Interview with Margret Young


Interview with Margret Young


Margaret Young grew up in Scotland and worked in a ladies shoe department. She volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at the age of 18 and served as a wireless operator. She talks about the medical and reception centre and training, learning Morse code and the wooden accommodation huts. Once trained, she was posted to RAF Banff, and talks about the shifts and accommodation. She was later posted to RAF Hednesford, where servicemen were demobilised.




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00:42:13 audio recording

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DE: This is an interview with Margaret Young in Heckington on Friday the 15th of May 2015, I am the interviewer I’m Dan Ellin. So Margaret could you start off by telling me a little bit about where you were born and how you grew up and your schooling and that sort of thing?
MY: Right, well I was born in Leith, which is a suburb of Edinburgh, in 1925, went to school there, secondary school went to Bellevue school and from there went to work in Princes Street in R W Forsyth’s, in the ladies shoe department and from there when I turned 18 I had to register and if you didn’t volunteer to go in the services the authorities could send you anywhere, and as I didn’t want to go to munitions or the land army I decided I’d like to be in the Air force [laughs]. So I went and registered and joined the WAAF that was just after my 18th birthday which was in 43. Then I was called up to go to an initial interview early in 44 then after that I was sent for and told that I ‘d been accepted and I had got a railway warrant to take me to Wilmslow for initial training, that was in march 44.
DE: Why didn’t you want to join the land army or one of the other services?
MY: Well, I did want to join the Land Army but my mother and a few others talked me out of it because they were country people and they knew it was very hard work [laughter] and it was the uniform that attracted me [laughter] to be wanting to join the land army, as I got older and got more sense I realised that I did the right thing by joining the WAAF.
DE: You didn’t fancy any of the other services the ATS
MY: No
DE: Or the WRENS?
MY: No I don’t know why blue has always been my colour [laughter] as you can see.
DE: Quite. So what was going through your mind on your train journey to Wilmslow?
MY: Och, I can’t really remember but it must have been a bit strange because I had never been away from home before and there was only my mother and myself because my father died when I was two and a half, and there was only the two of us, and it was strange to be going away, but it was adventurous at the same time, and I was, sometimes when I got there I was a bit homesick but its something you just learn to live with.
DE: So can you remember what sort of things did they have you doing or happened to you at the recruitment centre?
MY: Well first of all we were kitted out with our uniforms, and we had injections which weren’t very pleasant because in those days you had a needle put into your arm unscrewed and you left the needle in and you moved on to the next doctor re-screwed another injection and gave you another dose, and we also had a vaccination as well thats – and also we had what we called FFI’s Free From Infection, to see if you had anything in your hair or any skin disease, you had all those medicals. We had a foot inspection as well to make sure our feet were alright [laughter] for marching and that was it. Different days we had different lectures, how to conduct yourself as a WAAF and when to salute and it was the badge on the officers hat that you were saluting, not the officer and how to salute the long way up and the short way down. [inaudible]
DE: What happened if you got these things wrong, these lessons wrong?
MY: Well I suppose they would take into consideration we were raw recruits and probably get a telling off I suppose, I never got one [laughter]
DE: And the FFIs how did they work? Was it –?
MY: You had to strip to the waist with – and go through different - and be examined by doctors to see if you were alright.
DE: Aha, and was this individually or – ?
MY: Well no you just all queued one behind each other and went forward and there were different doctors in little cubicles and that was it.
DE: Can you remember how long you were there at the reception area?
MY: I can’t, I think it was about three weeks I don’t think it was any longer than that, but I can’t honestly remember.
DE: Did you make any friends?
MY: Oh yes you make friends there but not lifelong friends because you were all going in your separate directions, when we went we were- . That’s where they decided what trade you were going to be and I was picked out to be a wireless op. I don’t know why, maybe, I knew the Morse code because I had learnt that when I was in the Guides, and whether that helped me or not I don’t know, but they decided that I was to be a wireless op. So then, at the end of our training we were all taken, sent on, to our different places -. I was sent to Blackpool that’s where the wireless ops did their first three months of their training it was a six months course, and we did the first three months in Blackpool and the second three months at RAF Compton Bassett in Wiltshire.
DE: Ok, can you remember whether there were any tests or interviews that you had to do to pick which trade you were going to be sent for?
