Interview with Gladys Gildersleve


Interview with Gladys Gildersleve


Gladys Gildersleve was working for a laboratory when she decided to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She began her training at RAF Bridgenorth and at RAF Morecambe. Her first posting was to barrage balloons at Swansea Docks. She eventually re-mustered as an instrument checker and was based at a number of stations including RAF Shenington near Edgehill. She experienced a V-1 bomb when at home on leave. She also recounts an aircraft that strafed near her home.







00:28:42 audio recording


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PJ: My name is Pete Jones. I am interviewing Gladys Gildersleve who was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Other people attending are Sandra Jones and her son Paul Gildersleve. It is the 5th of September 2016 and we are in Gladys’ home in Middleton Cheney, Oxfordshire. Thank you Gladys for agreeing to be interviewed for the IBCC. Gladys, tell me about your early years.
GG: Ok. It starts off before the war. I worked in a firm called GC Laboratories and two or three girls got together and said, ‘How about we go and join up?’ One girl wanted me to go in to the Land Army and I said ‘no because I didn’t like the smells.’ I couldn’t stand the smell. So the other girl said, ‘Well I’m going in the WAAF,’ and I said, ‘That sounds like a good idea,’ so we do that and we go to the place to join up. Take your particulars down. ‘You’re fine. You’ll hear from us, go back to work.’ A letter comes. You can’t go because your firm won’t release you. So that was upsetting. A few weeks later the letter came, ‘They’ve changed their minds. You can go.’ So we went up to this place in Edgeware and signed all the forms. They told us when to go, what to do, went back home, packed up, said goodbye to everybody, to work, home, went back ‘Oh it’s the wrong day. Sorry. You have to go home and come back again tomorrow.’ So tomorrow came and we did go and we got taken up to Bridgnorth where we had to collect all our gear, everything I had, coat, they provided underwear, stockings and shoes, everything and then we were joined by the side of a big open land and the mess site was across the other side and this big sergeant said, ‘Once you’ve got your stuff go across to the mess, get something to eat.’ So that’s what we did. We went across and then he shouted at us to ‘Stop!’ That we were walking on hallowed ground apparently. It was the parade ground and we didn’t know it was hallowed and we stood there frozen and then he shouted off, ‘Don’t you dare walk on that again. If I catch you you’ll be on a charge.’ That means we have got to pay.’ And he said ‘You’ve gone so far, carry on.’ Well would you go around if somebody said go across? Anyway, we got something to eat and we did walk all the way back to our billet. The next morning we got sent to Morecambe and it was August ‘42 and the holidaymakers there were having a whale of a time. They lined up along the promenade every morning and I realised why. To watch us learning to march and do our drill and this first day we were marching along and a women touched my arm, she said, ‘The others have gone the other way.’ They’d turned around and gone back and we didn’t hear and we were just [laughs] and I said, ‘Oh we’d better turn around,’ so we turned. The sergeant never came up to us and shouted. And then the next day it was gas capes and you had to fold them right. If you did you pulled the cord and it just dropped down over you but if you didn’t fold it right it didn’t come down and there’s two young girls, silly little things they were, they didn’t fold it right, they had an arm here, it was around their legs, of course we were all having hysterics instead, and we were supposed to be marching at the same time. Then we had to put the gas mask on, the big ones with the big pipe, everyone was blowing raspberries out the side and we’re laughing. The holidaymakers had a whale of a time. They must have, you know, you wouldn’t have known there was a war on at all and we had no lectures, nothing. So we didn’t know what it was all about. We thought it was a laugh you know and we really enjoyed it. And then we had all our injections and everything else and then we got told where we were going to go and you couldn’t choose. Well you could tell her what you wanted to do but they took no notice and they said me and this other girl we were going to be on the balloons. So they sent us to Swansea docks and we, our billet was between Swansea docks and Cardiff docks and the railway run right by the side of our billet so if they decided to bomb there we’d be right in the middle and it was on this great big expanse of land, all black tarmac and black fence up there, not a light to be seen and we got there about mid-day and somebody who’d been allocated as a cook or something was cooking lunch and the sergeant said, ‘Eat your lunch,’ she said, ‘And then we’ll sort out who is going to go on guard.’ She said to us, ‘You two can go two till four. So I thought oh we’d better hurry up and eat our lunch. ‘Not this afternoon,’ she said, ‘It’s tonight.’ The middle of the night. ‘Ooh. I can’t go out in in the middle, never been out in the middle of the night before.’ She said, ‘Well you’ve got to go. You’ve got to do it.’ So we went out and it was pitch black. You couldn’t see a thing. We had a little torch and it just shone a light. We huddled up in a corner and then we saw a light coming across, it was just going across, moving all over the place so we run and hid. We didn’t know we had to challenge them. So we were hiding and it was coming nearer and nearer then this woman called out, ‘Where’s the guard?’ ‘Oh my God, it’s the duty officer.’ This great big tall Italian officer as she bellowed at us. [laugh] ‘Where were you?’ ‘Well we were hiding.’ She said, ‘That’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to challenge me.’ Well we didn’t know. We weren’t told. We were just told to go on guard. So, she let us off because it was our first time and then we had to look after the phone and every so often they would ring the phone and say, ‘Check the tension on the cable,’ so this night we went and I climbed up the winch, in the winch to check and I kept saying, ‘There’s nothing on it. It doesn’t say anything. It can’t be right’. So she come and had a look. No. It still said no pressure on it. So we said, ‘Well we’d better have a look at the balloon,’ and it wasn’t there. It had gone and I said, ‘Well somebody’s got to phone and tell them that the balloon’s gone,’ so she lost the toss so she had to tell them. And they said, ‘Never mind dear. We’ve lost a lot tonight. They’ll send a new one tomorrow.’ So the next day we had to pump this balloon up [laugh] and then they decided they’d finished with the balloons. Then I was allocated as an instrument repairer and went to Melksham. It was like being at school ‘cause you sat on long benches and there was all instruments there in pieces and you’d got to learn what the pieces were and where they went and you had exams at the end of each week and you could move up a class. One class two or class two then class one. I got a one at the end so that wasn’t too bad and then we got sent, I came up here to Edgehill from there. There sometime and then another place [unclear] Great Horwood, oh lots of villages all around here, everywhere around here and then we got moved on somewhere else and when the war finished they said we can all go home so we got on our bikes, rode up to Banbury, never got any money so you didn’t have a ticket so you all climbed on the train coming up to London and at one point they put the guard out on the platform, he managed to get back on, and just walked through saying, ‘Behind. Behind. The one behind had got the tickets,’ and you run then we got back and then you got the feeling they’d finished with you. They didn’t know what to do with you. Surplus to requirements. So we got shifted all over the country. We went up to Rutland, Chester and all places like that. As they started to demob you had to go by initial and it took a year for me to get demobbed and they sent you around and you just keep going, you might spend two weeks in one place, just get to know people and you move on and as one lot were moving out they were then moving the next lot in. Then you might end up when you got back and eventually you got out. You had to go to Birmingham then and then we were told we had to send all our gear back. Couldn’t keep anything of it. Your shoes, tights, the skirts, the tops, everything and yet the men got a suit given them for nothing. And that suit they could keep. All they wanted, we felt they wanted to get rid of us. And then we used to have fun when we were on the planes. We had to get in and check the, all their instruments, make sure they were working properly and check their oxygen. Make sure they were all full of oxygen and their bombsight, you had to check that to make sure it was accurate so they would hit the target. Nine times out of ten they didn’t of course and they always said it was our fault. Never pilot error. It was always our fault but it couldn’t be our fault because you wouldn’t dream of signing the book to say you’ve done it unless you’d done it right. But we used to have fun. The men thought it was fun. We were in there working away. Somebody would take the ladder away so you can’t get out. It’s too far to jump down so you wait till they let you out. Another time they started towing the plane. They towed the plane all the way on the other side while we’re still in it so we had to walk all the way back and our bikes weren’t there, they were on top of a Nissen hut so you had to get someone to get it down off the Nissen hut. There was four sections, A B C and D. We was in D over on that side. We had a Nissen hut for us, and the electricians and another group of people, I can’t quite remember who they were and right behind our billet was a five bar gate. You opened that gate in a country lane and it led right into the village of Shenington, [?] house, a big house on the corner and it was full of airmen and WAAF. She used to do jam sandwiches. She cooked breakfast. Where she got it all from we don’t know but we used to nip down there for a bite or one person would go and fetch the lot back and it was great. We had lots of fun, you know. I think that’s about as much as I can remember. Just going from place to place after that until it was time to come home. So whether or not that’ll satisfy you or not I don’t know. If it’s quite, not quite what you wanted to hear.
SJ: How did your parents react when —
GG: Not bothered. They weren’t bothered [laugh]
SJ: No.
