Interview with Kathleen (Katy) Reid


Interview with Kathleen (Katy) Reid
1013,1014,1015-Reid, Kathleen M


Kathleen Reid worked in reserved occupation but wanted to join the RAF as a WAAF. She was initially trained as a telephonist but remustered to flight control. Duty meant staying all night in the tower to guide flights home. Then they would be left with the grim sight of the board detailing the flights that had not returned. Her boyfriend was killed while trying to land in thick fog. After being based at RAF Grimsby she went for further training at Cranwell and was posted to a fighter station in Norfolk. Fighter discipline was different than what she was used to with bombers and on one occasion there was a tragedy when she could not communicate with a pilot in trouble because of the on-air chatter and the plane crashed.






00:52:08 audio recording


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Interviewer: Today is the 30th of September 2012 and I’m here talking with Katherine Reid about her time serving at RAF Waltham. So, Katherine please could you tell me a little bit about when you joined up?
KR: When I, when I did. How I came to sign up you mean? Well, I, I was an occupied person at work. I needn’t have joined up but I, I decided that I, I wanted to try and get into the RAF. I was very small and I didn’t know whether they would accept me but they did. I, I was very healthy they said so that was the main point and then of course I did the pre-training and I was sent to RAF Grimsby. That was my first station. I wasn’t very really very far from home so that was nice. I was able to go on my days off back to see my mother and father so, but the atmosphere [pause] I was at three or four other camps during the war. I think I had five places really to go that I was sent to but the lingering memory is of Grimsby. It was such a, you could call it almost a happy station. It is quite the opposite of what, of course it was running for and that was a dreadful number of deaths. But the atmosphere was always quite as cheerful as it could possibly humanly be and the lady, the woman officer we had for the WAAFs was exceptionally kind. And when we’d had an awful lot of tragedies I remember one Christmas she organized a children’s party for children in the village and we were invited to go and help there. And that, that was a very nice thought. She was particularly kind. I’m so sorry I can’t remember her name. But also the other officers were very good too. Now, I had, I was a volunteer but I had not got any particular qualifications for whatever. I decided what I wanted to be was in flying control and at first I had to do what all the volunteers, all the girls who were called up had to do and that was you had to do all the cleaning and you had to even use a duster on the ceilings you know, everywhere. And all the unpleasant things that you had to do and I think it was a sort of an early training to see if you were capable of doing that. Maybe they thought you were capable of doing further things. However, it was a rough time and we had a, if I could, I won’t name her but we did have a Scottish officer and when I and the girl who I’d met when we’d found we had things in common, she’d just been told that too. And we went in front of her and she said, ‘Oh, how good of the Air Force to send two volunteers to clean my station.’ [laughs] And that rather calmed us down you see and so we had to clean the station. We had to do the dusting up high on the, all the wires that were in the different rooms and everything and our life was rather sordid but we did adapt for a few months. And then she was lucky and she was given the, because she was a very good shorthand typist in civilian life she was given this job of of working with the head man who was, he arranged the bombing runs and what to do there and she stayed there all during the war and got a very high [pause] what do we call it? Well, something to signify her good work and so that was rather nice after starting right at the bottom as we did. Well, I was lucky and after a few months when I was there being, I was looking after the WAAF officers I used to sometimes do that but I could never get the fire going for them coming back into their room you know. That was a great worry to me because I could never get that thing going and I didn’t particularly like it there, the work although the officers were very nice. The lady officers. However, then I had to, so I was, one of the WAAF corporals in charge of the telephone, she said to me, ‘I will get you trained and you can go into the telephone office,’ you see. So I took the training and passed and so I went in. We had a very big, in Grimsby a very large telephone department and one night one of the officers came in. I was there alone. At night you did night duty sometimes by yourselves and I said, ‘But I didn’t join up just to be a telephonist. I want to be where the action is.’ And so he laughed but two days later I was, I worked from in the morning and a girl was shaking me and saying, ‘Come on. Come on. You’ve got to get a bus.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, 'Well, the squadron leader has said you are to go for a week to Waltham.’ Waltham Grimsby, and so I quickly got myself ready and got the bus and off I went to Grimsby and I saw those planes and I thought oh my gosh, isn’t that wonderful. However, then I spoke to the officer there and he was a very kind man and I said, ‘Well, you see I joined up to be where the planes are.’ I wanted to do something that was directly, you know, ‘Something directly with the actual actions of the war.’ And he, so he said, ‘Well, I can’t get you to Cranwell yet but I’ll send you upstairs to flying control and you can learn to do the work.’ So I was very fortunate and we had two girls doing the radio and so I joined them and after a few weeks I was able to take my own, you know my own time and duty with them. There was always two girls. One to do their notes, did everything that was said over the air from the airmen and everything that was said to us in the flying control had to be, you know written down so that it could at times any reason for going back on what had happened on, you know if there was a tragedy or something like that they knew what had been said to a certain extent. It was not shorthand but it was a sort of a very rough kind of English just so you could make out because of course people were talking quickly. You didn’t have time to go slowly and it was in English or whatever. I used to turn it and so that’s what happened and they, we had to bring them down at night and we stacked them. We stacked them at so many feet between we had a big wheel in front of us and we had some iron A B Cs at the beginning of their names you see and we put them on the hooks so we knew exactly when we had them in the air when they came back. And one was given the first course, lined up, and prepare to land and then the next one was brought in, ‘Prepare to land,’ when we told him, you know that he could come down. So we were very busy for over an hour concentrating on this. You never sort of thought of anything else. You concentrated on which aircraft. It was their number and their name. A for Abel and so on you see. I made that clear and you put the hook, you put their number, their ring on the hook. Looking at it we knew exactly where we had them stacked. And then afterwards you’d turn and look at the, at the end where you, we would go on for over an hour and you would look at the wall where the airman of the watch had put the names of the poor men who hadn’t returned. And we then, one of us would stay on duty all night and we’d get the airman of the watch. He used to sleep on the corner by one of the, well we had plenty of machines there. You know, big machines in big iron cases and he used to sleep there in the corner and, but we were alone there listening out for anyone who managed to come back or anybody else who wanted help and the officer of the watch used to be asleep in a room just next door to us so that if it was technical or something like that because I think that was one of the weaknesses at Cranwell when I got there. We were not given enough information on on the way that they needed help. Especially the young fliers who were training and when they first were on their own some of them were very very nervous and you had to get an officer to give them, you know any help that they might need with their engine if you follow me, on a plane there on saying that.
Interviewer: Yeah.
KR: And you, you know you felt well we should have been given some instruction because you could tell how nervous some of these young men were on their first flight by solo flying and we used to grieve for them about that. However, then [pause] oh yeah so we, so one of us stayed all night listening out. I hope I put that clearly enough and then we would have the day off. Part of it would be sleep and we’d be ready then to go back on duty the next night. But always two girls and, but about, during the day there were quite a lot of officers sitting around the table and they were there if we needed technical instruction, you know to give out to anyone. It was very very sad sometimes. We had a lot of losses. A lot of men not returning. But the atmosphere on that station to say that was absolutely wonderful and everybody was so nice to each other you know and so kind. I never heard an officer getting cross or anything like that or any, any trouble and the girls that were in the Nissen huts, that was always a happy time. We just had the old cook stove and the, the [pause] we had an officer in the photographic department and he used to go around the shops and sort of talk nicely to the shop keepers and he used to get things given you see in the way of food and then he used to bring some to our hut because one of his girlfriend’s was in our hut. And one night he got some mushrooms and we used to put it in the big, a long big pan that we had, iron one and put that iron one into the one stove we had in the, in the hut. And then we used to all sit around you see after one girl had cooked whatever he’d given us. And one night he’d got mushrooms and we were looking forward to eating these lovely mushrooms and then one of the girls called out, ‘Oh,’ You know. There was something there in the mushrooms that was the grubs [laughs] so we couldn’t eat them. It was rather disappointing but on the whole we were lucky and thanks to this