Interview with Iris McClements. Two


Interview with Iris McClements. Two


Iris McClements remembers being issued with a gas mask at the age of 11, before the war started. Her family moved to Eldwick when she was about 13 to avoid the bombs. She joined the Women’s Junior Air Corps and recalls being issued with a bucket, stirrup pump, and helmet for fire watching. Iris joined the Royal Observer Corps after passing the entrance exam in 1944. She was based in York and lived on an ex-World War One motor launch. Her role as a plotter was to listen to information from the spotters via headphones and place it on to the plotting table. This included the number of aircraft, direction of travel, height, and whether they were friendly or hostile. This was to give warning of enemy operations or to track operations heading to Germany. She worked eight hour shifts which changed each week. The spotters in the outposts were also watching for crashing aircraft so the crash sites could be identified, and Iris visited a couple of these sites. In her time off she went dancing, swimming and to the cinema.




Temporal Coverage





00:46:06 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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SP: This is Susanne Pescott and I’m interviewing Iris McClements of the Royal Observer Corps today for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. We’re at Iris’s home and it is the 25th of February 2018. So, first of all thank you Iris for agreeing to talk to me today. So, Iris, can you tell me about your life before you decided to join the Royal Observer Corps?
IM: Well, my war started when I was a child really. I think it would be at the age of eleven when we were issued with gas masks, the connection with this being to see war news at the local cinema where my father, who had put an ex-Blackburn Dart aircraft on his forecourt to attract customers allowed it to be shown on view while the film, “The Hell’s Angels,” were being programmed. So, I imagine that it was a privilege probably with the complimentary ticket to be taken at an age when I shouldn’t have been. When I saw Japanese fighting my interpretation of war was probably exactly that in England. So when I was issued with a gas mask I was absolutely terrified. But there was a false start to the war in as much as my mummy, mother said and if she said it must be right, there wasn’t going to be a war. However, a year or two later when the war was officially declared it didn’t, the gas masks didn’t have the same impact as they had when we first were issued with them. My father then, it seems strange to hear if I’m correct saying, ‘It’s Australia or Bradford area.’ And as I realise now Bradford had no industry. It was a woollen, and in fact I believe they did once have a stray bomb and that was about it. Having said that it wasn’t Australia. We went to a place, a village called Eldwick near Bingley. Very isolated. Very difficult to get, have any social life. I was thirteen, and I had not enjoyed school and I was glad to get away from it and so there was an organisation called the Women’s Junior Air Corps which I obviously decided to join. This had a grey uniform. You had the option of studying aircraft recognition, semaphore, Morse Code, and we wore a grey uniform. Eventually, I can’t recall why but I was made a sergeant. And we did have Jean Batten who was the aviator visiting and presenting us with the model of an aircraft. I think fire watching came into it because at some point I remember having a tin hat, a stirrup pump and a bucket and this was to deal with incendiary bombs which were the biggest cause of fires other than bombs. We did have for recreation a boat in York which coincidentally was an ex-world war ML. It was quite unusual and in that respect we loaned it to the Sea Scouts in York and a film was made actually by Pathé which I have. And as war made me have to do some sort of war work I turned down a job with, a driving job which was to be with lorries and I hadn’t been on the road at all except I went for a driving test and got the job. I didn’t even have a licence. I decided that we’d do, look at the Royal Observer Corps which was based in York on the Knavesmire, and we had to set an exam to be considered to be satisfactory I suppose, and I got the job which was in 1944. We consequently went to live on a boat in York because that was our only means of, it was quite a large boat anyway and the Observer Corps, mine was Number 9 Group which actually covered the Royal Canadian Air Force who were 6 Group. But Number 10 Group was also on the Knavesmire which covered the area south of York, for example, Elvington. I —
[recording paused]
SP: So, Iris obviously you were based in York at the Knavesmire with the ROC. What was a typical day like? What would happen in your role with the ROC?
