Interview with Frances Anne Cooper


Interview with Frances Anne Cooper


Frances Cooper spent her early life in Uganda before settling with her parents in England for her schooling, then joining the WAAF. She speaks about the small village she lived in during the war, the arrival of Americans and prisoners of war, as well as the effect this had on the local population. Frances recalls the end of the war, then her time in the service before marrying a pilot and leaving to raise her children.




Temporal Coverage




00:54:45 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank, and today is the 10th of August 2017, and we’re in Sandhurst talking with Frances Cooper about her experiences in the war, and after the war, and in life in general. But what is your first recollection of life?
FC: Well, I was brought up, I was born and brought up in Uganda and my parents lived on safari, and I think [emphasis] the first serious memory I have is of the – we called them the natives - killing a goat. And I think they must have cut its throat and then it sort of danced around with its head hanging off, and the natives thought it was hysterical and they were all dancing about too and I went back to my mother splattered with blood and she was quite shocked and upset about it, she thought perhaps she shouldn’t have let me go, I think that’s the first thing I can remember. Little smatterings of life in Uganda: the smell of zinnias, I think, flowers, coming home on the boat when I was about two and a half, having a real tantrum being put on a lavatory and the water came up and wet my behind, because previously I had always been on a potty, and having a real go at my poor mother. Also as a great treat from my father being taken down to the engine room of the ship to see all these very noisy bits of machinery, you know; he thought it was interesting. My parents decided, because in those days it was thought better for European children not to stay in the tropics too long, to stay at home when I got to be about six. My father had one more two and a half year tour to go, on his contract, and so they bought what, in those days, was a cheap house in Suffolk for me and my mother to live in while he went back to Uganda to do his last tour. As it happened, war broke out and he was stuck in Africa and poor mother was stuck at home with a small child in Suffolk, and it was a very [emphasis] remote part of Suffolk, still is, and in those days it really was, but because she’d lived on safari, you know, she could cope with it. I went to a local sort of dame school, kindergarten I supposed it was called, and then somebody who was the wife of a parson in a local village near Sudbury had a little prep school, I went to that, and after my father came home in 1941, because a, I was an only child in a very isolated village, the only education was elementary school which my mother, who was a bit of a snob, didn’t really approve of, I went away to boarding school in a village called Long Melford, which was not very far away. It had been based in Felixstowe, but it was evacuated because it was dangerous on the coast, to an old rectory [cough] in Long Melford, and then when the war was nearly over everybody moved back to Felixstowe. It was quite a small, not very good school and didn’t teach children over about fifteen or sixteen, so then I left that school, went to girls’ grammar school, High School, in Sudbury, for two years, or may have been three and then I did a year’s commercial course in Ipswich, after which I joined the Air Force. All right?
CB: I’ll stop there for a mo. Thank you. That’s really intriguing, so what was your father doing in Uganda?
FC: He’d come out of the RFC. He wanted to stay on and be a pilot. His mother had recently been widowed with four younger children. She wanted him not to be in a nasty dangerous occupation. He would have very much liked to have been a river pilot, a Thames pilot which his father had been, but his father unfortunately went to the dogs. He got syphilis and um, because he was never at home, and so my grandmother didn’t want that [emphasis] for her precious son, so he had to find a job and the Ordnance Survey I think were offering to train people, they went, he went down to Southampton for a year, trained as an ordnance surveyor and then he was employed by the Colonial Office, in Uganda. [Throat clear] And my mother met him when he was on home leave, probably after about three or four tours that he did. They did two and a half years out there, six months’ home leave and so on and so on, and he was engaged for twenty years.
CB: Engaged in the job for twenty years.
FC: Yes. By the Colonial Office, and then he was finished. Because again, it was considered the white man’s grave, you know. And that’s why they ended up in Suffolk.
CB: Sure. So what sort of education did your parents prepare you with in Uganda?
FC: Well, I don’t remember being educated. I just do remember doing letters in a notebook and I just think my mother talked to me, um, just chatted. I can’t remember being educated, you know.
CB: So when you got back here you had to start school, so how did that work aged six?