man we always had something to eat in the evenings. Then so, but I I continued in flying control quite a year or so and then my, the posting came through to go to Cranwell. Now, I we had dances of course. Dances for, for aircrew. They, they always had glamourous girlfriends in beautiful dresses you know, and they had the room where they used to go to the dancing but we also had our dances and a little place we made up and for entertainment. So that was quite nice but we also had a few boys who could play instruments and so we had dances and you know they would come in groups of people and that was rather nice. And a few lectures. There was always something happening anyway, and we used to dance as well and because most of the girls in those days were not expert dancers and so, of course they didn’t know, the airmen who were dancing with because usually they’d had a little drink you know before they’d come to the dance. So it didn’t matter that we couldn’t dance either. They didn’t realise that [laughs] So that was nice. Happy parties we had. And then we used to go to the cinema down in Grimsby. So, so it was plenty of entertainment. Then from, well Grimsby well the worst night [pause] the worst night was the night we had the fog. They, now people in looking after the weather they didn’t seem to have an awful lot of equipment and going now you know to not in, it was a long way from the end of the war. We were about middle of the time of the war and they didn’t have, they did have equipment don’t get me wrong but they didn’t have a lot and they used to come up to flying control every day with balloons and put them up and something they could contact from the effect of this. They helped, would help them with their other instruments to say about the weather if I’ve explained that properly. Anyway, they had forecast that there would be fog stretching across a lot of the north of England but it would be clear. The air would be clear by the time that the men had returned from the bombing the capital of Germany. But as I say it wasn’t quite the modern equipment that they had and they were wrong. And so that was the most awful night because when our men came back there were so many crashes and so many deaths. We had ninety men killed coming back. Not from events being over the capital of Germany and come back alright but trying to land at Grimsby was almost impossible the fog was so very dense. And we, you see when they tried to come back in the darkness as I understand the way it was explained to me they were a wonderful plane but when even if their wings were to touch something else like another plane wing or or even a tree or something like that then that Lancaster would just drop and this is what was happening you see. Coming back more or less at the same time and we lost the ninety men and the doctor in charge was very upset that there was all of these men and he couldn’t save one. So you can imagine the atmosphere on the station and it was just a few days before Christmas. The WAAF officer arranged a children’s party for the children of the village and we were asked, the WAAFs were asked to help to organise it so that helped. And it, we made it quite as happy, and aircrew was taking part, the ones that were left to make it a happy Christmas for these village children. But that was typical of the station and of course we had the usual Christmas celebrations even though the atmosphere of the station had been so sad losing so many men and a Christmas dinner like all other Air Force stations had with the same amount of food. So that was quite good. But then I got my posting after I’d waited about a year and a half to go to Cranwell. And my boyfriend who, we used to go to the cinema. He was a Yorkshire boy, about, he was twenty one and he, we used to go to the cinema down in Grimsby and often we would walk back because, often and at other camps there was a bus and, but when you the first time I was on the bus coming back with all the aircrews who had been having a good evening out you know you oh you were quite shocked at the songs [laughs] and things like that. They were so happy but then you got used to it all and they were particularly very kind and considerate with me. It was amazing because I was the smallest WAAF on the station and they called me half pint [laughs] always addressed me as half pint. And so it was always a happy bus coming back from the cinema or any dancing that they’d been to down in the town. But so that was good and I think this was always every night a bus brought them back if you’d been down in to Grimsby to have a nice evening out. But we did have lovely dances. The officers had their separate one and as I say they, they, the women from around who were invited were always dressed very glamourous. We used to try to look as best as we could in our [laughs] in our uniforms but, and as I say most of us couldn’t dance in those days but nobody cared because you know you were just happy and you had little drinks some of us that did enjoy a little drink on special occasions. And then it was always sad when the night was over because you know you just thought well have had a celebration and what would tomorrow bring really. But you didn’t try to think about that.