GG: No. But when I read out, my twin sister oh she was a brrr, I told her what I was going to do and I said don’t tell anybody but when I got back everybody knew. ‘We know what you’ve done’ [laugh] and I felt as if I was guilty that I could’ve done it without telling anybody. No. They weren’t bothered.
SJ: No.
GG: But no, but it was good.
SJ: So did you have any superstitions or any lucky mascots?
GG: No. No. They weren’t, it was a training airfield. It wasn’t a combat area.
PJ: Operational.
GG: They were just training them but they sent them off on little bombing missions to, you know to learn what they’re doing.
PJ: Yeah.
GG: Because these cocky youngsters come in, think they’ve got smart uniform and got their wings on their shirt and they'd think they were so good and yet some of them were useless. So, but every time a plane came in we had to go out and check it all and if there was anything wrong with the — one of the instruments we used to have to take it out and take it down to our main office where there were people there that would either repair them or give us a new one to put in, so it was all backwards and forwards and there were so many things you forget what you did because it’s all in the back of your mind, it’s gone, and it’s just all the silly things you did. More the fun. It was hard at times and you were at a loose end. There wasn’t anything to do. Especially if you’re in these little towns and nothing going on and just used to get on with each other and make your own fun.
SJ: What did you do in the evenings then?
GG: Well that was just it. There was nothing to do so we’d either sit and chat in our billets or when we had the NAAFI you could go in there because it had reading rooms, games rooms, all sorts. Separate rooms that you could go and sit over there and there was always tea and coffee on the go, you’d help yourself. But they had, they had some shows come and if it was terrible they would all shout out, ‘More.’ You know, they want more but usually it was terrible. [laugh] But when the NAAFI place was built they used to have big bands come and have dances there and that was good. But Saturday nights well you see, we used to go down to Tysoe village and meet up with the soldiers from Cardington. They’d come across, meet in the Castle Pub, have a drink, then all go across to the village hall to a dance. That sort of thing. That was only once a week so the other times there wasn’t really a lot to do especially if you were in one of these out of the way places like down Swansea docks. We never went off the site. There was nowhere to go because you know it was all just bare ground. But we used to get lifts, when we were at Melksham we used to get a lift on anything that was going in to Southampton or somewhere like that. It could be a funeral car, a fire engine, a lorry. Whatever was going and they would stop and give you a lift, there were no buses or anything. And that’s about it. I don’t remember much more.
SJ: So how long were you in?
GG: Four years altogether.
SJ: Yeah.
GG: Eighteen when I went out and twenty two when I came out. I joined in the August ’42 and the war ended in August and I came out in August ’46. So everything was August. The thing is it took a year after the war before I could get demobbed and there was others behind me. My letter was H so you can imagine how many behind me there must have been. So, I don’t know if they did they same for the men or not. Whether they took them by alphabet but they did us but you got the feeling all the time they didn’t know what to do with you. They were trying to get rid of you. Each place you went they were trying to get rid of you as quick as they could, you know. Move you on. ‘Cause there was nothing for us to do. They were gradually taking down all the planes. They were coming out of use and there wasn’t really anything for us to do. It got a bit boring towards the end. You had to make your own fun you know or die of boredom, you know.
SJ: Yeah.
PJ: Yeah. The air balloons then. Were they filled with gas?
GG: The what?
PJ: You know the balloons then. Were they filled—
GG: Yeah.
PJ: With gas or —
GG: No it was a sort of air stuff. You had to pump stuff in to it.
PJ: Yeah.
GG: I don’t know quite what it was. Sometimes it came on a lorry already done which was a better way for us, but we still just had to still connect it to all the gadgets on the ground all the hooks and things. I had my thumb dislocated one time because the wind blows it and you can see the shape of my thumb now. That’s my war wound. Now I’ve got arthritis in that. Had to go to a medical place to have it seen to and they’d had no training these girls. They’d just gone into the Medical Corps and she strapped it up in a sort of elastic bandage so after two weeks it had to come off. Instead of cutting it as you should do she pulled it bit by bit, dislocated it again. So then she had to fetch the MO then. Panic. And he said, ‘These girls have had no training, disgusting. No training. Nothing.’ So he did it but did a different sort of bandage. He said, ‘When it’s time to come off I’ll see to it for you.’ So he did. You just cut down a strip. I kept saying, ‘You’re pulling it out. I can feel it going.’ So now as you see it’s bulging there and it’s twisted. I could claim damages I suppose [laughs] I’ve left it a bit late I think. [laughs]
PJ: Have you stayed in touch with any of your former colleagues or —
GG: No —
PJ: Over the years.