FC: Yes, started at school. But it was a very small school and I suppose we did lettering and learning to write. Don’t remember much else. My mother was a great reader so I suppose I just accepted that I would learn to read and I suppose we did sums but I can’t remember. Haha.
CB: What about sport at school? Games?
FC: No. Well there was none in the dame school, I don’t remember much at the prep school, of course this was in a war, a lot of the teachers had disappeared. We did have games at boarding school, netball mainly, what laughingly called athletics in the summer – high jump, running races things like that - nothing at all, nothing like nowadays, you know. You were sent outside in very few clothes and told to run up and down, you know. It was horrible! [Laugh]
CB: So when the war started you were about eight, coming up to eight.
FC: Yes. Eight or nine. I do remember the famous broadcast, I’m pretty sure I do [emphasis] remember, and my mother being terribly upset because she was stuck in, you know, in one place and my father was in Africa. But she’d been very worried before, because she could remember the First World War, and there’d been preparations in the village, things like you had to black out your house, the Home Guard was beginning, and we had a telephone, one of the few in the village, and the sergeant of the Home Guard lived just near us and, so he of course didn’t have a telephone so mother was delegated, if the Germans came, she had to go and get him up, or out, or whatever. And she did have to go a couple of times, in her nightie, across the road, you know, she’s not happy. Fortunately the Germans didn’t come, so you know, but she was sort of nearest point of contact.
CB: Quite sophisticated really! [Laughter]
FC: Later on in the war, an awful lot of men obviously were conscripted, but farm labourers were considered to be, it was called a reserved occupation and so they stayed at home to do the harvest and they had their rations topped up by meat pies, which were sort of like meals on wheels I suppose. You had to have a ticket, an entitlement to a meat pie, and my mother – who was a very fierce woman - was in charge of the meat pies. [Chuckle] So presumably a lorry delivered them to the local school, which was unused, and she was on duty to dish out these pies to people, and you know, [telephone] it was from ten to twelve, a very strict routine, ten till twelve, she was on pie duty. If they didn’t turn up in that time the pie went back to the factory, you know. She was very fierce! So I think they were all a bit frightened of her. But anyhow, she was in charge of the pies, that was her war work.
CB: And the telephone. And the telephone!
FC: Yeah.
CB: So what do you remember specifically about the first days of the war, apart from that?
FC: Well I do remember, because in this village there was a sharp right angled turn, great convoys of troops used to come through, I don’t quite know where they were going, I think we thought they were going to the coast, but I really don’t know, and a soldier was posted on this corner to direct the traffic round the corner ‘cause otherwise they would have shot off down a little back road. So he was there on duty and I used to go and talk to him and it was a huge coincidence was his name was Frances too, so for a child, I thought that was miraculous and I don’t know, we just used to chat. And eventually the convoys stopped and he went away, but that was in the early days of the war. Otherwise all I can remember is my mother being very anxious, worried about food, although in the country you didn’t starve by any stretch of the imagination. We had a big garden and you got eggs, and we had milk from the farm and then I think milk must have been rationed ‘cause we ended up having goat‘s milk and goat’s butter from a farmer who kept goats a bit down the road, sort of top up our nourishment, and I’ve never been able to eat goat’s cheese ever since, haha, but at the time it was nice. Don’t you like goat’s cheese? No. [Laugh] Then in 1941, after a lot of hoo-ha, my father came home from Africa having had to go round the Cape instead of through the Mediterranean, on the boat back from Mombasa. Mother knew he was leaving Africa, and she knew he wouldn’t be able to come the short way so she didn’t expect him to come as quickly, I think he took six weeks, she didn’t expect to hear from him for some time. Then she got a cable from Freetown to say he was still on his way, much later than she expected and she didn’t know