MY: Yes we had, we had some pictures of designs where you would pick out something but I can’t really remember much about them, that’s, you know, they must have just decided, we were either going to go to that sort of, I don’t know, trade or what I don’t know but that was it.
DE: Did they take your choices or your opinions into consideration or was it just – ?
MY: Not, not really they just more or less told we were going to be. Yeah!
DE: How did you feel about becoming a wireless –
MY: Oh I was quite happy yeah, I was quite happy about it, I didn’t know it was going to be such a long course at first, but yeah I quite, I enjoyed it.
DE: Before we move on and talk about further training, what was the accommodation like at the reception centre?
MY: Oh it was just wooden huts held about thirty odd people, because we had some bunk beds as well, I happened to be on the top of a bunk bed right at the very end, so I had a good view of everything [laughter] and that, but then when we went to Blackpool we were in civilian accommodation. We were in Reeds Avenue most of us were in Reeds Avenue and that, that area of Blackpool and we used to march every day from there to the Winter Gardens where we had our Morse school. There was the ladies in one section and the airmen in the other.
DE: And how did that training work? What was a typical day like?
MY: You went in the morning, you got your Morse lessons, learnt the Morse code and learnt how to tap the machine and then we had procedure lessons and we also had technical lessons, where we learnt how to put a plug, an electric plug together, and the procedure one was how messages were written down [pause] it was alright, gradually we used to march around from one – because there was only the wireless school in the one place, the other classes were held in anywhere that was empty, a shop that was maybe empty. I don’t know how true it is but we used to go to Burtons and they always said that’s how I went for a Burton or I’m going for a Burton but I don’t know if that’s true or not but we were told that.
DE: Aha
MY: It was different shops and then we marched along the prom, doing our marching and sometimes we did our PE lessons on the beach,
DE: So were you – ?
MY: So it was like a big long holiday [laughter]
DE: Was it the summer time you were there then?
MY: From April, yeah April, May, and June and July so it was summer time yeah.
DE: Ok
MY: Then we got leave that was the first leave we got after half way through the course, before we went on to RAF Compton Bassett.
DE: How long leave did you get?
MY: Probably about 10 days.
DE: Did you go home?
MY: Oh yes! They gave us warrants railway warrants to take us from –
DE: And what was travelling on the trains on a warrant like?
MY: Well it was alright, but the trains were very packed and there weren’t so many about then they were few and far between and they were always packed mostly with service people.
DE: I have read an awful lot about people who hitchhiked, did you ever you ever do any hitchhiking?
MY: Yes, from Compton Bassett we did some hitchhiking up to London or - , but not very often because the doodle bugs were about then, but we did, I’ve been on the back of a Queen Mary which is a long – with aircraft bits on it, you know, oh yes we did a bit of that, but never on our own we always made sure there was two of us [laughter] at least, there, I don’t, I can’t remember if that was drummed into us or not, it may not have been but we decided my friends and I that we wouldn’t do it on our own.
DE: So did you start to make friends when you were doing the training?
MY: Oh yes! You had lots of friends, well all the people on your - , there is a picture there, of our class that one up there forty, forty [inaudible] that was about the size of the class and these were our instructors along the middle. So there is one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight – [silence] there’s about twenty of us in a class and the instructors were –
DE: Did the instructors look like the civilians?
MY: Some of them were civilians yes, they did mostly the procedure and the technical [pause] but they weren’t all, there were some RAF ones as well on different courses, you see, because you stayed with the same instructors throughout your course.
DE: I See. Did you have any time off perhaps in the evenings in Blackpool?
MY: Yes, yes, yes we were out most evenings but we didn’t have the money because we were paid fourteen shillings a week and we got paid once a fortnight, and that was to pay for your NAFFI cups of tea and your cigarette ration 20 big cigarettes and 20 little ones, woodbines [laughter] and your chocolate ration, you got once a week but you had to buy that and you had to buy your soap and any other cleaning stuff you needed you know, for buttons [?] you had to buy all that yourself.
DE: But your accommodation and your food was - ?
MY: Oh yes accommodation was free, you got your mug and your cutlery and you carried that around with you.
DE: What were the billets like in Blackpool?
