Interview with Bessie Birkby


Interview with Bessie Birkby


Bessie Birkby grew up in Sheffield and volunteered for the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force in 1942. She first worked in Balloon Command in Scotland and then trained to be a driver in North Wales. She was then posted to 625 Squadron at RAF Binbrook but later transferred to RAF Kelstern and worked driving ambulances. She discusses driving the station Medical Officer into Lincoln in the snow and driving crew buses. She developed appendicitis, and had an emergency operation at Louth. Transferred to RAF Scampton, she again drove ambulances and crew buses, she met her husband Wally an air gunner and they were married for sixty five years. She talks about how the station was attacked by night fighters. While in the RAF she managed frequent visits home, sometimes in RAF vehicles. On leaving the Air Force she had three children and worked as a driver selling bakery items.




Temporal Coverage




00:31:39 audio recording

Conforms To


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AM. Ok so this interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre, the interviewer is Annie Moody and the Interviewee is Bessie?
BB. Birkby.
AM. Birkby, and the interview is taking place at Bessie’s home Wath on Dearne on the 30th of July 2015. So if perhaps Bessie just to start with tell me a little about your background, about your parents and school and stuff like that.
BB. Shall I tell you my age first?
AM. Go on tell me how old you are.
BB. I am ninety one going into ninety two. I was married to my husband Walter Birkby he always got called Wally I got called Tess that was my nick name and eh we had been married sixty three years when Walter died. And eh anyhow I was eighteen when I joined, had to join, because eh my sisters were nurses but I worked in a shop. So it was either going in munitions or going in the forces.
AM. How old were you when you left school Bessie?
BB. I was fourteen.
AM. So what did you do straight from leaving school?
BB. Mostly working in shops, you know [cough] like grocery shops and eh I loved it but then of course I was working in a shop when both my sisters were nurses. So I had to choose, either going in the forces or going in factories where you make bombs and things.
AM. Ok, you could have stayed in the shop, but you wanted to do something?
BB. But I fancied going in, in the forces so I joined and eh my mum put me on the train in Doncaster and I was crying and she was crying but I still wanted to go. But I’d never been, I never left home or, my father worked in the pit and my mum she had five children. I was next to the eldest and eh so we were both upset at me going but I still wanted to go. I was going as far as Bridgenorth anyhow I got on this train and off I went. When I got there, it was a long journey and when I got there, on the last train. I remember where I had to change but I don’t remember where or anything. So I met up with the girls that were going in to join to be a WAAF.
AM. What year was this Bessie?
BB. What year was it it was 1942.
AM. ’42.
BB. Yeah and so [cough] eh when we got there to Bridgenorth, ‘course you had to have a medical and all sorts of thing like that.
AM. What was that like.
BB. Well I had never really been away from home, I never sort of got undressed in front of anybody and it, it was an ordeal. And eh but anyhow I carried on and I made friends and I was very popular because I could do make up, I could do hair and all sorts, I used to love it you know, beautifying. I got lots of friends because they used to come to me.’Oh Bessie will you do my hair or will you do this, pluck my eyebrows?’ And I really enjoyed it but anyhow we had to get up early to get your knife, fork and spoon and what have you. You had to go outside for to wash yourself and eh and anyhow we started marching, we used to have to go on parade. And eh so anyhow I don’t know how long I was marching and what and then of course I put in to be a driver but of course I had to go along to be em trained [?]. So I had to go with girls I go to me MT Sections and em got sort of well anything you know [a little confused].
AM. When you put in to be a driver did you have to have an interview or anything or did they say yes you can be a driver then?
BB. No I had to, in fact they sent me to a place where there were balloons you know and I had to practice putting a balloon up which was like driving a car.
AM. Tell me more about that, how do you put a balloon up.
BB. I was posted to Scotland and so and there we didn’t have we had to go in digs in peoples houses. This lady I went into she were a lovely lady and she took to me. In fact for years I wrote to her but we lived in Borough Muir West and and I were really I loved it sending the balloon up.
AM. What do you mean ‘sending the balloon up.’?
BB. You had to fly it.
AM. How big was it?
BB. Huge, didn’t you remember them balloons, well they were huge weren’t they?
Unknown Male. Like a Zeppelin.
AM. Oh like a Zeppelin? Oh eh I have got you.
BB. They were like as big as a caravan.
AM. Like a barrage balloon?
BB. Yeah.
Unknown Male. So that planes would fly into wires that were holding them.
BB. ‘course it got me going to change gear and one thing and another to learn.
AM. So where were you, were you on the ground.
BB. I were in a cage and balloon were over top of me, I used to have to send them up and Germans were coming over, you know it were queer. But anyhow I think I was there about six months and eh there must have been a place for me to start up for me driving and I was posted to Pwllheli in North Wales then again.
