Interview with Sheila Wilmet


Interview with Sheila Wilmet


Sheila Wilmet grew up in Liverpool and was fifteen when war was declared. She describes the devastation of bombing in 1941, spending nights in an Anderson shelter, and navigating unexploded bombs during her commute. She volunteered after viewing a meteorologist advertisement, and upon receiving initial training in Gloucester and Morecombe, she completed an education in meteorology at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Firstly, Wilmet was stationed at RAF Coningsby where she met Guy Gibson. She also describes her duties which consisted of regularly observing, interpreting, and collating weather data using specialist equipment including a Stevenson screen, nephoscope, hydrogen balloons, theodolite and, anemometer. Secondly, Wilmet was posted to RAF Langar. She describes the Nissen hut living conditions, and the visit of BBC broadcaster, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. Wilmet was then posted to RAF Spilsby. She talks about American peanut butter, making difficult decisions during bad weather, and the bomb dump explosion. She also recollects the developments in equipment including radar, Windows, and FIDO. Next, Wilmet was posted to RAF Bottesford. She describes both her somber emotions and the celebratory events of VE Day. Finally, she was posted to RAF Cottesmore and demobilised in July 1946 when she retrained as a teacher. Wilmet talks about her lifelong support of Bomber Command and distaste at the way they were remembered.




Temporal Coverage




00:59:53 audio recording


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JM: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Julian Maslin. The interviewee is Mrs Sheila Wilmet. The interview is taking place at the home of Mrs Wilmet’s daughter Mrs Alison Belcher [buzz] on Saturday May the 4th 2019. Sheila, if I may, can I ask you to start us off by telling us a little bit about your family background?
SW: Well, I was born and brought up in Liverpool. On the outskirts. It was a really a little village which was later incorporated in to the city boundary. My mother and father had both been born in Ireland but at that time of course it was part of the British Isles and was governed from England. They had come over after the end of the First World War when my father as a returning soldier was not particularly welcome. He had served in the RAMC and found no difficulty in getting a job in a military hospital which was later taken over by the Ministry of Pensions. So I had a very conventional 1930s upbringing. Went to the primary school. Went to church on Sunday. Played out in the fields and woods which were around the house. Went to secondary school. Failed the eleven plus but they had a system in Liverpool where those who had just missed were accommodated in Central Schools. And when I was fifteen war was declared. It wasn’t a surprise I don’t think, to anybody but my father had been predicting it for years. And I took an exam for a private college and I went for the year there and passed my school certificate. That was 1940 and I remember somebody saying as we went in to the exam, ‘What does it matter what we get because the Germans will be here?’ But the Germans weren’t, fortunately and I got a job as a probationer teacher in a nursery school. This was the first nursery school as opposed to a nursery. It was an experiment and very interesting. And then in May of that year, 1941. It gets a bit hazy. We had a week of bombing and the devastation and the fires and I mean Liverpool was very, very badly bombed because of course they were after the docks and the river gave the game away. And then the bombing went on intermittently. We spent the night in an Andersons shelter at the bottom of the garden. And eventually we had the Christmas week where the bombing started as soon as it got dark and finished just as daylight was coming, and it was very hard to make one’s way home because there were unexploded bombs here and unexploded bombs there. But we just took it as part of life and carried on as best we could. When it came to the spring of 1942 it was my time to decide would I go to college, be coming up to eighteen and the war was going very badly and I think I thought they needed help [laughs] My father was very much against me just going down and joining up. He insisted that I would only join when there was something definite, and there was an ad in the Liverpool Post and Echo which said, “Red sky at night sailor’s delight. But this isn’t good enough for the Air Force.” So they were looking for women with some science in their background to train as meteorologists, and I thought that’s just the job for me. And down I went and signed up and about six weeks later I found myself on a train going to Gloucester for initial training etcetera.
JM: Thank you. Thank you. When you went and you asked to sign up did you actually specify that you wanted to be in the Meteorology department?
SW: Oh, I did. I did. I told them that’s why I had come. And of course we were all volunteers then so there was this feeling that if things went awry you could just say, ‘Well thank you but I’m going home.’
