Interview with Elizabeth Wickstead

Title

Interview with Elizabeth Wickstead

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Date

2018-06-21

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Type

Format

00:48:32 audio recording

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IBCC Digital Archive

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Identifier

AWicksteadE180621

Transcription

DM: Oh, I know. [unclear] OK. This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is David Meanwell. The interviewee is Elizabeth Wickstead. The interview is taking place at Mrs Wickstead’s home in Crawley, in Sussex, on the 21st of June 2018. So, Elizabeth, if could you start of by saying where you were born, a bit about your early family life and then the outbreak of the war.
EW: OK then. I was born in Brighton. My father was a Brightonian. My mother was from Surrey but they actually, er, lived, we then lived in, we lived to start with in a tiny village called Lindfield in Sussex, and Cuckfield as well. We moved to several local villages near Hayward’s Heath but at the time of the war, having been born in 1928, I was eleven years old and we were living in Lindfield. Now, I can remember the September ’39. I can remember the announcement to the war. I suppose at eleven I, I was very interested in what was going on and, um, well the first thing I remember is the family being around and then I can remember schooldays and the arrival of the London evacuees. That seemed to be the first thing that happened. They came by train, by bus, arriving at the little village hall with their little gas mask cases and very different to us, um, seemed to be a different world that they came from, likewise, you know. They were taught in the same school as us but separate, so the school became very full, of course, with teachers and children. They had their own little clubs that — and then we paid a penny and joined in the clubs and the fun and soon got friendly with each another. But they were kept separate from us because they had their own teachers and everyone with them. I suppose that was my first memory and then, naturally, at the same time the, er, Army arrived and the first, first contingent [?] that I remember was the Royal Scots Fusiliers who, er, had returned from India and they were wearing dress uniform at the time because it was the beginning of the war, and my father was very keen, ex-World War 1 soldier and used to go out and try and bring the young fellas in for tea etcetera, so we got to know one or two quite well. They were there for a while and there, there was lots of large houses that were taken over, um, estates, you know, estate hou— houses, various houses, and various places in the village. All their equipment came, all their lorries, everything and from a tiny village we became an Army barracks. And, um, even in our — well that’s the Royal Scots. While they were there they had to go into Army khaki uniform and they had to get rid of their dress uniform. Now, we got to know them and as school children they used to give us their buttons and badges and it was a collection that children had, tin boxes, and because they took the buttons off the uniform and hat badge— badges as they went into full khaki, and we used to be given these buttons and we used to do swaps. Another thing we did swaps with there were little cards that were, I don’t know, the boys seemed to get hold of these cards with pictures of German aircraft on and you used to do spotting because we lived under the flight path to London, you realise, so that was the first of the Army. Then they went and throughout the war it continued, one lot after another, one lot after another. The whole village became a complete barracks. Even in my own little road, off of Lindfield Common, it was a small road going in, backing onto fields and a wood. Houses there had just been built in 1939. In fact, ours was the last in the road. There were other houses further on that were still under — being built. The Army took them over and moved in. So, from our garden and our house the next house, which nobody had occupied, became full of Army. So — and our little lane which came out onto Lindfield Common and it didn’t go further than the woods, if you like, used to have a chap on guard. And of course no lights and it was, ‘Who goes there?’ Even the bungalow next, next to us on the other side became a sick bay, so we intermingled with the Army all round us and they were so jolly and as a child, um, they made you feel happy. You were happy to, to talk to them. They were full of life and only young chaps, you know. As a child it was really pleasant to — I would say, for a child almost, it was pretty exciting because we didn’t understand at that age. Now, my dad being a First World War — in the trenches, served right through his medical of course but he did, he did know a lot about war [slight laugh] and, um, he decided that he’d dig, he dug a trench in the back garden. He was a gardener. We had a lovely garden originally but he decided he would dig, dig a trench and he dug it T-shape, went down steps, on the top corrugated iron and he grew a garden on top. And he reckoned — well I don’t know — and the idea was if we were invaded we were going to go underground. I think he was going to take on his own war, quite honestly, because he had a, he had a shot gun and a tin hat. So then, then actually the, um, the aircraft started coming over, the bombing raids, I mean sirens, whatever, but it would always start in the evening, like as it went dark, and he’d go out in the back garden with his tin hat on [laugh]. “Dad’s Army” this was and, um, we could see for a long way because everything was black out, there wasn’t any lights at all, but he would see this flashing in the, in the distance and he’d come back and he’d say, ‘They’re coming in over Dover now.’ So, there’d be that, this way, so it was, ‘You’d better go down in the dugout.’ Well, I think I only went down twice and my sisters — I’m from five, five sisters and they wouldn’t go down. But my dad wanted us all down there. I think we only went down twice. It was horrific, you know. There was beetles and all sorts down there [laugh]. So, that died a death but he kept that dugout and he actually dug another one out, down in the orchard, but nobody ever went down there [laugh] and he would, he would be standing out in the garden talking to the next door neighbour. It was rather like “Dad’s Army”, you know. ‘Oh, I know where they are now. They’re coming this way,’ you know, but of course you’d hear this drone and drone and drone and going over and over and over. There must have been — well, I can’t imagine how many aircraft for such a long time. And they’d be heading for London, you see. They wouldn’t be shot at. There was nothing to shoot, nothing to fire at them with at that time, very early in the war, and I don’t think anything went on over there but then they’d go off and, um, all I know, all I can remember is, you would then see — because I suppose in Sussex, you see, you would see the lights of London. We would see London ablaze in, in the sky lit up. Then, of course, I can remember that — I mean, this went on quite a long time during the war didn’t it? So, I grew up with this going on and I would say when they were coming back there were one or two that were — the engines, you could hear something wrong with the engine. Or, even if they came in land from Dover and came in and they got damaged and they wanted to turn, turn round and go back they would jettison their bombs and, if I can remember, there would be a like a stick of three. I can remember this and, um, there would be quite a few dumped around in the fields and things. Nobody seemed to get hit because we were rural, you know. But there was quite one funny incident I would like to say. Someone had to be evacuated from, from Newhaven and lived at the end of our road and next to that was the fields and also a brook and a boggy water. Lindfield’s low-lying so it’s a lot of water there and I used to go with the a girl who lived there to school and when I went along to her one morning she — and we’d had a bombing raid the night before — she said, ‘Oh, my dad’s ever so cross,’ she said. ‘A bomb dropped in the big and all our tomato plants are buried under water and there’s all mud up the side of the house.’ So, um, I can always remember that one, um, and then, I suppose following that we got what was called the “doodlebugs”. Now, they were something different. They were a bit scary because they came over during the day. As kids, as I would say, I don’t think I was ever really scared during the war. It was a great adventure but, um, as the years went on and I got a little bit older I got a little bit more understanding about it. But, um, yes the, that was an incident when — in, we lived in a chalet bungalow, if you like, so there were two bedrooms upstairs and one down, and the stairs wound around from the hall, and there was a cupboard under the stairs. Now, I was put to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs because that seemed to be, apparently, the safest place and —
DM: Were you the youngest?
EW: Yes. I was very much the baby of, of older, older parents and, er, the only child in the house, if you like. My eldest sister had been married before I was born and, er, the second sister worked at, as a nurse at East Grinstead Hospital. She actually came home with the chaps, as you know, and my third sister worked, um, for the GPO, which she would have been a tele— telephone operator in charge of the local telephone exchange because they were telephone exchanges in local houses with three positons and everybody knowing everybody else. And she also had a little nursing training, as did most of my family because of my father’s medical background, and she was called for ambulance duty when she was available, but she didn’t actually go away to war. Now the fourth, fourth sister was at the begin— at the beginning of the war she would have been twenty, or nineteen or twenty, and she was conscripted, and you had a choice. You could put down whether you wanted to go in which service but it didn’t count at all really and she went into munitions, and at twenty-one she went away and she went to Staffordshire in one of — a very large secret destination there, where they made shells and bombs, and it was huge apparently. She ended up — that’s where the girls that came