Veteran Stories:
Georgette Caldwell

Navy

  • Georgette Caldwell Medals (L-R) : The 1939-1945 War Medal, The Defence Medal.

    Georgette Caldwell
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"But then, in June of 1940, the unthinkable occurred"

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My name is Georgette Caldwell. I served in the United Kingdom during World War II from 1941 to 1945. Women's Division of the Royal Naval Service. It was known as the WRNS -W-R-N-S. I was 17 when World War II began and, as our family home's in London, we were right in the thick of the blitz. Though at first nothing much happened, we were all instructed in the use of gas masks and encouraged to dig large holes in our gardens to install air raid shelters. And which I may say, we did not. And I never even went into a shelter during the entire war. But then, in June of 1940, the unthinkable occurred. France capitulated and shortly after that, the Battle of Britain began and the skies were filled with fighter aircraft on both sides. In September the enemy bombers arrived. Every night as soon as dusk fell, the air raid sirens would wail and searchlights crisscrossed the sky. And anti-aircraft guns boomed and banged away all night until dawn, when the extent of the damage could be seen. Buildings reduced to rubble. Huge craters everywhere. Firemen and anyone who could lend a hand, digging to bring people out. My first realization of what war meant was when, the morning after the first enormous fire bombing, I walked through the area around St. Paul's Cathedral. Burned out buildings were still smouldering all around me and the cobblestones beneath my feet were still burning hot. And the terrible smell of fire everywhere. I immediately joined my neighbourhood firewatchers group, which stood watch all through the night, so that if any firebombs fell in our area, they would be dealt with very quickly. I was so upset, I was so angry about that whole business that I decided, "Well, it's time to do something." So as soon as I became 18, I applied to join the WRNS - Women's Royal Naval Service. And after my initial training period of six weeks, was posted to the Admiralty, which was rather like the head office of a company, much to my disappointment, I was itching to go to a port of course and see some real ships and so on. During that time and during our training, we had to go into a gas chamber so that we would know what it would be like if the unthinkable again happened and they started using these terrible weapons. As it turned out, my appointment in London was very fortuitous. Our food was nourishing, if a bit stodgy. Lots of bread and potatoes. And compared to civilians' meagre rations, this was more than adequate. About 18 months later, I was drafted to Plymouth on the staff of the Commodore Royal Naval dockyard. This is where the fine details of Operation Neptune were plotted. Neptune was the naval side of Operation Overlord. Responsible for keeping the English Channel free from German ships, particularly their speedy, heavily armed destroyers, in preparation for the invasion of Europe. Plymouth had a number of Canadian ships based there: destroyers, corvettes and minesweepers. One of them being the destroyer Haida. The same ship which was until recently berthed at Queen's Quay at Harbourfront in Toronto. She became famous with her sister ship, Athabaskan, for the number of enemy destroyers they sank. As time wore on, we were all anxiously awaiting D-Day and finally everything was in place. I knew that June the 5th was to be the big day and that three days before the ships were sealed, which meant no communication of any kind between ship's crews and their wives or sweethearts was allowed. And then everyone settled down to wait. But a tremendous storm blew up on the 5th, which would make the passage across to France extremely hazardous, particularly for the landing craft. And yet postponement would surely have alerted the enemy. Finally the high command decided to wait out the storm for 24 hours and sent everyone off next day. The evening before the ships were due to sail, I went down to the harbour and there were vessels of every size, for every purpose, jammed together filling every inch of space. I don't think one could have put a pin between them. In the dusk they looked like ghost ships. Next morning, I went back. And there was no sign they had ever been there. The harbour was completely empty. It was the most eerie sensation I think I've ever had.
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