Interview with Bessie Thomas


Interview with Bessie Thomas


Bessie Thomas left school at the age of fourteen and worked at the Consett Iron Company working as a typist. At the age of eighteen at the time of Dunkirk she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force where she wanted to be a radio operator but there were no vacancies. She was posted to RAF Snaith as a clerk. Working eight hour shifts, one of the jobs she did was to cycle to the aircraft and drop off parcels of Window, and handing out the escape kits. Whilst on duty she mentioned to a senior officer that it was a long way from the WAAF camp to the main airfield, and that she hadn’t got a bicycle, and couldn’t get one. The next day a bicycle arrived for her. Later she was told that that officer was Arthur Harris who had visiting all the station. She applied to work in radar and was posted to Yatesbury for training. Whilst working at a radar station in Suffolk she traced a V1 flying bomb coming in straight towards the station, fortunately it fell into a field behind the station. When the V-2 rockets were being launched she could see the flash of the launch on her screen. When waiting for demob she met an airman who worked in air sea rescue who later became her husband.







00:15:28 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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AThomasB180518, PThomasB1801


RS: My name is Robb Scott. I am a volunteer for the International Bomber Command Centre. I’m interviewing Mrs Bessie Thomas. It is the 14th of May 2018 and we’re at her home address in Consett. Also present is Bessie’s neighbour, Teresa Davidson. Bessie, I’d like to start by thanking you for agreeing to talk to me today. As you know this is going to be preserved on the International Bomber Command Centre’s website for future generations to hear your story.
BT: Yes.
RS: Are you happy for me to carry on?
BT: I am.
RS: Ok. Lovely. First of all Bessie I’d like you to tell me a little bit about your early life before you joined the WAAFs please.
BT: Well, I was, left school when I was fourteen and I went down to Consett Iron Company to be a typist working in the invoice, invoice department. And then when the war started of course I was still young. And then when I became about eighteen and Dunkirk came a problem I felt I’ve got to go and save my country. And so I went and joined up down at Durham and we got word to say from Innsworth that I’d been accepted and would be called. Called up shortly. However, I wanted to be a radar operator and it said that there were no vacancies at the time and so they would wait and call me up later. However, I still got word again to say would I like to do another job? And so I thought right clerk SD [laughs] hoping it wouldn’t be anything to do with typing and joined up for that. Then I got word to go down to Innsworth with my little piece of brown paper and string to wrap my civilian clothes up to send home and did my square bashing. As I was the tallest one in the group I was made marker on the parade ground. And I got my injections and then of course we were posted. And I got posted up to Snaith which was Bomber Command and they had Halifaxes on at the time when I was there. And so I didn’t know what sort of job I would be doing but we were just, there were three of us. One girl came from Durham, one girl came from Chester le Street and we did shifts. So you did all sorts of different jobs. One was typing on rice paper to do for the beacons. And of course sweets were on ration you know so I had a little nibble at the, at the rice paper [laughs] which was very nice. And then we did shifts at that I don’t know if I mentioned that bit about the shifts but we did these eight hour shifts. So we weren’t, all the three of us weren’t all at the same time. And then I got the Windows in parcels which I used to go on the cycle around the perimeter to all the planes and pop a pack in for the airmen to drop out over Germany to disturb the air raid op. So that was another one of the jobs. Then I worked the diascope and they were being briefed, the airmen were being briefed for taking off. And of course the maps for the weather, and the maps for where they were going to bomb. And then we used to hand out like a briefcase that they had the maps and things in and aids to escape. Which included maybe a pipe with directions in for them and a silk handkerchief which that after the war you found a lot of people had these silk handkerchiefs with the maps on and they were all saying, ‘They’re very rare, you know. Very secretive.’ And so I used to laugh at that one. However, then one time I was in flying control and chalking down of course the planes going out and then the sad thing of waiting for them coming back. And in York, Yorkshire the weather was usually, when they were coming back very misty so you had the flying control officers out on the balcony doing the flares to get them landed. And then there was one night and I hadn’t been you know there for very long. I was real, I don’t know what they used to call them in those days. Sprogs or something they used to say. And I was sitting on the desk and waiting to see. You know waiting for them coming back. The planes. And then this airman came in with lots of scrambled egg on his cap and so he was talking to the officers and that, and of course I should have jumped up to attention. But not knowing too, too much what went on in the forces at the time and he came to me and said, you know, ‘Are you alright?’ And, ‘Nice to see you.’ And I said, ‘Well, the thing is I have to walk such a long way from the WAAF campsite to the main airfield and I haven’t got a bike. I can’t get a bike.’ [laughs] So, so he said, ‘Oh, I see.’ So the next morning a bike arrived for me. So they told me, ‘Do you know that was Bomber Harris that was visiting all the bomber stations that night.’ [laughs] So, so that was really my time with Bomber Command. And then about, it would be about a month after that we were told we were made redundant so the three of us would think, you know, what can we do? So I said, ‘Well, I wanted radar in the first place. I’m going to apply again.’ So I tried for it and we were all posted down to Yatesbury to do the training for that. So we got trained to do, what to do and look at the, not like they do now with the modern radar. See the planes. All we saw were electrodes running across the screen. And we got sent up to Scotland first. And I was up in Fraserburgh there and just looking for aircraft either going or coming. I was on the enemy and you just had to guess really how many aircraft you thought it was before they got to the [laughs] And then after a while I got sent down to Suffolk. Went to High Street there. I was always on what they called chain high which was the ones that, other radars were on the coast for anything coming in from the sea or anything. They were plotting that or tracing that I should say. And while at High Street I managed to trace a flying bomb coming in. V-1. And it was coming. They were saying, ‘[Not that] plot Bessie,’ and they put straight for the station. I didn’t even think oh, you know it might drop on us. If the engine stopped we’d had it. However, it went past and fell in the field behind the station so we were alright. And then used to do an SOS. Anybody. Pilots coming down in the sea. Funnily enough at the end of the war when I was waiting to be demobbed I met up with an airman who became my husband in the end. He had been in air sea rescue and apparently these plots that I was getting for them out at sea he was going out to rescue them and he could find them. So strange world really. But a funny thing to say that I really was happy. Enjoyed my life in the forces and it brought me up because I was an only child and living in Consett it wasn’t very much going on for me as far as I was concerned. So I had a, really had a lovely time.
[recording paused]
BS: So, after the flying bombs the V-2s rockets started coming over which were really nasty ones because we, you know didn’t know where they would be landing at all. And so we had special equipment made overnight with the little radar screen. A very small one. Not like the one that we’d been looking at before for the planes. And we were only sat for about a quarter of an hour because you had your face right up to the screen. And if you saw a flash on the screen we’d shout, ‘High Street,’ and then there would be a film taken and that would be developed and sent off to headquarters I suppose. And we only knew that it had been launched but we didn’t know where it would land. And of course at the time a lot of them landed in London. A lot of damage done. It was terrible. And I always, I had an aunt living in London and if I had a day’s leave I used to pop down to see her and she would say, ‘You know, they’re not doing anything at all Bessie.’ And I used to say, ‘Oh, they’re sure to be.’ Because I knew what I was doing and I couldn’t tell her. And I said, ‘They’re sure to be. You know, they’re not going to let them get away with that.’ However, at any rate this went on and eventually they found out where they were launching them from so they were going to bomb them. And I believe, I didn’t know at the time but I found out afterwards and then the, of course it was on a trolley thing that they were being launching off I found out afterwards and they just used to move it around. That was why it was taking a while to find out where they were really. But that wasn’t very nice. I didn’t like those. Weren’t. You know, really destructive. So that was another thing that we did. Thinking about that one I don’t think and funnily enough a mechanic they were Canadians that did the looking after the screens and the equipment and the transmitters and the receivers and one of the sons of the, one Canadian that was there got in touch with me after the war. So I’m still in touch with the son. Wanted to know if I knew his father which I did. Only by sight. And I think really that’s all my memories and very nice ones in one way. Very sad for other things that we had to do with bombing and things.
[recording paused]
BT: I remember while at Snaith it was 150 Squadron with Halifaxes.
RS: Bessie, is there anything else you’d like to talk about or tell me before we stop this interview?
BT: No. I think I’ve told a lot [laughs] Everybody will be tired of me.
RS: Well, can I just thank you again for taking the time and trouble to talk to us about this. It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.
BT: Right. Thank you.



Rob Scott, “Interview with Bessie Thomas,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 22, 2023,

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