Love and war reunion for code-breakers of Bletchley Park
The Times ~ September 7, 2009
Mavis Lever thought she really ought to be a nurse. She had been studying German at University College London when the Second World War broke out, and decided to put her degree on hold to do her bit for the war effort. Nursing, she thought, was where she could help. But the powers that be knew she was far too clever for that. “‘No you don’t,’ they said. ‘You’ve got an interview at the Foreign Office’,” she recalled. By the time she was through she had been recruited to work as one of the Bletchley Park code-breakers, that curious collection of linguists, mathematicians, crossword puzzle experts and eccentrics who helped to shorten the course of the war.
Yesterday Mavis Batey — as she is now — was one of about 70 Bletchley veterans who made their way to the stately home in Buckinghamshire for a reunion to mark the 70th anniversary of the day the mathematician Alan Turing and his colleagues reported for duty. They all know the way to Bletchley now, but that was not the case back then. “Some people were told to go to Euston Station and they would be given a ticket,” said Mrs Batey, 88. “They could not tell their family whether they were going to Watford or Glasgow.”
Ruth Henry, 83, who was recruited after she left school, was told she would be working for SDX. SD meant Special Duties, she knew, but what about X? “Well, it’s not Y,” they were told. It was not until 30 years later that she learned that Y meant the wireless interceptors. “They told us we would be joining HMS Pembroke V. That gave us ideas of handsome sailors and boats, but we fetched up in the back of beyond.”
Enigma codebreakers of Bletchley to be honoured
Hitler planned invasion with 'Wagner' atlas
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan (SOE Agent) 1914-1944
Exotic British spy who defied Gestapo brutality to the end
The story of a prince's daughter and the SS guard who tortured and shot her has been uncovered.
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan occupied "the principal and most dangerous post in France" until her capture and execution by the Nazis in 1944. Her diary identifies her prison-camp torturer. (THE KHAN FAMILY). She was one of the most beautiful, exotic and unlikely spies to serve the Allies in wartime Europe. Like so many others, she perished at the hands of the SS in Dachau concentration camp. Research in British and German archives has uncovered the full story of Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, who was born in pre-revolutionary Moscow to an Indian mystic prince and an American woman. She joined Britain's Special Operations Executive and was betrayed with her radio as she transmitted from occupied Paris.
When her 225-page personal file was released recently by the National Archives in London, it was found to contain one extraordinary fact: the name of the SS camp guard who beat her to a pulp before shooting her through the back of the head. Yet she never betrayed a secret and died with the single word liberté on her bruised and bleeding lips. One of only three wartime women to be awarded the George Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry away from the field of battle, Noor is the least known. Her fellow Resistance workers have been commemorated in feature films: Odette Hallowes was played by Anna Neagle in Odette and Violette Szabo by Virginia McKenna in Carve Her Name With Pride. In 1958, a former Dutch prisoner of the Nazis known as "A.F." who witnessed Noor's execution read her biography and wrote to its author, Jean Overton Fuller. He revealed her killer to be Wilhelm Ruppert, a sadistic SS guard at the camp, and he described Noor's last moments on September 12, 1944.
Even before her wartime service, Noor's life was out of the ordinary. Descended from a Muslim prince who died resisting the British Raj, she spent her early childhood among the Tsarist nobility before the 1917 revolution forced her family to flee to France. When Paris fell to the Germans in 1940, they had to seek refuge again, this time in England. Driven by ideals of freedom and calling herself Nora Baker, she volunteered for SOE, which specialised in dropping agents behind enemy lines. Trained at the secret Baker Street headquarters, she proved a poor recruit, being too clumsy, too emotional and too
scared of handling weapons.
Bob Maloubier, another French refugee trained at Baker Street, sent home to become a successful saboteur and now aged 83, said yesterday: "Above all she was definitely a very brave lady. It was extremely tricky operating under the noses of the Germans." Noor's courage and determination outweighed her ineptitude, and her masters sent her into France with a radio set and the codename Madeleine on June 16, 1943.