IM: Well, very little in this respect. We had a uniform which was the same exactly as the RAF, and we changed shifts every week which on reflection I wouldn’t think was very difficult to cope with. It would have been better all night or all days. I don’t remember it being a problem but I had to get from the boat to the Knavesmire which must be a couple of miles cycling. It [pause] wait a minute I’ll get that right. Well typical, I would say month rather than a day because we changed shifts every week. I don’t remember it being a difficult to get used to but on reflection I think it would have been better all day all night. But as it was we were travelling from four to midnight, midnight to eight, and eight to four and we spent cycling for some period at midnight and we had difficulties of lights, difficulty of weather. All of which I don’t really find it was a hardship at that age. We, I can remember skidding on ice at one period and the only thing that comes to mind was one poor member wore a wig, and her wig went rolling down the road. And that seems to be more of a memory than [laughs] Feeling sorry for her than us landing on ice down a hill in the middle of York which is called Michaelgate. We [pause], life with very little occupation. If I looked in my diary all I can see is, “Pictures,” “Swimming in the river,” “Pictures,” “Swimming in the river,” which of course, cinema was the forerunner of television so —
SP: So, this was on your days off.
IM: Yeah.
SP: Or the times you were on shift. Yeah. So, just on your shift itself, so you’d arrive at the building. What would you do when you arrived? What would be a typical thing you’d have to do as soon as you arrived?
IM: We did, we wore, this is what I don’t like, we wore —
SP: What did you do? So, rather than what you wore what did you actually do? So, you arrived. Did you have to clock in? Did you go straight to, what was the room like that you were in because I think people won’t know what it even looked like inside the room.
IM: Well, the room, the room was typical of a plotting table which you, you can find on the internet. There were so many people around the table.
SP: So, about how many would be in that, that one room you were in.
IM: You know, I had the number and I can’t just think of it.
SP: But roughly. Was it five? Twenty? Fifty?
IM: No. There was probably about a dozen.
SP: Right, so about a dozen in that. Yeah.
IM: And we were plotters. They were on the outpost who I feel need the most admiration for. It had to be clear night before they could actually tell by visual plotting the height and speed of an aircraft and that wouldn’t be necessarily every night. But they, we wore headsets permanently for eight hours and the, the outpost people were feeding us information. As I remember we were in communication with the fighter and Bomber Command and also instigation, instigating the, a siren being put into operation that there was a raid forthcoming. We’d also, the outpost people covered an area of five miles. They were passed from that area to the next area and the next Observer Corps and it was a matter of finding, there would be some aircraft running out of fuel, and they had to know if they crash landed where they were. In fact, any plane that crash landed they were covered because the whole area was covered. We’d be able to send them straight to where the problem was. We had special clocks with colours, and I only remember that the red and blue for instance were the number of aircraft which, if you weren’t not on duty you would be able to see York is surrounded by several aerodromes, and you would get them like flies in the skies accumulating. I think they circled before they took off on mass. Always occurred to me which was the case I don’t think they had every had formation flying instruction and sadly a lot of them didn’t, by crashing into each other or even dropping bombs on each other on some occasion. We, so they would go in to the next area and we would hand that information over. I don’t know whether we referred to the fact that we had the same uniform as the RAF, and we had been, on one occasion I was told to put my cap on, which was a forage cap. Became unusual because the, they were issued with ex-Army berets thereafter and still wear that on, those on parades. I had, I don’t know if I referred to the fact that I was bawled at by an RAF officer to put my cap on and I didn’t know whether I should tell him as people seem to think that we were not associated with the RAF but I did as I was told anyway. Do you know I can say that during the day depending on the aircraft going out on raids that you would get whole crews coming in to York. It would be full of Air Force but they did, my observations they’d stick together and weren’t a bit considered to be a danger as in these current days. They were, we just went to dances. While we were in the Observer Corps we were invited out to various places. For example Tholthorpe, Linton, Rufforth and they would send a Liberty bus to collect us and bring us safely home. And as far as I was aware there was never any problem of leaving anybody behind at the aerodromes [laughs] So, daytime was pretty boring although we did have a reasonably interesting life on the boat. We were, consequently made lots of friends, particularly the Canadians and we in fact went in to business in York which I’ll tell you about later. And the Canadians in their spare time would come if they were interested and we had more fun after the war with the Canadians before they went back.