home were called, called, canaries. Their skin went yellow. She was put on making detonators and she was there all during the war. She, as I say, she was a bomb girl really. So she was away and me, being the baby, my memories are only of my childhood and the village and what went on and they were my growing up years. So, um, the continuation there is the flying bombs and, um, they made such a horrible noise. They, they were like a very loud motorbike sound, and I never really, I didn’t ever ever look up to see any of these things because either my mum and I would be under the table because it would be during the day, because it would be a big Victorian table that would have saved something, I don’t know, or me under the stairs. As I say, these things came over regularly and they just, they just cut out and then you would count so many [background noise]. I don’t know what was bombed round there, not many I think. Fields were well bombed I think. I do remember at my school [clears throat] we had air raid shelters that we had to go to, so at the time I was at senior school at the time of the flying bombs, so I can remember having to go in these long brick buildings and I can remember the story of the fact — now this is something different. It’s about the Polish Air Force ch— fellas. They came over to England and they set up their own and there was a racecourse at Plumpton, a small racecourse near us in Sussex, at Plumpton, and that turned into an airdrome and apparently these Polish fighters used to go up and try and shoot these things or whatever, I can’t remember. But the saying was when we were in the shelter — whether it was true or not I don’t know — but I always remember the saying after a week [clears throat] or few days there was a doodlebug that was heading to land on our school and it was said one of these Polish airmen wing-tipped it. Now whether that’s true or not I don’t know but we were all told that story and, as I say, we didn’t get to meet the Polish airmen but they were there [emphasis] during the war and that’s the only recollection I have of hearing about that happening, but I really can’t prove that it was true. So, really and truly, um, I suppose by — I’d stayed on until I was sixteen, which was quite unusual because you left at fourteen. But my father had decided to go back into the Services though he was too old. He volunteered. He said as a medical man he could do something, especially after seeing the chaps being brought back from East Grinstead and my cousin, being a Bomber pilot and ki— killed, my dad decided he’d got to do something, so he went back in. He joined the RAF and he was, he used to say he was on the blood wagon or something. He was on the air, airdromes and picking up — so he, he went off into the war and by, by 1946, 1946 when the war ended, I’d had been, I had been trained as a dancer and I was going to go on the stage but it never really took off. But I fell in love with the Serv— the ladies in the Services so I joined, I joined the WRENs, but it was a bit of a cheek because that was after the war, you see, but uniforms had become important to me and, as I say, I had experienced, I suppose I experienced the innocentness of childhood to start with. The reality during my growing up years what war was all about, the sadness of losing family and by the time I’d got to the age of eighteen I wanted to take part in it but it was all over. But, you know, really I haven’t much else to say. If there is anything you —
DM: You say your dad went off to join the Air Force and was obviously posted away?
EW: He volunteered, yes.
DM: Do, do you know where he went?
EW: Yes, I do. He — I know that he was at Skegness. I — because he didn’t go abroad, you see — I know that he was at Eastbourne at some time. I would have records of where he was but he actually, um, went straight back into his medical profession, if you like, and worked on the airfields. But he was in his fifties, you see, he was his mid-fifties, according to pop.
DM: What did he do between the wars?
EW: Ah, right. Now, my father came out. He’d been a regular before the ’14-‘18 war. He joined up in 1912. He’d got, he come right through his injuries. We heard the stories. Well, he’d been gassed and when he came out the only thing he was proficient at was his nursing and there was a very large mental hospital in Haywards Heath, and he went there, but his health wasn’t too good. He had, um, a problem, a chest problem and he was advised to go work on the land. So, he then retrained, because he’d had a quite a good education. He knew what he was doing. So he trained in, um, landscape gardening and he went the whole hog and he used to design and do the big houses and the gardens but had to work outside, you see. But when he came to join the RAF in the war he was A1. But I think they were desperate [laugh]. I’m sorry because he’d always coughed in the morning and coughed, what have you, but he was trained and he had that knowledge of the medical side and I think that was needed and that’s what he went for, you see, and that’s how he became RAF and very proud of it and very proud of what he did. He was a very Royalist, er, very much for his country. That was, that’s my father, you know. He was, his time in the Services was very important to him and, um, that’s what he did.