From the start she was on the run, moving her radio all over Paris to transmit details of troop movements essential for the planning of the D-Day invasion. The Prosper underground network of which she was a vital link was quickly penetrated by the Germans, thanks to an SOE double agent, Henri D. She was ordered home, but declined to board the RAF Lysander sent for her and carried on transmitting as virtually the last link between the Resistance and London.
General Sir Colin Gubbins, the head of SOE, said that she occupied "the principal and most dangerous post in France". She had remarkable luck; stopped by the Gestapo as she cycled with her radio, she persuaded them that it was a cine projector. But after 3½ months her luck ran out; she was betrayed by Renée Garry, the sister of one of her Resistance colleagues. Garry is thought to have been jealous of her role as an SOE agent. When captured, Noor was carrying a codebook listing all her radio messages, sent and received, which allowed the Germans to send false messages to London for a time. But after the war the former head of the Gestapo in Paris said that despite interrogation and torture, Noor never told them a thing.
She had been dead eight years when her nephew, David Harper, was born, but from endless family chatter he feels as if he knew her. "She was a paradox. She was sensitive, a lover of music and poetry, a musician and writer of children's stories. Yet she was terribly strong-willed and prepared to risk her life for a cause; she was fighting for an ideal, like so many others at that time," he said. SS Trooper Wilhelm Ruppert was tried for war crimes and executed by the Americans on May 29, 1946.
Secrets and spies
Channel 4 History Site News Stories
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) used women as agents because they would not stand out compared with young men, who should have been in military service or war work. Although it might cause gossip, in wartime women were able to meet people, invite them home and even stay the night with them. Women were recruited mainly on their ability to speak French, blend in, keep a cool head and think quickly. This mix of bravery and ordinariness characterised many women in spying roles. Marie Madeleine Fourcade was a single mother aged 30 when she started work in resistance intelligence-gathering. She was arrested and escaped twice, and had to send her children aged 10 and 12, alone across the Swiss border to safety.
Her commander wanted to discourage her from returning to France: 'You've gone on long past the safety limits. According to the law of averages, an underground leader can't last more than six months. You've lasted over two and a half years. It's sheer witchcraft.'
Marie Louise Dissard was 60 when she joined the resistance. She became the leader of an escape route with stations in Paris, Marseilles and Perpignan, helping 250 airmen out, 110 of them while she herself was in hiding. Before that, she travelled through France, looking like any other elderly woman, arranging lodgings, accompanying escapees and setting up contacts.
This courage and resourcefulness failed to find an echo in the culture of the British secret services. When Stella Rimington, who was to become the first woman to head a security service, joined MI5 she says: 'It did not matter that I had a degree, that I had already worked for several years in the public service, at a higher grade than it was offering, or that I was 34 years old. The policy was that men were recruited as what were called "officers" and women had their own career structure, a second-class career, as "assistant officers". They did all sorts of support work, but not the sharp-end intelligence-gathering operations. What the recruiters were offering me was a post as "junior assistant officer".'
Odette Sansom Hallowes GC
Odette had three small daughters when she left England to work with Peter Churchill in the south of France, setting up local networks of the resistance. She was captured, imprisoned, starved and tortured. From her cell she heard the executions of most of her fellow resistance members but she survived to collect her George Cross and to marry Peter Churchill. She says: 'I am a very ordinary woman to whom a chance was given to see human beings at their best and at their worst.'
Her commander recalls: 'She used to say, "I don't think it's very nice to go into a restaurant on my own." She'd come into France on her own, but didn't think it was nice to go into a restaurant on her own!'
Pearl came from Hertfordshire but was working in Paris. She and her family escaped in 1941 with help from the resistance, and she started work as a secretary in the Air Ministry. Bored with office work, she signed up as a FANY. After training she was sent to the southern Loire. When the organiser was arrested and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, Pearl took over the command of the Wrestler network and built it up to over 2,000 men who she trained and armed. Her group held off 2,500 German troops with 150 men. Pearl escaped through a cornfield.
