Interview with Betty Greenwood


Interview with Betty Greenwood


Betty Greenwood was born in 1926 in Belton, Lancashire; she attended Princess Mary high school was and privately educated in Paris but returned due to the threat of war. At sixteen she was offered various jobs but decided to join the Royal Observer Corps. She was recruited with training on the job as a long-distance plotter, being connected to the intercom and relaying information to the plotting table displaying radar sightings in the area. Betty discusses social and service life, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force uniform, meeting her husband in Halifax who had served in Canada as a trained medic for the Royal Air Force on operational training units. Concludes discussing a photograph of men who served in the Royal Observer Corps due to disabilities.








00:28:53 audio recording


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AM: Right. So, this is Annie Moody on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre and Lincoln University and today I’m with Betty Greenwood in Eskwith, near York and it’s Monday 23rd November 2015. So, thank you for agreeing to take part Betty. I’m going to take my bangle off ‘cause it makes a noise.
BG: You’re very welcome.
AM: Betty, can you tell me just a little about where you were born, what your parents did and your childhood?
BG: Yes. I was born in Belton in Lancashire and my father was in catering at that time. He was then given a job as a coffee buyer but he had to go and live in the Isle of Man and he was paid in the Isle of Man. Now regrettably when I was eight he died so that had all gone by the board and I came to live with my grandmother who brought me up and I lived in Leeds. But prior to living in Leeds I’d had a couple of years in Halifax at Princess Mary High School which was very pleasant actually. It was very nice.
AM: Um. So, you lived in Leeds and how old were you when you left school, or?
BG: Sixteen.
AM: OK. And then what? Then where?
BG: Well this is where it starts.
AM: Um.
BG: This was towards the end of the War and I was at Notre Dame in Leeds. And at the moment seven per cent of the population is privately educated. So, sixty years ago probably it would be five per cent and I reckon they’re all there on that photograph.
AM: Wow.
BG: Right.
AM: And I’m looking at an amazing photograph of the whole?
BG: It’s the Observer, that’s the Observer Corps.
AM: Right. I was going to ask what about the three gentlemen at the front there?
BG: Yes, because they would not be called up, because there was obviously something wrong with them.
AM: Right.
BG: An ailment or something like that. But they gave their services for free to the Observer Corps.
BG: Now when I left school the War was coming to a close but you couldn’t go out and get a job, you were directable.
AM: Can I just wheel back again?
BG: Yes.
AM: Val said that you were at school in Paris at one point?
BG: No, only for three weeks.
AM: Why Paris though and what?
BG: Notre Dame, Notre Dame in Paris, because my grandmother thought it would be very good if I had French and things like that. And my friend and went on a very battered boat to France, but the nuns there obviously knew that the War was imminent.
AM: So this was in 1939?
BG: Yes, this was the beginning of the War, and we were shipped back within three weeks. But when you had your meals there you had to ask for them in French so I only really got pomme de terre and water. That was all and I came back as lot thinner. [laughter]
AM: Pomme de terre and l’eau. [laughter]
BG: Then when I went out.
AM: Right.
BG: But getting back.
BG: To leaving school at sixteen, seventeen. The War was nearly over but we were directable. And within a fortnight we had letters from the Government saying what we could do and what we couldn’t do. I had three letters, one from Barnbow, they were the tank manufacturers in Leeds, I could go and rivet nails there. I could go to Bilborough Hostel, which was like, where do they send the naughty boys?
AM: Like a borstal?
BG: Like a borstal. I could go and scrub floors there. Or, it was, what was it? It was Barnbow, Bilborough Hostel and another one. I can’t remember the other one. But the other one, oh it was the Askham Bryan Prison.
AM: Equally attractive then?
BG: Yes. So, they were all three jobs and none of us could understand the Barnbow and prison. Not the Barnbow, the prison and the Bilborough Hospital, why the inmates couldn’t scrub the floors.
AM: Quite.
