Interview with Margaret Helen Day


Interview with Margaret Helen Day


As her father was in the Royal Navy, Margaret attended school in Gibraltar, Portsmouth, and (after her mother’s death) Malta, before returning to Gosport in the UK when she was eleven. In 1939, she was fifteen and working for a company making soft furnishings for the Royal Yacht. Margaret recalls when the bombing started in 1940 with attacks on Portsmouth and Gosport. On one occasion, a bomb fell in their garden and trapped them in their Anderson shelter. Margaret remembers being terrified, being rescued by RAF personnel who pulled her out of the earth by her feet, and one lady requiring hospitalisation. At the age of seventeen, Margaret joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained as a wireless operator. Her brother had joined the Royal Navy and her sister the WAAF also. Following initial training, she trained as a wireless operator at RAF Hutton Cranswick, RAF Kirkham, where she learnt Morse code, and RAF Compton Basset. In 1942, she was posted to RAF High Wycombe, bomber command’s headquarters. Based underground, her roles included communicating between Groups, monitoring radio frequencies to locate enemy navigation beacons, and recording encrypted messages from aircraft sent in Morse code. In 1945, Margaret was posted overseas and was on a ship in the Mediterranean heading to Egypt when news of VE Day came through. She joined the Telecommunications Middle East facility in Egypt. She recalls living in tents during sandstorms and visiting Cairo, the Pyramids, Jerusalem, and Luxor. She also visited Cyprus on leave in a Dakota C-47. After five years' service, Margaret was demobilised in 1946.




Temporal Coverage




01:15:16 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 28th of November 2017, and with David Bray we are in the home of Margaret Day who was a WAAF in the war, and her husband Charles who’s already been interviewed. So, Margaret what are your earliest recollections of life?
MD: I think my earliest recollections are when I was three years old my father was in the Navy, and we went to Gibraltar. I had an older sister who stayed behind because she’d just started school. She stayed with grandparents. And a younger brother. And the Admiral at the time CNC, the Mediterranean was Admiral Townsend, and it was his daughter Helen that was my godmother. How I got my middle name. We had a small cottage on the, a stone cottage on the Rock. Admiralty House was halfway up the Rock, and I remember we had my brother and I had a donkey called [Burrabareeko]and we had a pannier each side. I was three and he was two I suppose and we used to go up and down on this donkey. And also the Admiral had two cows because everybody else on the Rock apart from the Governor had to drink goat’s milk. And they used to milk the cows and I remember being sent down with a jug when it was milking time to go back up the [laughs] back up the steps to take the milk home to my mother. And when I was four years old I started at an Army school which was, there was a lot of Army regiments there. I went to this Army school and we stayed there until I was five.
CB: Ok.
MD: Then we came back to Portsmouth and my father was on the staff of Sir Roger Keyes as he was then.
CB: Admiral Sir Roger Keyes.
MD: Admiral Sir Roger Keyes.
MD: He later became Lord Keyes.
CB: Yes.
MD: And my father was happy about that because he had served at Zeebrugge with Roger Keyes. I think, I think Sir Roger was on the large battleship or whatever it was. My father was in a small, a Mersey, Channel err cross Channel thing. A ferry called the Daffodil. And after the raid on Zeebrugge they renamed it the Royal Daffodil. And so because he had served with Sir Roger at the time they said that everybody deserved a VC. So they allocated three and the men were all asked to vote who should get them. And my father always said he voted for Sir Roger, and so he was very happy to be at Portsmouth with him. And strangely enough Sir Roger Keye’s eldest son Geoffrey that I knew because of being in the dockyard. He got a VC at Libya.
CB: Oh yeah.
MD: At some raid they did.
CB: On the Rommel raid. Yes.
MD: Yes. So, it was quite a unique family. So, I then went to school in Portsea until I was seven, and the commissions in those days were two years. If you were with the Mediterranean fleet it was two years. With the Atlantic fleet was three years. So of course all the sailors were hoping to get the Mediterranean fleet but, so my father was sent to Malta so we moved from inside the dockyard. My parents bought a house in Copnor, North Portsmouth, and he was, he was sent to Malta then. So, we, we just, but unfortunately when he’d been there a couple of years my mother had pneumonia and died. So he came back from Malta and the family was split up. And I then went back to Gibraltar with my father. My sister and brother stayed at home because they were settled. Apparently I didn’t settle very well, so he took me and I was fostered by the head gardener of the Rock. So I then lived in the grounds of Government House and I went to, then to another Army school. Came back when I was eleven [pause] My father then remarried a nursemaid. The Admiral in Gibraltar at that time was Austin, Sir Admiral Austin, and my father married the nursemaid that was, that he met there. And so we then moved to Gosport where he worked at, he was stationed at the St Vincent which was a training school for young boys. I think they were sixteen. And then the war came in 1939 when I was fifteen. I had to leave. I left school when I was fourteen and went to work across the harbour at Southsea to a large furnishing place. We did the soft furnishings for the royal yacht which was the Narlin in those days. And when the war, when the bombing started my father wanted me to come back to Gosport to work. So I went to work for Boots. And in 1940 one of the first daylight raids of, of the war was Portsmouth and Gosport, and a large bomb landed in our garden and I was trapped in an air raid shelter with my step mother and two neighbours which sort of went right up in the air and twisted. So we had, fortunately next door to us the Royal Air Force had taken over the balloon barrage thing and the airmen came out and managed to get us out of this air raid shelter. One of the people in it was taken to hospital so it was pretty scary. And my father was then sent to the Isle of Man because the St Vincent was evacuated there and the Isle of Man was full of internees. And there was no work there for, for me and my stepmother didn’t like it so we came back to Gosport and then I was, went to Overton to stay with friends. And since I was seventeen and a half I joined the WAAF. In those days you had to be eighteen to join the ATS or the Wrens and I was anxious. My sister was in the, in the WAAF and my brother had joined the Navy and my father was still in the Navy so I wanted to join up so as soon as I was seventeen and a half I joined. I applied to join the WAAF.
CB: Stop there for a mo.
MD: Yes.
[recording paused]
CB: Before we go on with your RAF career.
MD: Yes.
CB: I’d like to just dwell a little on the point of being on the receiving end of the air raids.
