Interview with Joan Wilson


Interview with Joan Wilson


Joan Wilson was born in Nettleham near Lincoln. She joined the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force and served as a wireless operator at RAF Morton Hall. The day following the Normandy landings, she had to send an urgent signal to all aircraft, to stop bombing because the Allies had progressed further than expected. After the war she was posted to Ceylon, where she witnessed the state of prisoners who had been held by the Japanese. After Ceylon she was posted to Hong Kong.




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00:37:26 audio recording

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MC: This interview is being conducted on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Mike Connock and the interviewee is Mrs Joan Wilson. The interview is taking place at Mrs Wilson’s home in Lincoln on Thursday 21st of January 2016. We can start. So I mean if you could tell me just a bit about when and where you were born?
JW: I was born at Nettleham about five miles from Lincoln in December 1920. The second child of my parents but my mother died when I was a baby. But I was fortunate. My father married again and my stepmother was very good as a stepmother. Unfortunately, they had a child of their own that I was very jealous of and that wasn’t too good. But my mother always, well my step mother always said I was the clever one and when I got a scholarship when I was ten to South Park they thought, you know, I was wonderful because it was a grammar school.
MC: You enjoyed your school days.
JW: I did. At South Park. I hated it until then. Because I was a very shy mousy little girl and St Andrews Church School was a big school. And the teachers didn’t mind giving you a slap if they felt like it. And then when I got to South Park it was so much gentler and quieter. And classes of only eighteen or twenty. I was a bit of a rebel because in my class of eighteen or twenty there were at least five girls called Joan. And we used to sit on the back row so that if the teacher said, ‘Joan,’ at least three of us would stand up. Until we were all separated. And that went on all the time I was at South Park. I left school when I was sixteen because my parents couldn’t afford to keep me at school any longer.
MC: What did your parents – what did your father do for work?
JW: He was a woodworker at Newsomes. A wood machinist at Newsomes. Which is probably why I love anything made of wood. Children’s toys and everything. I’ve a doll’s house in there that the children play with and all the furniture is wood. Crudely cut. But it is wood. Not plastic.
MC: So you left school at sixteen.
JW: I left school at sixteen. I went to train as a nanny. As a children’s nurse at a Church of England group down in Surrey. Unfortunately, after twelve months I caught diphtheria so I never finished the course. I caught it from then. But I became a private nanny to a little girl in Keighley. I stayed there until 1940. When I thought it was time I did something for the war effort. So I went to work in a children’s home and I stayed there until I thought somebody older could do this and I decided to try and join the RAF. Amy Johnson had been my heroine as a child. I’d always wanted to fly. And of course living in Lincoln I saw lots of planes. When I first went to work in Keighley I couldn’t understand why people on a Thursday afternoon would stand in the main street and look up at the sky. But that was when the mail plane went over. Once a week. And that’s the only plane they ever saw whereas I was used to them practicing at Waddington even in those days. Anyway, I decided to try and join the RAF. Unfortunately, at that time they weren’t recruiting for the RAF but I went along nevertheless. And because of my, they got it all wrong, but because of my nursing experience they decided yes, I could join the RAF as a nurse. I mean I’d never done any actual nursing. Only looked after children. But out of about forty of us who were interviewed that day three of us were chosen for the RAF. One because she had already got a driver’s licence or perhaps they didn’t have licences but she could drive and the other one because she had been in the navy and bought herself out and could do Morse. So the three of us ended up in the RAF. Well, one of the reasons I wanted to join the RAF was because I wanted to see something of England or Scotland. You didn’t look any further than that in those days.
MC: Because at that time it would be the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
JW: It was. WAAF. Yeah. WAAF. And anyway the three of us remained as, more or less, friends for quite a long while. We all ended up in Blackpool training as wireless operators despite us all wanting to be different. The last thing I ever wanted to be was a wireless operator. It had taken me two years as a Girl Guide to learn Morse. There I was having to do it all over again. I had six months at Blackpool and then a few weeks — I think it was Compton Bassett but I’m not really sure. It was somewhere down south anyway. And that’s when we got our posting. And I thought at last. Imagine what it was like when I found I was posted seven miles from Lincoln. To Morton Hall. I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t. Partly because if the journey was going to take more than eight hours you were given rations. And I was given rations. But the journey from London to Lincoln didn’t take eight hours. I spent most of it at home. And then eventually reported.
MC: Did you do any basic training? You know. Drill training.