JM: Yes. Yes. Right. So, tell us a little more will you please about your service in Gloucester where you were training?
SW: In Gloucester we were billeted in an enormous hut. There were about thirty women and the beds were arranged. Some had their heads in the middle of the hut and some had their beds so it was alternate. Of course we’d never seen any of the others in our lives before and the only thing was we were all anxious. Anxious to do the right thing. Anxious about what might happen to us. Anxious about everything. And we got kitted out, and the worst thing I found was the great coat. Now this was March and it was very cold and because it rubbed the back of the neck. Otherwise, I managed quite well with everything else. And then we went out and we did square bashing on the square and after we’d done that for a week or so we were supposed to be in command, and we had to take it in turns to give the orders for right turn etcetera as we went. It was very difficult to choose the right moment and I remember the warrant officer shouting out, ‘Say something, if it’s only goodbye.’ So we had two weeks there. And then we went up to Morecambe and were billeted in boarding houses. And there we went to lectures about gas, and health and safety etcetera and who, whom to salute and when and how. And we also had all sorts of injections. I hadn’t been inoculated, no vaccinated against smallpox as a baby so I had to have that as well, which was fairly unpleasant. But I suppose we were there for perhaps three weeks and then we were divided up depending on what we were aiming to do, and I found myself in London billeted on Buckingham Palace Road in beautiful apartments and travelling to Lincoln’s Inn Fields each morning for lectures on the science of meteorology and, which was fairly difficult because my science was not really up to standard. Now. I wasn’t the only one. They were really looking for people with degrees, but of course they were very thin on the ground. We had a test every Friday, and if you couldn’t pass this you would be re-mustered. But however, we did pass and then with another girl we were sent up to a big house. Not a mansion but a big house in New York which is on the outskirts, a crossroads really on the outskirts of Coningsby Airfield.
JM: Yes.
SW: And we would travel up to the, in to the [pause] oh what do I want? Into the airfield on sort of lorry transport. Anyway, this wasn’t feasible if we were doing shifts, so we were put in then in barrack blocks on the airfield and introduced. There were just the two of us, introduced to the Met office and a very, very kind, very clever, very kind man who took us under his wing and helped us through the first few weeks until we got confidence enough. And because he was a civilian it was a little more informal than it would have been had he been in uniform. And one of our fairly regular visitors was Group Captain Gibson, and he would come in and ask the officer to explain the charts and what they meant, and what it would mean and how weather would travel etcetera etcetera. He was the only one that did that. The, the others would take whatever they were told at the briefing but he liked to know the ins and outs of it. The down side of this visit was that he would quite often say as he looked down at his big black Labrador, ‘Oh,’ he’d say, ‘N***** would like some cocoa.’ I thought, oh dear. So away I’d have to go to the, I wouldn’t call it a kitchen. There was a kettle [laughs] and I would do my best to make the cocoa. Make sure it wasn’t too hot, come out and present it to N***** while others were talking weather wise. And then he would say, ‘Thank you. Come on N*****. You’ve had your treat.’
JM: Could I just interrupt you for a moment?
SW: Yes.
JM: We are talking about Guy Gibson here, aren’t we?
SW: Oh, we are.
JM: Yes.
SW: Talking about Guy Gibson. Yes.
JM: I think I’m right in saying at that point he was the commanding officer of number 106 Squadron. Does that ring a bell with you?
SW: Yes. Yes.
JM: Were you aware that at that stage he was leading 106 to become one of the most successful squadrons in Bomber Command at that stage?
SW: No. We [pause] we felt he was special and Mr Finch, the mess officer would say, ‘He’s a little man but very big ideas.’ And that’s how I remember him.
JM: Yes. Yes.
SW: Yes.
JM: Yes, because of course history shows us that he had some, some people were rather negative about him, weren’t they? They said he wasn’t always a pleasant officer to work for.
SW: No.
JM: Did you find anything of that?
SW: No. No. No. And I think partly because Mr Finch was so, so pleasant and kind, and yes and he would, when he was explaining things to the wingco, he would do it in a very [pause] well, sort of sympathetic way, ‘I know why you’re asking the questions and this is the answer and this is why.’