SP: So, just before we go on to the part after the war.
IM: Yeah.
SP: Just for the Royal Observer Corps. So what would your role actually do? Just talk about what you actually did when you were in your room at the Royal Observer Corps. So, obviously you, you said you had head phone, had a headset on.
IM: Yes.
SP: So, you’d get information and what would you do with that information?
IM: Well, we were wearing headsets. We [pause] the outpost would give us a reading, and I seem to think it was where the arrows met in the middle that was the actual position of the aircraft, and we had to then put it on the table which had a grid and it would show you the direction of the aircraft, hopefully the speed of the aircraft, and enemy aircraft obviously they were trying to indicate which direction or town it was heading for to forewarn which our motto, our logo is, “Forewarned is Forearmed.”
SP: So you’ve got all the planes that you’ve put the information on the actual —
IM: Table.
SP: Table. What happens to that information? How is that passed on then, that information that you’re putting all your details on the table?
IM: We’re getting information from the spotters.
SP: Yeah.
IM: And you had what were called tellers. I might let you down here. We were plotting. We were the plotters. The tellers I think were passing the information on. If that makes sense.
SP: That, that would then go to the relevant —
IM: Yes.
SP: RAF headquarters or —
IM: Fighter Command. Bomber Command.
SP: Right.
IM: Sirens, and basically back to, “Forewarned is Forearmed.”
SP: So you didn’t, you plotted any fighter aircraft as well. So anything that was in the air for —
IM: Anything. And it was, I think mainly forewarning about fighter aircraft because I do think I remember putting on the table we had a plaque that we were pushing along with a stick which said “H” for hostile. That all I do remember. So this isn’t being recorded at the moment is it? Oh [laughs] You want that bit out then.
SP: That’s fine on the hostile bit. So that’s fine.
IM: Yeah.
SP: So you’d have those on the table. So how many planes might you have. Or from your memory how many planes would there be on the table?
IM: Well, we’d see. Obviously, if it was the bombers going out —
SP: Yeah.
IM: I recall we just had one plaque that said a hundred or two hundred plus. Usually they were going off as I understand it to, most of the time to Reading before they turned off to go to the bombing. Although on some occasions I think they just went direct but I was surprised to hear about the going to Reading because in fact I think quite a few did crash into each other before they left this country. Hence my reference to whatever they did a lot of them went to Canada to be training. I don’t think they were given formation flying but two hundred and fifty bombers. There were a lot of accidents between them.
SP: So would you, so you’d mainly put groups on the table? It would be like groups of fighters and groups of bombers —
IM: Yeah [unclear] an individual.
SP: Yeah.