MD: Yes.
CB: So, because it was a Naval area there was obviously there was considerable attention.
MD: Yes.
CB: From the German bombers.
MD: Yes.
CB: The bomb landed how close to the Anderson shelter?
MD: Well, just a few, about fifty yards or so I should think.
CB: Right.
MD: Right. What would you say? It was very close. It was right in our garden.
BCD: Maybe twenty yards.
Yes, it looks to me as though it’s less than that. And so how, what was the, how did you feel the impact?
MD: Well, it was very strange. We, we always went. There were lots of air raid alarms, and we always went to the shelter. And as I say it was daytime and we had gone to the shelter and we could hear the, the guns. The anti-aircraft guns and the bombs. And all of a sudden there seemed to be a very [pause] a movement. I felt the earth moving and we sort of moved up slightly. Very gently. And but then of course all the earth started piling in which was rather frightening because we didn’t know how much earth was going to fall on us. But fortunately the balloon barrage people were next door and they came and dug us out. There was a Fort. Fort Brockhurst just across the road from us and a medical officer from there came out and had a look at us all. As I say one of the ladies had to go to hospital. But it was, it was terrifying.
CB: How many people were there in the Anderson shelter?
MD: About four. There were two, two ladies and I was a young girl and a younger child.
CB: And your stepmother.
MD: Yes, my stepmother. That’s four. Four altogether. Yes.
CB: Right. So you said that the explosion lifted the —
MD: Yes.
CB: Anderson shelter.
MD: Lifted us right up.
CB: Did it then land back where it was or did it move it away?
MD: It landed back where it was but —
CB: But you got covered in. Were you actually covered in the earth?
MD: Yes.
CB: Or just trapped by the earth?
MD: Well, my father had built this. When the Anderson shelters were built people were instructed how to make them safer and he had covered it all with a lot of earth. It was all covered over. And then of course the bottom. The earth came from the bottom and from the top and it was sort of piling in on us and that was, that was more frightening really because I began to get earth in my face and my mouth and I was afraid I was going to suffocate. But fortunately these men came out and they’d got crowbars and managed to open the thing up and pulled us out by our feet. Oh, that’s right, because my feet were above my head so I remember being dragged out by my feet.
CB: And how did they get the others out? The same way?
MD: The same way. Yes. But it was very difficult. I think my stepmother and I were on the top and for some reason the little girl and her mother were underneath so it was the lady that was underneath that was most seriously shaken up or damaged.
CB: And so it was like an earthquake in a way.
MD: Oh, it was. Yes.
CB: And this was daytime.
MD: Yes.
CB: So what were you dressed in at the time?
MD: Oh, ordinary clothes. Yes. I think it was about lunchtime.
CB: And you were in the shelter because there was an alarm. The alert.
MD: Because yes, there was an alert.
CB: How did that work then?
MD: Well, there was a, it’s a sort of a wailing siren that you can hear and as soon as you hear the siren you would go to the shelter and then the all clear was a flat note. So you knew when it was safe to come out.
CB: And how far away was the shelter from where you were? Where the house was.
MD: Well, it was it was quite close.
CB: Right next to it.
MD: I would say, I would say it’s closer to the house than the crater because these are pre-war built in the 1930s but they weren’t, they weren’t large gardens. They were —
CB: Was, was this a Navy house?
MD: No. My father had —
CB: The one he’d bought.
MD: He’d bought this house. Yes.
CB: Ok. Right. So, after that how did you feel? When you were pulled out?
MD: Well, yes I was very nervous after that whenever the sirens went off. So I was glad to be evacuated to Overton. To the rector and his wife who were friends of my step mother.
CB: Where’s Overton?
MD: Hampshire.
CB: Oh right.
MD: Near Basingstoke.
CB: And what happened to the shelter? Did they rebuild it or —
MD: Do you know I don’t know because we, we left.
CB: Because the house was wrecked as well was it?
MD: Well, it was half. Yes. It had to be boarded up and we had to move all our possessions.
CB: Did you?
MD: Into storage. And so I don’t really know what happened to that.
CB: Did your father sell the house later then?
MD: Yes.
CB: Or did you eventually go back there?
MD: No. He sold the house later on. Yeah.
CB: Right. Ok. We’ll pause there for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: Just on the Anderson shelter. Normally I think that they tended to dig out into the ground a bit.
MD: Yes.
CB: To make the top of the shelter lower. What was the situation with this one?
MD: To get the sides in.
CB: Right. In to the ground.
MD: Anchored. To anchor the thing. Yes.
CB: But with the bomb hitting the ground nearby.
MD: Yes.
CB: It shook the whole of the ground. Is that it?
MD: Yes. It lifted it up.
CB: Yes.
MD: Yes.
CB: Yes. So you decided to join the WAAFs.
MD: Yes.
CB: And the Army and the Navy you had to be older.
MD: You had to be six months older.
CB: Yes.
MD: I was very anxious to join up so –
CB: Yes. So, what did you think you’d do when you joined the RAF?
MD: I wanted to be a radio operator at sort of speaking to aircraft. But they hadn’t got any vacancies so they gave me a maths test and said that, ‘You can be a wireless operator.’ So, I said I was keen to join so I took that.
CB: And what did that involve?
MD: Well, first of all we went, I went to Gloucester where we were kitted out for about five days and after that we went to Morecambe in Lancashire to do the square bashing and stuff, and then I was sent to RAF Hutton Cranswick in Yorkshire, which was a fighter station at the time. But we were billeted at Leconfield because there were married quarters there, and that was bomber.
CB: How did you get between the two during the day?
MD: By, by transport, lorries, trucks.
CB: Open trucks were they?
MD: Yes. Yes. And —
CB: So when is this? What year are we talking about?
MD: Talking 1941 ‘42. I joined in ’41 and I think by ’42 I’d been posted.
CB: So, what was the training at Hutton Cranswick?
MD: Well, it was just, just general really because we were only there for two or three weeks. We were sent to the signals section, and they sort of gave us a little inside knowledge of what went on. But then we were posted to Lancashire, to Kirkham in Lancashire which was quite a large station and we used to go by train every day into Preston to the GPO where we were taught the Morse Code by civilians.
CB: How did you get on with that?