JM: Yes. Yes.
SW: Yes.
JM: And these questions would be needed so that Gibson and the others could plan the night’s bombing raid for instance.
SW: Yes. They prob, yes the details of it [pause] a lot of the other officers would and later on would, would take what they were told but he was very keen to know why.
JM: Right.
SW: Why was the cloud going to be such and such or why was visibility or —
JM: Yes.
SW: Yes.
JM: I think that is a very interesting observation you make because in some sources Gibson is not always described as being very interested in science and bits and pieces. Others say that he was and you confirm that.
SW: Yes. Yes, yes. He was very keen to know everything that would have any impact.
JM: Yes.
SW: On his operation.
JM: Thank you. That’s what I hoped you would say.
SW: Yes.
JM: That fits in perfectly with the image of Guy Gibson as he was leading 106 Squadron.
SW: Yes.
JM: Before he was posted to the Dambusters, which is another story.
SW: Yes. Yes.
JM: That’s fascinating. Did, could you just tell us a little bit more about your actual duties? Were you a corporal at this stage?
SW: Yes. Well, there was what was called Stevenson Screens.
JM: I know it.
SW: Well away from buildings and it was our duty to go out every hour on the hour and read what instruments were in it, pressure mostly, and there was a sun recorder but, and then we would do observations by observing cloud type and amount, wind strength and direction err paper [laughs] [sound of newspaper sheets turning] Oh, precipitation. Yes. Temperature. We had a anemometer for wind, we had a nephoscope for clouds.
JM: Right.
SW: Speed I suppose. Yes. If we couldn’t estimate the height of the clouds just by eye we would have to send up a balloon. We had a little cubby hole beside the office and we would go and that’s where the cylinders of hydrogen were kept and we would fill a balloon red, white or blue according to the cloud not according to our fancy [laughs] And we would follow it with the theodolite for, again speed and, but mostly for cloud height. We would also estimate visibility. And then would come in and on a big like an architect’s big desk we would have a map of the British Isles on which were little circles for every Met station and they were numbered interestingly starting in Ireland and, and then on the teleprinter, a sheet would come through with the reports from all the other Met stations in quite a simple code and we would transfer the figures to symbols surrounding these little circles. We used a red and a blue pen fixed together. You just twiddled it to get which one you needed. Mostly blue but red was too much in the pressure. If it was falling you’d put it in in red and together with the other, if they were worse than the last report. And we would fill those in for all the hundred and forty eight or so stations on the map. Now, we did that every hour and every third hour, three, six, nine we did it on a bigger scale. And the Met officer then would interpret all those figures and draw his lines, and from that do his estimation of what conditions would be like 10 o’clock at night or whatever and then of course for the morning and would dew fall? Would fog form? And so on. And while he was doing that of course we’d be working away and keeping up our observations and sending through our little line of figures. It was quite intense while we were there. We were working away and another WAAF came and we just did eight hour shifts then really and kept going.
JM: I, I can imagine that you must have been curious having taken all these observations to find out more about meteorology yourself. Did you find yourself getting involved with the recognition of fronts and associated weather?
SW: Yes. Yes. Yes. Once you spend four hours, four years doing that you can’t get away from it. You can look out of the window now and I’ve brought my children up knowing this is a clearing shower and [laughs] ‘Don’t worry. Yes, it is heavy but it’s a clearing shower.’
JM: And I would also, for the record could you, I know what a Stevenson Screen is, could you describe a Stevenson Screen for people?
SW: A Stevenson Screen was a louvered rectangular box fitted on legs, about four feet high. It was louvered so that the wind could get in but not, but modified and yes the same with, as another said it was well away from buildings.
JM: Yes.
SW: Which you would notice if you were going out at two and three and four in the morning on a winter’s night. We just did it. It was part of, yes part of the job.
JM: Yes. Yes.
SW: So yes.
JM: Thank you. We’re still with you at Coningsby. Were you aware of the losses that the squadrons were taking? Were you involved in any way with that aspect of their work?