BG: Unless it was giving them too much freedom to escape I don’t know. But we couldn’t. So, my grandmother and my friend who is on that photograph next to me. Where am I? That’s me and that’s my friend.
BG: She’s not next to me, she’s one away.
AM: Next but one.
BG: That’s me and that’s Win. Now we all look alike. All the hair-do’s are alike, it’s incredible isn’t it?
AM: I’ll scan this photograph and you’re absolutely right.
BG: Um.
AM: You’ve more or less got the same colour of hair.
BG: Yes. Now this had to be voluntary work so my grandmother said ‘Right you’re not going to do any of those things when they have inmates in these places that should be doing that work.’ So, I went, joined the Observer Corps with my friend from school and that was it really. And we were in headquarters which was in Kite Park in Leeds.
AM: In Leeds.
BG: And you approached this by going up, it was either Grove Road or Grosvenor Road, and I can’t just remember but it was a house, a detached house, stone built with about six or seven bedrooms, they were large houses.
AM: And did you and your friend just go on your own or with your grandmother?
BG: No, no, you had to do things on your own in those days, you weren’t mollycoddled. [laughter] And we were accepted obviously and –
AM: Well you say obviously, what, was there an interview, what?
BG: Well –
AM: Or did they just say ‘Yes please you can come?’
BG: You didn’t really have CV’s in those days. You just saw a man in charge in air force uniform and that was it. I mean obviously you had to be with it I suppose in some ways because there was a big table, a plotting table, with seats all around, and you had headphones and a ‘pusher’ and you pushed the aeroplanes onto the, this table and you could talk to guns. It was talking to guns, or talking to headquarters or talking to them in the aeroplanes. And then there was a big board, oh as big as that on the wall. And that was called a long-distance plotting. And that was when they sent over the hundred bomber raids and they appeared on this big thing.
AM: What training did you do?
BG: None at all.
AM: None? So how did they show you, who showed you what you had to do?
BG: Well, you just observed. You were stood behind, ah I remember now. There was a plotter on a chair with a pusher, and you just stood behind and listened and watched. So, it was observation really. And I suppose if you hadn’t been any good you would have been thrown out, I don’t really know, but it was very hit and miss.
AM: So, so tell me again what exactly you would. On a normal evening? Day?
BG: Oh, nights.
AM: Nights.
BG: Every night. We only worked nights. And we worked nights and I had to go through Leeds but I met up with my friend Win and we went through Leeds and there was a dance hall called the Mecca.
VT: There was.
BG: And it was all red plush, it was all red plush. And we used to sneak in and we were not allowed to go into this dance hall because there were Americans there, and you might get pregnant! [laughter]
AM: Would you have known what that meant at sixteen? Yes, you would.
BG: Yes, I suppose.
AM: What were you dressed in then when you sneaked into the dance hall?
BG: Oh, in the uniform.
AM: You had your?
BG: With a forage cap.
BG: It was an air force, like the air force, what do they call the air force ladies?
AM: The WAAF’s?
BG: WAAF’s yes. It was a skirt, an air force skirt, stockings, black brogues, lace up’s and a bomber jacket with a matching tunic thing underneath and a forage cap. And we went into this Mecca dance hall dressed like that. Then, because we’d spent our money getting into the Mecca we used to walk from Leeds. Instead of taking, we had trams in those days, instead of taking the tram we walked. It was about three miles, so it wouldn’t do us any harm to walk.
AM: You’d spent your tram fare though getting into the Mecca?
BG: Yes.
AM: Did you dance with the Americans?
BG: Oh yes. [emphatic] Yes, yes we did. A lot of them. [laughter]
AM: Wonderful.
BG: And actually, this is one thing I never fathomed. There were Russians here as well and I couldn’t understand that.
AM: This is right towards the end? What year are we, will we be in now, early ’45?
BG: Yes. To the end.
AM: So.
BG: I mean I’m no good at –
AM: Early ’45.
BG: Yes. It must have been. But I couldn’t remember, understand why there were Russians there. They were all big and bear like.
AM: If you were born in ’26 what age were you? Sixteen did you say?