MD: Yes. I passed out. I passed the course and then went to Compton Bassett in Wiltshire for technical training. We had American radios and equipment there. So we had to, and learn all the procedure.
CB: How long did that take?
MD: That was six weeks. And then I was posted to RAF High Wycombe in 1942.
CB: So that was Bomber Command Headquarters.
MD: Bomber Command, yes. Bomber Harris was there at the time. He used to swoosh about in his car with someone driving him. Airmen scattering all the way. Very fast he used to drive on the roads. And originally I was what we call down the hole. It was underground and it was just communications between the various Groups. And after a while I was, came up from there to a monitoring section where we just monitored all the airwaves. And at one point I went to Beachy Head where they were tracking beacons and spurious beacons that the Germans were putting about and we had to —
CB: Navigation beacons.
MD: Navigation beacons for the aircraft, yeah.
CB: How did you do the monitoring then?
MD: Well, we sat with earphones on and tuned into the various frequencies, and wrote down whatever we got.
CB: Were you tracking where the beacon was situated and how did you do that?
MD: Well, it was —
CB: Because it wasn’t in Britain of course.
MD: No. No. But you could, you could pick up where the beacons crossed so —
CB: Do you know what they did with the information?
MD: No, I don’t. It was supposed to be top secret. We weren’t, we were very hush hush in that section. We were told not to speak to anybody.
CB: No.
MD: Yeah.
CB: How did you know what they were doing with the information?
MD: I, I didn’t know what they were doing.
CB: It was just you said the beacons crossed. The transmissions crossed.
MD: Yes. Well, that was when you could pick up the frequencies. You could get the frequencies of the beacons.
CB: How long did that last?
MD: That lasted until 1945. I was there for about three odd, three odd years.
CB: Based where?
MD: In High Wycombe.
CB: So that was only temporary at Beachy Head.
MD: Yes. That was just one off and then back again.
CB: And how did you like your job?
MD: I loved it. Yes. It was quite interesting. We always knew when there were raids on and basically what was going on.
CB: So, in your work at High Wycombe how would you describe what you were doing most of the time?
MD: Well, just receiving. When we were down the hole.
CB: Air signals or ground signals?
MD: Morse.
CB: All Morse.
MD: Morse Code.
CB: Yes.
MD: Yes.
CB: But was the origin of that transmission by radio or was it on the ground?
MD: It was from aircraft.
CB: Right.
MD: Yes.
CB: And you, using Morse you then wrote down. So what was the information that was coming?
MD: Well, it was usually in code so we would just write it all down and then in the hole they had a section where they could decode all the information.
CB: Right.
MD: There was some plain language but mostly it was code.
CB: So what was the origin of the, the transmissions from the aircraft? Where were they?
MD: Well, wherever they were flying.
CB: They were on raids.
MD: Yes.
CB: Right.
MD: Yes.
CB: And why would they be sending back signals?
MD: I don’t know. I suppose it, so it’s telling how they were getting on. I don’t know.
CB: I was just curious because —
MD: Yes.
CB: They had to maintain signal silence.
MD: Yes.
CB: Normally.
MD: Perhaps, perhaps when they were a certain distance they could communicate and say where they were.
CB: What I’m getting to is that you’re receiving it and putting in to plain language.
MD: Yes.
CB: It then goes to somebody else. But I wonder what, you receive it and write it down as a code.
MD: Yes.
CB: Is what I mean to say.
MD: Yes.
CB: Someone else decodes it.
MD: Decodes it.
CB: Did you find out very often what was actually in the signal?
MD: No. No.
CB: Was it, did you feel a need to know, or did you have a curiosity about it or did you just leave it?
MD: Yes. We were curious, but it was all very secret and the code section was mostly WAAF officers and you didn’t mix with any of the people that were doing the work.
CB: And what rank had you achieved by this time?
MD: I was a corporal.
CB: Right. How long did it, did you get corporal when you reached High Wycombe or what stage did you?
MD: No. At that, I became a corporal when I was overseas, sorry.
CB: Right. So when you were at High Wycombe.
CB: Yeah. Just to put that into context, you carried on in the RAF after the war, did you?
MD: Well, no.
CB: Or did you finish when the war finished?
MD: I finished more or less yes, when they started demobbing people.
CB: Ok.
MD: I was demobbed in 1946.
CB: Right. So we’re still back at High Wycombe.
MD: Yes.
CB: You’re feeding the code section. You started that in ’42 ’43 was it?
MD: Yes.
CB: When did you actually finish doing that job?
MD: Well, when I was posted overseas.
CB: And when was that?
MD: 1945.
CB: Ok. When the war in Europe had finished was it?
MD: It was, I think we were at, we were at sea coming along the Mediterranean when it was VE Day.
CB: Right. Where were you going? You’d been posted where?
MD: To Egypt.
CB: Right. And did you know what you were going to do when you were in Egypt?
MD: No. It was Telecommunications Middle East.
CB: Ah.
MD: And they were sort of the hub between the UK and the Far East and the Persian and Iraq force.
CB: So you got the information of VE day on the, when you were on the ship.
MD: Yes.
CB: What was the reaction of the people on the ship?
MD: Well, they were all delighted of course. It was a ship called the Georgic, and we left from Liverpool, and went out in to the Atlantic and picked up a convoy and came through the Straits because there were still submarines, U-boats lurking, and I think we were about halfway to Egypt when we heard the news.
CB: And what was people’s reaction in terms of —
MD: Very celebrating. Celebratory. Yes.
CB: Yes. And were you allowed to have lemonades on the ship?
MD: No. No, there was no —
CB: It was dry was it?
MD: Yes. Absolutely. Yes.
CB: So when you, when you got to Egypt what happened then?
MD: We got off at Port Said, and went to [pause] by lorries up to Almazah which was a sort of transit camp where we were in tents, and I remember there was a Camp Seymour where there was a sandstorm which was if you were in a tent it was was pretty horrific. But then I was posted to Telecommunications Middle East, TME where we were in concrete huts. Thirty girls to a hut and surrounded by a high wooden fence. They called it the WAAF compound.
CB: Why did they put the fence up I wonder?
MD: [laughs] Well —
BCD: She didn’t tell you she was on my Watch.
MD: Sorry?
BCD: Telecommunications Middle East when you were on my Watch. B Watch.