AM. So down, up to Scotland and then across to Wales.
BB. Yeah, down in Pwllheli oh that were, I was six months there but you had to do eh, besides learning to drive you had to do, learn how to eh maintain your vehicle in the morning you put and inspection for your water, your battery what have you and then [cough] you go out driving on the roads. I used to go in all these eh country lanes it were in Pwllheli.
AM. Who was it that were doing the instructing.
BB. We had men instructed.
AM. What were they like?
BB. Well I don’t recall.
AM. What were they like with you I mean, were they ok, women learning to drive?
BB. I were a ‘right with learning this balloon business I knew how to change gear, do the footwork because you had to do it like driving a car and so I was very lucky because I soon learned to drive but I was there six months so I had a thorough training but when you passed out you had to pass out on three vehicles.
AM. Different ones?
BB. Yeah a little one, small and then a fifteen hundred and then a thirty hundred weight and then of course later on it in the time I got to drive a two ton, were it, what were it, crew bus. I used to drive the crew bus. I was first posted to Binbrook when I passed out driving but there were lots of girls who failed and they couldn’t go back driving they had to remuster to another job. But I was very fortunate I passed it all and then I was posted to Binbrook and they were just forming our Squadron 625 Squadron and it was Bomber Command. I forgotten what Group was it One Group? Bomber Command, 625.
Unknown male. You were stationed, no you would have been in Five Group.
BB. Can’t remember.
AM.Anyway 625.
BB. 625 Squadron.
Unknown male. It would be in Five Group.
BB. Yeah and so they were forming this Squadron and then from Binbrook I was posted to Kelstern which was a few mile away because there was a lot of aerodromes in Lincoln at that time, weren’t there and so this were all new but we all had eh to sleep in these eh tin things, what did you call them?
AM. Nissan huts.
BB. Nissan huts and there were ten beds, you just had your bed and what have you. You didn’t have sheets, aircrew had sheets but not.
Unknown male. Aircrew had sheets.
BB. But not.
AM. The girls didn’t .
BB. And we were in these, fireplace in the middle and it were a little round thing and and I don’t know what it, I think it was coal or coke and that were only heating you had. You had to go outside for toilets and what have you, ablutions, it were you know. But, oh it were marvellous and at Kelstern I got very friendly eh and I were post, I were given a job on the ambulance. So I lived in sick quarters and eh with being at Kelstern when that snow came, nobody could get anywhere could they. It were terrible but I [cough] used to take the MO, the Doctor down into Lincoln and I used to drive him about on the small ambulance. There were bigger ambulances for a crew and eh this particular day we were going down into Lincoln and the MO he were a marvellous fellow and he had flying boots on, big coat but then eh, now he says ‘ I shall be about two hours so you go market, have a look round and meet me so and so, and we will come back to camp, to Kelstern.’ So anyhow I did that and I thought while I’m in, ‘cause where I lived down at the old mill at home we had apple trees, pear trees and all sorts. So I thought ‘ I will buy me self some apples.’ And I am [unclear] eating me apple and I went to pick the MO up like and I said ‘would you like and apple sir?’ he said ‘yes I would,’ he said ‘now don’t be getting tummy ache.’ You know before tea time I started reeling, the nurses were saying ‘we are going to fetch the MO to you.’ Because I were crying with pain and of course they fetched him from Officers Mess. When he came he said ‘my dear I will have to take you down to Louth Infirmary.’ They operated on me with appendicitis before midnight. Do you know he stayed with me because I was crying, I wanted me mum, Oh I were in a state. Me mum managed to come and see me I were in a farm house.
AM. So it weren’t the apple. [laugh]
BB. [laugh] No, well I don’t know what it were, anyhow he were brilliant and he stuck with me until next morning when I come round. In them days putting you to sleep it were horrible, dreaming and what not. Anyway he gave me some leave and I were at home about a month I think. Anyhow it was when that snow was on of course there were no flying. So of course I went back to Kelstern and then a month after we got a message to say we were all moving to Scampton.
AM. Just before you moved to Scampton what did you do then when you got back to Kelstern?
BB. I went back on the ambulance
AM. Still the ambulance, so you were driving the MO around who, what else were they using the ambulances for, the crew or.
BB. Well they used the ambulances to follow them back didn’t they? They used to be many a time crashes ‘cause they used to shoot at them didn’t they? It were horrible. Anyhow eh I carried on then and then of course we all went to Scampton, I can’t remember the date at all. So anyhow I know for a fact that all Lancaster bombers from Kelstern, they all got toilet rolls where bombs used to go and they let them all go over the fields and there were white toilet rolls when we moved, when we moved.
AM. Why was that then.
