the door burst open and Leonard Cheshire and all the heads of the departments came into the Operations Room, and it was completely full. I was a Sergeant Watchkeeper by then, so I heard the reports of what happened as they came through by wireless. There was a open line and the messages came through to all stations. I could see it all on the big plotting table with all the planes on it, and I could see exactly what was happening.
There was quite some excitement when Formation 1 actually breached the Mohne dam, and a big cheer went up! The officers were absolutely thrilled at what had happened, especially when we saw the photographs come through from aerial reconnaissance. It boosted people's morale back home.