SW: No. We were for a while. The navigators used to come in after they’d been to the briefing and we would give them a card with the predictions for cloud, wind etcetera, visibility and ask them if they’d be kind enough on the way home to write in what was actually there. Now, we said it very apologetically because we knew that it was asking a bit much. If they were coming home they wouldn’t be safe until they crossed the coast and the last thing on their minds would be filling in a card. So we, we almost never got one back. And I think it was just something extra for them to think about. And that idea was dropped fairly quickly.
JM: Yes.
SW: So we didn’t actually see the aircrew at that stage, and of course being in the watchtower we were isolated from what was going on in the rest of the airfield.
JM: Yes. Yes.
SW: I mean we just had the hierarchy.
JM: Yes.
SW: Above us and [pause] yes.
JM: Yes. Yes. Thank you. So there came a point when you were posted to Langar.
SW: Yes.
JM: Could you tell us a little about that experience? Was it very similar to Coningsby or did it have its own distinguishing experiences for you?
SW: It was different. I suppose it was a newer airfield. We travelled in, in RAF wagons, and I remember seeing the sign for Langar at the side of the road. It was a lovely rural spot and the first glimpse I suppose I got of it was of a field of [pause] not buttercups [pause] not primulas. Oh.
AB: Cowslips.
SW: Hmmn?
AB: Cowslips.
SW: Cowslips. A field of cowslips. Absolutely golden in the sunshine. I thought oh this is going to be a lovely place. And then we were allocated a bed in the Nissen hut, which was very hot in the hot weather. Difficult if you’ve been on night duty and very cold in the cold weather. There were louvers on the rounded ends but the snow would come in and you’d wake up with it on the bed. That would give a warning what we were in for. We were quite a way from the airfield though. We all had bikes. Yes. I saw the Met office. It was in the watchtower but it was a different, a different set up. The airfield was much more linear [pause] And I suppose my main memory there was that there were three of us. We were covering the twenty four hours. Twenty four hours, and one of the girls got ill and for a while myself and my partner we did twenty four hours on and twenty four hours off. Somebody said, ‘What do you do in your spare time?’ [laughs] Very little. And we went there, I suppose it was May and, and then in the August I think it was there was this rumour that somebody from the BBC was coming. And well, coming but talk to us or what? Anyway, then it was he’s going on a flight and where’s he got? I think it might be a long one. Oh, poor man. Does he know what he’s letting himself in for because the losses? Anyway, if he was determined to do it, so he did come in to the office, spoke to the [pause] and didn’t speak to us. Well, there would only be one on at a time anyway. But we certainly worried about him.
JM: And this was Wynford Vaughan-Thomas?
SW: Yes, it was. Yes.
JM: Were you aware that he was a famous broadcaster even then?
SW: Yes. Yes. We’d heard him. But we did have radios. We had a radio in the office and we had a radio in the Nissen hut, and, and yes we kept well abroad of what was happening and we would also be very thankful for the music that came on. American Forces Network started at 5 o’clock. They were an hour in front of the Home Service or the Forces Network. So yes, we did know his name and his reputation and we were all very proud that it was too us he would come but we were very worried about him and of course his recording man.
JM: So he had somebody with him. A sound recordist, did he?
SW: Yes. He had a recording man. Yes.
JM: Yeah. Did you see the equipment they were going to record on to?
SW: No. No.
JM: Right.
SW: No. That would be like the aircraft.
JM: Yes. I see, yes.
SW: It would be away from us. In that sense we were kind of isolated.
JM: Yes.
SW: Yes.
JM: Yes. I wonder if you remember anything about him as a man in terms of his build or his voice? He had a very characteristic voice as I recall.
SW: A very distinctive voice.
JM: Very.
SW: Yes. Well, I would say he wasn’t past remarkable. I mean, he wasn’t exceptionally tall or anything like that. He was very pleasant and I think, yes, I can’t remember how he was outfitted but obviously for the trip he was well outfitted. Yes. And then we worried about him. We took it in turns to worry because of course if you’d been on all day or you were going on you would go and we would go to bed and you would definitely go to sleep. But the first question you know, any news? And if you were actually in the office you’d be listening. Listening. If they were due back at 4 o’clock and then it gets to ten past and where are they? And so it would go on and then, how many? It wasn’t an exact science because sometimes one of the planes, the flight would be aborted off the, off the runway. They wouldn’t have, they didn’t actually go so it was no good counting. Occasionally somebody would be fairly shot up and they would land, you know perhaps in Norfolk or something like that. So it was no good writing people off straightaway. You had to wait and find out. But yes we did know Wynford Vaughan-Thomas had got back. Yes.