MY: They were alright but they were very small the room I was in had been a big front room and the bay window was divided in half and half of the room was two girls in it, and the other half of the room were two WAAF in it, and you could have, there was a wash hand basin in our half but it wasn’t in the other half, so we had the two single beds and the wash hand basin and there was a little cupboard that you could - , but we didn’t have many clothes because we just had our uniform and the rest went into your kit bag which didn’t hang up.
DE: Ok, so what happened to all your civilian clothes then?
MY: You didn’t take them with you, you went with what you joined up in, when you first went, then you took them back when you went back on your leave.
DE: Ah, ok, so you had your first half of your training in Blackpool and then you moved to [talks over the top] RAF Compton Basset.
MY: RAF Compton Bassett. Yes in Wiltshire.
DE: Was that different sort of training or- ?
MY: Well no it was further training really, it was, really you were getting your words up, you started up with about four or five words a minute and you got up to twelve to fifteen, sixteen words a minute, so it was really the advanced end of your training,
DE: So it was more practice?
MY: Yeah, yes, and that was wooden huts, big wooden huts there.
DE: Did you go there with the same class?
MY: No, no, no, there, from there we were, oh yes we did from Blackpool to Compton Bassett yes, some of the girls didn’t come because they didn’t pass and they were FTd, further training,
DE: Aha
MY: For two weeks so they would join another group so you did get some new ones in with your lot.
DE: Were you worried that you wouldn’t pass?
MY: I was worried about the procedure because we had a civilian instructor and when you’re eighteen you will laugh at anything, but I think he must have had indigestion [inaudible] because he was always eating white tablets and kept frothing at the mouth and we laughed at that instead of listening what he was saying half the time [laughter] but we got there in the end, so that was it that was the end of the training.
DE: So then what happened?
MY: Then we got our postings, we were asked where we would like to go, and I just said ‘somewhere in Scotland’ because I wanted to get back up to Scotland [laughter] and I did get up – they sent me to RAF Banff [?] which is right in the north of Scotland in the Merry Firth, but there was only myself went there at that time so I was the only new girl that went. But new ones kept coming in from other places you know, and we had Nissan huts there, Nissan huts, they held I think it was either fourteen or sixteen I can’t remember, three, six, nine, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and a black stove in the middle and a toilet at the end so you didn’t have to go out to go to the toilet [slight laughter]
DE: Luxury then? [laughter]
MY: But I enjoyed it we worked in what they called the WT cabin and we worked shifts, we worked a four watch system there, where you went on duty at eight in the morning till one o’clock then when you came off at one, you went on again at midnight then you did from midnight till eight in the morning, then you had from eight in the morning till five o’clock that next afternoon you went five till eight then the next time you went on from one till five then you got a day and a half off in between your rota, your four watches.
DE: That’s quite, quite stressful I would imagine?
MY: It was, because we worked all night, and then of course you had to go for your breakfast, so you, or a meal when nobody else was going and the cooks in the cookhouse didn’t care very much for us going in at those times having meals, but they were good they were good yeah, you know they used to pull our legs and say oh you’re a nuisance and what have you, maybe a bit stronger words than that but [laughs] but I’m not going to say them [laughter]
DE: And then I suppose you had to try and sleep at the wrong time of day as well?
MY: Yes, well there were erm [pause] Wire- I can’t remember what they were called them, there were huts where you would perhaps watch people on them, you were on watches at slightly different times, but I, when I went there they were full and I had to go into a normal hut where the people came in at lunchtime and if you were trying to sleep you just couldn’t, you had to wait till they went back to work in the afternoon and then you would get another sleep, it was, you just put up with it.
DE: So were you tired and hungry very often then?
MY: Not, I wouldn’t say we were hungry because we had the NAFFI which we could go to and that’s when I first had cold chip sandwiches because you would get somebody to bring you in, the NAFFI closed at eight o’clock at night and you’d get somebody to bring you in a plate of chips and two slices of bread and butter and of course you had that when you wakened so they were cold, the chips were cold so you had cold chip sandwiches before you went on duty at midnight, but even that was, you ate them and quite happy to eat them, that’s when the cooks weren’t giving us anything to eat at that time of night, so, that was it you just got on with it.
DE: So your shifts, you’re either doing a long eight hour shift or a short four hour shift?