JW: Oh yes. That was in Gloucester. Somewhere Gloucestershire. Yes. I did. Oh yes I learned how to march and how to salute and form fours and all the rest of it. Yes. That was before I was posted. Yes. I missed that bit out. I did my basic training and then I was posted to Cranwell. Just to fill my time in until my Morse.
MC: Until you learned Morse.
JW: Training started and I had about three months there just wasting time. Running errands and but at least I did see the college and things like that.
MC: So your wireless operator training was in Blackpool?
JW: That was the Morse training yes.
MC: Morse training.
JW: Yeah. And also [pause] I can’t remember the procedure and something else. There was three different courses going on. The Morse was done at the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. And that’s where we got paid as well. At Blackpool. At there.
MC: So how long were you there for?
JW: Six months. Three months before Christmas so that we got Christmas leave and then three months after and then after that, as I said it was a few weeks. I’m almost sure it was Compton Bassett. It was some place like that.
MC: The radio school was at Compton.
JW: Yes. Well it would be there then. For seven weeks I was there. And then I passed out from there at eighteen words a minute.
MC: There was another one at Yatesbury as well.
JW: No. I’m almost sure it was.
MC: It would be probably Compton Bassett. Yeah.
JW: And as I say, then to my horror I was posted to Morton Hall. I got to Morton Hall and of course I was the lowest of the low. ACW2. All these other blokes on my watch they’d all had oak leaves because they’d been in for the Dambuster raid and all this, that and the other and there was me straight from training school. So most of the time I ran messages, I made the tea, I did the cooking on night watch. I mean would you believe it when you were on the night watch and I can’t remember what hours they were we were issued with rations. Well, it was so ridiculous because I mean we had a meal before we went on and there was breakfast when we came off. And really all we wanted was a cup of tea in between. So my parent’s benefited by extra liver, and sausage and various things that we were given and didn’t eat. Rather than waste it. And I was the only one who lived locally. It did mean I didn’t take part in much that went on in the way of social activities because I went home. And as I say my time actually in 5 Group was very humdrum but I did have one real excitement. On D-day plus one we had to keep radio silence so most of us just fiddled around with spare Morse keys you know. Playing about. There was only one magazine in the section that we could copy Morse from and it was called, “Maria and the Red Barn.” It was a real penny dreadful. I don’t know what the story was about but the cover was a very lurid one. A half naked woman covered in blood. Anyway, we were all fiddling about. Really bored. Doing nothing. And the radio officer burst in to the room and said, ‘Stop bombing. Stop bombing. In plain language to all. On all your keys.’ And what had happened was that our lads had gone further and we were bombing them. And that really was the most exciting day I had at Bomber Command.
MC: So when, when did you go to Morton Hall?
JW: Well now let me see. The end of January would see my — the end of March would see my course. March. April. May I should think.
MC: This was what year?
JW: ’44.
MC: ’44. Yeah.
JW: By then.
MC: So you joined. When did you actually joined did you say? Because you said about 1940 you said you decided you’d want to join.
JW: Yeah. But it was after that that I actually got in.
MC: Yeah. Yeah. That’s fine. That’s fine.
JW: I can’t remember.
MC: No. No. It’s —
JW: I’ve got my pay book somewhere. But I don’t know where.
MC: So you were at Morton Hall during D-day.
JW: I was. Yes. Yes. But while I was there I put in for every posting possible because I wanted to travel. Eventually I did get the posting I wanted. To the Far East. And I went to Ceylon. Sri Lanka now. I had —
MC: What year was that? That was in ’44 was it?
JW: It was ‘44/45 [pause] yes. Because in ’46 I went to Hong Kong. So that was after the atom bomb had been dropped. And I think I’m one of the few people who agree with the atom bomb being dropped. But while I was in Ceylon we had some of the people who were ex-prisoners of war came in. And although they’d already been in hospital and supposed to have been well fed they were still skin and bone. And they wanted to touch you. They were, in a way, not quite normal. It must have taken them a long while to get back so if the atom bomb stopped one person from that I was pleased. It was a horrible thing. Really horrible. But something had to be done.
MC: So you were a wireless operator in Ceylon doing —
JW: I was a wireless operator. Still more or less doing what I’d done here. Taking wind messages. It was an odd set up because there was only one person on duty at a time. So I was utterly spoilt because I was in one room and all the weather people were in the other room and I was taking mostly wind reports from all over the world. I can’t remember the name of them now. I know Port Moresby was one of the places that we took wind reports from.
MC: So whereabouts in Ceylon were you?
