View Full Version : Bomber Command - Women of Valour

06-03-2006, 05:03 AM
Women of Valour

The record of Bomber Command in the Second World War is given an individual slant in a new exhibition.

Michael Hickling reports

The war took a heavy toll on the men who went to war each night with the enemy coast ahead. More than half were killed. Less than a quarter came back unscathed. One of the women whose job was to listen to the accounts of the men in Halifaxes who had just returned from hell was Edith Heap. She was not there to offer female sympathy or counselling to aircrew whose nerves may have been shot to pieces in the previous few hours by flak, night-fighters and the exhaustion of sitting in a bomber where the temperature could drop to 40C. Facts, straight and simple, were what Section Officer Heap wanted.

During the Second World War, Bomber Command dropped 955,000 tonnes of bombs, destroying military and industrial targets but also three million homes and the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. To put this into the context of individual lives, a new exhibition in Manchester provides visitors with an "identity card" each one telling in brief the story of a person involved in Bomber Command and how their war progressed.

Edith Heap is one of them. At her flat in Ilkley, a small model of a Hurricane sits on top of the television. Facing it is a running figure, a model of a pilot being scrambled. The day after war broke out on September 3, she joined-up, aged 20, "without the foggiest idea of what I was letting myself in for".

As the youngest in a family of five, horses were at the centre of her life at the family home at Nun Monkton. She had never had a job, rode with the York and Ainsty North Hunt and generally behaved like the daughter of a Bradford wool merchant who had done well in alpaca and cashmere.

Her mother went with her to join the Army at Fulford in York. "A frightfully superior lady said, "We're full' and I thought, 'that's okay, I never wanted to be in the Army anyway'. So I went to Yeadon and joined the WAAF." She left her horse at Nun Monkton with a farmer who kept it on the green with his carthorses.

Before the war there had been no women in the Air Force. The new recruits to the Women's Auxiliary Air Force were treated in some quarters with suspicion. At Yeadon, Edith teamed up with Winifred, the girl who was to become her best friend and they were instructed to go and get their biscuits. "I thought, 'that's nice', but they turned out to be three square mattresses and there was a special way to make them."

At RAF Debden, just outside Saffron Walden in Essex, the girls drove Albion lorries and 60ft long articulated vehicles used to transport aircraft wings which they called Queen Marys.

"The CO had all the motor transport girls in just after Christmas and asked them who wanted to be Radio Direction Finding (RDF) Plotters. Winifred and I refused and we were sent to RAF Duxford." This was where Douglas Bader was based. "We hated it there. So we asked Debden, 'Can we come back and we'll be plotters?'"

Debden was one of seven sector airfields attached to 11 (Fighter) Group at RAF Uxbridge and during the Battle of Britain was at the heart of the action. Edith's job was based in the sector Operations Room. The women received information through headphones and indicated the progress of incoming enemy aircraft by sliding symbols representing their number and height across a chart. So there was Edith, in the scenario familiar in countless war films, with the Battle of Britain about to begin and her area Kent to London at the centre of things.

What was it like to be there as The Few flew up to meet the challenge and the fate of the Western world hung in the balance? "It was ever so easy. Any fool could do it. You just had to be accurate. I sat underneath the controller's desk and drew up a plot on a piece of tracing paper so he could see where to vector the aircraft to intercept the enemy.

"My information came from Uxbridge. RDF radar was top secret and we were told not to breathe a word about it to anyone. One girl went home and apparently talked to her parents. She got two years in Holloway jail. Officially, the Battle of Britain was from July 10 to the end of October. But it didn't finish then. The Germans say it went on until 1941."

There were Luftwaffe attacks on her airfield. "One day Winifred and I were just going on duty at eight when they arrived and we took to our heels like hares. Several were killed in an air raid shelter. I never went in one of those, they gave me claustrophobia. I'd rather be killed on the outside."

One evening, Edith found a Hurricane pilot, Denis Whistler, talking to Winifred over dinner. He had a Scottish-Swiss background and was from the family that made Marmite. When Denis was wounded in the arm by cannon shells in a dogfight, the girls visited him in hospital. It was Edith whom he asked to marry.

Denis was flying out of a fighter station in their sector, RAF Martlesham Heath. At noon on November 11, Edith and the rest of the plotters on B Watch were just going off duty when they heard that a Hurricane, Blue 4, was going down. "I thought, my God, I think that's Denis although unless you heard voices from the cockpits in the Ops Room you didn't know who was flying what."

Hurricane VYV was coming back to land at Martlesham when it was shot down eight miles out in the Thames estuary at Orfordness on the north side of the river. Denis was the pilot. "They didn't find him or the aircraft. Unless they were very lucky, with a ship just happening to be passing, they didn't survive long in the water. Denis was the love of my life.

