I was called a filter plotter because the messages would come in from the radar stations all around the coast of England and we would be on a table that was as big as this room with a map of England and a map of the coast back to Germany.
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I joined the [Royal] Air Force [Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)] in 1941. In England at that time, conscription was for women aged 18 with their parents’ signature. And you could take army, navy, air force, land army. And I was crazy about the air force, ever since I was little, because we had an air force, a small air force base near us and we used to get these flying planes coming, you know where the women would walk on wings and things like this. I just thought they were marvelous.
And so there was no question I was going to go into the air force but I wasn’t old enough. So I forged my father’s signature; on my 17th birthday, I was in the air force. And wondering what I was doing because at this point, I hadn’t really thought of leaving home.
And I was sent to a station down in the south. And you didn’t know where you were going really, there was blackout, there’s no gasoline, no petrol, so you just go on mostly on military transports. And that was my first experience, given a uniform, knife, fork and spoon; very critical. If you lost them, you didn’t eat.
There were women from all over England, hundreds of them. They were starting, we had to get up in the morning with a tannoy [loudspeaker] at 6:00 and go out and learn how to salute and how to parade and how to march. Even the funeral march, which was very difficult. But then we got to the point where you were selecting, my brother-in-law was a Battle of Britain pilot and had lots of experience. But he said to me, well, if you’re going to do this, every time anybody asks you where you want to go or where you want to be, just say, clerk, special duties. And he said, don’t go away from that, just keep saying that, because it’s something very new that has been invented and this is just the start of training the personnel. And he said, you’ve got a good education, it would be great for you. So I did. And that was radar, it was the first time Britain had radar. The Germans had had it and when our bombers were going over, they were waiting for them, because they knew exactly where they were.
And so I did my training at [RAF] Stanmore [Park] in London and it was very extensive training. I was called a filter plotter because the messages would come in from the radar stations all around the coast of England and we would be on a table that was as big as this room with a map of England and a map of the coast back to Germany, and Scotland and Ireland. And we would be plugged into headsets on the table and then suddenly, a voice would come over from one of the stations on the coast giving you a number of aircraft and what they figured the height would be. And upstairs, there’d be a senior officer going around like a balcony and he’d watch all the plots going on the table. And from that he could tell how many aircraft, what height they were at and exactly where they were and where they were heading.
And all British aircraft at that time had something called IFF, Identification, friend or foe, so this was very easy because we could separate the hostiles from our own aircraft. It was a great, great thing.
So after my first posting, because I thought, well, I’ve got brothers and sisters, I had two brothers in the army, a brother in the air force and a sister in the navy. But when they gave us our posting, they said, you’re very lucky, you’re the first WAAFs [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force personnel] to go to Northern Ireland. I thought, oh my God, they’re sending us overseas. And I was a little upset at this and the trip over to Ireland was awful. You know, the Irish Sea is terrible.
And we got to Ireland and, again, I’m not on an air force base. And now, we’re working like troglodytes, we’re underground all the time. We’re in the; filter centres were always built underground. So I was quite happy about being there. It was very hard because on the map of Ireland, there was a big line across of course the border because the south of Ireland wasn’t at war.
And there had been word that, you know that the [German] submariners could go and get taken care of in the south of Ireland. So it was a little dicey. But the first time I was put on the table, I was plugged in with a girl who knew what she was doing and I’m just my first time on the table. And all of a sudden, this voice comes into my headset and I start throwing out these plots and all this information on the table and all of a sudden the controller upstairs shouts, “what’s that girl doing?!” And I was plotting these aircraft in the south of Ireland, coming up towards Northern Ireland with no IFF.
And so there was a big panic and then suddenly the sergeant realized what I was doing and the plotting was really supposed to be on a fighter exercise around Belfast, I was plotting in the south. So it was a big panic because they thought this was something really happening south of Ireland and they were heading for Belfast. Big start. Took me a long time to live that one down.
And then from Belfast, I was sent to Nottingham [England] and again, underground. And we were in Nottingham for quite a long time and it was quite close to home, so I liked it, I could go home on my leave. We worked shifts, long shifts and I made two really great girlfriends there.
It was as great experience. It was just being on the plotting table was exciting enough. And then we were plotting the thousand bomber raids and that was pretty exciting because we had all this stuff on there. And then we’d be still plotting, so we’d get them coming back from Germany and quite often, when a plane stopped, the little blip from one particular plane or a group of planes stopped, nine times out of ten, that’s somebody that’s gone into the drink. And so a special marker was put out there so that the search and rescue crews the next day would know where to go. So it was, you knew you were doing something that was really vital and it was wonderful. I mean, it wasn’t wonderful because the war was on but I loved what I was doing and I was good at it.