where Freetown was, she said ‘it must be Ireland, it must be Ireland’ – wishful thinking I suppose - and looking at in my school atlas and finding it was West Africa which was a terrible disappointment, and then, we didn’t know, but the convoy, not his boat, but one of the boats, was torpedoed coming up across the bottom of the north Atlantic, I think two ships were damaged so then they had to go to Halifax in Canada, when she heard from him again, for the ships to be repaired and then they had to come across the north Atlantic, you know, in the middle of the war. So it was, it must have been an awful time for my poor mother and he ended up in Greenock or somewhere up there, then he came home on the train and I can remember going to Lavenham station to meet him and he just said hello, there were, nothing, I suppose we were both shy of each other and really after that my family life rather deteriorated because I’d had my mother to myself for three years and suddenly this strange man turned up, you know, and before very long I went off to boarding school and really that was the end of my childhood I think. I’m making it sound very, very soppy, and it wasn’t, and they did the best they possibly could, but from a child’s point of view, looking back, it was unfortunate to say the least. They were very hard up because my father’s pension had been set in 1921 and by 1940 something money had you know, gone down the drain, so they were on edge about money I think. He tried to get a job but he was too old, tried to be an admin officer at Wattisham: too old or too awkward. He worked for some man in the Works and Bricks of the Army in Sudbury and he didn’t get on with him and he ended up in the Observer Corps. I don’t know if they got paid or not, the Observer Corps, but not much if they did. He did that for the war. We had a very big garden, so it was a bit like “The Good Life”. Grew things, kept bees, ducks and geese, mother bottled fruit, made jam. It sounds idyllic but it was bloomin’ hard work for them both there, because they were worried about money all the time. Anyhow, that’s really why I ended up joining a service, because there was nothing in Brent Eleigh. I had done quite well at school, in Geography, and I rather fancied doing meteorology which they did in the WRNS. I applied to join the WRNS but didn’t get in. It was quite a, it was a snobby thing; the WRNS was better women’s service. My father thought that joining the RFC had done him the world of good and I think he thought it would set me up, you know, so really I went from boarding school to the Air Force. It was a continuation of what I was doing, you know; it wasn’t any particular vocation. When I joined the Air Force, well you had to go and have tests and interviews, and at the time Russian, learning Russian, was the thing and I had been quite good at languages, so I said, well, you know, I suppose they asked what do you want to do and I said ‘well, anything but sums, I’ll do Russian or whatever’, and guess what, I was put on an accounts course. [Laughter] Which is, I think they might have been trying to tell me something but I didn’t realise, you know, and so that’s what I, did the OCTU and then went on an accounts course.
CB: So when you applied for the RAF did you know that you were going in as an officer?
FC: I think so, I don’t think my mother would have tolerated anything else. I think I was, it was just expected that I would go in on a Short Service Direct Commission it was called. I think that’s why, I had to go to the Air Ministry or somewhere in London; in the Strand or The Aldwych, for interviews, and doing what now they call telemetric tests or something I remember, you know, what shapes fit boxes and that sort of thing.
CB: And how long was the engagement?
FC: Three years.
CB: Okay. So you didn’t feel too happy with being put on to accounts, or did you just become resigned?
FC: No, I was horrified! But I don’t think I knew that when I went on the original Officer Training Course, you know. You were accepted, you went to OCTU and then you waited to be told what you were going to do after that, by which time you were in the Air Force, you know.
CB: No choice.
FC: I don’t remember there being, no, any choice, no. [Laugh]
CB: They were probably short of accountants at the time.
FC: Well they must have been desperate, yes, I was terrible, terrible [chuckle].
CB: Just pause there for a mo. So near where you were living with your mother and then father, what was being constructed nearby?