BB. It was just a bit of fun for the farmers, these were aircraft doing this. Anyhow we got to, to and of course with me this one job I did eh I didn’t always be on ambulance. I remember eh there were er er an Officer in command of our MT and he came to Kelstern and he said to whoever were in charge of our MT at that particular time ‘I want one of your best drivers, because I am going visiting eh we shall be away about three weeks.’ He says ‘ I want somebody I can trust.’ And and I was a good driver so they picked me. So he were brilliant now he says, we had a good car, it were really good and we set off and we were going all up North to go to Topcliffe and all them aerodromes and we had to visit all MT departments. He says as we were setting of he says ‘now then I want you to relax and I want you just to think of me as your father. Whatever you want you must tell me and if you are ever in trouble or whatever you do when we get to different Stations I’ll get you sleeping quarters. And I’ll see that you are put, well looked after and you will not have to be frightened and you will have to get in touch with me if, if you are frightened.’
AM. What did he think you would be frightened of?
BB. I don’t know.
AM. All them men.
BB. I didn’t think of it then. You know I weren’t frightened because we lived out, when, when we were girls we lived down on our own in countryside we used to go to school and we couldn’t go home for dinner because it were too far away. We lived down at old mill didn’t we?
Unknown male. Aye [unclear]I remember being down there.
BB. In fact when I used to go home on leave I used to arrange, I used to hitch hike home to as far as Doncaster when I had the leave and eh what I did I used to catch the double decker bus from Doncaster and it always used to go to Brampton Church where I had to get of me last call, you know and it always used to get there about ten o’clock. And where we lived at the old mill I got off the bus and then I come on some steps and to go down these steps and down the road and what I used to do. Me mum used to be watching out for that double decker bus, she could see it from where we lived. And I used to whistle we had two dogs and me mum used to say ‘go on she’s come our Bessie, go and meet her.’ And they used to come as far as bottom of green them dogs and come and meet me home. And we had a big long orchard going down another way didn’t we?
Unknown male. Yeah.
BB. He knows where old mill were ‘cause it were a lovely, lovely cottage where we lived.
AM. Sounds it.
BB. Aye me mum always used to, always she used to always save me a little bit of steak and give me a cuddle. She used to spoil me, anyhow that were, I’m cutting me tale aren’t I. Anyhow I did that for three weeks and I got leave again given and it were wonderful, I enjoyed it and he were a gentleman and we had a burst, we had a burst tyre, I think we were near Topcliffe and and he said I’ll do it and he changed wheel. I said ‘I can do it I am capable.’ He said ‘I’ll do it. ’Because I had been driving. It were marvellous that and, and I were right proud to think they had chosen me, oh it were lovely. Anyhow, and then when we were posted to Scampton that’s when I met me husband but he already got a girl, lady friend. One of me first jobs there was sick quarters again on the ambulance, well I had small ambulance but they had quite a few big ins. Because in fact they had another Squadron there besides our Squadron. In fact there were they had just done eh where they dropped them bombs?
AM. Oh Dambusters.
BB. Yeah we must have been at Kelstern when that was on, it was soon after that when we were posted to Scampton.
AM. So it was 617 Squadron the other one then?
BB. Yeah so anyhow.
AM. What was it like being there with, how many women and how many men ‘ish a lot more men than women?
BB. Oh yeah.
AM. So what was it like.
BB. Well it, I don’t know it well you just did a job you were twenty four hours on and twenty four hours off weren’t we. I really, I had a wonderful life. I met me husband I’d been there quite a bit before I met him.
AM. Tell me a bit more about what you did, you drove the small ambulances.
BB. Yes.
AM. And then what or were you just driving the ambulance right through because I’ve got a picture of you here with the.
BB. That was at Binbrook.
AM. Oh was that at Binbrook.
BB. That was me first.
AM. Right
BB. Yeah that was at Binbrook.
AM. So you were an ambulance driver at Scampton.
BB. And I have another one a lovely one it’s in a it’s in a, in fact somebody came knocking at door one day and said we’ve seen your picture in a pub in Cleethorpes. It was me stood agin a van an RAF vehicle and it’s a lovely picture and it was in this on this, and then above there were all women marching, another two pictures. I am on this picture but I can’t remember myself being on it because I couldn’t see properly, but anyhow.
AM. Tell me about meeting your husband then? [unclear]
BB. Well he already got a girl friend.
AM. On the Base.
BB. On the Base and she was a parsons daughter but nurses used to kid me on and they used to say Bessie ‘you can’t have him because.’ But they used to call me Tess, I didn’t get called Bessie ‘you can’t have him because he has got a girl friend.’ I said ‘I’m not bothered but I’ll keep trying.’ Anyhow he went on leave didn’t he and when he was on leave she went out with a Pilot. Well I didn’t tell him but somebody did so I go me, I don’t know how it came about but I got talking to him and eh, and eh he took me to the pictures and it were Pinocchio, they were a picture on camp and we started going out together then and he had to go to Italy ‘cause they went, what did they go for.
AM. Were they dropping propaganda leaflets and stuff like that.