In June 1944, her network cut the railway line to Paris 800 times. She became so important, the Germans put up posters offering 1 million francs for her capture. 'When we got back to London all the heads of circuits were there; they were all men, and I was the only woman. The head of it all said "Gentlemen!" And he turned to me and said: "That applies to you, because you've done a man's job!" I'm the only woman who's ever done such a thing: going from a courier to military commander!'
Others were not so keen to recognise her achievement. She was recommended for the Military Cross but, as a woman, was not allowed to receive it. She was awarded a civilian MBE that she returned because she had done nothing as a civilian. 'Why should secret agents who risked their lives be treated like someone who sat behind a desk during the war?'
Lise de Baissac
Lise was the first woman to be parachuted into France, along with Andre Borrel, who was killed in 1944. Lise and her brother were born in Mauritius and fled France after the island surrendered. She was working as a shop assistant in London when her cousin told her about SOE. She maintained communications between three resistance networks, set up drops of weapons and other agents, and organised resistance groups until her cover was blown. She was flown out as the whole network was arrested and still feels the sadness of their deaths: 'If I had not asked them, they would still be alive.' She returned to Normandy as second-in-command to her brother and cycled around giving orders as the Germans retreated. After the war, she worked for the BBC and today lives in Marseilles.
'The prettiest thing imaginable', her commander thought when she was dropped in France in 1944. Sonya's father was in the RAF, and she lived with her mother in France. Her mother was visiting England when war broke out and Sonya escaped through France and across the Channel alone, aged 15, with no documents. She joined the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) at 17 but was bored and asked for a transfer to SOE. 'I asked how we got to France and he said by parachute and I said well that's all right.'
She met her husband while training: he helped her with map-reading. On a parachute jump together she winked at him as she jumped, and he proposed to her on the ground. But once married, they had to be sent on separate missions. She used her expertise in explosives sometimes daily, gave weapons training to new recruits, hid fugitive airmen and cycled hundreds of miles as a courier. She ate in expensive restaurants, and had hidden her revolver in her handbag on the day that 20 of her people were captured. While her husband was up all night 'talking to married women on the telephone', organising the best communications network in the resistance, she was 'sleeping in a ditch with 15 Frenchmen'.
They met again in liberated Paris; she became pregnant and had to leave the service. She went to Canada as a war bride and had four children. She decided to teach the girls French as 'it was more becoming'. Nevertheless, her daughter and two grandchildren have black belts in karate.
Susan Travers (born 1909) is a British citizen and daughter of a Royal Navy admiral who, during World War II, was informally part of the French Légion Étrangère and became the chauffeur for Free French General Pierre Koenig. Prior to the war, she was a semi-pro tennis player. For her actions in the Battle of Bir Hakeim (1942), Travers was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Prior to the invasion of France (1940), Travers served as an ambulance driver in Finland. By 1941, she was the chauffeur for a medical officer of the Légion Étrangère, during the Syrian campaign in which Vichy French legionnaires fought Free French legionnaires. She then travelled to North Africa via Dahomey and the Congo (where she went on a crocodile hunt).
In late May 1942, as the Afrika Korps prepared to attack Bir Hakeim, General Koenig ordered Travers and other females out of the area. The Germans attacked on May 26. Not long later, Travers joined a convoy into the rear area and Koenig agreed to her requests to return to Bir Hakeim, as he felt the German attack was a failure. Over the next two weeks, the Luftwaffe flew 1,400 sorties against the defenses of Bir Hakeim, whilst 4 German/Italian divisions attacked. During the bombing, shrapnel tore a hole in the General's car and Travers (with the assistance of a Vietnamese driver) carried the part to a field workshop where mechanics fixed it.
On June 10, Travers drove the General's staff car (a Ford) during the retreat. The retreating column ran into minefields and German machine gun fire. Koenig ordered Travers to drive at the front of the column. Travers states, "He said, "We have to get in front. If we go the rest will follow." It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark. My main concern was that the engine would stall." At 1030, on June 11, the column entered British lines. Travers' vehicle had been hit by 11 bullets and not only was a shock absorber destroyed, but the brakes had also ceased functioning.