Fc: Well, there was a village called Waldingfield on the way to Sudbury which is where we used to do our shopping every week. We used, there was no petrol so we used to have to cycle to Sudbury through Waldingfield and the main road ran parallel with what I suppose was the peri track of a big, big American airfield and the whole place was, even our village which was four or five miles away, overrun with very glamourous American soldiers in jeeps, with their feet hanging, legs hanging out of the side, you know, whizzing about, annoying all the men, the British men, including my father. Who do they think they are, the Yanks? You know. Any woman, or female I suppose, over fourteen or so or was considered fair game by the Americans, or was thought to be, thought to be fair game. My mother, who I say was pretty fiery, was cycling home from Lavenham one day and she was stopped by an American in a jeep, I think who, well propositioned her somehow, and when she said certainly not, he gave her a tin of peaches and some other kind of gift, because they had everything and we hadn’t, you know, so she came home with a tin of peaches. And they were just so glamorous I can’t tell you. They had lovely uniforms, beautiful barathea instead of hairy old things that the Home Guard had, they were young, they had American accents like film stars. There were all kinds of terrible rumours about women going, or being no better than they should be, et cetera, you know. When I was at boarding school, one of the girl’s mothers, I think was having affairs with an American, I don’t know what had happened to her father, and she had records and shoes and nylons – that was the thing, nylons, you know. And as a child it was just so [emphasis] exciting because I wasn’t worried about people being killed or anything like that. We did have a Liberator crashed at the end of our village and all the kids went running up to look at it. It was just a big hole in the ground with bits of metal and a lot of mud, but I don’t remember being the slightest bit moved by it. When my father was looking for a job he, I think he thought he might drive an ambulance, thought that might be useful, but he went out with an ambulance and they, the people in it, said that they’d been to collect somebody who’d been a, an American in a crash, and was burnt and this man was shrieking all the time, so my father thought well he didn’t think he could stand that so he didn’t pursue that any more. They just took over the countryside, you know, and we used to cycle past all these aircraft and dispersals.
CB: They had an image that they were over paid, over sexed and over here.
FC: Well that’s what the locals thought, you know, that was just the perception. Because I was a child I didn’t really appreciate that. We did also have prisoners of war in camps, who got, if they were German they got taken out to the farms, under guard, to help with the harvest, things like that. If they were Italian they very often lived at the farm because the Italians were thought not to be interested in escaping. And I mean a lot of the Italians, particularly, were peasants, they loved working, you know, it was like being at home, they stayed, married the farmer’s daughter and you know, lived happily ever after. And we also had a Polish camp, I suppose it was a Polish Army camp at a village, can’t remember its name, called Groton I think, which was on the way to Sudbury. The big house in our village was volunteered, well, I mean they were commandeering big houses and these people jumped first and were taken over as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, who all wore blue uniforms, with red ties, do you remember? White shirts, in case they escaped from the hospital I suppose, you know. And they were all walking about the village smoking cigarettes, thoroughly miserable, annoyed my father. Um, and they sort of, well they were more interesting than cattle, and farm labourers as far as I was concerned. And then I went away to school and very few competent teachers, [microphone banging] because even the women were conscripted, so there were all kinds of sort of fairly useless has beens who were teaching. And that’s all I can really think of at the moment. Sorry!
CB: We’ll stop there if that’s all right.
FC: And the Germans were feared, and my mother, at the beginning of the war, told me, you know, if you see a nun with boots, it’s probably a German parachutist, they really believed [emphasis] it, especially if he offered you sweeties, you know. And they, it sounds ridiculous but we all believed it in those days. They took signs off the signposts in case they help the Germans go from one small village to the next, you know, because they were [emphasis] afraid of invasion, really, seriously. We all had gas masks, which again my mother insisted on me practically taking to bed with me, where other people’s mothers were much more free and easy. I can’t really think of any more, just at the moment.
CB: So we’re talking really, you were born in 1931, so you were ten when your father came back.
FC: I suppose, yes.
CB: 1941. So at the end of the war you were fifteen, sixteen, er, fourteen, fourteen, weren’t you.
FC: Yes.
CB: So your interest was changing as time went on. How did you feel about that?
FC: Yes. But, because I suppose I’d led quite a sheltered, isolated life, being away to girls’ boarding school, then came back home to go to this, the grammar school, on a coach, and then you just came back again and did your homework, and so on and so on. Then I went, lived in Ipswich, in digs, when I was on a commercial course. I didn’t really have a life, you know, it just a case of doing courses and getting through the time. I mean I never, didn’t have a social life, went to the pictures occasionally, but always with my parents, or my mother, and because we were poor and isolated, nothing happened, compared with nowadays. It just didn’t. I don’t remember feeling deprived, but it just, nothing happened.
CB: And the catering was quite good because although there was rationing, the garden was providing what you needed. Is that right?
