Veteran Stories:
Shirley Richardson

Air Force

  • Shirley Richardson during the Second World War.

    Shirley Richardson
  • Shirley Richardson during the Second World War.

    Shirley Richardson
  • Shirley Richardson (right) in Morecambe, England. February, 1943. At this time, Shirley Richardson undertook "square-bashing" drills as part of her training.

    Shirley Richardson
  • Shirley Richardson (top row, left) with others sitting on their commanding officer's car.

    Shirley Richardson
  • Shirley Richardson (front) in Lympne, England, 1944. Shirley Richardson was in Lympne while British Commonwealth pilots had their French identity photographs taken.

    Shirley Richardson
  • Shirley Richardson (fourth row, far right) in Cosford, England where she graduated from a training course.

    Shirley Richardson
  • Shirley Richardson (top, second from right) on a 10-tonne truck with other members of her unit.

    Shirley Richardson
  • Shirley Richardson (top right) on the shoulders of Flight Lieutenant Dugdale, her transport officer. Air station RAF Charter Hall, County Berwickshire (Scottish Borders).

    Shirley Richardson
  • The wedding of Shirley and James A. Richardson at St. Margaret's Church, across from Westminster Abbey, London, England.

    Shirley Richardson
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"I had three older brothers, who were all in the forces, and I guess my parents, they had to make a 24-hour decision, decided to send me out to Canada. When I said goodbye to them, they and I thought we would never see each other again. I was age 15."

Transcript

I grew up in Shamley Green, Surrey [England], and I went to a private girls’ school called Benenden, which later Princess Anne went to.  The school was in Kent and was evacuated just after Dunkirk.* And, at that time, the British government thought the Germans were going to land in England.  All the equipment, of course, was on the beaches of Dunkirk – they got a lot of the men out.  The government asked people if they would send their children out to Canada.  I guess they thought if they can’t save England, maybe they could save some of the children.

I had three older brothers, who were all in the forces, and I guess my parents, they had to make a 24-hour decision, decided to send me out to Canada.  When I said goodbye to them, they and I thought we would never see each other again.  I was age 15.

I went to Canada.  There were two passenger ships full of mothers with babies, and children like myself, going out under school groups, or just more or less on their own. After two days the destroyer escort left and we were on our own, and the [German] U-boats sank the other ship.  We were not allowed to stop because we’d have been a sitting duck.  So we went on, leaving the other ship to sink, with all the children on it.  We arrived in Canada, and after a while our school group – there were about 20 of us from Benenden – were sent to a school called River Bend in Winnipeg, where we boarded.  I was put into Grade 11, which in those days, was leaving grade, top grade.  I had one year there and graduated.  The day after I graduated, I heard my oldest brother had been killed in the [Royal Navy] Fleet Air Arm in England.

I trained at a business school.  I got some shorthand and typing, and I got a job in Montreal, with the British Ministry of War Transport, and while I was there, I wanted to go back to England to try and do my part.  And eventually, in the fall of 1942, I was able to get on a little French freighter that had been captured off the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  We were part of a huge convoy going back to England. It was very, very rough and I think that saved us from the U-boats.  It was so rough, that apparently they couldn’t fire their torpedoes accurately.  We made it back to Liverpool, and I got back to England.

Of course, I couldn’t tell my parents I was coming, and at this point, I was 17 and three-quarters, and I was still, at that stage, too young to join the forces.  But, I finally was able to, while I was still 17.  I volunteered, which meant that I could choose what I did.  English girls were conscripted, just like the men at 18, and if they wanted factory workers, the girls were sent to do that.  If they wanted girls to work on the farms, they joined the Land Army, or they nursed, or whatever they did.  If you volunteered you could choose.  I chose to go into the air force, because Winnipeg had been the centre for the [British] Commonwealth Air Training scheme.  And I’d met quite a few Canadian pilots, or young people, who were training to be pilots.  Finally, about eight weeks before my 18th birthday, I was invited to join and I was sent to the induction centre about five miles out of Gloucester, where we spent a week getting a uniform and some shots.

From there, we were sent up to Morecambe, on the coast above Liverpool, for three weeks of learning how to march, how to put on a gas mask in a room full of gas.  We had our shots and we had lectures about this, that, and the other, to do with the forces.  And, after three weeks there, I was supposed to be going to learn to be a transport driver.  But, apparently the courses were a bit full up and we had to wait, so I was sent with some other girls to Pershore, near Stratford-on-Avon, and I was there for a few weeks, not being allowed to drive or anything, and we were turned on to scrub NAAFI** floors and do odd jobs.

And finally, we were sent up to Blackpool [England] where, for several weeks they taught us to drive and we drove everything from cars to 1,500 weight, up to three tonne.  The biggest [truck] that they let us drive was 10 tonnes.  But in those days, 10 tonnes had no power brakes and no power steering and they were very heavy and difficult to shift gear.  They taught us to drive in the blackout and in convoys.

When we graduated from that, I was sent down to Fighter [Command No.]11 Group [RAF],*** which is in southern England, to Canley.  And I was there for a number of weeks, driving, and one of the jobs I had to do, it’s hard to believe now, was to go every time the wind changed and change the lights on the flare path.  They had – this was done by hand, and as I drove along I had to be ready to wheel right off the runway if planes were coming in or taking off.  We did others and after a bit I was sent down to Hawkinge in Kent, which was about four miles up on the Downs, inland from Folkestone – which is where the Chunnel**** now comes out.  I spent most of my service time there.

It also was a F11 Fighter Command and at that time it was the closest airfield to France.  This was, of course, before D-Day [6 June 1944].  It was within the range of the Channel guns, which hit us occasionally.  It had been bombed before I got there, and we had raids occasionally.  And then when the [V-1] flying bombs came over, the doodle bombs [bugs], the duds landed round and about where we were or where we were driving.  And we saw quite a few of those much too close crashing and felt the results of that.

I drove everything from trucks, I drove the garbage up to Air Vice Marshal’s.  I drove ambulances and we used to have to, when doing that, go off to crash sites and sometimes look for dead bodies.  Once we had to go when a German plane was shot down.  We didn’t know whether the crew were alive or dead, and it was kind of scary work.  And, we learnt, we grew up very fast, in those days, dealing with death and destruction and people who were hurt badly.

*June 1940 Allied evacuation from Dunkirk, France

**Navy, Army & Air Force Institutes (United Kingdom)

***Operations Room at air station RAF Uxbridge

****Tunnel across the English Channel, between England and France

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