Later in the war, Travers would be wounded when Koenig drove over a mine. She went on to serve in Italy, France, and Germany, where she drove an ambulance, truck, and self-propelled anti-tank gun. After the war she was formally enrolled in the Légion Étrangère, as an Adjutant Chef. Travers served in Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. She married Adjutant Chef Nicolas Schlegelmilch, who had fought at Bir Hakeim with the 13ème Demi-Brigade. As of 2000, she was living near Paris, France. In 2000, at the age of 91, assisted by Wendy Holden she wrote her autobiography Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion, having waited for all the other principals in her life story to die before writing it.
The girls back at the base knew these pilots...The Battle of Britain
Now, over the radio they heard their screams as they crashed to earth
Daily Mail ~ April 6, 2009
A new book by historian Robert Kershaw uses interviews, diaries and letters to give a unique insight into day-to-day life during the conflict. These eyewitness accounts reveal the extraordinary bravery with which ordinary people stood up to the biggest threat the nation had ever faced.
This was war as a spectator sport. On Sunday, July 14, 1940, as the Battle of Britain began, radio listeners were gripped as BBC reporter Charles Gardner delivered a vivid live commentary of a dog-fight between RAF fighters and Stuka dive-bombers, seen from the cliffs overlooking Dover. 'There's one coming down in flames! There's somebody hit a German, and he's coming down. There's a long streak and he's coming down completely out of control - a long streak of smoke. 'Aah! - the man's baled out by parachute - the pilot's baled out by parachute! He's a Junkers 87 and he's going slap into the sea, and there he goes - SMASH - a terrific column of water!' He finished his commentary with a flourish: 'There's a Spitfire just behind the first two - he'll get them! Ah, yes! Oh, boy! I've never seen anything so good as this! The RAF fighters have really got these boys taped.'
For some, this reportage was uplifting: 'It was inspiring. I almost felt I was sharing in it, and I rejoiced unfeignedly that so many of the enemy were shot down and the rest were put to ignominious flight,' wrote one listener. But one First World War veteran pilot found the treatment distasteful and wrote to The Times to complain. 'Where men's lives are concerned, must we be treated to a running commentary on a level with an account of the Grand National or a cup-tie final?'
In the Operations Room:
RAF staff working behind the scenes (file picture)
Blood, guts and modesty: 70 years after the start of WWII,
a new book records the moving and humorous accounts of a generation of British heroes
The Battle of Britain and the Blitz bombing had a profound effect on the national psyche of the British wartime generation. We were going it alone and the battle was on home turf. For the fighter pilots, life could be transformed within minutes from the relative comfort of the mess into confronting a horrible death. Flight Lieutenant David Crook lost his friend, 20-year-old Mick Miller. 'Only a few hours before, I had sat next to Mick at this very table and we had chatted together. And now, here we are at the next meal, everything is quite normal, but he was dead. 'That was the one thing that I could never get accustomed to; seeing one's friends gay and full of life as they always were, and then, a few hours later, seeing the batman start packing their kit, their shaving brush still damp from being used that morning.'
'As he glided down, a German shot him to bits'
Pilot Officer 'Boy' Geoffrey Wellum, with 92 Squadron, thought that waiting for the phone call to 'scramble' into action was purgatory, with one eye constantly flickering to the telephone. 'You were like a cat on hot bricks, nervous, frightened. That's what I'm trying to say, scared stiff.' The sound of the telephone ringing had them on tenterhooks. 'It would either be to say your lunch would be ready in ten minutes - or scramble,' recalled Flight Lieutenant Allan Wright. A 'false' ring was enough to make pilots retch.
Pilot Officer Christopher Currant remembered running was banned in the vicinity of the aircraft apart from a scramble: 'Because whenever we'd see someone running, we'd think "This is us", and we'd all start to run. It was hypnotic.' Heavy casualties resulted in corners being cut on training and inexperienced pilots being drafted prematurely. Pilot Officer Bob Doe, with 234 Squadron, recalled: 'I was absolutely petrified the first time I went into action. I was probably the worst pilot in the squadron. My only gunnery training on Spitfires had been ten rounds per gun, fired into the North Sea, which I couldn't really miss.'