FC: Yes. And as I say, the farmers were generous with eggs and things like that, and when it was just mother and me we didn’t eat an awful lot of meat or anything like that. We had been established in the area before the war broke out and in those days you had a butcher who came and a grocer who came, so we were part of the system. And again, as a child, I didn’t really worry about food, it was mother who worried about nourishment and such things. When my father came home he was a very big man and he worked very hard in the garden, and I think he probably felt hungry. But every, I mean things like eggs which were rationed were always distributed fairly, he didn’t have more than his share I don’t think. He just had to fill up on bread and potatoes, things like that.
CB: What age was he at this time?
FC: He was, er 1941, he would have been forty three; he was born in 1898. [Throat clear] A different era.
CB: Yes. So this airfield was constructed and the American Air Force, Army Air Force, moved in and they’re big aeroplanes, and noisy, so how did the local population get on with this disturbance?
FC: I don’t remember any particular feeling at all, I think really they were just sexually jealous of the American airmen. We never came across any socially, at all, because we didn’t have a social life, we didn’t belong to anything, or get invited, so I don’t know. I mean they were noisy but you just got used to them I suppose, like the aircraft from Heathrow going over, you just sort of take them. And you know as a child you just accept it all, don’t you. There’s no question of querying it, it just happens.
CB: And as a girl you weren’t old enough to be going out in the evenings in any case.
FC: No, no. And because it was such a long way away from anywhere there was no social, I think the farmers’ sons went to the occasional Young Farmer’s thing, Hunt Ball, I don’t remember Hunt Balls. They did have an occasional Young Farmers’ Dance but I never, never went to them. My mother was, as I say, snobbish, she thought she was a bit, a cut above rather. But I don’t remember feeling deprived. It’s only looking back I think golly, what a funny old life.
CB: You talked about your father and yourself having a slightly distant relationship.
FC: Yes.
CB: That was something that a lot of people, after the war, found with their parents. Did this improve or did you always have this slight distance?
FC: Yes. Well of course you see I then went away to school and he remained a stranger.
CB: Away from you. Yes. And when he returned, he, you returned home and went to grammar school. Did you have a different relationship with your father?
FC: I don’t think so. I think if anything, I was a bit frightened of him. He was a very big, physical, physical man. And I think it was really because he was hard up all the time. He was always anxious and edgy and if something broke or went wrong it was a really serious problem, and it, you know, it makes people crotchety because they’re worried all the time about how they’re going to cope. They had a dreadful struggle paying my school fees but they thought it was worth it, because people did in those days. My children can’t understand it, but that’s what people did.
CB: Yeah. So the war ended on the 8th of May 1945. What do you remember about that?
FC: Yes. I remember, it was probably half term at school, and it was extended a bit because of VE Day and I, again, can remember my father being cross because he said the school was swinging the lead a bit giving us a few more days off, you know, when they should have been educating us [laugh]. But we were back at Felixstowe by then.
CB: The school was. Yes.
FC: Yeah. Big anti-climax as far as I was concerned, I mean nothing happened in Suffolk for VE Day.
CB: Nothing happened in the village.
FC: No, as far as I remember, no.
CB: What about the Americans? What did they do?
FC: Well I don’t know what they did, I’ve no idea, ‘cause I was just home on holiday, from school, and I mean it was a good thing, but I don’t, there was no celebration and you, know.
CB: And when you got back to school, then what was the school’s approach to that?
FC: I don’t remember anything.
CB: Just carried on as usual.
FC: Just carried on as usual, as far as I remember. Nothing.
CB: And VJ day was in August so that was holiday time. What do you remember about that?
FC: I just remember, I think probably general relief, but although a lot of Suffolk men were in the Far East, I suppose a lot of them didn’t come back but I’m not aware of that, and I just think was just general exhaustion and relief and then when the General Election came and Labour got in, you know – horror! [Laughter] Because it was accepted that Churchill would carry on, and he didn’t.
CB: Yes. Well the Tories got out, got caught out the same way as they did with Corbyn this time.
FC: Yes, amazing, absolutely amazing. This time last year we were joking about Trump and Corbyn, and now haha!