BG: Yes, sixteen, seventeen.
AM: Seventeen. Actually, it might have been ’44 then.
BG: Could have been, yes.
AM: So after D-Day, but still quite a chunk of the War, well they’ve still got to get up through France and Belgium and all the rest.
BG: Yes. But then when the War in Europe was over there’s still the War in Japan.
AM: There’s still, absolutely yeah. So, wheeling back to when you did your first day then, on the table.
BG: Yes, yes.
AM: Can you remember it, what did it feel like? And what did you actually have to do?
BG: I was really, actually people were quite scathing about doing things like that, but, because they thought you ought to be doing munition work. But I was quite proud to do that, you know, quite enjoyed it.
AM: Tell me about what you actually did.
BG: Well you had a long pusher, like a rake.
AM: Um.
BG: And you pushed little aeroplanes into sections.
AM: Right, when you say pushed them into sections. How did you know where to push them?
BG: Because you were through on the intercom.
BG: On the earphones.
AM: You you’d got an earphone and you’d take?
BG: Yes. And you were just told where to put them. ‘Aircraft at twelve something and –
AM: How did you know which aircraft? They might sound like daft questions but I can, I’ve seen the pictures, but I can’t imagine how you knew what to move.
BG: Because the pilot or whoever said. Or whoever was telling you.
AM: Right.
BG: And one pilot sent me a parachute, pure silk parachute. And I had some underwear made, it was lovely.
AM: I bet. So, it was actually, so coming through on the intercom, you’ve actually got the pilots who are telling you about their own aircraft? Or about the enemy aircraft?
BG: Well, it was so that headquarters got an overall plan of how many aircraft and where they were heading.
AM: Right.
BG: Because you see when Coventry was bombed that was dreadful. But they would know by the people, there’s headquarters where we did plotting and then there were people dotted all over the country in little outlets. Like farmers who were in like a bunker and they were out with their binoculars.
AM: Observing?
BG: Yes. And they used to come back.
AM: So you’re getting messages from a variety of people really?
BG: Oh yes, yes.
AM: To say x number of aircraft in that section now?
BG: Yes, yes.
AM: So you girls –
BG: And they could say whether they were Heinkels or whatever. And they would say the Halifax’s when they were ours, Wellingtons and the different things.
AM: And you’re moving them. How many girls would there have been around the table?
BG: There were about ten.
AM: So there was about ten of you?
BG: Um.
AM: All getting the various messages, getting the aircraft?
BG: Yes, yes, yes. But it was over quite a large area of the country.
AM: What area of the country did you cover?
BG: You know I can’t, I was trying to think about this. It was as far down to Lincoln I know. And West Yorkshire, East Yorkshire, it was quite a big area.
AM: Um. So, it was the bombers going out by that time rather than the German bombers coming in? Although there would still be some.
BG: They did mass raids.
AM: Um.
BG: It’s the mass raids that I seem to –
AM: You said you remembered the hundred bombers?
BG: Um. That was when they did a hundred bombers. The Germans sent them over in block.
AM: Um.
BG: But it was quite fun. You’ve got to remember we had little food, very little food. And no transport, or very little transport. Now, I don’t know whether I ought to say, there was really a big black market in food. And all these farmers that were spread around in the villages. I’m saying farmers, they weren’t all farmers. There were different people but the farmers had access to food obviously and we used to be invited by the people, the observers, to parties. Well we’d never known a, we’d never known food like it. It was wonderful. [laughter]
AM: Fresh eggs.
BG: Yes, fresh eggs and ham. Ham, I remember that.
AM: And that was the observers out in the fields?
BG: Yes.
AM: Sending the messages into you?
BG: Yes, yes.
AM: Who did you actually work for? Were you part of the RAF or part of the?
BG: I don’t, I really don’t. [laughter]
AM: It was the Observer Corps.
BG: It was attached to the RAF yes.
AM: Yeah.
BG: I don’t know who started the Observer Corps at all.
AM: We can find out. We’ll Google it Betty.