JW: Colombo. And then the last two months I was in Kandy. So I saw the Temple of the Tooth.
MC: So you enjoyed your time in Ceylon.
JW: I loved it. I loved it. I loved Ceylon. And if I’d ever had the chance to go back I’d have liked to have done. My parents, my daughter of course was brought up on stories of Ceylon so as soon as they could she and her husband they went out to Ceylon for a holiday. But, anyway part of the reason that I loved Ceylon apart from the country and the people was the fact that I joined what we called the Rover Ranger Scout Crew. I’d been a Girl Guide and one of the first notices up in the section when we arrived there was an invitation to join this group. I was the only WAAF that went. There were quite a lot of nurses and WRENs in the group. And it was fine because we weren’t allowed out after sundown without a male escort. How the hell do you find a male escort when you’re just suddenly dumped there? But I was lucky because one of the crew would always come and collect me and sign me out and bring me back. Unfortunately, after a week in Ceylon I was involved in a motor accident. We [pause] we were invited to a unit that was the, it was a signals unit and it was more or less a case of you, you and you go. So I was one that had to go. They needed some females because it was an all male unit. And on the way back from there we were in one of these lorries that had the sort of canvas sides. You know the sort. A frame with a canvas on and at the last minute I needed to go to the loo. So I was sitting right on the end and I had to sit on someone’s knee because by then it was full. And a small car smashed in to us, quite near the WAAF’ery. And I was thrown. I sensed it was coming somehow and fell limply. And I got up. I was covered in blood but it wasn’t mine. I had a scratch. Well, a big hole in one leg. Two people died and I know one, I’ll never forget her, the girl, her head was smashed in and her brains were coming. It was a horrible sight. Something you never forget.
MC: No.
JW: Never. I don’t know what I did. I was in a daze. I know two or three days later one man came to me. An RAF bloke came to me and said thank you for trying to help so and so. I said, ‘Well I honestly don’t know what I did. I was in a daze myself.’ Just being involved in this accident. Seen two people dead. Not knowing. I was the only one who actually walked away from it. Everybody else was in hospital. But I had nightmares for days after. But I got over that. One very exciting thing that happened while I was in Ceylon. The crew were invited to this man’s bungalow. When I say bungalow it was a great big rambling place. Beautiful grounds. He had an orchid garden where there were orchids from that big to that big in rows. Like you get the tulips at Spalding. Actually it put me off orchids because these big ones were almost like rampaging beasts. I loved the little ones. But the meal, a meal was laid out for us in these ground on these long tables. Beautiful white tablecloths. Boys dressed in sort of raj’s uniforms served us. One — and there were little patties in dishes on the tables. One of the crew took a bite and it was so hot he had a drink out of the fingerbowl [laughs] But I can’t remember much about the meal but afterwards the owner of the place asked a few of us to go with him and we went into the bungalow and he showed us this sword and it was the sword he had been knighted with by George VI. And the hilt had a sample of all the jewels you could find in Ceylon. They were only semi-precious but it was absolutely beautiful. I’ve no idea who he was. No way of finding out because I’m the last of the crew to be alive I’m afraid. Everybody else has gone.
MC: So you refer to the crew. How was the crew made up? What was the crew?
JW: They were all Scouts. Ex-Scouts.
MC: Oh the Scout crew. Yeah.
JW: Yes. All ex-Scouts or ex-Guides. Yes. Because that was in the days when you could be a Scout until you died whereas nowadays you’re a Senior scout and somebody else and somebody else. Because of that my daughter was brought up very much in Guiding and now she’s in Scouting. My two youngest, my two, three eldest great grandchildren are all in Beavers. And so it goes on. I’m rambling aren’t I? Anyway, that’s more or less —
MC: So you — when did you leave Ceylon?
JW: I left Ceylon after the atom bomb had dropped. 1946.
MC: And then you went to Hong Kong.
JW: And I went to Hong Kong. I had six months in Hong Kong. It was like a building site.
MC: Really.