CB: What did your father do when the war ended?
FC: Well he tried to get various jobs and then he ended up in the Observer Corps and then when that stopped he didn’t do anything.
CB: Because he had his Colonial Pension, which wasn’t big.
FC: Minute yes, I think it was four hundred and eighty pounds a year, which wasn’t very much in 1940 something. Because of the Depression, although you were supposed to get an increment every so often, some time in the late twenties or thirties they decided that you would miss out on one, one increment, which meant that his final income was less than it should have been so then halve that, pretty pathetic by the time he got it. Just hard luck, but not enjoyable. And he had no family money.
CB: Right. So it was hard altogether after the war as well.
FC: Yup. And mother had no money, so you know, it was, I think they had a hard time.
CB: We’ll pause there for a mo. So we’ve covered the wartime. So you, we touched a bit earlier on you joining OCTU, the Officer Training Unit, so where did you sign up and get your initial training?
FC: Well I can never remember taking the King’s Shilling. I can’t remember sort of a ceremony at all. I can remember going for interviews, being told I’d passed and being told to report to RAF Hawkinge, which is in Kent, on a particular day, which I did. Was like going back to school actually. And then, as far as I remember, we were put in probably rooms of four people, in huts, that was like school. Tailors came down from London to fit us up in our uniforms – our best blues. We were issued with battle dress, you know, everyday stuff. We did drill on the airfield, marching up and down, some poor flight sergeant [chortle] who was very polite, but you know, pick up your feet ma’am, and you know how women march, putting their arms wrong, he must have nearly gone mad, but you know, we did manage to learn. We had to learn all the um, when you give the order, you know, by the left, one two, halt, all that kind of thing, because he knew we were going to be telling people who had to do it on the right thing. We learned how to salute and march up and down and yeah, mostly it was the sort of giving of the orders, you know, how to do it at the right time, because you couldn’t just say stop, it all had to be according to protocol. We must have had lessons about Air Force life. How you mustn’t put the port on the table at dining-in-nights. I suppose how to behave socially, but I think most of us knew that.
CB: Which way round the table do you pass the port? Which way round?
FC: Left to right, but they don’t do it, don’t take any notice now!
CB: Don’t they?
FC: No! We used to go to, because John was with the AEFs, we used to go to dining in nights [banging sound] thumping the port all the way round, my hair standing on end, anyhow, it was pretty trivial isn’t it, things like that. I remember we were taken to Manston to look at a Mosquito. The local Member of Parliament took us round the Houses of Parliament. Just I suppose, general, after school education. And then we had a passing out day when our parents came and then we were all sent off on leave and then on courses.
CB: How long was your initial training anyway?
FC: I think it was twelve weeks, but it might have been a bit longer. I know I went in in July and I ended up on the accounts course in January, so it was.
CB: Where was the accounts course?
FC: Bircham Newton, in Norfolk. Coldest place on earth, really awful in January. We lived in one place, we ate in another mess and we were on the accounts course in another place. We spent all the time marching backwards and forwards, one place to the other, in January, in Norfolk and it was hell, hell. [Laugh]
CB: How long was the accounts course?
FC: Well I think it was three four months, something like that, I can’t remember.
CB: Then did you get a choice of posting? Or how did that work?
GC: No, I don’t remember. I was posted to Stafford, 16 MU, which was an enormous [emphasis] Maintenance Unit on the edge of the Potteries, so it was dirty, hanging our shirts out to dry and all covered with smuts. And if you’ve lived in Suffolk and Africa, that was a bit of a shock. It was a very big, soulless place, full of all these remustered aircrew, and I was hopeless at accounts; I didn’t enjoy it at all. I don’t know, do you remember having a form called a 1369?
CB: Absolutely.