IM: Because the names must have, the main one I remember which was on the 4th of March not long before the war ended. Apparently, according to my, my information they were forewarned that Elvington was always going to be a target because the Germans didn’t like the French. And in fact that was only about six weeks before the war finished that they carried out that threat. And I understand they were over England. There were large number of German aircraft and a large number of our aircraft that they managed to shoot down having got successful raids over Germany and it was a night that they didn’t have a particularly bad time but they did what they said. They followed them home and I could be right or wrong about this but the way the Germans were flying and they got it organised they would be too low for our spotters to be able to [pause] well follow every one, and this was the only raid sadly before the end of the war when the, according to the information one plane in particular was strafing the runway. And Melbourne where my husband was flying from lights were turned out anyway and they were told to divert to their, one would assume their respective emergency landings. Only Elvington still had their lights on but there are various recollections of what they suggested. The lights. The particular Junkers that tried to strafe the runway unfortunately hit a tree, ultimately a farmhouse sadly which was the only one standing for miles around. Killed the four Germans, killed themselves and they killed the three people in the house. I don’t know why I would write, go out to witness this. I do say on another occasion the following day when a plane crashed in York that we, we thought we were going out to help so having cycled out to see this German plane which had crashed I only remember seeing a very highly polished boot amongst it so I don’t think it got fire, caught fire. Afterwards learned that that particular aircraft which I could give you the names of, I’ve looked it up it was one of the ones that was responsible for shooting down one of my husband’s colleagues in a Halifax which there were four shot down over York on that particular day. The following day there was a aircraft from Linton which, we were living on the boat by then which we had a skylight which was an artificial form of overhead lighting and my brother, small brother can remember seeing the plane disintegrate and that according to my reading since is correct and it crashed. I would only think only as the crow flies about a mile away from where we were and again we rushed to see what we could do to help. My father I think he and I had some dispute about which bike. He’d got the wrong bike. Either the chain came off or the pedal went and consequently when we got to the Winning Post, it’s called in York, a pub which was next to the housing estate he had because of his misfortune he turned out to be fortunate because he actually approached the corner of the house as either the bombs or the fuel tanks went off, and the blast bypassed him because he, he was, he got away with it. That happened within two days of each other, and that was the last, I think one of the last offensives in England. I can only go down to say what I repeat, it was the aircraft that were running out of fuel, it was where they crashed, it was where they were going hopefully that we were able to pass on that information. During the war when I met my husband who was flying, interestingly we travelled back to Belfast which was his home town and in so doing we travelled into southern Ireland which was unbelievably close to the fact they were still like London. Illuminated like fairyland. And we also bought things like shoes and handbags and food and got caught only for the duty on cigarettes which interestingly you were only allowed a hundred from Southern Ireland to Northern Ireland but if you came from southern Ireland direct to London for example then the allocation was two hundred. So they were having a ball just catching people on cigarettes. And funnily enough they didn’t look that I’m sitting on binoculars and things like that that we’d bought. So that was interesting. We would buy meat at the border and we’d travel back home with steaks the following day probably. Post-war we, as I’ve said before we got very friendly with the Canadians who, the boat attracted them, the fact that we were maybe a little bit different as a family. This led to ultimately VE Day when according to my diary it was a wonder the boat didn’t capsize because everybody was coming on. I had a, an accordian at that time that I’m not that good at it but I can knock a tune out. So there was plenty of singing and dancing going on and the York Corporation provided fairy lights to decorate the boat with which was then in what they called the Foss Basin in York which where the River Foss joins the Ouse and eventually it was moved to the main River, Lendal Bridge where I have pictures of it illuminated there for them. When VJ night was finally announced we had gone for a first break to Bridlington, where I was confined to my room with what turned out to be chicken pox and for some reason I was treated like someone who had the plague because I think I do know in the past I had been once taken to an isolation hospital. I think possibly because of scarlet fever and it’s after affects. And for some reason my mother who incidentally we all got chicken pox because she’d had the shingles and she wasn’t in the best of health and I think that she thought I was going to be taken away ha ha. So I remained in my room until and all the fireworks were going off around me until my father sent the car to collect me secretly. Creeping off and being taken home. The same car was a, a new Nash motor car which was American. Bought before the war and subsequently stored which came out after the war which was by then quite a, quite a car to look at. My father had little flags made for