JW: There was nothing. I mean the people were camping on the pavements. They were skin and bone. They were camping on the roofs of buildings. And I did meet someone there. Eugenie Coupland who had been in the camp at the end of Hong Kong. What was it called? I can’t remember what it was called now but it was the civilian internment camp. I did go up to it which [pause] there was a lady whose husband had died in the camp and she very much wanted to go up and see his burial ground. And so the crew took her up. We’d managed to get hold of a jeep because it’s high up. The camp was. I wish I could remember what it was called now. It was right on the edge of the island. I mean it was a sheer drop in to the sea from the camp. And we took this lady up and we saw this horrible place. But Eugenie Coupland who had been interned there said they weren’t actually badly treated. It was just that food was so short. She had her little boy with her and she said the English girls who’d been in Hong Kong for Christmas. It was Christmas Day when Hong Kong was taken and she said they were fantastic. These were girls who had been at boarding school. Probably never done a thing for themselves in their lives. But she said they were wonderful. They started schools for the children. They gathered grass and any greenery they could find and cooked it down for extra food. And she said they did get the, occasionally, Red Cross parcel and they’d save the brown paper for the children to draw on and everything. She said they were absolutely wonderful these girls.
MC: So at that time that must have been quite an experience for you to be in Hong Kong. You know. To see what was the aftermath.
JW: It was. It was. And while I was there I joined another Rover Ranger crew there. Once more I was the only girl in that one because there weren’t very many women sent out there. The ATS came out actually and we, we had to, you know, be good to them. Serve them and all the rest of it but they only stayed two or three days and then they went off again. They couldn’t take the heat. We also had some American girls and the same thing with them. They couldn’t take the heat. Whereas I could stand the heat. It’s the cold I can’t stand. Then I go and marry someone who spent his time in Iceland don’t I?
MC: So when did you meet your husband then?
JW: Oh a long while after the war.
MC: Oh I see. So from Hong Kong you came home.
JW: I came back to England. Yes. And went to work at Ruston’s of all places.
MC: So what year was that? When did you come back?
JW: 1946.
MC: You came back in ’46.
JW: Yes. The end.
MC: And you came out the air force then.
JW: Yes. October I think it was. Yes. I got home just after my mother’s birthday. Yes. So that would be October 1946. And I was very thin then because of the heat. Well, about what I am now I think. I mean after that I started packing it on.
MC: So you —
JW: I went to my old job in Keighley for a little while. By which time the little girl I had taken earlier and taught her first lessons was away at boarding school but they had another little girl. So I had a year with her before she went off to boarding school and then I came back to Lincoln and went to work at Ruston’s. And that’s where I met my husband but not until 1956. My daughter was born a year later. And my husband was one of those who would not allow me to go out to work. So we struggled on his money but he was adamant.
MC: What did he do?
JW: He worked at Ruston’s. He was in the office there. But he was quite badly wounded during the war. All down his left side.
MC: And what was he in?
JW: He was in the Anglians. And he went over in D-day plus one. He was one of the ones that got bombed but by the Americans. Not the British. And it was the Americans actually that saved his life eventually. That and penicillin because it was just at the experimental stages. He [pause] he was shelled and the whole group were wiped out. The American burial party came to collect the bodies. And they collected Alf and he said, ‘I’m not dead yet.’ So they managed to get him to, onto a transport. And my husband said that was awful because they were these flat things that they used to carry bombs on. They just were laid on that and he said if you rolled off that was it because there’d would be others following. You’d be in convoy and they’d not stop to pick you up. Anyway, he got back to England and was more or less messing around until the end of the war then. We married and my daughter was born thirteen months later. We only had the one child.
MC: You said, let’s go back a little bit. You said you were in Morton Hall.
JW: Yes.
MC: Part of 5 Group was that?
JW: Yes. It was 5 Group headquarters.
MC: Oh right. Was it? Yes. Of course it would be. Yes.
JW: Yes. Yes. Yes.
MC: So and so when you went to Ceylon who were you with? What —
JW: South East Asia Command I suppose.
MC: Yeah. Yeah. I guess that would be the case. Yes.
JW: Yes.
MC: Yeah. And the same with Hong Kong.
JW: Yes. Mountbatten was my boss.
MC: There you go, you see. Yeah. That’s, that’s lovely.
JW: Yes he took the Victory Parade you know.
MC: So travelling to Ceylon and Hong Kong. How did you get there?
JW: To Ceylon we went by boat. And it was Christmas. We had Christmas on the Mediterranean. People had told me that the Mediterranean was always blue. It wasn’t. It was dark grey, murky and horrible. And it was supposed to have been cleared of submarines and we got one following us. A stray. Didn’t do anything. But it did mean that we had to keep silence. And the boat we sailed on was called the Johan van or von Oldenbarnevelt. John the old man in the field somebody translated it as. We had to learn the Dutch national anthem phonetically so that we could sing it for them because it was a Dutch boat. Very clean boat. And we had [pause] took us four weeks to get there. And we arrived and we were paraded in the boiling sun. No shade on this parade ground at the WAAF’ery. And we were told if we got sunburned it was a criminal offence. And I thought yeah and here we are. I mean luckily I’m dark but some of the fair girls were fainting. But —
MC: And you’d just arrived as well.