FC: Well on mine, at the end of the first year at Stafford, at the bottom of it you have to say what you want, you know, how do you see your future or something, and I put ‘a small unit in the country’. Which amused the Adjutant, very much. But I was posted to Feltwell, so they did do what I asked. [Laugh] Still as accounts, but then I managed to get transferred to P3, which was airmen’s careers, which I really enjoyed. When I’d been at Stafford I had been seconded, I suppose you would say, to the P3 department there, which was run by an elderly schoolmaster so efficiently, and so when I went to Feltwell the place was, the P3 department was a bit of a shambles but I managed to rejig it how this man had done his, and it was well thought of actually, when we had a Group inspection, I think they were quite impressed, but by that time I was on my way out so I never hit the high spots.
CB: So, what rank did you reach in the end?
FC: Flying Officer, and that was just time.
CB: Yeah. Time served.
FC: Yes. You didn’t have to do exams or anything, it was just, you know.
CB: Not for that promotion.
FC: No, no it wasn’t really promotion, it was just.
CB: Same for Flight Lieutenant, yes. But did, you were on a three year engagement but were you obliged to be in the Reserve for a while afterwards?
FC: Yes, I think so.
CB: How long was that?
FC: I think it was two or three years, but I really can’t remember. And it was all fairly theoretical, being a woman, I think the men got called up to go to Korea or somewhere, but the women didn’t.
CB: No. So while you were in, what sort of experiences did you have, with other people there?
CB: Well nothing really, well I mean yeah, he was there as well.
CB: Who was that?
FC: John was there, yeah. There were two messes, two officers messes, there was the mess that belonged to the admin part of the station and there was Number Two Mess where, it was a Flying Training School, where all the cadets messed and some of the instructors lived as well. I lived in the main, Number One Mess, and John lived in the Number Two. But I think we all ate together, as far as I remember. And you know, we just went backwards and forwards. I don’t think Number One people went to Number Two, but Number Two people came in and the WAAFs had a wing of the Number One Mess, just at one end, [cough] in a wing and I just lived in the mess. Again it was really quite like school, you know, you went to work, came back for lunch, went back again, so on. Orderly Officer, which I always thought was a bit ridiculous: there was I, nineteen years old, supposed to go round guarding the station in the middle of the night, especially at Stafford, which had lots of outposts. And you were driven round with a couple of very, or probably only one, National Serviceman who hadn’t much more clue than I had, you know. if anything had cropped up I don’t know quite what we would have done but it was what one did, you know.
CB: What was the attitude of the National Servicemen in the RAF would you say?
FC: Um, I think they just accepted it. I don’t think they were terribly pleased to be there, but I think they put their heads down; most of the ones that I came across just got on with it. They did keep applying for postings to get nearer home if they happened to be sent off into the wilds, but they went on courses, I think they just decided that they’d just get on with it, not make waves. I did feel very sorry for quite a lot of the air women who, when they joined up, all wanted to be drivers or dog handlers, and they were inveigled really. They were told well join up and then once you’re in we’ll see about you being a driver or a dog handler, and they wanted to be drivers ‘cause they wanted to learn to drive a nice big, were they Humber Hawks, with the little flag, you know?
CB: My driver.
FC: Yes, you know the feeling. But you haven’t got a flag, have you!
CB: Not yet [laughter].
FC: And that’s what they hoped, but they ended up.
CB: Driving staff cars.
FC: Yeah. But they ended up as batwomen and in the kitchens and things. And they were always coming and saying can I, what about this course, can’t I be in, hugely [emphasis] over-subscribed, even more so with dog handlers, but they were in by then, you know.
CB: So with dog handling what was the attraction, particularly?
FC: Well I suppose they just liked dogs, thought they’d like to be looking after a dog. I mean they probably lived in a slum somewhere or very poor background and they thought it would be lovely.
CB: These were not National Service. These were people who’d signed on.
FC: These were women, yes.
CB: How long would their engagement be?
FC: Well I suppose two or three years, I really don’t know. And of course because it was quite soon after the war it was almost, it was an option to join one of the services because a lot of their sisters and people had done it, had been conscripted, but it wasn’t quite such a strange thing to do in those days.
CB: So we’re talking there about what was commonly in the Air Force called the erks, but there were National Service Officers. So what was their approach?
