Doodlebug days

I was a Fleet Air Arm Wren on leave from Belfast. “Two more days’ leave, and then back across the Irish Sea,” I thought. I wondered if we would be escorted by corvettes as we had been the first time, because of U-boats.

An official letter arrived at my home in Finchley: “Please report for a course on the new radar at Walthamstow College on Monday” (‘new’ meant to the Fleet Air Arm, though not to the Americans). It gave details of my posting. I would be staying in a hotel at Woodford Green, Essex.

I duly arrived at the station and was taken with others to the Wilfred Lawson Temperance Motel, a mellow country hotel near Epping Forest, pleasant at first glance, except for the shell of a dance hall joined to one side.

We were given keys and room numbers – four to one room. We were warned not to shout or jump about in this condemned building! It had been standing empty for a year. The front wall of our room was so bowed out that I could shake hands with the girls in the next room through the gap. We thought this was hilarious.

The rooms, and the food, were fine. The only thing we came to dread was fire-watching duty, which entailed sleeping on palliasses on the floor of the ruined dance hall. Our fear was not of fire bombs, but of cockroaches which crept out of the crumbling walls and got into our hair.

The other fearsome things yet to be encountered were flying bombs (doodlebugs) which had recently started coming over. Each day we marched to the college, swinging our canvas bags containing notebooks, pens and sandwiches.

I sat by the fifth floor window in the college. Whenever the siren sounded and we heard the ominous buzz I hung out to look for the approaching doodlebug. “Can you see it yet, Paul?” the others shouted. “Yes, here it comes!” It was like a stubby little aircraft with short wings and a flame coming out of its tail.

The others would lean over me to catch a glimpse of it. The thing usually travelled a bit nearer to London before the motor cut out and a horrifying silence ensued. Then would come the deafening explosion.

We would return to our seats to see our pale instructor (medically unfit) under his flimsy desk. The sight of his obvious distress made me feel rather guilty.

One day, as a doodlebug came level with us, the buzz stopped. I yelled: “Look out!” We all ducked. The explosion was ear-splitting, and had clearly hit the nearby township. Glass shattered in college windows, hundreds of which had already been replaced since the beginning of the war.

We returned somewhat subdued to our seats. Soon afterwards police arrived and collected our colleague, Molly, who lived quite nearby, her parents were dead and her home was destroyed. We never saw her again.

We were less frivolous about the flying bombs after that. We all seemed to grow up a bit.

We were still excited, but now there was a tinge of fear mixed with the thrill.

Some of us spent our lunch breaks sitting on the wall in front of the college, eating our sandwiches and listening to the music from the concert hall next door. A local orchestra used to practise there.

This was just one quiet moment in the bustle of our lives.

One day in June 1944 we were marched in single file, in bell-bottoms, carrying our bags to the college. Approaching us, and heading eastwards, were soldiers in double file by the score. As they passed us they burst out laughing, calling out such remarks as “The sea’s this way, sailor!” and “‘Ave you lost yer compass?”

Apparently they were back-up troops for the D-Day Landings, heading towards the coast.

I’m so glad we made them smile before they were plunged into the serious prospect facing them.

Pauline Padfield