CB: Coming to that.
MD: It’s got nothing to do with him. Sorry.
CB: That’s Charles putting in a couple of comments. We’ll, come to Charles in a minute.
MD: Yes, don’t take any notice of him.
CB: Right. So there were thirty girls in a hut and you —
MD: Yes. A concrete hut.
CB: Oh, concrete.
MD: Yes.
CB: Crikey, right.
MD: Surrounded by a wooden, several huts surrounded by a big wooden fence. They called it the WAAF compound and they had guards on the thing. We didn’t have a, we had showers. But of course there was no air conditioning or anything so it was pretty hot, and chemical toilets. There was no running water.
CB: And is this place on the edge of a town or an airfield or in the desert?
MD: No. It was right out in the country at a place called [Kaf el Farouk?]
CB: Oh yes.
MD: It was several miles from Almazah. Right out in the desert.
CB: So in your time off what did you do?
MD: Went into Cairo because it was like fairy land, because there was no rationing, no blackout and there were troops of all nationalities. There were lots of Americans, lots of South Africans, all people congregating there so it was lively and, but of course I was only getting two pounds a fortnight or something so I couldn’t buy any of the clothes [laughs] but it was a, it was like, like going to fairyland after the UK.
CB: So when you got in to Cairo what did you actually do then? Window shopping?
MD: Yes. We used to go to the cafes and have ice creams and you meet up with various other people, airmen or people who were there and there were some places for troops. Canteens and stuff. Places that were —
CB: Actually in Cairo.
MD: In Cairo, yes.
CB: And you could have a drink there.
MD: Oh yes.
CB: Just stopping a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: Start. Starting now.
MD: Yeah. Well, I was very fortunate because one of the girls that came with me from High Wycombe to Egypt was a widow. Her husband had been a major in the Indian Army and he was killed in Aden and she had joined the WAAF. But before that she had, her father was an Army officer and she had lived in Cairo and she had friends in Cairo who ran a [unclear] there. And so we could go there either to, on our sleeping out passes or just to visit and we could go to the various cafes and things. But she, this, this [unclear] was [pause] there were a lot of Army officers there who were being billeted there and so they were very kind. I remember one of them had a car and took us out to the pyramids which was wonderful because it, it was just the pyramids in those days. We’ve been back on a cruise ship and it’s all surrounded by bazaars. But you could, you could drive out in the moonlight and there’s the pyramids and it was just and I had always been interested in Egyptology since I was a child, and so I [pause] and also on leave we could, this girl and I we went to Cyprus once. We managed to get a lift on a Dakota. Another time we went to Jerusalem. And another time we went to Luxor. So it was, it was really very, very nice. Very enjoyable.
CB: So the aircrew were quite friendly about these sorts of things.
MD: Well, if there was a spare seat you could, you could get, but I remember that you sort of sat on a wooden bench either side of the Dakota and the air turbulence. There were no seat belts or anything, and we were hopping up and down with the turbulence. It was quite a hairy, and those old Dakotas rattled so and they made a dreadful noise. But it was, it was the visit to Cyprus which we stayed up. There was a place for troops up in the Troodos Mountains. So she and I stayed there for one of our leaves. So we managed to get around quite a lot.
CB: How did you manage to get back in time then as it was an ad hoc arrangement?
MD: Well, that’s, we couldn’t get back in time. We got there alright, but we couldn’t get a flight back for a day or so, so we were in a bit of trouble when we got back.
CB: When you got a bit of leave how long was that?
MD: I think we used to take seven days at a time so that we could spread it out and go to different places.
CB: What we haven’t talked about is the difference in the uniforms between being in Britain.
MD: Yes.
CB: And being out in Cairo.
MD: Yes.
CB: And Egypt and then going to Cyprus and so on.
MD: Yes.
CB: So what was it? What was the uniform like in Britain?
MD: Well, it was a tunic with a, and a skirt with a cap and a cap badge. Grey stockings and black brogue walking shoes which you weren’t allowed to wear anything but the regulation shoes so, and shirts with detachable collars which weren’t very nice and knickers they called blackouts which were huge voluminous garments. Of course, we didn’t have any coupons to buy anything else so —
CB: Oh, so you couldn’t but anything anyway.
MD: No. So, we you just had to make do with your uniform.
CB: And did you ever walk out in your free time in civilian clothes or were you always in uniform?
MD: No. Occasionally you could get a sleeping out pass with civilian clothes which —
CB: What, what would cause them to give you that?
MD: I, I don’t know really.
CB: Would it be a special event like a birthday or a wedding or something?
MD: Probably. Yes. Yes. It wasn’t, it wasn’t very often. Most of the time we had to be in uniform and carry our 1250s with us and —
CB: Carry your 1250s. Yes. Which is your ID.
MD: Yes.
CB: For people who don’t know. So was it the same uniform in the summer and in the winter in Britain?
MD: Yes. But when we got to Egypt it was the blues in the winter and we loved the summer uniform. We had sandals and socks and little short khaki skirts and blouses, and forage caps which was much nicer than the caps here.
CB: And the uniform was a lighter material. What was it made of?
MD: Sort of a heavy linen I suppose.
CB: But, but thinner than the UK uniform.
MD: Yes. Yeah.
CB: So how did you feel from a heat point of view?
MD: Well, we were young and I suppose we didn’t really notice it so much. I was only twenty one and it was all so exciting to be in the Middle East.
CB: Right.
MD: No. The uniforms were very comfortable.
CB: And where you worked what was the, what were the facilities there? What sort of building was it?
MD: This, this was underground. A Centre underground so it was, it was, it was quite cool but there was no air conditioning. And I remember the first day I went down there I saw one of the airmen pick up one of these sort of folding chairs and bang it on the floor. And I said to him, ‘What are you doing with that chair?’ And he, he said, ‘I’m getting rid of the bugs.’ So every time I went on duty I had one of these chairs I had to bang it on the floor. They didn’t have proper fumigation or anything so —
CB: What did you do with the bugs? Did you tread on them or what?
MD: Yes.
CB: You liked the crunch did you?
MD: No [laughs] No, but they had a fierce bite these.
CB: Did they?
MD: Yes, they were so it, as I say there were, they had certain fans but it was really very warm.
CB: Underground.