DM: Do you remember anything about the Battle of Britain? Did that register?
EW: Oh, yes. It went on over our head, didn’t it? Definitely. This nephew of mine from London, came down from London, he used to come and stay regularly, you know, to give them a break. They came from Hounslow and he was just a little bit younger than me, three of four years younger than me, but I had to look after him, and I think, as I’ve said, we had a big common area in Lindfield, green, and it was the end of the road, and I used to take him play on the common, but very, very often there would be a dog fight going on over the top. Do you know, we never — I had to look after him. It was perfectly safe in those days for children to play out. [clears throat] We would lie down on the grass and we’d watch a dog fight in — and we’d hear the machine guns and everything. Never, ever thought bullets might come down and land on us, you know, but we got very excited about these dog fights, because that’s what they were called, and we’d see them darting in and out and chasing one another other. But yes, the Battle of Britain when on over our heads. But I would say that the only memory I, I have with John is watching the fighting and machine-gunning. I hate to say, you know, we did see one shot down and we did see a parachute come out and, I mean, I just, I think, you know, everybody in those days if he was German you were happy. But, I mean, that’s wicked really but it didn’t really register to us as children the seriousness of the situation. It was a child’s brain thinking, you know, another one.
DM: Do you know — was Lindfield sort of — did you know when D-Day was coming up? Was there a lot of activity can you remember?
EW: Indeed, indeed because it — more and more and more Army came there. Now, I understand there was one landing before but it was — it didn’t happen. Now, when I say it didn’t happen, it was unsuccessful. Now, we had, um, at that time before Detail [?] we were completely Canadian [emphasis] forces. It was the Third Division of infantry, the first ones that went over, and they occupied most of that area of Sussex, the villages. It was just chock a block with the Canadians and I can remember one night a whole lot went and my sister, of course, was in the village, older sister, and she knew one or two and they didn’t come back. So that one I don’t know much about that but there was one —
DM: That would have been the Dieppe raid.
EW: Exactly, exactly. Because, obviously my older, older sister got to know one or two and I think she had a friend from, probably came from Ottawa or somewhere like that, but he never came back. And then, then of course it built up again. Very interesting, the Canadians. They were very — well it was all Canadians. It was the Third Division. I know that. It was on the side of their vans. I mean that they were the ones that went over from our village and all the villages around and the whole of Sussex I think, you know. The amazing thing was a tiny village with a high street, and the village common, and a beautiful pond with swans on got turned into a barracks, and the unbelievable thing is they used to bring the Bren gun ca— carriers, which were little tanks, and Army lorries down the village high street and wash them in the pond. And if they weren’t doing that they were they were doing Army drill up and down the, the roads, you know. What a difference for a country village. What things I’ve seen in my life. What amazing memories I have. And I mean, obviously, most of the village girls are now living in Canada, moved to Canada. I think they all went back there [laugh]. I think, I think the village girls of that age disappeared to Canada. Strangely enough I, I actually went to Canada in recent years, when, well, I would say about ten, fifteen years ago and I went to a very remote place near Winnipeg on holiday with a friend and there was, um, an elderly chap there and we started talking about the war and he said, ‘I was in Sussex during the war.’ So, I said, ‘Oh, where were you?’ And he said, ‘Well, you would never hear of it. It was a tiny little village called Lindfield.’ And she said, ‘Yeah and I, I married him.’ What a coincidence. Now I said, ‘Well, that’s where I come from.’ So, a great big country like Canada I suddenly bump into somebody who was in the village at a time I was a child. Well, dear, oh dear.
DM: Did you know much about what your sister did at East Grinstead?