"I went on a fortnight's compassionate leave. I visited his family. When I got back the Battle of Britain was virtually over. I thought I can't just sit here and do nothing."

She had been judged not suitable material to be an NCO. "It was because in those days we just did our own thing. Then in early 1941 we met the CO going down the road and he said, 'Why haven't you women applied for commissions?'" Edith went away on an officers' course at Loughborough for three weeks and was posted to Pocklington where the Canadian 405 Squadron were flying Wellington bombers.

She was only the fifth WAAF on the station. "There were three code and cipher WAAFs, one ops and me. It all grew from that as time went on, the trades broadened for women. I was lucky to get in so early when there weren't as many courses and you learned on the job. It was typically British. We had some high quality girls in those jobs."

She was a Watchkeeper and then Intelligence Officer at Pocklington where 405 was replaced by 102 Squadron flying Halifax Mark Is and IIs. "They had Merlins lovely-sounding engines." Section Officer Heap (the equivalent of a Flying Officer) interviewed the exhausted and often shocked airmen immediately after they landed.

"You needed to know such things as when the searchlights had come on, when they were attacked by night fighters, when they'd dropped their bombs. As a rule, they had 10 minutes over the target. We'd ask what they had seen on the way back. You'd talk to any of the crew who had anything to say. Often in was the tail-gunner who saw more."

One Halifax had to return to Pocklington without dropping its bombs because of a problem with a nose gunner. "He was a big tall chap. As the crew were being debriefed I could see him slowly slumping down against a wall. I asked a friend if we could use her bed to put him on. When we laid him down he was as stiff as a board from head to feet. The Medical Officer came to examine him and said, 'You're looking at someone who is literally scared stiff'. We never saw the chap again. I expect he was put down LMF Lack of Moral Fibre.

"The station at Melbourne and us had two intersecting runways. There was a collision when everyone was killed. Someone found a sergeant's chevron which smelt of burnt flesh. I'll never forget it. Another time, a Halifax took off, failed to rise and hit a cable. It just exploded and it was a case of picking up tiny pieces.

"We came on at seven in the evening until nine the next morning. That enabled you to follow the operation through. We worked quite hard. You got so tired. When you went to bed you couldn't sleep for long, so we'd go into York. I must have been in every bar. But not Bettys' bar that was a pick-up place. Sometimes one of the boys would take us for dinner at the Royal Station Hotel. They paid for us, none of this going Dutch business."

She was posted to the Pathfinders flying Mosquitoes at Bourne, near Cambridge. "The boss didn't like women. There were one or two in the Air Force who didn't accept women and wouldn't let them work." She also has a bone to pick with later writers who tried to diminish their contribution. "Kate Adie wrote a book saying we were all clerks and domestics. I sent her a furious letter. She doesn't damn well look at her facts. We're still here you know. They can still ask us. We were all trained with .303 rifles. In case we were invaded."

She was demobbed in December 1945. Probably like many women in that position, picking up the threads of a past life was not easy. The horse was still there at Nun Monkton but everything else had changed and once released from the irksome shackles of service life, they realised how much opportunity it had given them.

"They were happy days in lots of ways, there were wonderful times amid the tragedy and we had to give it up so quickly. We said girls cried when they came in and cried when they left.

"At home the family had no idea what I'd been doing and as the youngest in the family, they were still talking to me like the baby. I got quite cross. I thought, 'Damn it all, I've been doing a really responsible job for six years'."

She got married at the end of 1946 and became Mrs Kup, the wife of a doctor. "I knew on my wedding day I shouldn't be doing it." They had two children and divorced in 1954. Mrs Kup trained as a social worker, specialising in mental health

After helping to wage total war for six years, was there ever a point when WAAFs like Edith had the opportunity to see what Bomber Command had wrought on the enemy?

"Once, just after the war was over. We took a 'Cook's Tour' in a Lancaster across to Cologne and then down the Rhine to Remagen and back and flew home over France. Everyone went quiet. We were absolutely shocked."

At one of the "sound points" in the exhibition, Pilot Officer Alan Bryett describes the atmosphere in Bettys Bar in York. "It was really quite wonderful, it was an intelligence room, when you got there you met your friends from other stations in other squadrons in the immediate area and if you drank there for two or three hours it was quite heavy drinking there you would pick up all the gen going on, you'd know what the losses were, you'd actually get the buzzes on what the future ops were going to be. "It was the place where, if you were going to York, you picked up all the information in Bettys' Bar."
No mention of other pick-ups there, however.

Against The Odds: The Story of Bomber Command in the Second World War runs until January 7, 2007. Imperial War Museum North. Open seven days a week, free admission, 10am-6pm. Information 0161 836 4000.

Link (http://www.yorkshiretoday.co.uk/ViewArticle2.aspx?SectionID=1472&ArticleID=1542599)