MD: Yes. We had to walk there and it, but we had, we did shifts of course which were not very —
CB: What were the shifts?
MD: Eight to twelve. Twelve to six. Six to eleven. And eleven to eight the following morning.
CB: Was that hard going or fairly easy with that sequence?
MD: Well, it did mean that you got a, you had a sort of a stand-off in between, which meant we could go out. I think if you came off at eleven err at 8 o’clock in the morning and you weren’t on again until the following day it, it was quite, quite alright. It was a bit indigestible but —
CB: So, how did the sequence work? So you would be say on an eight till twelve. Then would you do that for a week or ten days?
MD: No.
CB: Or what would you do?
MD: No. It was, it was continuous rolling. The shifts just went on like that the whole time.
CB: Yes. But did you move between the shifts is what I meant. So —
MD: No. If you were on a certain Watch —
CB: Yes.
MD: Your watch did these particular hours.
CB: Yeah. You were always on that.
MD: And you always did the same hours.
CB: That’s what I meant. Yes. And after a month they didn’t change to a difference shift.
MD: No. No.
CB: Which one were you normally on? Well, were you on?
MD: Well, I was on B Watch as he says but —
CB: And B was which? Which was twelve to six was it?
MD: Yes. But then you would do the same. I think there were four different shifts.
BCD: Yeah. Four Watches.
MD: Four Watches.
BCD: And we used to go on at 8 o’clock in the morning.
MD: Yes.
BCD: Until mid-day.
MD: Yes.
BCD: And then mid-day until 8 o’clock at night.
MD: The following day.
BCD: 8 o’clock the following day.
CB: The following day. That’s what I’m getting at. Yeah.
MD: Yeah. I’m sorry.
CB: So it was a rolling shift system.
MD: Yes. Yeah.
CB: So you would gradually get to working at night.
MD: Yes.
CB: And then you gradually get to work in the day.
MD: Every fourth night you would, you would be on duty all night.
CB: Right.
MD: Yes.
CB: And then when did you get a break? Was it seven days on and two days off, or how did it work?
MD: I I think it was —
BCD: We used to have the four Watch system but we used to have a week off in between.
CB: Oh right. So once you’d done four shifts rolling.
BCD: We did that for about three months or so. Or quite a, quite a lot of time and then we had a week off.
CB: Before you had time off. Yeah.
MD: Yeah.
BCD: That’s when we used to go together to Alexandria or somewhere like that.
CB: Ok.
BCD: I used to take Margaret —
CB: Ok. So, well let’s come back to that. So, I’m just going to stop there for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: So, after you’d done the four shifts.
MD: Yeah.
CB: You end up at eight in morning.
MD: Yeah.
CB: And then you’re off for twenty four hours before you start again in the morning.
MD: Yes.
CB: How did you get, adjust to this constant change to your sleep time?
MD: Well, you just did it. I mean —
BCD: With difficulty.
MD: Yes. There was no [pause] the cookhouse was open all the time, so when we went on watch at 11 o’clock we could call in the cookhouse for some rations and then come, then come straight off and go to breakfast and then sleep. And then the following day start again one ‘til six.
CB: Right. So what was the food like?
MD: Oh.
CB: Because it’s hot weather. Was it a different menu from the one you would have in Britain?
MD: Yes. It was. It was slightly different but [pause] not a —
CB: So, what was the staple diet of your survival?
MD: I don’t know. I suppose it was [pause] there was, there was a lot of beef, which we couldn’t get in, you couldn’t get in the UK so but we soon got tired of it. I don’t know why they had so much but, and we used to get fruit from, the South Africans used to send fruit to the girls. They were very kind and on another occasion they sent us material so we could have dresses made. And on another occasion they sent nylons. So, the South Africans were very good.
CB: Of course being there it was easier to get meat.
MD: Yes.
CB: To you.
MD: It was.
CB: From South America and South Africa.
MD: Yes.
CB: Yeah. What about eggs?
MD: I don’t recall ever having eggs.
BCD: Pardon?
MD: We didn’t have eggs.
CB: No.
BCD: We had eggs Margaret for breakfast.
MD: In the officer’s mess.
CB: Right. And just as a comparison what would you eat in Britain?
MD: Yes.
CB: In those days. What was the menu like there?
MD: Well, that was very stodgy food. A lot of bread and margarine, and stews and sometimes rice pudding or something. It was, it, it was very unimaginative.
CB: But designed to keep you warm.
MD: Yes. Keep, keep you going.
CB: All by the RAF cookbook.
MD: Yes.
CB: Ok. So back to Egypt.
MD: Yes.
CB: Here you are on a shift system, a Watch system that runs continuously for a month.
MD: Yes.
CB: Before you get time off. Seven days off. In your time not on shift what could you do? Was there a NAAFI on site or what was there?
MD: Yes. There was a NAAFI. And also we had a swimming pool too so, and they used to have camel races and gymkhanas and things.
CB: How did you get on riding camels?
MD: With difficulty.
CB: But the gymkhanas were actually with horses were they?
MD: Donkeys, I think. Mules. Yeah.
CB: They were difficult to persuade?
MD: Yes [laughs] Had to give them a good kick, and [pause]
CB: Ok.
MD: But we had a lot of swimming which was very nice.
CB: Big pool.
MD: Yes. Quite a big pool. Not Olympic size but a fair size one.
CB: Was this in a compound where there was quite a bit of green because it was well —
MD: No. No. It was all sand.
CB: All sand.
MD: The only greenery was around the flagpole in the, in the, in the entrance as you came in. There was a flagpole with the RAF flag and the TME crest and they used to try and indent for a waggon load of Nile mud and if they could get this mud it was put around the flag post and there would be a very few flowers and outside the CO’s office there would be a few flowers but the rest was all sand. There was nothing else. No earth at all.
CB: You talked earlier about sandstorms.
MD: Yes.
CB: If you were in a tent with a sandstorm what precautions are you taking there? They’ve got sides on the tents. Are they able to bury those and does that work?
MD: Well, the ones at Almazah, there was a sort of a foot of brick work and then there was a gap and then the tent flap. So, so the sand just came in.
CB: Free of charge.
MD: Yes. Yeah.
CB: So you had a job to clear that up.
MD: Yes.