EW: Well, she was, was only — she had trained in the Red Cross originally and she became what was called a VAD? She, she was just a nurse, if you like, but no doubt very caring and quite serious in her work. She couldn’t — she had to — she was billeted near the hospital. She stayed in East Grinstead but she could come home on her days off and that’s the story of her bringing home, um, patients who had to spend a very long time and I can tell you, I must, that must have been, it must have been about twelve I think, when I came in from school, and it may have been twelve or thirteen, it was quite a shock because the chaps were able to wear their, their RAF uniform, you now, but they had a red tie. But, I walked in and my mother was always afternoon tea, you know, and my sister would be there and I, I saw this, I saw this chap and he had no hands, he had no eyes, he only had two holes for his nose, his ears had gone and he was being fed by my sister and yet they could work, walk perfectly, because the understanding was that they landed those aircraft with the flames at them. They wanted to land them. That’s what —the stories I’ve heard but it was quite a shock for a child in a way. It’s something I would never forget. And, of course, my father was there at the time. So, I mean, the chaps could walk and full of life and quite lively, these RAF chaps, and, um, my dad would go to the bus stop. They’d have to go back on the 30 bus, you know, from Lindfield [laugh] and he would take my sister up to the bus stop and my sister would take them back again. I think I met two but my sister got to know an awful lot of the guinea pigs because they were quite a lively lot, you know. Even though they were going through hell they were a lively lot and we admired their, their courage and fortitude but, do you know, that’s a memory I have of her bringing home this one or two, twice I think she did it. But, um, it’s amazing how they got around, you know, and how they coped with all this. And I suppose little stories about her nursing and how caring they were and how long they had to go through the treatment to rebuild their faces. It was mostly their faces and there again, you know, its memories. She got their books written and signed and photographs of when the, um, Queen Elizabeth (it would be the Queen Mother) came to the hospital. I’ve got lovely photographs of that. And, um, as I say, everybody seemed to care for everybody else at that time. Everybody seemed to work together. There was no fear for a child of people, you know. It was — we all looked, looked out for one another. It was a wonderful comradeship. Mum, public and everyone I suppose really. They were really warm memories but it, you know, it must have been really scary for people a bit older or families but we all coped. But I would say a pretty exciting time for a young child growing up, in a strange way. A terrific experience.
DM: Oh, yes. Do you know much about your cousin’s story, the one that was killed in Bomber Command?
EW: Oh yes, yes —
DM: What was his name?
EW: His name was Kenneth Sherlock. And he was a pilot off— he had just got his qualifications. He, it was my mother’s sister. It was a cousin, cousin Kenneth. They lived in Haywards Heath. He, um, he was the same age as my next sister up. So he — she was twenty and he would have been twenty at the beginning of the war so he was twenty-one and he went into the RAF. He, strangely enough, he — well he was quite lively at that age and there were lots of parties which I was too young to go to and — but I do remember one time when he was at Pocklington, 102 Squadron? Yep, and he came home with his bunch, about six or eight of them I think, and he brought them home to Haywards Heath. I think they went off to some party and I met the other pilot officer and it was quite amazing at the time because he was, he was Ceylon or Sri Lanka, and I’d never met anyone from there before because I think they was one Canadian I think, there was, there was the one from Sri Lanka, and I just thought they were amazing chaps. But I didn’t see much of him because obviously my sisters were closer to him and then, um, he’d just got his wings. Is that what it’s called when he was — and it was announced in the local paper and in the next press cutting he was missing and, of course, nobody knew really what had happened to the aircraft. It was — this is the saddest thing I would think for me is that my — he was the only son and my aunt could never accept, never ever thought that, you know — but she died quite young after that but she never ever thought he was killed. There’s lots of little stories about that which I really don’t want to go into but she couldn’t accept that he’d died. And, um, nobody really knew but strangely enough, that was — I forget — in recent years I’ve been in touch with 102 Squadron and the son of the pilot from Sri Lanka came to see me. He’s just died recently and his daughter keeps in touch but, of course, he’s got his own website, hasn’t he? You know, 102 Squadron. So I’m actually a member of that group through my cousin and, of course, they have given me papers with the details of what happened to the aircraft. I have — I know myself now what happened and he came down in the sea and I think they were all killed outright possibly. But that’s a different story, which 10, is it 102? 102 Squadron there at Pocklington. They’ve got lots of details on all those aircraft. So, that’s that one.
DM: What did your mother do during the war? Did she do anything or did she just keep, keep you all in order and look after everybody?