The numerical odds were sobering. Sergeant Pilot Philip Wareing was told by his squadron commander: 'You've got to shoot down four enemy planes before you are shot down yourself because that's what the odds are. Otherwise you're wasting your time.' Up in the skies, it was kill or be killed and if you were shot up you had just a few seconds to bale out. Even then your chances of survival were slim. Hubert Bowden, with 55 (Wessex) Field Regiment RA, saw 21-year-old Pilot Officer Brooks bale out of his crippled Hurricane and float down. 'As he glided to earth, a German fighter shot him to bits.'
Taking to the skies: Ground crew watch the takeoff of combat planes
piloted by members of the American Eagles Volunteer Air Squadron in 1941
Coming down in the Channel was perilous for both sides. Once clear of the aircraft, RAF pilots pulled the ripcord of their parachute, kicked off their flying boots and inflated their Mae West lifejacket. Pilot Officer Jas Storrar watched friend Guy Branch as he was shot down over Poole harbour. 'I circled him until he saw the lifeboat was 50 to 100 yards away and returned to base. I was able to telephone Branch's wife and report what I saw, but it all went wrong. 'I simply couldn't understand how somebody in the water wearing a green Mae West couldn't be spotted. But he wasn't. For a long time his wife lived in hope that he'd been picked up by the other side. But he hadn't been. He died that day.'
When the Luftwaffe bombers turned to head for home, the RAF focused on any labouring or crippled aircraft. Pilot Officer 'Boggle' Bodie selected a damaged Dornier bomber, shot out his engines and flew down to confirm that the plane actually went into the ground. The pilot was dead and slumped over the controls. What Bodie saw next was a desperate sight: 'I spotted a pair of legs emerge from beneath the aircraft as the gunner tried to bale out, but he only got as far as his waist. He wriggled, squirmed and thrashed about, all to no avail. I thought: "Good God, he's stuck." 'Poor devil, he couldn't get in or out and his legs, all I could see of them, flailed about wildly as he tried to release himself. He had no socks on, his feet were quite bare. It was very pathetic. He would be cut in half on landing, like cheese on a grater.'
'Waiting for the call to scramble was like purgatory'
Recognising no one should die in such appalling circumstances, Bodie focused his sights squarely where the gunner's body would be. 'I delivered a short burst. The legs were stilled. As the aircraft exploded, I saw pieces sail past me as I flew low overhead - and I didn't feel particularly jubilant.' Those who did survive were often horribly maimed and faced years of reconstructive surgery, often under the inspirational care of Dr Archibald McIndoe's burns unit at Queen Victoria Hospital in West Sussex. For many wives and girlfriends, it was a test of love and character to be reunited with their disfigured men. 'I got a clink in my starboard tank,' remembers Squadron Leader Tom Gleave, 'an incendiary, and it burst into flames. As the hood came back there was a God Almighty explosion, which propelled me clear amid a huge sheet of flame. 'I fell clear of the aircraft, tumbling head over heels until my parachute opened. My face, hands and legs were swelling even as I came down. Most of my clothes had gone. I was pretty badly burnt - about 30 per cent burns. I lost all the skin off my hand and most of my face. My eyelids and nose went.'
Gleave was understandably anxious at what his wife's reaction might be. He lay in his hospital bed with hands, forearms and legs encased in dried tannic acid, while his face had swollen to 'the size of the proverbial melon'. 'Peering through the slits in my mask I heard footsteps approaching the bed,' he recalled. 'My wife stood gazing at me. She flushed a little, then asked: "What on earth have you been doing with yourself, darling?" I found it hard to speak. "Had a row with a German," I managed to say eventually.'
Squadron Leader Bill Simpson was burned and disfigured on the first day of the battle for France. Nursing sister Mary Godson recalled 'He was not long married and had been a nicelooking lad, but his wife did not want to see him. 'He was not a pretty sight. Only stumps remained on his right hand and his fingers had come away from his left hand when they changed the dressings on it badly while in France.' He later married one of his nurses.