FC: Yes. Well I think they were a bit peeved, but again I think they got on with it. I do remember being very [emphasis] impressed with the, what did they call the sub-adjutants, the ones that worked in the Adjutant’s Office, under, he was called the under Adj or something anyhow, and he was Jewish and one of, an educational process was going to a court martial. In the Maintenance Unit, people were very light fingered, they were stealing platinum points off the sparking plugs hugely. Anyhow there was a, there were court martials and we had to go to a court martial to see what happened and this Jewish person wouldn’t wear a hat, you know, for the oath, and wouldn’t take the oath, the normal oath.
CB: On the bible.
FC: On the bible, yeah. And I can remember, I’ve never ever, as far as I knew, met a Jewish person before, you know, and I admired him for sticking up for his, um, his religion I suppose, you know. I mean nobody made a fuss about it, but it was, I didn’t even know it happened, you know, I was so wet behind the ears. And another fairly funny thing that happened, when I was at Feltwell, very junior, people were given jobs to do apart from their work and one of which was being I/C badminton. Well, I have never [emphasis] picked up a badminton racket in my life and I was made I/C Badminton! And had to go to Halton for a meeting about badminton I can remember. Talk about a farce, you know! I can’t remember what happened there. It was a very nice mess, it was a Rothschild place.
CB: It’s still in use.
FC: Yes, still is. It was all terribly grand, and we all presumably talked about badminton and then I came back again, you know. It’s ridiculous wasn’t it.
CB: Everybody else was keen on it, but not you.
FC: I presume, and were fit! You know. [Laugh] And I also represented Group, I think, in the relay race. ‘Cause I was tall, could run reasonably fast and didn’t drop the baton, you know, and I got a medal [chuckle] but it was pretty pathetic really.
CB: So when you met your husband to be, John Cooper, what was his role at the time and how did you come to meet him?
FC: Well we lived in, more or less, in the same mess, he was an instructor and we just came across each other and he asked me out and you know, one thing led to another.
CB: So you kept in touch, ‘ cause he stayed in the RAF and you left.
FC: No, oh yes, he was, I left, but he was still in the Air Force. He was posted to Ternhill and we went to Ternhill together, but I was out of the Air Force by then, I was just a wife, you know.
CB: Oh, you got married while he was, you were both still in the RAF did you?
FC: Yes. But you weren’t allowed to be married, a married officer in those days. Somebody had to go and it was always the woman. And also he had more of a career than I had.
CB: Sure.
FC: And we lived in a caravan because there were no quarters for junior officers, lived in the caravan on an airfield, which eventually became the deposit for our house. [Laugh]
CB: So when you came out?
FC: Yes.
CB: So when did John leave the RAF?
FC: Well, we went to Felt, er we went to Ternhill.
CB: Ternhill. That’s in Shropshire, yes.
FC: Yeah. And then he came back to run the Communications Flight at um, somewhere near Croydon, I can’t remember the name of the airfield.
CB: Kenley was it?
FC: That’s right, Kenley. We came back down in our caravan and by that time I was pregnant with our first child. [Cough] He dearly wanted to stay in the Air Force, but there were no jobs for pilots, you know, they were just so many pilots, not enough pilot’s jobs, so he just had to come out and eventually became an air traffic controller [throat clear] and then he got mixed up with the Air Cadets and became a, what they were called, an Air Experience pilot, for the cadets which he absolutely enjoyed because he could go off to camp, fly aeroplanes at the Air Force’s expense, you know, so and I was completely out of it. [Background sneeze]
CB: So he was in the Volunteer Reserve for that.
FC: Yes, yes. But by then I’d got children so my life took a different turn.
CB: We’ll stop there, thank you. [Beep] We ran out of time with this interview, so we didn’t cover certain things to do with the war which we’ll pick up with later, and her career after she left the RAF when she became a teacher and came across a head who’d been a SWO. [Beep] Incidentally the significance of this interview is that Mrs Cooper, as a child in the countryside, had experienced living next to an airfield which the Americans operated from, and also came up against evacuees and prisoners of war, both Italian and German, and at the end of the war she was still a mid teenager, but later married an RAF bomber pilot when she was serving in the RAF herself.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Frances Anne Cooper,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 24, 2024,

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