GG: We all went separate ways. I mean the girl I started off with on the balloons I didn’t see her again until I was moving on waiting to be demobbed and I — but by then she’d got her own group of friends there and you can’t just walk in then and that’s how it seemed to be. Depending on your initial you see. The girl I joined up with, I never ever saw her again. I don’t know where she went. [unclear] So really I was on my own right from the start. You get to know somebody and with them for quite some time and then they suddenly move you and you all go in different directions. Even though you’re doing the same job they send you to different places. One we— where was it, Sealand in Chester special [?] for the RAF and then the Poles came there. They, they even printed their own coupons and selling them. They got caught of course. But the way they ate, they used their fingers. They didn’t use knives and forks. So there was a lot of complaining and they moved them into their own section of the place then, oh put me right off them. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been saying that but [laughs] but when you get to my age you don’t care. If it’s there you’ve got to say it. And that’s about it I think. I can’t think of anything else unless you’ve got questions to ask.
SJ: What did you do when you came out of —
GG: I went back to my old job.
SJ: the WAAF.
GG: I went back to my old job. Because it was a reserved occupation they had to keep my job for me, but I changed my job before. I was making little sort of little anode, a piece of metal and you had to put it on a machine [unclear] flange each end that was part, I don’t know what it was part of but it was all —so I went into the office. Taught myself to type. That sort of thing. So I did better then. They had to give me a job so I got this job and I stayed there till I left to have the children and that was it. So that was very lucky really. Yeah. Yeah.
SJ: Anything that you want –
PG: Didn’t you keep in touch with a friend that used to send you Christmas cards or something every year?
GG: Oh I used to, oh Mabel. That’s right. She left — her boyfriend came home early when the war finished and they let her leave to go home to get married. I used to write her Christmas and birthdays. Then one year the card came back ‘unable to deliver’ and I never ever found out what that meant. I never heard from her again. I can’t understand — it sounds a funny thing to say. Could say gone away or something like that but unable to deliver. It sounds strange. That was up in Yorkshire. Then I thought oh perhaps they’d pulled these places down where she lived and she’s gone somewhere else but then her daughter knew me because she’d come to stay with me. I thought well if something happened she could have, she could have let me know. So often now it comes to me I wonder what did happen to her ‘cause I couldn’t understand the unable to deliver. And I checked the address, double-checked and it was the right address and everything, so what it meant I don’t know. So but that’s the only person that I did keep in touch with. I don’t know what happened to the others. Shame really because you get to know people and suddenly they’re gone but, there we are. Not to worry. Too late to worry isn’t it?
SJ: Did you have any experience of bombings?
GG: Pardon.
SJ: Did you have any experience of bombings —
GG: No.
SJ: Where you were stationed?
GG: No. Not in any of them. I think we might have been too far off their map where they wanted to bomb. Here it would be quite some way in. Away from London and the big things. I mean, we were an open target. Sometimes the Lancasters used to come in when they’d been on a raid suddenly they would come in so we would be loaded with Wellington bombers, Lancasters and everything. Yet you’d never see a plane. You used to stand and watch them go, the Lancasters go out on a trip. Count them going out then you’d count them coming back in you know and this horrible feeling of oh you know there’s quite a lot missing, but none of it got bombed around here. Amazing. Don’t well [?] understand it. None of the stations I went to really had anything. So really we didn’t know there was a war on. Some places they never had any, anything at all. So there we are.
PG: Didn’t you have an experience with a V1?
GG: Oh no that was when I came home on leave. Yeah. I came home on leave and I was standing on the corner of the road waiting for my bus. Got as far as Ealing Common waiting for my bus and this thing went over and suddenly it stopped. I didn’t know what it was and the people at the bus stop, they all run. Where they have gone? Somebody come out, ‘Quick. Quick in here.’ I said, ‘Why? What’s up?’ ‘You don’t know where that’s going to land.’ And all of a sudden boom! I thought oh my goodness me whatever is it? She said that’s a V1. A V1 bomber. I’d never heard anything like, had nothing at all down here, you know. It was a bit of a shock. While I was home I could hear a plane so I opened up the bedroom window hanging my head out and there was all Anderson shelters in the garden and this one plane came and he was shooting at every one as he went, you could hear the bullets going. My mother, ‘Shut the window.’ ‘Why? I’m watching the plane.’ And I thought then what miserable rotten devils to go, just to shoot, it would only be women and children in them and all they did going along and shooting at them which I thought was terrible. I mean where I lived we had more bombing than they had around here. Amazed at — and of course a lot of farmers, I think this house where we got all our food stuff they must have had their own farm where they picked their own food, made their own jam, that sort of thing. That’s how they would have been able to do it otherwise I don’t know how they would have got the coupons to get food, but all these airmen, I mean there were masses of us there and sometimes the place would be bulging at the seams with everybody that was in there, and I don’t expect that even one of them should be there. If there was an inspection there’d have been trouble.