Time out: RAF Pilots stand by in a rest huts in Scotland in 1940
The cries of pain and last moments of injured pilots could be heard by those monitoring the radios. One, Jean Mills, recalled: 'We could hear the crackling voices of the pilots... we were all rooting for our boys to come back.' Distressingly, they were able to hear those who did not. Corporal Claire Legg remembered the girls monitoring the radio channel. 'What they heard often distressed the girls very badly. They knew the pilots and they heard them screaming and going down'
Sorties lasted between 45 and 50 minutes on average. RAF pilots flew about three or four a day, more during the height of battle. Exhausting day followed exhausting day, beginning at 0330 hours. There could be a pause for breakfast at about 0800 and there was a traditional slack time between 1300 and 1600. Pilots often preferred not to talk much on landing, content simply to unwind, to begin generating further reserves of courage. 'I don't think there was too much of the "if only we could be down there in the thick of it" talk,' recalled Pilot Officer Ted Shipman, with 41 Squadron. 'Pilots saying they were always dying to get stuck in were ones on their own. We knew we'd go, and then we would do all we could. But jumping up and down for the chance? No.'
'A fatally injured nine-year-old girl asked: 'Am I going to die?'
Complete relief came with the final landing of the day. Pilot Officer Geoffrey Wellum described how it felt: 'You're coming in and had it at the end of the day, it's all quiet. 'Smoke is coming up from the chimneys in cottages, and you feel a sort of unknown presence, a feeling of tremendous peace. So much so you feel there is something there, but of course there isn't. 'Then you get a sense of beautiful loneliness and think, I've got to get down because my mates are on the ground.'
Death was only reluctantly discussed on RAF bases. 'I don't think it would have done any good to brood on that in the unit,' explained Sergeant Pilot 'Bam' Bamburger. Pilot Allan Wright recalled: 'I was having a bath and I realised Pat, one of the other pilots, was not going to be coming back, I was never going to see him at all. It got to me, and I wept, I must say - the only time I ever cried.'
Well before the end of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill praised the RAF, with the memorable words: 'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.' One pilot responded: 'I thought he was talking about our mess bill!' Flight Lieutenant Alan Deere, with 54 Squadron, recalled saying to his friend George Gribble: 'By Christ, he can say that again - there aren't many of us left.' Gribble didn't survive.
Heroes of the air: Air crew had priority over everything, including sex,
according to Wendy Webster, from the Women's Auxiliary Air Force
Wendy Webster, from the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) working at RAF Lindholme, remembered the emotionally charged atmosphere. 'Air crew had priority over everything, including sex. There was this feeling that they lived for the moment, so if a WAAF went with one of the air crew it was definitely a body-and-soul job - he wanted the lot because he was a pilot and might not be here tomorrow.'
Sergeant Tom Naylor manned the plotting table at Hornchurch sector and remembered a Canadian pilot who had been hit. 'He said "Three-Two", his call sign. "Give my love to Mother." He never came back.'
As the pilots battled in the darkness above, the people of London were bombarded by German bombs. George Mooney, searching for his mother at the height of the early September raid in Stepney, found his house had imploded on receiving a direct hit. 'The horses caught fire and were running about going berserk I found only my fatally-wounded nine-year-old girl cousin, who asked: "Am I going to die?" "No, love," I replied, but she did, in hospital.'
Seven members of his immediate family were killed and by nightfall 16-year-old George had given up hope of ever finding his mother. 'I wasn't a cuddly fellow, but at nine o'clock when my mum came round the corner, you couldn't have given me a better present. It was: "Ere's me mum - Cor it's Mum!" I was as happy as a pig!'
Sylvia Piper was in an Anderson shelter in Tilbury during the September raid. Her father had just returned from leave when the house received a direct hit, blasting through the shelter. 'One of my brothers was killed, another hit in the shoulder and my father was so badly injured he never recovered. 'My mother received head wounds and I had a hole in the chest from hot shrapnel, so it burns as well as damages.'
The pathos of the scene is a memory that endures to this day. 'The sun was absolutely glorious on that day and the shelter, peppered with holes, allowed the rays of the sun to gleam through and light up the terrible scene inside. And being eight years old I didn't really know what had happened.'