BB. Aye and he came back with a big thing of fruit and he gave it me and then we went home and I met his mum and dad in Bradford. He lived in Bradford.
AM. What was Wally, he was an Air Gunner.
BB. Yeah he got to be Warrant Officer before he, ‘cause there is his warrant up there, aye but when I met him he was a Sergeant. Then he got to be Flight Sergeant then he were. He ended up looking after prisoners of war eh after war finished. I mean he stayed in a bit longer than I did but eh I came out because I were pregnant.
AM. You were married by then?
BB. I loved him and, and so well we had been married all them years.
AM. You had been married sixty five years.
BB. We had a lovely life in RAF because girls used to come and Bessie pluck me eyebrows, Bessie do me hair, they used to say Tess to me like
AM. Tess
BB. I used to have some gloves on and I used to have Tess written on them. I used to be, I used to drive crew buses at Scampton and it [unclear] ambulance job.
AM. So what was driving the crew bus like, what, what was that?
BB. Well, I mean many a time within two minutes, they’d one go off and two minutes after another one, they were two minutes
AM. Oh eh the planes?
BB. Hundreds, loads, fifty, sixty oh and we used to wait at the end of the runway eh no flying control weren’t it. We used to stop against flying, and then we used to sort of go, go and dodge about or what have you and be there when they came back. Used to be watching them but once when I were driving the ambulance and there were planes came back and Germans were following them because they used to have to put runway lights on. If you were driving a crew bus and you were going to pick lads up that were coming back and they used to say ‘be early for me.’ You know didn’t they, used to breathing down your neck and eh [cough] and there would be no lights on. And you would be driving on and you would see this black brrr and you would go on grass. Oh it were mad and I mean, and but it was sad and all weren’t it especially and there used to be seven coffins go out and you know. They used to follow them back did Germans. It were terrible, they were nearly ready for landing.
Unknown male. Yeah when you were in circuit.
AM. The German fighters, fighter planes.
BB. Yeah but I had a lovely life, I enjoyed every bit of it and I loved him all me life.
AM. Good.
BB. I did really.
AM. What did you do after the war, did you come out more or less straight away.
BB. Well I were quite well on with having me baby but eh I’d been in four years and eh and he come out [cough] eh, [pause] mm, I know I had two children, pity me husband was still in he were looking after Italians and and they were brilliant eh they didn’t make no bother for me husband he was in charge of them, in fact they made him a cabinet.
AM. Where was that Bessie?
BB. It was where Terries are, is it Ipswich where we used to go picking because we got into married quarters, I had me baby she was nine month old, he was still in RAF. And eh, and eh and we were in married quarters and we used to be picking these cherries and eh ‘cherries, excuse me.’ Eh but I had lots of jobs really, I didn’t only drive the ambulance and crew bus I had lots of jobs you, you, you were detailed you know they would leave you so long in the ambulance and then you would be so long on this crew bus and then you would probably eh. I used to have different vehicles, vehicles where I could pop in home going through to Sheffield, yeah I did. My mum used to say ‘Oh goodness me there’s our Bessie, look what she’s got that big thing.’ And I used to be in this two, three ton lorry and and you had to jump over wheels. They couldn’t believe it and eh [laugh] she used to, oh it were lovely. I did used to drive lots of different vehicles and of course I got to be LACW that were leading aircraft woman. But I could have been a corporal but you had to go inside and I didn’t want that job, so I never.
AM. You enjoyed the driving?
BB. I did, I loved it and of course me husband he didn’t drive then Wally but eh he had a, he had a motor bike and we used to go up on leave and I used to ride on the back of his motor bike, but when he got out of the forces he went to the School of Motoring and he got a job British School of Motoring. Because he went to Blackpool, Lytham St Annes with RAF. He had to remuster because eh when flying had finished you know. So; but they were happy days.
AM. Lovely, did you drive after the war?
BB. Oh yes it stood me in good stead that because there weren’t many women drivers. Yeah, I got a job as soon as I got me two little ones to school. Me mum used to live nearby because she moved from where we lived and she got near to where I lived an she used to have two children for me.
AM. So what did you do?
BB. I used to drive for eh, eh war veterans and I used to go out selling bread and cakes and what have you and I had a real good job there.
AM. It must have been, so this was in the 1950’s.
BB. Our eh yeah 1947 Jeff were born and Nigel were born in 1946. I didn’t come out while I think. She were born in March and I didn’t come out until the middle of February because I weren’t showing, couldn’t tell.
AM. As long as you weren’t changing wheels.
BB. I’ve still got me pay book and I’ve still got me husbands pay book.
AM. Oh I might have a photograph of them as well.
BB. I know.
AM. That was excellent, thank you.



Annie Moody, “Interview with Bessie Birkby ,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

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