each wing so that I could judge the distance presumably and our first trip was to the coast where he just sent me down on to a car park and told somebody to show me where reverse gear was. I set off with the family to the first occasion when Butlin’s was open, and it came about that during the conversation that were my first trip and I can recall somebody saying they thought so when they saw me take about a dozen positions to try and park this large car. We, little flags and the post got my father into all sort of places. He was quite like a particular flag which he must have copied and when my husband was still standing down at Melbourne he got word that there was a CO on the camp, and it was only my father with his car touring the camp when he had everybody standing to attention. But it was not the CO. But there was a lot of fun then after the war because we were travelling to backwards and forwards. He actually never knew, the sad thing about my husband’s crew was that he was successful on thirty eight missions but on one occasion one of the crew decided he would just take a trip to Doncaster or quite nearby and I did have reports of the return journey but they disappeared totally off the face of the earth, probably in the Humber. But this car, my husband-to-be sneaked it out the garage to go and get the wife and child of this particular crew member. Doing them a good turn to put them on the train out of the, back to where they were intending to go. But on reflection it wasn’t a good idea because he wouldn’t be insured and my father never knew, and it probably should not have happened but we thought we were doing a good turn. So when we, still during this period the Canadians who we thought had advantages, for example I think they would have motorbikes, and possibly it comes to mind because that is the area that we concentrated on, and they were in a hurry to get back to Canada. They had to get a few pounds for their motorbikes and this subsequently put us in business in York, in Fossgate in the motorcycle second hand because there were no bikes being made at that time. But one of the few of the Canadians that were left then would come down and help to repair in some instances, and we kept friends with them for a long, long time. And my diary has a list of Canadians [pause] I think that’s about all I can tell you about war time. I still think credit should go to those outposts which were in all weathers, and actually had been doing it since World War One. And so my job was fairly [pause] We were warm. We did have to turn out in all weathers. But I really don’t remember it being a problem. I don’t remember the food being a problem. We, I think we were all healthier. If there was a shop open in York you would hear about it and I’m sure it’s been seen many times you would queue. Sometimes you didn’t know what you were queuing for but you might find it was a pair of shoes and you’d buy them because half of them were a size too small and probably you could never wear them anyway. I do remember successfully buying a pair of boots. And I have told the story about the Canadian who came to tea after queuing for [pause] I would have reasonably, my way of thinking an apple pie that would suit the family happened to be placed in front of him. He ate the lot. They had luxury on their, they had I think sweets and things like that that we wouldn’t. We would get the advantage of in some cases. I just don’t know.
[recording paused]
SP: So Iris, just going back to the Royal Observer Corps and I’m just thinking about, you know the friendships that you got while you were worked there. Was there any in particular that you remember? Did you—
IM: I don’t recall why because this girl called Mary Hollis came from Hebden Bridge whether she was taking the exam for the Observer Corps, and we offered her accommodation. Whichever. She came to live with us and during that course she obviously, I don’t remember her being on the same shifts or cycling together or whatever and that could happen. The only thing I admit my maiden name was Dobson in those days, and the maiden names of two girls I met called Joyce Bosworth and Cecily Parneby, one was from York and one was Tadcaster. They didn’t live very long after the war but I did, I did keep in touch with those people. I don’t recall much social life with them because if I went to a dance it was with my own sister, and you spent quite a lot of time going to dances where you sat like wallflowers round on a chair waiting to be selected and feeling a bit disgruntled if you were not. But as I’ve said before I don’t recall any dangers or ever being approached by drunken crews, or whatever because I don’t think they were particularly. They never knew when they were going to be called back on duty.
SP: Yeah. So there wasn’t much of a social side there obviously because you had your headphones on all the time.
IM: Yes.
SP: So there wouldn’t be much —
IM: Yes.
SP: Chance for chatting.
IM: Well, as I say the headphones were on. You were welded to the headphones so I don’t think there were much, I don’t even remember which we must have done in eight hours stopped for a snack. But I don’t, I can’t even remember there being a canteen or anything. I just don’t remember. I don’t remember how we [pause] I’ve more memory of when we lived in the village of Eldwick, having to put down eggs in Isinglass because if you kept a few hens then you had [pause] it was either more eggs than you knew what to do with or a certain time of the year they didn’t lay them at all. And as I said I’ve no idea. I can remember we did put corn flour in with butter to make it go further. I don’t remember being, felt starved. The only thing I do remember life was so boring there that we couldn’t wait for the winter for the snow to sledge down the, what was from Baildon towards Shipley Glen. What was the main road that would become a sledge track but it was nothing very exciting.