Jessie Stansfield remembered a hit on United Dairies less than 100 yards from her. 'They were still using horses and the horses caught on fire and were running about just going berserk.'
One rescuer recalled grasping the hand of a 15-year-old girl who was completely buried in an Anderson shelter, trying to console her. 'Her mouth was full of soil which I managed to clear out. As she lay back, catching her breath, some stupid devil walked over the top of the shelter, soil came down and went back into the girl's throat and as she squeezed my hand she just faded out. I had the feel of that girl clenching my hand for weeks and weeks and weeks. I could never forget it and I don't forget it now.'
• Extracted from Never Surrender: Lost Voices Of A Generation At War 1939-1945 by Robert Kershaw (Hodder & Stoughton, £20). Copyright of Robert Kershaw 2009. To order a copy at £18 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.
Elspeth Green, who died on August 24 aged 93, was one of three WAAFs awarded the Military Medal for their courageous conduct during the intensive bombing of RAF Biggin Hill at the height of the Battle of Britain. In the last few days of August 1940 the Luftwaffe concentrated on knocking out the fighter airfields in the south-east of England; and Biggin Hill, one of the most important, suffered heavily.
During this period, when there were six raids in three days, the then Corporal Elspeth Henderson was on duty in the operations room, responsible for maintaining the vital contact between the airfield operations staff and the controllers at Fighter Command headquarters, Uxbridge. On August 30 nine Junkers 88 bombers delivered a devastating attack on the airfield. An air raid shelter was completely destroyed, and a number of WAAFs sheltering in an adjacent slit trench were amongst the 39 people killed. Others were entombed, and Elspeth Henderson was one of the first to help to dig them out.
After spending the night in makeshift quarters with her WAAF colleagues, she was back on duty the next day when the Luftwaffe attacked again. She maintained contact with Uxbridge despite the bombs bursting on the airfield. Later that afternoon the ops room took a direct hit, and she was knocked over by the blast; but she carried on with her work. "There was nothing much else we could do, anyway," she commented later.
Elspeth Henderson maintained contact with Uxbridge throughout the raid but, as fire broke out, the staff was ordered to take shelter. With her commanding officer and the rest of the staff, she hurriedly left the burning ops room through a broken window and threw herself to the ground as more bombs exploded. Her warrant officer shouted at her to move - she was leaning against an unexploded bomb. Another WAAF, Sergeant Helen Turner, remained at her post in the adjacent emergency telephone exchange until she had to be dragged away to safety. Yet more attacks were aimed at Biggin Hill on the following day, but the squadrons remained operational and continued to take off from the badly-damaged runways.
Using hastily repaired telephone lines and signals equipment in a temporary operations room, Elspeth Henderson maintained contact with Fighter Command headquarters and the Observer Corps posts. Sporadic raids continued until September 7, when the Luftwaffe turned its attention to London. On November 2 it was announced that Elspeth Henderson and two other WAAFs - Sergeants Helen Turner and Elizabeth Mortimer - had been awarded the Military Medal for their "courage and example of a high order". The commanding officer of Biggin Hill said: " These three girls have shown amazing pluck." Throughout the whole of the Second World War, there were only six awards of the Military Medal to members of the WAAF.
Elspeth Candlish Henderson was born on June 16 1913, the daughter of a Professor of Law at Edinburgh University. She was educated at St Denis School, Edinburgh, and Harrogate Ladies' College. On leaving school she travelled in Europe, becoming proficient in German and French. During eight months' service with the VAD she was a driver and gained first aid qualifications. She joined the WAAF in January 1940. After two weeks training to be a plotter in the ops room of a fighter base, she was posted to Biggin Hill, one of Fighter Command's main sector airfields.
Elspeth Henderson was soon promoted to corporal, giving her the responsibility of supervising other WAAF plotters as they displayed the progress of incoming enemy bomber formations. Sometimes it was clear that the bombers were heading directly for Biggin Hill, but she and her colleagues remained at their posts plotting the progress of the attack. Just before the announcement of her award she was commissioned as a section officer and trained in cipher duties. For the next five years she worked in this role on a number of bomber bases. She was posted to Egypt in August 1945 as a welfare officer and a year later left the service with the rank of squadron officer.
