I would say the four years in the air force were the best four years of my life.
Transcript / ShowHide
My name is Agnes Ward. I was born and raised in Toronto. I joined the RCAF [Royal Canadian Air Force] in 1942, served overseas, came back in 1946. And came back into the National Defense and spent nearly 30 years with National Defense. Retired and moved to Trenton [Ontario], where I presently reside.
My brother was already in the peace time air force and of course, as soon as war was declared, Fred was automatically transferred into the active force. And when he came home in uniform before he went on to his training, I thought he looked so sharp and I just felt that I wanted to get involved. I didn’t want to go into munitions, which a lot of the ladies in Toronto were into the munitions because they were paying great money. I just felt that I wanted to join the forces and the air force, I would have liked the navy, but at that time, the navy were not recruiting women, and the air force were the first to recruit women. So I decided to join.
Manning Depot came first in Ottawa and this was sort of an awakening for me, starting to live in barracks, and after six weeks of Manning training and drill and working in the mess, as good volunteers, one learned never to volunteer in the forces. My first posting was No. 5 CFTS, which was the Central Flying Training School at Brantford [Ontario], and I was transferred there and my first job was on the line. I kept records of all of the pilot training. Our students, when they’d go flying, I had to keep a record in the maintenance log of when they took off, the aircraft number, etc., who was the pilot, who was the instructor. And when they came back, I would record the landing and then the boys would hand in their time, and I kept up their log books for them. Just general duties along that line.
And I was there until the end of 1942, and they were looking for talent with, they wanted to start an all-women’s talent show in Ottawa. So I decided I would like to be in the talent side of it because at Brantford, I was the soloist with the Brantford orchestra. We had our own wonderful dance band and of course, they had great dances on the base. And so I sang with the band. So when they were recruiting for girls, for this new entertainment called the W Debs, I thought that would be very interesting. So I transferred to the entertainment unit in Ottawa and was sadly disappointed because not only did they want the singer, but you also had to dance. And not being a dancer, a line dancer type of thing, I was not very impressed. I thought I was going there strictly to sing.
So I decided to go to the padre and told him I wasn’t very happy there, and about two days later, I’m on the train headed for No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School in Fingal [Ontario]. And there was an interesting job. They put me in the photo, it was like a big bell and I had a platform up top, I had a camera and there was the screen. And I would run off aircraft flying and the boys that were learning gunnery were down in the gun position below the thing, in a Boulton Paul type of, what do you call them, casing. Anyway, they had to fire and recognize the aircraft as it was shown to them on the screen. Well, I was only there, oh, three months and then I was home on a 48 [hour leave] and got a telegram telling me I had been posted overseas, to return immediately, which of course I did, absolutely thrilled because everybody wanted to go overseas.
In May of the early part of 1943, we went to Montreal first and we had to go through a medical. We had to go through a very strict medical actually. Then we were trained, by train I should say, to Halifax and we boarded the old SS Japan, which they changed to the SS Scotland, for obvious reasons. [Note: RMS Empress of Japan was renamed RMS Empress of Scotland in 1942.] There were 600 WDs [Women’s Division] on this draft. And we were the first draft to go over after the blitz in London. They weren’t sending any women over during the blitz. But as soon as it pretty well finished, and the Battle of Britain, etc., then they started. So we were about the first group to go over. And my dear friend, Gladdy, who was a corporal that I met in Fingal, we were together, and going up the plank, and I thought, I’d never seen a big ship, you know, other than the island ferry over to Centre Island in Toronto, I had never seen an actual ship. So when we got to the side of it and we looked up, and you’re looking up at seven or eight storey high building, and I thought, my God, what am I doing here, there’s water down there. Oh.
But the trip was 13 days. We had no escort past Newfoundland. We were on our own. We had one call to what we call a submarine alert, about 2:00 in the morning, but I think it was a training alert more than actual subs because we did travel up over Greenland and come in through the north of Scotland to Greenock is where we landed. And then from Greenock, we were on the train, all black out, to Innsworth in Scotland [RAF Innsworth, England], which was the big receiving centre for air crew and air women. Now, there was over, I would say about 3000 air crew at that base when we arrived. Of course, there were a number of WAAFs [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force], British women, and we were billeted for the first time in a WAAF place.
And they showed us their cots and we’re looking to see a cot with a mattress and … Yeah. No. It was these rolled up things for a pillow and three big squares, they called them biscuits. And that was your bed. And there was no heat in the barracks. There was a big old fat bellied stove in the middle that everybody stood around. There was no hot water first thing in the morning, and the mess hall was about the size of this building. And the mess hall, the first introduction to floured eggs, greasy bacon, brussel sprouts, and to this day, I cannot eat a brussel sprout, great big mugs of tea and a piece of bread. And that was our breakfast. And then we were only there for two days, we went through gas mask training. And then we got our postings.
Now, I wanted to go to 6 Group, where my brother was, he was with the 408 ‘Goose’ Squadron at Linton, I wanted to go there. But when I had my interview, they did not recommend it. They said it wasn’t a good idea. Especially the fact that he was a gunner. But he did survive 35 missions and great. So they said, “No, you’re going to headquarters in London.”
One thing I will say, the women in the forces during the war were highly respected. And I think that has lost a lot in peace time. But during the war, I don’t think I ever met an airman or an army man that ever stepped out of line, never. Looking back, I would say the four years in the air force were the best four years of my life. I enjoyed every day. Except the entertainment bit, I didn’t like that.