SP: I know one of the things that you were talking about was you had some plane identification charts. Were you trained on those and what were you trained on them for?
IM: Well, we were trained because obviously that was why I passed the exam. Yes. I do remember being trained.
SP: Yeah.
IM: And I was obviously successful because that’s, there is a note in my book about the day I passed the exam.
SP: And what did you need the plane recognition cards for? How would you use those?
IM: Learning how to put the arrows and things on the table with the instructions from the outpost.
SP: So, they’d tell you what type of plane and you’d have to get the right type of plane on there.
IM: Not necessarily.
SP: Right.
IM: No. It could have been, as I say it was H for hostile or so many plus if it was the bombers collecting. And having said before, it had to be a clear night to recognise what kind of aircraft it was unless they were clever enough to go back to the statement I made that the sound. A German plane did definitely sound different but that couldn’t have applied to all planes. So it was a very hit and miss job I would have thought. If you recognise that they’ve to do visual calculating they had to be able to see. So if it was foggy or whatever I’m not sure how that would work, but I’m not familiar with their instruments of calculating heights and things.
SP: So you wouldn’t need to know that information in the plotters room. You just need to know the type so you could put that on the board.
IM: Where it was going —
SP: Yeah
IM: At that particular type and which direction it was going. That was the main thing.
SP: Yeah.
IM: I think initially the Observer Corps was to plot the enemy approaching and the forewarned forearmed to be prepared for them.
SP: Yeah.
IM: It was interesting that it seemed to be more thought of recently than ever it had been, because as far as I was concerned it was something you had to do and it was not terribly exciting but it was, it was the war effort.
SP: And an important part you know. You say not exciting but an important part that would have given out early warnings as you say.
IM: Yes.
SP: And saved, you know lives and the sirens.
IM: It was to give out, it was to give out early warnings.
SP: So a critical part, a critical part of the war, you know, ok.
IM: But I keep telling you if I look at my diary it was a pretty boring life. But it was swimming in the river it was practically every day including midnight sometimes, so and reference to several times of dancing and pictures as it was called in those days. But I think the —
[recording paused]
IM: And having to explain it to people. For example, when we did the picture signing along with the Dambusters, we had, holding up the queue because there were the people wanting your signatures on their book to collect who were not aware of an Observer Corps or what it did.
SP: Yeah.
IM: Recently I think we went to the Armed Forces Day in Scarborough where we met one of the officers from Fylingdales and when I said, ‘You won’t know much about what I did during the war.’ He said, ‘We do exactly that because that in fact is what we are doing with radar now.’ So I suppose it was the forerunner of the forewarned is forearmed.
SP: Ok. So, thank you Iris for the interview today and especially giving people a great insight in to the key role played by the Royal Observer Corps during World War Two and especially your role as a plotter during that time. So, thank you.
IM: Thank you.
[recording paused]
SP: Ok. So we’ve got that. So, forty five minutes. Yeah. So let’s see if, I just need you to sign the form if they’ve got tea on and that. Have a think if you want to, we can have another recording and see if you want to. Or I can let you listen to that. You can listen to it through the headphones. I don’t know how clear it would be for you but it would have to be through headphones.
IM: I’d probably, I’d probably shrink listening to it.
SP: I’m just going to test it and make sure. Are these the only lights you’ve got in here.
IM: No.
SP: That’s a challenge, isn’t it?
IM: No.
SP: I was going to say.
IM: I haven’t got around to putting them on.



Susanne Pescott, “Interview with Iris McClements. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 30, 2023,

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