CB: In fact, what do you do? Because of the wind and the sand do you all wear handkerchiefs or how do you deal with keeping it out of your —
MD: Well, just scarves really.
CB: Yeah.
MD: We had neckerchiefs and they —
CB: All the time.
MD: Yeah. But there weren’t, there was a lot of local labour, so they did the clearing. The shovelling out.
CB: The donkey work.
MD: Yes.
CB: What about things like laundry? How did that —
MD: We had, the girls could send their things to the laundry and that was quite good.
CB: So they, their aroma was fairly fresh but the blokes all were a bit smelly were they?
MD: I don’t know quite what the airmen did but we had, we had very nice laundry and our shirts, our khaki shirts came back very freshly laundered, the skirts.
CB: So, we talked earlier about when you were in Cairo.
MD: Yes.
CB: What things happened there that were good and not so good?
MD: Well, there’s a certain amount of rioting and one of our girls was caught up in somehow and got killed.
CB: How was she killed?
MD: Shot.
CB: What was the riot about?
MD: There was a lot of trouble about upper Egypt. Apparently, the British promised the Egyptians that they, they could have upper Egypt. As it seemed time went on and they didn’t. They didn’t ever get it, still haven’t. There was a lot of demonstrations and —
CB: And what did they do with the demonstrations? Were they quite violent or just shouting a lot?
MD: I think mostly shouting and waving sticks about because they didn’t have any guns or ammunition. Mostly the Fellahin. They were very poor and —
CB: What were they called?
MD: Fellahin.
CB: Fellahin.
MD: The Fellahin. Yeah.
CB: And how regular were these riots?
MD: Not, not very regular. Six monthly I suppose. I don’t know whether they —
CB: And the RAF had headquarters there. How did they protect that?
MD: Well, that was in, I don’t think, in Cairo they had —
BCD: Well, the headquarters was boarded up all around.
MD: Yes. They —
CB: Did you ever go there?
MD: No. There was, there was a Number 5 Hospital that I was put into once when I had a problem but that was all.
CB: So, the medical facilities were —
MD: Yes.
CB: Quite good were they?
MD: Yes, they were. And there was a WAAF medical officer at Heliopolis that you could go to if you didn’t like the MO.
CB: Didn’t like?
MD: The MO.
CB: Yeah.
MD: Sometimes they were a bit [pause] they weren’t very sympathetic to the girls, you know. They, they thought we were a lot of wilting violets and they, they weren’t very helpful. So if, I had rash on my face so I opted to go to the MO at Heliopolis and she sent me to the hospital in Cairo. I was there for a few days.
CB: So all in all how did you rate your stay in Egypt.
MD: I liked it very much. Very happy there.
CB: What was the most pleasant part of that?
MD: The travelling I think. I was able to go to Cyprus, Jerusalem, Luxor and later on when I met up with my husband we went to Alexandria.
CB: So how did you meet him?
MD: Well, he was the officer. One of the officers of the Watch. And I was the, I was in a department called snags which I liked.
CB: What was that?
MD: Well, we had a system called [Codnasti] which was a call sign operator’s number, NR number, directions, address, subject matter, time of origin, ending and if any of those went wrong the message would go to the wrong place or they would lose the subject matter or something. So when I went on Watch there would often be quite a stack of messages that had lost their way as it were. And I’ve always liked puzzles. I still do lots of puzzles and I had to sort out what had gone wrong and where they should have gone to and —
CB: And, and was there a lot of this in Morse that you were handling still?
MD: Yes.
CB: Or was it different?
MD: Some of it was morse and some was plain language.
CB: And you had to write this down having, because what rank were you here?
MD: I was a corporal.
CB: Right.
MD: And I had another girl who was an LACW when she was, we did it between us.
CB: Did you have more than one person reporting to you at any time, or always just one person was it?
MD: Just the one person yes, just the two of us working.
CB: Yeah. Ok. So how did this link with your husband to be start?
MD: Well, he was, he was one of the officers of the Watch. And you had to get things signed all the time. Keep going signing things and —
CB: Was he falling behind a bit and you had to chivvy him up?
MD: No. He was, he was always seemed to be walking around taking note of what was going on. So —
CB: You cracked —
MD: As he passed through I’d get him to sign something.
CB: He couldn’t escape.
MD: Quite.
CB: Management by walkabout.
MD: Yes.
CB: Worked quite well. So how long were you then in Egypt, and when did you come back?
MD: I went over in 1945, early in the year. I think April. I think. April or May and I came back July I think the following year. I would have liked to have stayed longer. It was so nice.
CB: Where did they post you to when you returned?
MD: No. I was immediately demobbed because I’d, I’d done five years and joined up when I was seventeen and a half and did five years so I had quite a high release number.
CB: Now, that was what it based on was it? The length of service.
MD: Yes, and, and your age.
CB: Yeah. Where were you demobbed?
MD: In Liverpool. Came back on the Mauritania and spent about five days being demobbed and debriefed and —
CB: What was the debriefing?
MD: Well, where, where you’d where you’d been and what you’d done, and —
CB: For the records or were they trying —
MD: Records.
CB: To find out if there was anything of importance that —
MD: No. I think it was just records. Yes.
CB: And the men had a set of clothes given to them when they were demobbed.
MD: Yes.
CB: What happened to the ladies?
MD: Well, we had, I think it was thirty coupons which was hardly enough to buy shoes and a coat. I had a few clothes left behind, but when I left home but — [pause]
CB: Did they give you any clothes?
MD: It was very, very difficult. We didn’t get any clothing. No.
CB: At all.
MD: No.
CB: Right. The men all got a suit.
MD: Yes. We just got clothing coupons.
CB: Right. So what did you actually do next then?
MD: I went to London where my father was now working in the House of Commons, in Black Rod’s department. And I, I was reinstated by Boots. You could apply for reinstatement and I went to a branch in, in London. And then I got married and it was back to the RAF again.
CB: When did you get married. And where?
MD: 1947.
CB: When?
MD: January 4th 1947. Chelsea Registry Office.
CB: A good address then.
MD: What do you mean?
CB: Chelsea.
MD: Yes. Oh yes. I lived in Chelsea.
CB: Right. With your parents.
MD: Well, with my father.
CB: Yeah, with your father. Yeah.