MY: Yes, three or four hours it was, the midnight to eight o’clock one was the hardest one.
DE: So were you on your own listening to the - ?
MY: No there was some, one two, there was at least three sometimes four WAAF and there was a Corporal in charge the people were in the building, there was the telephonists and the duty officer and that they were all there. Because if we got messages in they were in code and they had to go to the decoding officers to be decoded.
DE: And you, you just listened to Morse?
MY: We just listened to Morse till the war finished and then I was writing down as usual and I realised that I was writing plain English into these five, these little squares, and it was one of the pilots sending a message to say that he was escorting a U boat into Sullom Voe, in the Orkneys, and that was the first time I’d had English over the [inaudible] –
DE: So normally you were just writing down jumbles of meaningless letters?
MY: There was always four letters and a number in each block of five and you had to put them in these blocks, because these four letters and a number meant a certain phrase.
DE: Oh I see, yes
MY: Which we didn’t know what they meant,
DE: No
MY: And they were probably changed every so often.
DE: Did you get any bother with getting the, getting the code words wrong?
MY: I don’t know, nobody ever said, we were never called, at least I was never called in to say that I had taken down the wrong things, so I don’t know about anyone else, I never heard of anybody else being [pause] taken in.
DE: Was it, was it really busy would you sit there and it be message after message or would you sit there and nothing – ?
MY: Well it just depends, if they were out on a strike, because it was called the Banff strike, and we had a Norwegian squadron and they went up to the shipping and the Norwegian fjords because they knew them like the back of their hands, you know, and, but sometimes that was in sort of the five, maybe, no that would be during the day time, they would go [?] because I don’t think they went out much in night, but you did get the odd message through at night, because there was only two of us on duty at night.
DE: So if it was quieter what would you do to pass the time?
MY: Sleep under the bench [laughs]
DE: Was that allowed?
MY: Yes, well the corporal was there you see, and if they only had two machines and there was four of us there on duty, he let, he halfway through he would, waken the ones that were sleeping under the bench get up, and change over.
DE: But when you were on duty it was sit at -?
MY: It was sit, you sat there and if you wanted to go to the toilet you had to ask permission and somebody else would take over while you went.
DE: So I imagine you are sitting there with headphones on?
MY: Yes
DE: Do you have those on all the time?
MY: Yes
DE: Was there, was there a background noise, or was it – ?
MY: No it was just quiet, yes, [pause] yes, no it was quiet, but you had to be, you couldn’t just sit there and go to sleep and nod, because you just were waiting in case something came through.
DE: And how long were you there for?
MY: Ah [pause] I can’t remember, I was there on VE day anyway, I was there a while before and awhile after, because we left, after the war finished we were made redundant, the wireless operators, because they had far too many and it was in plain language they didn’t need us, so many of us, because we had a satellite where we had another lot of wireless ops at Fraserborough, and of course they all came back and they had far too many, so twenty of us were posted ten of us went to Hednesford, and twenty of them came to Cranwell, I was in the twenty that went to RAF Hednesford and that’s where the 104 PDC [personnel dispatch centre] where we demobbed the men mostly from overseas. There again we used to work all night because they would come in, go into the wooden billets and they had a corporal in charge of each hut, and he would bring a list of the names and numbers and the rank, in, and while they were being seen to we had all the documents delivered into our office and we had to go through all these documents. First of all put them in alphabetical order then when you, the list came in you had an idea where you could look for the documents in the A’s or B’s or C’s.
DE: And these are their service records and things?
MY: That was the service records, sometimes they were full of sand, because most of them had come from the middle east there was sand all over the place [slight laugh] out of the boxes and we then, after we got the documents we separated them into a pile for the pay, pay room, the medical service then they went to another pile for the demob suits.
DE: And they had you working overnight again?
MY: Yes, because sometimes a boat load, if a boat load came in, there was well, thousands, two or three thousand of them, and we had to get the documents ready for them going to, what they called the machine, to go through the machine in the morning, with the [inaudible] and corporals in charge.
DE: So how long did the demob process take for them then, was it - ?
MY: About three days it was very quick by the time, sometimes they went out in two it depends, if there weren’t such a big lot a big amount of them, they could sometimes two days they would go through quicker.
DE: And were they billeted at the - ?