BG: Yes. I don’t know I’ve never given it a thought. Because I only have that photo. I have got [rustling noise]. That’s my badge.
AM: Oh gosh.
BG: I mean you’re welcome to that if you –
AM: Oh no, we’ll take a photograph of it. Where would you have worn that on your lapel or on your forage cap?
BG: On my tie.
AM: On your tie.
BG: I mean it’s not very good metal but it is nice. But we all got a Defence Medal at the end.
AM: Right.
BG: And we had burglars and mine went which was a shame because I think it was rather nice that we got a Defence Medal. [Rustling of paper] That’s my husband who was a medic.
AM: I’ll ask you about him in a minute, I can see his wings. Um, going back, I want to go back to this plotting table. So, you were all there, pushing your?
BG: Yes, and on the long distance as well.
AM: Aha.
BG: So it was like duplicated. There were all the squares cut up into sections as far as I remember. And there was an observer for one section out on the field.
AM: Aha. And did you have the big board with the lights on, on the wall?
BG: Yes. And they had a special metallic stick that you used to push. You know how that handbag that Val bought me had a metallic fastening and it?
AM: Like a?
BG: Goes zing.
AM: Like a magnetic thing on the end?
BG: Yes, um, yes.
AM: How long did you do that for? How long did you work there?
BG: You know I can’t remember. Because as soon as I could, I was fed up. Not with the Observer Corps, I enjoyed that bit, but I was fed up, being told what to do. At that age, to me I was suffocating. And what I did, my Father had left me a little annuity, so I had money, where other people, where a lot of the girls didn’t have. And I knew a friend who was a physiotherapist and she was Danish. And she used to say ‘Come and see me, come and see me.’ And actually I went to Denmark on –
AM: After the War? It must have been mustn’t it?
BG: Yes, just as the War in Japan had finished. I went to Denmark on a broken down, they’ll probably hate me for saying this there were two vessels in Goole harbour. The Don and The Durn. And I went on The Don to Copenhagen to see Elsa.
AM: You see you just say that so matter of factly but we’re right, just at the end of the War.
BG: Yes, yes.
AM: We’re not talking package holidays and things here.
BG: Oh no, no. [emphatic]
AM: How did you manage to get a ticket and all?
BG: Well, it was the Ellerman Wilson line and they were just beginning to start again. I think Elsa my friend in Denmark, I think she did the booking or whatever it was.
AM: How did you come to have a friend in Denmark?
BG: Well she was a physiotherapist and they get around quite a bit. And she knew a Miss Ebner, Ebner. And I suppose it was because of Miss Ebner that she came to England, and Miss Ebner was the head of the physiotherapists in Leeds. She was a lovely –
AM: So how did you know physiotherapists in Leeds?
BG: How did I know? I haven’t a clue. [laughter]
AM: It just all sounds quite exotic.
BG: I suppose it is. Well, how do I know Val? Because she’s my neighbour. But I can’t remember how I met Elsa, probably it was at the Mecca.
AM: Anyway with the Americans. So, you went off on the boat, 1945 or ’46?
BG: Something like that.
AM: To Denmark?
BG: Yes.
AM: As you do.
BG: And then I, it was so different, and so laid back. And the children, I can remember wakening at Elsa’s in the early morning and hearing all these voices, all these children. And they were at school for eight o’clock, but they finished earlier. And then I thought ‘I’d probably like to stay here.’ And I went backwards and forwards on the Don from Grimsby, from Copenhagen to Grimsby quite a bit. And then I thought ‘I think I shall like a job here.’ So, I went into, they were all English speaking so you didn’t have to worry about the Danish or anything like that, they were very bright. And I went into Magasin du Nord, which was one of the largest store, the largest store, and probably still is in Denmark, I don’t know. And I got a job, but they put me on the boat department and I hadn’t a clue. [chuckles] But I knew every ships chandler in, down the Skagerrat? and the Kattegat?, but not in England. [laughter]
AM: Tell me how long did you stay in Denmark for?