After leaving the WAAF she worked at the British Council and was later the secretary for the first Edinburgh International Festival. After her marriage she devoted herself to her family and to voluntary work in Edinburgh. She was a strong supporter of the Aged Christian Friends Society of Scotland. In July 1974 she returned to Biggin Hill, where a road in the RAF married quarters was named after her. In recent years the site has been demolished, but it has just been announced that the new housing development on the site will include roads bearing the names of the three WAAFs and of former fighter pilots who flew from the Battle of Britain airfield.
Elspeth Henderson married Alastair McWatt Green in 1949. He died in 1991, and she is survived by a son and a daughter.
The Attack on Kenley and Biggin Hill Aerodromes: August 18th 1940The raid on Biggin Hill on Sunday August 18 lasted barely ten minutes before it was finally repulsed by the Hurricanes and Spitfires of 32 and 610 Squadrons and the army gunners around the perimeter. The first bombs had fallen to the east, between the airfield and Downe, and had caused little damage. The second raid was more accurate. A Bofors anti-aircraft gun was hit, one of its crew killed and others wounded. The MT sheds were damaged and the airfield was littered with craters and unexploded bombs.
Battle of Britain Document 35
Sergeant (Joan) Elizabeth Mortimer was manning the switchboard in the Armoury and refused to move although she was surrounded by several tons ofhigh explosive. The bombing became heavier but the WAAF Sergeant ignored the danger and continued to relay vital messages around the defence posts. As the raiders departed, but before the "All Clear" sounded Sergeant Mortimer walked and ran around the airfield with a bundle of red flags. Where a bomb had not exploded she placed a flag nearby. Biggin Hill was like a minefield and the aircraft, still airborne, needed to know where to land. A bomb exploded nearby, winding her and for awhile she could not walk. When she recovered she continued planting flags. She was ordered to leave the area by an officer who said it was too dangerous. She carried on when he walked away.
For her courage and coolness Elizabeth Mortimer won the Military Medal, one of three to be awarded to WAAFs at Biggin Hill that summer. She had been at the station for almost a year arriving in September 1939 in rather unusual circumstances. Miss Mortimer had previouslyworked in the Armoury at Hendon where 601 was based. She heard that the Squadron was to be posted to Biggin Hill and, with her friend Beryl Dobell, was determined to join them. Their colleagues in the Armoury thought there was little hope but the girls were determined to try. Elizabeth and Beryl asked for a transfer but did not wait for the official confirmation. They drove through the night to the gates of Biggin Hill and when 601 Squadron arrived they calmly accompanied the boys into the station. The CO at Hendon considered them "lost" until she discovered their whereabouts six weeks later! At Biggin Hill a surprised adjutant politely sent them to find a billet and told them to report back. Believing the adjutant had more important matters on his mind, such as the possibility of war. they stayed out of his way.
Elizabeth Mortimer, one of the first WAAFS at `The Bump" was also the first to win the MM. Her citation read: This airwoman displayed exceptional courage and coolness which had a great moral effect on all those with whom she came into contact." There were plenty of heroes on the day that the Luftwaffe bombed Biggin Hill. The young pilots who were sent up to protect their base were outnumbered by five to one but in a "show" that lasted barely 10 minutes the two squadrons bagged at least nine Huns and sent many others fleeing back across the water.Courtesy Biggin on the Bump © Bob Ogley 1990Later, in describing the attack, Sgt 'Joan' Mortimer said that after the raid which was by comparison to most raids very short and very quick, the buildings had been damaged and there was not much to do where I was. I knew that our aircraft would be returning very soon and I suppose it was instinct that turned my attention to the airfield. The whole area was strewn with bomb craters and there was quite a lot of bombs that had not gone off. There was no way that our fighter pilots would see these unexploded bombs so I grabbed as many red flags as I could and went searching which is the normal routine in such cases.The Battle of Britain - 1940 website © Battle of Britain Historical Society 2007
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