JM: Do you remember whether he was showing signs of nerves before his, his trip? Do you think he knew what he was letting himself in for?
SW: Well, if he was he didn’t show it. I would say he was a professional man and people like that do what they have to do no matter what they feel inside.
JM: Yes. I think that’s a very good answer but as you pointed out there was, there were in fact two of them and we forget the nerves and the human characteristics of his, his technician don’t we?
SW: Yes. Yes. Yes.
JM: He must have been just as tense.
SW: I think it’s very true when something starts that’s what you’re concentrating on and he wanted to get there, and he wanted to get back and he wanted it to be right and I think that’s what took his attention.
JM: Yes. Yes. Did you ever get to hear the broadcast that they made?
SW: Yes. Yes. Oh, we did. Yes. Which I believe there is a production with visual and so forth?
JM: I imagine so. Yes.
SW: Yes.
JM: Yes. And whilst we’re talking about news that came through to you you’ve mentioned that you met Wing Commander Gibson. Were you aware of the Dambusters raid? You would have been at Langar then. Not at Coningsby.
SW: Yes. But they —
JM: Were you aware of it?
SW: They were only, yes but of course we knew the area.
JM: Yes.
SW: And, oh yes, I mean it was when I say common knowledge it was knowledge between people who were affected and of course we felt with our observations we were showing what, what the weather was. Our Met officer was having his input into the Lincolnshire, you know. We weren’t directly involved but we were involved on the periphery I suppose.
JM: Yes. Yes.
SW: It was all, and you know how it comes through the air sometimes.
JM: Yes. Yes. There must have been a sense of pride of being a part of that team though.
SW: Oh yes. Yes. Yes.
JM: Brilliant.
SW: Oh yes. And we would have known some of the other parties that went.
JM: Yes. Some of the boys that didn’t come back.
SW: Yes.
JM: Yes.
SW: Yes. We did.
JM: So you were, you were at Langar and then you were posted to Spilsby. Is that correct?
SW: Yes. Yes.
JM: Tell us a little bit about that will you, please.
SW: Yes. We’d rumbled off to Spilsby and it was a very deserted sort of establishment. The Americans had been there and they had left us without light bulbs. They seem to have, wherever they were going they seemed to think it would be short of everything. It was very, very basic when we got there. The only thing was they had left a couple of tubs of peanut butter and peanut butter sandwiches were the order of the day for a while. But I mean we got it up and running obviously and planes came in, and that was a very busy time. We had Windows by then.
JM: Windows.
SW: Windows were aluminium strips.
JM: Yes. Window. Yes.
SW: That were thrown out. Yes. To deflect the [pause] Yes. And of course things like radar were all getting much more sophisticated. It was, you can describe it like a step up instrument wise. And we tried out FIDO.
JM: Yes.
SW: The fog dispersal unit. Not always successfully because in, although it would be foggy it would be windy as well and it was distracting. I think it was the worst place for fog and poor visibility and the decision had to be made in conjunction with other obviously as to whether the planes could return. It wasn’t difficult to get them off but it was very difficult sometimes to get them to return. Nobody wanted them diverted. They didn’t want to be diverted. The minimum height for the cloud if I remember rightly was three hundred feet and it was very difficult in the dark to estimate it. And I don’t know about the others, but I know I’d send up a prayer, please don’t let me make a mistake. And they didn’t often have to be diverted but sometimes it was very dicey and cloud was the worst. If the cloud was nearly on the deck it was very difficult. I mean they didn’t have the instruments that they have today of course or anything like that and if a decision was made that they had to be diverted you felt as though you should run away somewhere and hide until they, in case you’d be blamed [laughs] But, yes there were. There were some, yes difficult decisions shall we say.
JM: Where the weather was marginal.
SW: Pardon?