Interviewer: Could you —
KR: We had a happy social life and then so, but and when I went to Cranwell just then about this time that I’m talking about the, my friend who was this Yorkshireman he, he ferried my kit bag up to when I’d go up the hill to the bus and we’d be off to Cranwell and we were on to each other then until in that terrible fog their plane as I say was lost. So that was very sad. But I did write to his people in Yorkshire and got a nice letter back and he was buried in the grave of his uncle there in Yorkshire. But he was only twenty one and it made you realise what a, what a waste of life war is. War is a waste. A precious waste. Then, but that’s almost the end of my time at Grimsby dear. I passed exams at Cranwell. They were Scottish instructors and I’d been teaching in Scotland when I was, before the war and of course I used to think why they don’t open their mouths more. It must be the cold weather in Scotland you know [laughs] But, and the same thing with these two men. They were very clever instructors but they didn’t open their mouths so you had to concentrate like mad and of course there was no heat at Cranwell. No heat at all. We had chill blains on our hands and feet and what we used to wear our greatcoats and our mittens even because no room was warmed up at all and, and then you had to concentrate like mad. Like mad on their Scottish accents. And they were excellent instructors but it was a very cold time. Believe me it really was. And we had the, we had, we were tested of course. There was written tests and twice, twice we had written tests and we had tests on the actual working of the machinery that we had to deal with. And it was a happy time but a very very cold time. Everybody was sitting in their warmest coats and put several socks on our feet, you know to keep warm and I remember that for the coldness and the food wasn’t very good there. We used to depend on the Salvation Army coming around and the other vans if we ever wanted. So after I’d passed all my exams I was hoping to get back to Grimsby but instead I was sent south. I was sent, that’s right, being with bombers I was sent down to Norfolk with the fighters. I don’t know whether you want to know about them or not because the difference was, the difference was how clever it was for whoever did it in the Ministry of the Air Force to select the man for a job. The fighters that were young men who were, you know get up and go and a bit more happy go lucky and the bombers were serious and were still happy some of them. Amazing how they could be happy in the job they had. But it was amazing how they were like family men and a lot were unfortunately and had children and that would make you even more sad when they didn’t return or were injured which so often happened. But it was very interesting how they somehow seemed to select in nine cases out of ten the right kind of man for the job. And that was more of course happy go lucky type of a station down there in Norfolk.
Interviewer: And how was it working with the Americans in Norfolk?
KR: Oh, the Americans. Oh, I was on an American station. That was after Grimsby. And they were separate even though we worked with them in this big station and that was actually in Norfolk. Not very far from Grimsby. Not Norfolk. Grimsby. And they worked separately even they had their own flying control. They used to bring down their bombers by having a plane up in the air and directing them from the air. And of course, their flights were mostly in the mornings. Daylight. They bombed by day and it was rather a sight to see them going off in the mornings you know. So many planes. Hundreds of them it seemed and they were brought down by somebody in an aircraft in the sky.
Interviewer: Yeah.