MD: Yeah. He’d separated by then.
CB: From your step mother.
MD: From my step mother.
CB: Right.
MD: So he, he was living there. He was as I say he was, worked at the House Of Commons. A special badge messenger in Black Rod’s department. And —
CB: So when you were married where did you go and live?
MD: Well, for a short time in Haringey.
CB: Haringey.
MD: Yes. But, but that’s until we, my husband was posted to Marlow in Medmenham. Medmenham.
CB: Medmenham.
MD: And so we had lodgings in Marlow. Two rooms in a, well two rooms in a house. It was quite a big RAF station at Medmenham at that time and then from there we went to Pembroke Dock where we lived in a miner’s cottage with a tin bath on the wall. When the wind blew the bath used to swing to and fro.
CB: How did you fill the bath?
MD: Well, we had a, bought a huge pan from a gypsy and used to put it on the stove and fill it with hot water and we gradually filled the bath up. My daughter was born in a Nissen hut in Pembroke Dock.
CB: So you moved from the cottage to the Nissen hut did you? Or that was just the delivery room? The Nissen hut. Your daughter.
MD: The Nissen hut was the, was the RAF with the —
CB: Right. In medical, sick quarters.
MD: Yes. And then my husband was demobbed and we came to St Albans. And from there to Harpenden and here we are.
CB: Very interesting. We’ll just pause for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: So you’re in this miner’s cottage.
MD: Yes.
CB: What was the, at what time of year are we talking about here?
MD: Well, it must have been the winter because my daughter was born in February.
CB: Yeah.
MD: And —
BCD: We went down there in late autumn time.
MD: Yes.
BCD: To Pembroke Dock.
MD: Yes.
CB: So, how did you heat the cottage?
MD: It was coal fires.
CB: Supplied by the Air Force.
MD: No.
CB: The coal.
MD: No.
BCD: No.
MD: No. In, in those days if you, if the officer was under twenty five he didn’t get a marriage allowance so we were, we were pretty hard up actually. Had to buy coal and pay rent.
CB: Do you remember what the rent was?
MD: What was the rent in the, in the Pembroke Dock?
BCD: About two pounds a week.
MD: Something like that. Yes.
CB: Quite a bit of money then.
MD: It was. Yes.
CB: With the bath you’ve had to put a lot of effort into boiling the water.
MD: Yes.
CB: In the tin.
MD: Yes.
CB: So you fill the bath. How full would you fill it?
MD: Well, about a third I suppose really and you had to carry the water from the, there was a very tiny kitchen, and the bath had to go in the living room which was very, these cottages are very small and carry the water from there to there and gradually fill up.
CB: So after one had had a bath what happened?
MD: I think, I think my husband was able to bath on the station.
CB: Right.
MD: It was just me I think.
CB: Yeah.
BCD: I used to swim in the sea too. Get it off a Sunderland Flying Boat to just —
CB: Dive in.
BCD: Yeah, just dive in.
CB: So you had a salty bloke come back.
MD: [laughs] Yes.
CB: But in practical terms did you share the bath sometimes? That is to say one did it, and used it, and then the other?
MD: No. I don’t think so. You always had a bath or shower on the station didn’t you?
BCD: Yes, I did. But occasionally as a bit of fun I had a bath.
MD: After.
BCD: At the cottage.
MD: Yeah. After me. Yeah.
CB: And then you had to ladle the water out.
MD: Had to carry this huge thing out by the handles and tip it down the drain, and put it back on the wall.
CB: I had to do that at school.
MD: Did you?
CB: Yes. Anyway —
MD: Which school was that?
CB: I’ll tell you later [laughs] So then you, from, from Pembroke Dock then you came, then your husband was demobbed.
MD: Yes.
CB: Himself.
MD: Yes.
CB: So then you moved on to other things.
MD: Yes.
CB: And your, what about your son? Where was he born?
MD: He was born in St Albans.
CB: Right.
MD: Yeah.
CB: Ok. So what was the most memorable thing you would say happened to you in your service in the RAF?
MD: Well, I would think going overseas and being able to travel around the Middle East.
CB: Yeah.
MD: It was pretty dull at High Wycombe. Not much excitement.
CB: No. You were able to travel around a bit on public transport at High Wycombe were you or was that a bit restricted?
MD: Well, there was, there was a bus service so you had to pay to get on a bus and go in to High Wycombe. Sometimes we walked because it was, would save money.
CB: Down from Naphill.
MD: Yes. Down the hill.
CB: And then the hard drudge back up again.
MD: Yes. Yes. I’ve done that a few times. Yeah.
CB: But you were fit.
MD: Yes.
CB: Enabled you to have a good appetite to eat the quality RAF food.
MD: [laughs] Yes.
CB: Right. Well, we’ll stop there for a mo.
[recording paused]
MD: I remember seeing her on Pay Parade.
CB: So, I just want to go back to your initial training.
MD: Yes.
CB: Which you did at Morecambe.
MD: Yes.
CB: What exactly did you do there?
MD: Well, it was mainly marching and lectures.
CB: What were the lectures on?
MD: About the RAF and discipline and that sort of thing.
CB: And did they talk about the air war because we’re right in the war now?
MD: Yes. No.
CB: Did you do aircraft recognition or —
MD: No. It was very basic really. We were, we were billeted with civilians in, landladies.
CB: Yes.
MD: And the food was a bit scarce. I don’t know how much they were paid per person but they didn’t provide a great deal of food.
CB: What about the people who were on the course with you?
MD: Yes.
CB: What sort of people were they?
MD: Well, we were, we were all, all together really. We hadn’t separated out into our trades or where we were going. So it was just sort of you came from Gloucester, got your uniform, went up to Morecambe and we were just sort of settling into service life really.
CB: And, what I’m getting at is your father was in the Navy. What rank was he in the Navy at that time?
MD: He was a chief petty officer.
CB: Right. So, he was a fairly senior man at the time compared with some of the other [pause] so you came from a family of a senior NCO.
MD: Yes.
CB: But you would have got people from all sorts of walks of life.
MD: All sorts of walks of life.
CB: What sort of background were they?
MD: Yes.
CB: What sort of people were they?
MD: Well, basically very nice. There were some rather rough people as you might say, but basically your average citizen I would say. Working class people.