JW: Yes. Yeah. Mind you I mean we got used to a certain amount of heat on the boat. We had been issued with shorts. Men’s shorts. One of the first things we did when we got to Ceylon was to be told to go to a certain tailor’s and take somebody with you and be measured for trousers and shorts. Had to wear trousers because of mosquitoes of course.
MC: Yeah. So the, from Ceylon you went, how did you get to Hong Kong then? Did you go by boat?
JW: No. We went by flying boat.
MC: Oh. Flying boat.
JW: Yes. Yes.
MC: That was an experience.
JW: It was. There were twelve of us went. There should have been thirteen but for some reason or other one girl had to drop out so there were twelve of us went. And for some reason or other my friend and I were allocated the crew’s quarters where there were two bunks. The rest sat in the tail of the plane. I never went so I’m not sure exactly how they slept or if they slept. Because we went overnight and I know during the night I woke up and I saw this, the assistant pilot throwing things out of the window. That’s how low we flew in those days. You could open a window [laughs] And he was throwing things out of the window. And I remember thinking now are we going to crash and are they throwing things out. Anyway, I thought well if I’m going to die in my sleep. So I turned over and went to sleep again. And when I woke up the next morning apparently they were things to tell which way the wind was blowing ready for when we landed. And we landed —
MC: So how long was that flight then?
JW: Twelve hours. Well eleven if you count the fact that we altered the clocks.
MC: The clocks.
JW: But it was twelve hours actually in the air yeah. And that was by Flying Boat. So we came to rest on the lake and I was violently sea sick. One of the few who hadn’t been air sick but I made up for it. A jeep came to take us off. As I say I just managed to vomit in the sea. So that was my arrival in Ceylon.
MC: You don’t know what type of sort of Flying Boat it was. I suspect it probably would have been a Sunderland or something.
JW: It was a Sunderland. It was a Sunderland Flying Boat.
MC: Yes.
JW: Yes. Yeah. So they tell me. But that’s how I arrived in Hong Kong. We did have a stopover in Singapore on the way to Hong Kong. And they tell me it’s a beautiful city now but what I saw of it it was a really filthy hole. There was the [pause] oh dear what do you call the place where we went for a cup of tea. A man’s name. It’s very famous and I can’t remember it. And you know it as well. Everybody knows it. We did go there. And because I’ve told you about the crew well we were looking around the cathedral in Singapore and then this voice hailed me. It was one of the crew and they were going home but they were going over the Pacific. They were going that way. So they’d done around the world. But I was on my way to Hong Kong. I can’t get —
MC: I think it might have been Raffles.
JW: It was Raffles. Yes. I’d nearly got it hadn’t I. We did manage to get there.
MC: You had tea in Raffles.
JW: Yes. Yeah. But as I say as regards the city I thought there was some beetle juice all over the place. You know, they chew beetle juice and then spit it out and it’s like red blotches all over the place. And there was, and they spit it out then you see. And there was chewing gum. It was very very dirty but they tell me it’s beautiful now. Of course they’ve stopped spitting. That’s not allowed. I mean it went on in Ceylon as well. But then it rained often enough to wash it away.
MC: So the climate in Ceylon wasn’t, it was hot but quite often —
JW: I could take it. I loved it. Yes. Yes. And I liked, I liked the job I was doing there. As I say I was taking wind reports mostly. As I had done and I did eventually get someone to take my test so that I did become an LACW or else I should have ended my time as an ACW2.
MC: So you finished up as an LAC then.
JW: I did. Yes. Yes. Yes.
MC: Well that’s lovely. Thank you Joan. I mean it’s a super story.
JW: I hope I haven’t wasted your time.
MC: So you talked about Morton Hall. Were you doing the same thing? Wind. What reports were you doing?
JW: Mostly wind reports yes.
MC: The were wind reports.
JW: Which I was able to take to the ops rooms you see. Yes. They were [pause] I think there were six, six digits. Do you know I can’t really remember now but in Ceylon I was taking two hundred word reports you see because it was from all over. They would gather them up and send them over.
MC: Yeah. That’s a lovely story Joan. Thank you very much.



Mike Connock, “Interview with Joan Wilson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 24, 2024,

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