KR: Which was strange to us. And we always wondered why they had very good sentries at night on every plane that was left in the airfield. They had their separate, separate part of the airfield but like cut in half and they had their own machinery and everything. We didn’t have anything to do with them. But except if things went wrong a bit and they were worried about certain, the communication system and on the day of the, when war, the last day of the war, the last days of the war I should say their, their signals weren’t working so of course I remember this man coming around to me and getting very upset about this because it was very important. But they directed them coming, their planes from one plane up in the sky directing the landings from there. Well, of course we were still down in our office in the airfields and bringing our men down like that. But it was very interesting in that it was so, we were so separate but yet, and we didn’t ever have any functions you know for our spare time. But of course we, and we didn’t ever have their good food. They had wonderful food in but we did not have good food there and towards the end of the war it was very bad indeed. You could tell that our country was short of the necessary foods and so one of the girls whose father was a doctor said that we must put plenty of jam on our bread. You know, to get a bit of nutrition. So we did just as we were instructed and we were only too pleased to because we got so fed up of just having well yes, plain foods but it was plain too that our country was short of foods. We did have [pause] we didn’t have any of their ice cream and their luxury food. They had their, they were billeted away from the lake. We had the lake with the airmen stationed at one side of the lake and we were stationed far enough away on the other side of the lake but, and we had one dance with the, with the Americans and we didn’t even get any ice cream [laughs] which was very disappointing to us. But they on the whole it was you know you used to socialise with them but they were treated like children almost if I can put it that way. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but everything had to be reported and if, you never knew when if you made a date with them whether they would come because something else had gone wrong on the station. But on the whole the atmosphere was quite good and their uniforms were made of very I remember much better material than our boys you know [unclear] to keep them warm in the winter. But it was a wonderful sight to see them all going off in their planes. Their white planes every morning. And you’d often wish that you would have been able to be helpful in directing them because they were so busy. But so, but you could tell that at the end of the war food was not easy for us. I was with the fighters there and one night, oh it was a new station. I must remember to tell you that. We got the last station for fighters at the end of the war down there in Norfolk.
Interviewer: What was the name of the station?
KR: Pardon?
Interviewer: So what was the name of the station at Norfolk?
KR: Oh dear [pause]
Interviewer: It doesn’t matter if you can’t remember.
KR: I don’t know but it was the last one. Actually, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to find it.
Interviewer: That’s fine. Don’t worry.
KR: But you know, it was on this one and we had a very important man who was, who was taking it over and again I’m sorry I don’t have a remembrance of his name. But they were all fighters because we needed the fighters to escort the bombers to the last efforts of bombing Germany, capable of bombing every night and we, so but he was a very eminent man. Now, I was a highly, I was a highly trained RT operator and so I was going to get my, I was going to be made on the higher grade but instead I was posted to this new station. Me and one other girl and I must just tell you just quickly about this because they were all learners more or less and so one night they were doing circuits and bumps. That means going and flying off and just doing a few circular loops and then coming down again. There were sixteen new planes and they were all lined, lined up in front of me and I had to do the speaking and I had this girl with me. She was doing the racking and this very eminent doctor man I’m sorry I can’t give you the name, I’ve forgotten it. I didn’t write it down and you do forget over the years but, and he said to me, ‘Well, I think I’d rather do the speaking.’ And I took at that and I confess and answered the officer and I said, ‘But sir, I was trained at Cranwell. I’ve done three or four years of this work and I’m quite capable.’ So he just sat down beside me just in case [laughs] But he never said another word and I brought those sixty men in at night time, you know. Each one had to get up and then check them around and then come down and I brought them all down safely and I was very pleased with myself [laughs] But that was the first time I’d ever really taken a deep breath and thought oh gosh what does he think we’re here for. So that was, and that was then I got a scholarship so my life changed altogether because I had got a scholarship to a place in London for training for the theatre. And although I wish that I’d stayed another year or so to see how this new station got on but there we are.