CB: And how did they adapt to, because you knew about service life.
MD: Yes.
CB: If only from the Navy but how did they adapt to this circumstance?
MD: I think some of them found it rather hard. The discipline and having to be on time and things like that.
CB: And all of them had had jobs before had they?
MD: Yes. Most of them had.
CB: Had any of them just left —
MD: Some of us were volunteers and some had been conscripted of course.
CB: Ah, ok. So how did the conscription work?
MD: Well, they called people up in batches. Rather like they did the men, I think. If you weren’t in a Reserved Occupation you had to go in one of the services or be directed in to something.
CB: And how did they feel about that? The ones conscripted.
MD: Well, they, they just had to put up with it. They didn’t have any choice really. They weren’t, they weren’t very happy to be where they were but —
CB: Did you form a lasting friendship with anybody at that stage?
MD: Not at that stage. I did when I was in the Middle East but the thing was when we got home we were all in different parts of England. We didn’t have telephones or mobiles or communication. We didn’t have cars. It was very difficult. Once you sort of went to your different areas. It was, it was just letter writing really. And I, I still keep in touch with some of the girls. One in particular that was [pause] joined up with me. But —
CB: What did she come on? What did she do eventually? When she took a trade what trade did she go to?
MD: Telephonist.
CB: As well.
MD: Yes. Not wireless telephonist.
CB: Oh no, telephonist. Right.
MD: Telephonist. Yes.
CB: And where would she have been posted in that case?
MD: I think it was Leighton Buzzard.
CB: Right. Stanbridge.
MD: Yes.
CB: Yeah.
MD: And that was another thing you see. You were, often you were posted all in different directions so it was very difficult to keep in touch with people.
CB: Sure.
MD: In those days.
CB: Because you wouldn’t know where they were.
MD: No.
CB: Because the security —
MD: Yes.
CB: Was such that you weren’t allowed to say where you were stationed, were you?
MD: Exactly. Somewhere in England you had to put. Somewhere in England.
CB: Right.
MD: I remember when we were going on, on overseas and my brother was also, he was in the Navy and we, we worked out a code. If you said, “Give my love to all the people at number 6,” it meant that that was number six and that would be a place. So we’d try, we tried to get around it to let people know basically where we were.
CB: On a list.
MD: Yeah.
CB: Number 6 on the list.
MD: You put a list of all names of the places you thought you might be and if you say, “Give my love to all the people at number 3,” And then you would look on the list and that would tell you.
CB: Was this something to do with the fact that you were dealing with Morse Code as a code and so you followed the same concept yourselves.
MD: I think so yes. Probably. But we found ways of letting people know.
CB: Yes. Now of the people in other courses what famous person did you —
MD: Well, Sarah Churchill was in the intake above me.
CB: Oh right.
MD: So, and I remember seeing her on Post Parade. She was getting letters, and she’d, she’d married this American comedian Vic somebody or other but Randolph Churchill had rushed to America to stop her marrying him but arrived too late I think, so [pause] But anyway she was in the WAAF and then later she went to Medmenham as a photographic interpreter. And she had bright red hair.
CB: How did you know who she was?
MD: Well, because I, I knew her. I knew her by sight. She had this very bright red hair. And her picture had been in the paper a lot.
CB: Ah, that’s how you knew who she was, did you?
MD: Yes.
CB: Yes. So the security was a bit, was that from pre-war times or —
MD: No. That was.
CB: In the war.
CB: During the war. Yes.
MD: So variable security here identifying the prime minister’s daughter.
MD: Yes.
CB: In the paper.
MD: Yes.
CB: Yeah.
MD: Yeah.
CB: Right. And of the people who you trained with —
MD: Yes.
CB: How many of those got to more exalted heights?
MD: I think some of them became sergeants but, or if, if they wanted to do physical training or anything like that they would reach the rank of warrant officer but basically we were erks or corporals. There wasn’t much promotion.
CB: Ok. Because the RAF was a, a meritocracy compared with the other forces they say.
MD: Really?
CB: And I just wondered how you had seen that in operation.
MD: I think there were sort of people from all walks of life and, but there wasn’t any huge differences. I, I remember the thing that surprised me most when I joined the RAF was that everybody used Christian names whereas before that where I was working it was always Miss somebody and Mr somebody and even your next door neighbours were Mr and Mrs and it seemed very nice and friendly when I joined the Service that everybody used Christian names.
CB: Right. Well, Margaret Day thank you very much indeed for a most interesting conversation.
[recording paused]
CB: Just going back to your time in —
MD: Yes.
CB: In Egypt. There were a lot of people there so there would be a hundred and twenty people or something on a shift.
MD: Yes.
CB: And largely WAAFs but there were also men as well. What was the mix of tasks? Were they the same or did the men have a different role?
MD: I think mainly the girls did the signals work and, and some of the other, some of the men were sort of in charge of departments. But basically they were being moved a lot at that time and it was being more or less taken over by, by the WAAF.
CB: Right.
BCD: The men were mainly the engineer section.
CB: Right.
BCD: Anything went wrong they — [pause]
MD: RAF Regiment and that sort of thing.
CB: What did the RAF Regiment do?
MD: Well, guard the airfield.
CB: Oh, guarding it.
MD: Yes.
CB: Yeah. And was there a barbed wire fence around the whole place then to protect it from marauding tribesman?
MD: No.
BCD: You could see very little above ground. Everything was covered in sand you see. Massive place underground.
CB: Yeah.
BCD: But nothing from the top. The other thing that, you talked about eggs.
CB: Yes.
BCD: On our night shift we had our own canteen there with staff running the canteen and I used to look forward, about 2 o’clock in the morning, the staff used to have a half an hour off during that to have my egg, chips and bacon. That was lovely. And — [pause]
CB: Was this because you were in charge of a section or because you were air crew?
BCD: Well, no. I, my function was because of my technical ability on telecommunications and anything connected with that.
CB: Right.
BCD: I must admit I took to the training for radar and telecommunications, and I really got down to it and did pretty well. That is why I used to lecture in the Middle East. They used to call me to lecture to various —
CB: Various people.
BCD: Various functions and things. I lectured to various squadrons and whatever.
CB: Right. Well, we’re stopping there.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Margaret Helen Day,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 20, 2024,

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