EW: Well, I think I’ve said that my mother and father were much older. I was a very much younger addition. So, my mother was a bit older than my dad actually too. So she was a Victorian. She was born in 1884? 1884. I think he was born in about 1885 or 6. I can’t — anyway she was a business lady, strangely, before her time. She ran her own business and she was a high class dress maker with apprentices and what have you and we were — I was brought up by my older sisters and aunts and the girls that worked in the workrooms I suppose, you know. She was, she was a, a lady ahead of her times because in those days women just got married and had children but she was a businesswoman. And it was a great help because of my father’s health, that he was able just to work when he could work, but she’d already got into this work before but she was, she was of a different era which was quite unusual for a woman to stand on her own and [emphasis] have children at the same time. Because she just had children and children and we all got on and were OK.
DM: How long were you in the WRENs for after the war?
EW: Four years. Great.
DM: And where were you based?
EW: Ah. Well, I was — first and foremost I joined up, as everybody does at, at Burghfield in, near Reading. That was training school. I then had, I’d already trained before to be a telephone operator so I went into communications. I was sent from Burghfield to HMS Scotia in — it was the, um, Navy Signal School near Warrington and I did — trained all over again there. After that I was sent to Chatham and I worked on, in Chatham Dockyard on the dockyard gate. That was the — Chatham then was the barracks, you know, it was the Naval barracks. From there I was sent to, um, the north of Scotland to — I was then like I was Fleet Air Arm. I went into Fleet Air Arm. It was an airfield, it was Naval Air Station, Royal Naval Air Station Fieldfare, on the banks of the Cromarty in Ross-shire, as far north perhaps as you can go. I think before that it had been a small air—airfield at place called Wick in the north of Scotland but that had closed own. We were, we were still in Invergordon, on the Cromarty, so — but yes, I was there for a year, but while I was there they decided to close the base down and move all the aircraft down to Lossiemouth and, um, we used to hitchhike down to Inverness on the carriers carrying the planes. I’m only very small. I’m only five foot. I used to be able to get up on this aileron [?] and he used to have to go somewhere where there was a bank so you could jump out. On the way we would perhaps get off at, at, near Inverness for the day, or something. You did a lot, we did a lot of hitchhiking then. It was fine. But Fieldfare closed down and I understand that after that Lossiemouth became RAF as well but it was, you know, both. It was interchange. So, from there I went to HMS Gannet in, um, outside Derry. Again it was, um, it was a Naval Air Station. It was right on the banks of Lough Foyle, pretty wet. They couldn’t have a heavy aircraft to land there because it would go through the runway because it was on a bog. But the actual runway was laid out as if it was a, an aircraft carrier and the pilots and people that came, the different groups — had to practice landing and taking off, and landing and taking off and I can’t tell you how many ended in Lough Foyle or [emphasis] just across from Lough Foyle on the other side was, um, was the Irish Republic and if, for instance, they missed and they ended there they had to have to get perm— permission from Dublin to bring them back again. I can remember that because I was on the communications. Oh, it was quite funny. Lots of stories there. Lots of stories. It was the — oh, I can’t think. There were these mountains on the other side, in the Irish Republic, the name will come to me, and the saying was when you can see the hills of Donegal it’s raining and when you can’t see them it’s going to rain. It was always wet there, always wet. I think there was an RAF place that had closed down called Killane [?]. I can remember the name of that. So yes, there are very many memories of there because it was — I loved Ireland and Irish people but the weather is something else, so wet, and I remember we had a girl in the Met Office and they, they had arranged to pick an aircraft up at Hatfield? Hatfield. A jet was going to be picked up and she asked permission if she could go over because she came from there to meet her, and she went over and she was coming back with the pilots, but the aircraft crashed at Shannon and they were all killed, and she was just nineteen years old. So there’s lots of little stories. Liz Paxton [?] I can remember. And then I finished up at demobulation [?], demobbed at, um, Portsmouth. Needless to say I met my husband in the Navy so I married a sailor. [slight laugh]
DM: So you enjoyed your time in the WRENs obviously?
EW: I pretty well enjoy myself anyway. I’m that sort of person. But I make the most out of life. There’s always two sides of life. It, it’s what you make of it and how you can cope with it and, um, I try to look on the bright side and find all the beauty and the happiness but I know the other’s there, you know. It’s how you get through life isn’t it?
DM: It is. It is.
EW: Probably how I’ve got to be as old as I am, ninety [laugh]. There you go.

Citation

David Meanwell, “Interview with Elizabeth Wickstead,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 1, 2021, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/11769.

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