Interviewer: Is there a, sorry —
KR: The only, the only, there was one tragedy when I was on duty. I don’t know. I think I should tell you about it. This was in Norfolk. Now, the bombers were disciplined but the fighters were not, I don’t know why and they used to chatter to one another when they were up in the air. And so when you were trying to get a message to them it was very difficult because of all the chattering and they were up for circuits and bumps. That meant that they were up and down you see exercising and there was twenty seven of them up that day and it was daylight. The weather good but they were busy chatting and then the call came through to me to say that there was something wrong with their engine and they wanted to come around the opposite way to land to what the whole twenty seven of them would do, you see. Instead of coming down in good order they wanted [pause] so I, because you couldn’t say anything like that with twenty seven men up. You couldn’t. You had to call to the officer sitting at a desk, sometimes not near enough to you as they should have been to ask permission. So, I had to get through all the tangle of their gossip because they were not disciplined as I say like the bombers to be quiet and only speak when it was necessary. They just chatted away. Be happy go lucky as it were. And so I had to get the message first to get permission from him for this plane to come and land the opposite way to what we were landing. I put it clear and unfortunately, they, they didn’t get my message because they couldn’t get, I couldn’t get through all the chatter that was on. Had that been bombers it would have got through and so they crashed and they were, I had to put down there were twenty six planes. I watched men die in a burning plane. When I got up I couldn’t ride my bicycle and anything, any food for a long time. It didn’t taste right. I was terribly terribly upset about it but they gave me pills and things like that and but I just felt oh dear. I can’t tell you how I felt because I, you know I just thought I tried to get back to them. I did get back to them but they didn’t get the message because of all the other pilots chattering. Not on what they were doing but joking to one another, you see. But that was the type of fighter. I suppose that was the type of fighter you really wanted. Somebody who was lighter hearted. But I couldn’t ride my bicycle when I got off duty and I couldn’t eat and everything so I asked, I asked for a posting. Nobody, I was, there was no criticism. I had done what I could so everybody was nice to me and after you know I was given a lot of vitamins and thing like that. But I thought no I would get away. So I asked for a posting and I finished the war on a station where we were dealing with, that was in Yorkshire and it was when they were fighters. So I was still with fighters. They were negotiating with them from the ground to find the enemy which was interesting. Very interesting. And so I finished the war there where you did twenty four hours and used to sleep there at night on the floor. Our only, well it was the rats. They, your sleeping bag got chewed sometimes where your feet were. The right place. But we used to do night duty sending the, we had the appliance to find where our aircraft was in the sky you see. To direct them to the bomber and where they were as well. And so I did more where the fighters again were after the enemy and it was interesting and the station [near a farm] But you were just, you did twenty four hour duties there but you did miss the station. They were just in this village twelve of us WAAFs stationed on farms. So the food was good but you missed that comradeship of the, of the other girls and the rest of the people. So I had a very interesting war.
Interviewer: I believe there is a poem that you want to share with us.
KR: Pardon?
Interviewer: Is there a poem that you’d like to share with us just before we end?
KR: Finish our —
Interviewer: So, did you want to read a poem?
KR: Oh well. I’d love to. I don’t really need to, I know it but perhaps I’d better so you can edit it. I’d better, I wrote it on the back of my book here. Have I said enough? Have I said enough?
Interviewer: No, you’re been more than welcome to read your poem if you like.
KR: Pardon?
Interviewer: You’ve been very very helpful. Absolutely.
KR: Are you sure?
Interviewer: Absolutely. Thank you very much.
KR: Is it still on?
[recording paused]
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-laden wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the lofty silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

“At Cranwell in winter was a bind.
A colder place than Cranwell is very hard to find.
Why should I stand and shiver?
It’s time I used my head.
Instead of turning to a block of us,
Next Sunday I’ll stay in my bed.
My good idea turned to ashes,
Snug in bed on Sunday to find,
Two hundred WAAFs at Cranwell
Were all in this state of mind.
Two hundred WAAFs at Cranwell.
What a wonderful sight to be seen.
After two weeks of spitting and polishing
Cranwell had never been so clean.”

That’s because we had to wait outside the week before going into Sunday Service. We had to. The WAAFs had to be the last to go in of course because we were the least important. That was understandable but we were very cold. It was in the middle of winter and there was ice around us and everything but we hadn’t said we’d do this. We hadn’t said we’re not going to the service but we all must have had the same thought. So because we didn’t go to the service we were put on jankers for a fortnight.



Dawn Oakley and This Interview was recorded by Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire., “Interview with Kathleen (Katy) Reid,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 28, 2024,

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