JM: Where the visibility or the weather was in some way marginal.
SW: Yes. Yes.
JM: Yes. Yeah. Now, I understand that you are aware of the fact that there was quite a nasty accident at Spilsby.
SW: There was. Yes.
JM: Can you tell us a little about that please?
SW: I don’t really know much about it. All this talk of bombs in the bomb dump. Now, as we looked out from the watchtower, the perimeter tracks would go around and the dispersals were right, left and as far as you could see was where the bomb dump was. And I remember the talk about bombs in the bomb dump but to be perfectly honest I can’t remember in detail like as to how much damage was done or anything like that. Which seems strange but —
JM: But they were —
SW: But we just got on our bikes and cycled to work, and —
JM: But there was an explosion.
SW: Oh, there was an explosion.
JM: Yes.
SW: Yes.
JM: And people were killed or injured as a result of that.
SW: Well, yes. People out on the, yes the dispersal units. Yes.
JM: Yes.
SW: Where they would be loading. I mean, I remember them with these bombs on the trolleys going to and fro.
JM: Yes.
SW: Especially when they had an enormous one. And the thing to do for the ground crew was to write on it. You know, like people write on a cast on a broken leg or something like that. They would send messages on the side of this bomb. I never did. No. I didn’t think that was [laughs] but I do remember all the traffic with the, with the bombs. Yes.
JM: Yes.
SW: And there was always this talk about, ‘He’s reckless,’ You know, ‘The driver’s reckless. Hold on to your hat.’ The one thing there were any explosions in that. I remember a plane crashing with, on the, on take-off.
JM: With bombs on board.
SW: With bombs on board. Fortunately, no big ones on that. Yes, and I remember going to the funeral. Now, why? I can’t imagine. But we were supposed to so some representative had to go. Yes. I don’t know.
JM: And that was in Spilsby locally was it?
SW: That was at Coningsby.
JM: Oh. Coningsby.
SW: I don’t know whether they had, you know the fire bombs.
JM: The incendiaries.
SW: Incendiaries. Yes. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to do, it didn’t do any damage in the village. Yes.
JM: So, was, was Spilsby your last posting during the war?
SW: No. From Spilsby we were sent to Bottesford.
JM: Yes.
SW: In Nottingham.
JM: Yes.
SW: Shire. And another busy station. The most remarkable thing there was the fact that we were there for the 8th of May, for the wonderful, wonderful news that the war was over. And, and we had, I think like we knew that the day before, on May the 8th was to be the day. VE Day. And anybody who wasn’t actually needed at work went on the church parade. We had it out in a hangar and we were celebrating yes, but we also knew there were so many that weren’t there to celebrate. It was a very sobering service. And then the NCOs, because I was a corporal there was no establishment for a sergeant and of course I never rose up the ranks we were invited to the sergeant’s mess for a celebratory drink. So away we went and tried to give the impression we were quite sophisticated which of course we weren’t and the gin that we were offered nearly knocked us off our feet. But, however, we thanked them and yes, all very nice and then we cycled off to the WAAF site, and made our way to Nottingham and I remember dancing in the street in the main area in front of the official buildings there and thinking how wonderful it was. And wonderful it was. Yes.
JM: Wonderful. I know that some personnel were given the opportunity to fly over Germany.
SW: They were. Yes.
JM: In things called Cooks Tours. Was that something that ever came your way?
SW: I didn’t fly over Germany but I did fly and I can remember going out to the, to the aircraft and saying something about a parachute. He said, ‘Oh, you won’t have a parachute. We’re not going that high. We’re not going high enough.’ I think we had to sign and say if things went amiss nobody would claim. But the inside of the Lancasters [pause] how they survived, those aircrew I’ll never know. It was cold. It was draughty. It was cramped. It was horrible. I never went as far as the poor old tail gunner, but even to get in to the cockpit you had to climb over obstructions and noise was incredible. The whole thing rattled and shook. And that was still while you were still on the ground. And taking off, I mean you wondered was this it? Was this the end of the world? Then it was interesting when we were in the air but it was still so, so uncomfortable and so, such hardship. I don’t know how long we were up. Less than an hour probably but to think of flying all the way to Berlin, to Italy. They went to North Africa. They needed, they needed awards for going never mind anything else. For surviving in that aircraft. Yes. It was, oh quite an experience. It really was. Yes.