SJ: Where was that again?
GG: That was up here. Edgehill. Or Shenington as they called it. They make out they don’t know what you mean when you say Edgehill because it’s Shenington [unclear] you know. I have to try and remember that it’s Shenington. But no just an old couple, a mother and daughter. They did very well. Everybody was very thankful that they were there, otherwise you couldn’t go off in to the mess just when you wanted to. You could only, when it was your lunchtime. That sort of thing. Some of the food was alright and some wasn’t alright [laughs] but there was always the NAAFI to buy somethings so you didn’t worry. We got by. Yes. Yeah.
SJ: Any other stories you can tell us?
GG: Not really, that I can think of [laughs].
PJ: How long were you working on the planes then? What period of time?
GG: Well, when did the balloons finish? I think they finished about ’43 I think. They weren’t long. Weren’t there all that long cause that’s the only place I went to, the balloons. No. So it would have been from then ’43 till ’46 when I came out? Two or three years. Three years in all.
SJ: When you said they lost some balloons –
GG: Yeah.
SJ: Did they just escape?
GG: Oh yes. It’s such a tension on it that the cable snaps and it just goes. A funny thing, I saw something on the telly the other day. A film about the V1 and it’s coming along, zooming along, and it cuts right through a balloon, and the balloon floats — Oh I said, ‘that must be my one.’ [laughs] Now my daughter’s just got a job working at a place and the name of the thing is printed on a balloon. You can see it flying in the town and she tells this manager at her first interview, ‘My mum lost a balloon during the war.’ He said, ‘I hope it doesn’t run in the family.’ [laugh] I said, ‘Fancy telling him.’ They all know about them. I’ve told them all these stories to the children, the grandchildren — and I have a laugh myself sometimes. I can see the funny side of it you know, and the youngsters today they wouldn’t believe that this old lady went doing these sort of things you know. Things that — never ask for a late pass. You’d just go out and when we came back from dances we used to ride our bikes halfway down, pick them put them on our shoulder, walk on the grass behind the guardroom and then get on again the other end and carry on cycling. That would be about midnight. We weren’t even supposed to be out. But [laugh] I think they must have known. They couldn’t possibly not know could they? That happened every week we used to do that, but as I say you remember all the fun bits and all the bad, boring bits are just gone. Just wiped from my mind. It was over seventy years ago. Seventy four years since I joined up. My God. How am I still here? [laugh] I don’t know many of us are left but people are living longer these days aren’t they? Yeah.
PG: Didn’t you have some friends, some girls who did parachute packing?
GG: Oh one girl, yes they all — one girl was a parachute packer and she volunteered to test her one out that she’d packed. Oh my God she was brave. She went up and she did do a jump with it. How lucky it opened up. [laugh] It could have been a disaster. I don’t think I could have done that. That was a responsibility wasn’t it? To do, to do that up. Well ours was just as bad. If our instruments were wrong, our altimeters and things like that they could have been up the creek but, it was like the bombsight because you have to lay down. It was like a thick Perspex there and a light on it and you got elongated cross. You’d got to make sure that lined up exactly otherwise they’d miss their target which they did anyway so I mean, so it didn’t matter but at least we knew it was right before they went so they couldn’t blame us. No. And then there’s — what was that they had on the wing? They called it a pitot-head. Comes out and it’s a long sort of tube thing. I can’t remember what that’s for but you had to make sure that it heated up alright so whether that was to help with frost on the wings or not I’m not sure.
PJ: No.
GG: I can’t remember now. No. I can’t think of anything else now. My brain’s wearing out or mine’s everyone’s tired it’s having a bit of a rest [laugh] is that good bad or indifferent? Is that what you wanted?
PJ: Well thank you Gladys for agreeing to be interviewed by the IBCC. Thank you very much.



Pete Jones, “Interview with Gladys Gildersleve,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 23, 2024,

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