BG: Oh, I can’t remember. Until I was, oh, I came back when I was twenty-eight.
AM: Right, OK.
BG: So it wasn’t that long but it was very memorable.
AM: it sounds it. Well, it sounds just completely different.
BG: Yes.
AM: To what most girls would be doing.
BG: Yes.
AM: At that age just after the end of the War.
BG: Yes, yes.
AM: You escaped loads of the rationing years and –
BG: Yes, but England was getting back.
AM: Yes.
BG: I mean I think we did a very good job getting back to normal. [Rustling noise] I’m just trying to get this little thing out because , oh, now then I’ve dropped the thing.
AM: We’ll find it in a minute. You showed me a picture of your husband.
BG: He’s very handsome.
AM: He is very handsome.
BG: Just going to put this light on.
AM: And ask you, so I’m holding this picture of very handsome gentleman in RAF uniform?
BG: Yes.
AM: Yeah. So, tell me about him then. When did you, where did you meet him and when?
BG: Well, he was just a medic, and went to Canada. Felt very, what is the word I want? Very guilty about being in Canada because he was well fed.
AM: Whilst the War was on?
BG: Yes. You know, training people. He felt very aggrieved that he’s been seconded there.
AM: So he was in one of the operational training units, but training medics?
BG: Yes, yes.
AM: For the RAF?
BG: I would think so. I didn’t know him them.
AM: Well no, where did you meet him then Betty? [laughter] How old were you when you met him? Dare I ask?
BG: In Halifax.
AM: Right.
BG: In Halifax at a friend’s.
AM: He’s very handsome.
BG: Brylcreem boy. [laughter]
AM: He looks it.
BG: That’s what I called him.
AM: Just whizzing back to the War years for the minute. When you were at school, so in the early part of the War. Do you remember being bombed?
BG: Yes.
AM: Do you remember the bombing raids? What was that like?
BG: Yes. Well, Leeds was very lucky. It was bombed but infrequently. It was mostly in the Burmantofts, York Road area. And why that happened, I suppose it was because it was the main junction of the railroad there.
AM: Yeah.
BG: That was probably it.
AM: So railway marshalling yards were quite often a target.
BG: Yes. We were very lucky in Leeds. Very lucky.
AM: It’s. See you think this is just an ordinary story. And I suppose it is an ordinary story isn’t it? But it’s not because we can’t envisage what it would be like.
BG: it is very ordinary. But we didn’t eat much. If you think, the butter ration. I think, I’m thinking in grammes now and it was ounces then. If I recall the butter ration was about two ounces a week. [emphasis on week] Yes, yes.
AM: So you’re talking a little, like the little pats of butter we get now almost?
BG: Yes, but because we had some relatives in Iowa in America they used to send us food parcels. And there was tinned butter in, and oh that was lovely to have tinned butter. [laughter]
AM: It’s amazing isn’t it? Val, have you got any questions? You know Betty more than me, what have I missed?
VD: Well mostly post-War I know, not your pre-War experiences or your wartime experiences.
BG: Well, you see.
VD: Mainly post War that I know about.
AM: Tell me a little bit about what you ended up doing. I know what you ended up doing.
BG: I was only buying for a group of stores that’s all.
VD: A bit more exotic than that.
AM: It was a bit more exotic than just buying. What were you buying?
BG: Furs.
AM: Furs.
BG: Oh, did you see the programme about the fake furs on the television this morning?
AM: No.
BG: It was very, very interesting. About all the furs that are coming in now, trimmed for the coats and things that are trimmed.
AM: Um, right.
BG: And how they’re putting real fur on and saying it’s fake. It was quite an interesting programme.
AM: Where did you go then fur buying?
BG: Um?
AM: Where did you go fur buying?
BG: London, Glasgow, Russia.
AM: Russia?
BG: Later on that was.
AM: I wondered about Russia.
BG: Um.
AM: I’ve got a beautiful black fox hat from Russia. I’m going to switch this off.



Annie Moody, “Interview with Betty Greenwood,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 5, 2024,

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