JM: And when peace returned were you anxious to get demobbed and return to civilian life or were you tempted to stay with the RAF?
SW: No. There was no, there was no establishment. There was no we would have to re-muster into something else.
JM: Right.
SW: Yes. I think they had far too many personnel, women personnel. They were really looking to get rid of you in turn. Now, from, from Bottesford we went to Cottesmore.
JM: Yes.
SW: And there things were gradually sort of running down. But that was when we were flying to Holland and they were bringing people back from faraway places and things like that. And we went on a course about flying over the hump between Burma and India because of course the war in the east was still going on and, but then of course we weren’t needed but it was interesting. Yes. So, it was July 1946 when my turn came around to be demobbed and we went to a centre in Birmingham and handed in, you kept your best uniform. You could keep your underwear, which was not what most ladies were wearing and we had, well to start with we had these equestrian type knickers. The dark ones were called blackouts and the grey blue ones were called twilights. I have to say they were very good at keeping you warm if you were out on the airfield in the middle of the night but glamorous they weren’t. They did modernise them later. And the men got a suit, but the ladies got some money. And before we left we had these interviews as to what we were going to do, and, and they were quite clever because of course they were looking for certain groups of people. I knew which occupations were in need and so they were quite good at like saying, ‘Oh, you’ve done very well at these tests so you could, have you thought of being —’ this that or whatever was needed. And one of the things was teachers. Now, of course, I’d been a probationer teacher, a grade which never existed after the war so obviously teachers were needed so that’s where they encouraged you. They felt that your qualifications were such that you would be admirable for this. And jobs for, for women were very scarce on the ground in those days. You were a teacher, a nurse, a secretary, or in a shop or [pause] yes. Anyway, I went for the teaching and they had this scheme, emergency teacher training and instead of the two years because that’s what it was at that time it was thirteen months. But we got very short holidays. A week here and two weeks there and eventually passed out. And then we had to do two years’ probation at, well whatever they called the first. Yes. Instead of the year. So yes. So that’s what I became.
JM: Very good. Did, did, may I ask you did you make any friendships amongst your WAAF colleagues which endured after the, after your service?
SW: Yes. But not many because of course we were constantly split up. We didn’t, we started off, like two came up from London but it wasn’t very long before Barbara was posted somewhere else and you couldn’t keep track. There were no phones and things like that. But I did keep in touch with one girl. I went to her wedding, and but she lived in London which was a long way from Liverpool so we only saw each other occasionally. We wrote, and I went to stay with her for the Coronation and that sort of thing but of course over time.
JM: Yes.
SW: She had four children and, yes.
JM: Yes.
SW: Yes.
JM: I think the last thing I would like to ask you is when you reflect back on your, on your RAF service would you say that it changed you as a woman? Did it give you anything that would otherwise not have been open to you?
SW: Well, it gave me a lot more self-confidence, because I would not [pause] I would say I was very good. I was good at school. Not clever but good. I did what was expected of me. I was probably horribly boring, and yes it gave me self-confidence. I had to make decisions. It gave me an interest in other parts of the country, and with a broader outlook I would say. Not that I was confined at home because mum and dad were very good, but it was just different. And I suppose it did affect my teaching. Definitely. Yes.
JM: And you’ve been a lifelong supporter of Bomber Command.
SW: Oh, I have. Yes. Yes. Contributed money. Not much but some. But I’ve always stood up for them and been disgusted at it all being swept under the carpet and made to look nice. It wasn’t. It was the war. I mean I’d been in Liverpool. I knew what bombing was. Yes. But what else were we going to do? The war was, I mean I’m sure outside people I mean outside the country thought that we were finished. There was no way we were going to come back from this. Fortunately, we felt otherwise.
JM: Thank you so much. That’s an excellent note on which to finish. Thank you for a remarkable interview. Thank you very much indeed.



Julian Maslin, “Interview with Sheila Wilmet,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 7, 2023,

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