MY: Yes they were all in wooden huts, yeah.
DE: But with a quick turnaround so they were there for a couple of days then, then they were civilians?
MY: That’s right and then you’ve got the rail, we had to write out the railway warrants where they were went, were going to on leave. Now here's an incident once, there were some Welsh came in and they wanted us to write down where their railway warrants were going, and we had to ask how to spell them because they was double L’s and what have you and there was one group there must have been about a dozen of them, and they were with a sergeant and they got nasty with us there was two of us doing this, because we had to do a red copy and a blue copy, one went with them and one stayed with us, and they got nasty with us and my friend Betty, she says ‘I’m not standing for this I’m going to get the flight sergeant’ who was in an office across the road from us so she disappeared and left me with all these men [laughter] however when she got over there the flight sergeant wasn’t there but the wing commander was, and he said ‘what’s the matter?’ and she told him and he came across and he stopped their leave for twenty four hours, he says ‘my girls work here night and day to get you men out as quick as possible’ and he says ‘and you stand there and start swearing at them because they can’t spell where you’re going’ he says ‘so you can just go back to your billets for twenty four hours’ Well we were frightened to go out [laughter] in case we saw any of them [laughter] but we never saw any, there was no trouble, but that was just one incident that happened, you know, but most of the time the men were that pleased to be back they were jovial and joked with us and that, you know, because we were the first white women they’d seen since they were over abroad [laughter] sometimes.
DE: So were they flirting [inaudible]
MY: Oh yes! Most of them flirted [slight laugh] but you just sat there and took it, you know, laughed and that was it, got on with your job, because you couldn’t spend time with them because there was so many of them, you’d be too busy getting them out and through you know, you just had to get on with it.
DE: What about the men in your earlier postings did you have anything to - ?
MY: Not, not, not really I did, we, I mean we used to go to the dances and things but you just danced with the airmen and that was it, some of the girls made [pause] friends, but I’m afraid I wasn’t one of them, not till I met my future husband at Compton Bassett and he was a regular in the RAF, and was redundant the same as me and doing office work.
DE: So you got posted back to Compton Bassett then?
MY: No that’s when, no, well we did later on because he was a regular and we got married in Blackpool because at that time you had to be three weeks in one place before you could get married, well being in the service you couldn’t go home or that you had to be married there and that’s why we were married in Blackpool. Then they gave us leave for our honeymoon because they wouldn’t, you couldn’t get leave together, [inaudible] we were working in the same office but when we were married they relented and let us go, where we went up to Scotland back to my mother [laughter]
DE: So where did you meet him?
MY: At Compton Bassett in the office [pause] then he as I say he was a regular, he did thirty three years in the RAF and when he was demobbed [pause] now I was going to – what was I going to tell – Yeah when I was demobbed he not long after we came up to Scotland he was sent on, he was asked if he would be, go on his commission and he and he went on his commission and he passed out as a flying officer and then he finished up at RAF Digby as a flight lieutenant in the signals unit, that [pause] that was it. I was demobbed after we got married; yeah I got demobbed early because you could get out earlier if you were married. But as I say I went back to Compton Bassett he was posted to Compton Bassett and that time I went back into officers’ quarters instead of wooden billets, which was a bit different [laughter]
DE: So what were the officer’s quarters like?
MY: Well they were very nice, yes, we had three, nice three bed roomed ones, they were semi, semi attached but very nice and we had a nice little patch which was good.
DE: So did you follow him round with all the postings then, where did you go?
MY: Most of them yes I went to Singapore, for three years then we came back, that’s when we came back from Singapore we went to Compton Bassett then from Compton Bassett we went to Aden and we did two years in Aden then from Aden we came up to RAF Digby and that’s where we retired from in 1968 and that’s why I am now living in Heckington. Well that’s it
DE: It’s probably a bit of an odd question but, what do you think about the way the war and the RAF have been remembered?
MY: Oh well I think now it’s been good that they are doing all these things like VE day and VJ day and Battle of Britain day, they’re doing it again because its Seventy Five years in September from the Battle of Britain, and I’m sure they will be doing quite a few things then and I think the school children are learning more about it now than some of the youngsters did, you know, just after the war their history and that was further back but now I think the schools and that the children are learning a lot about it, and I think it’s good.
DE: Did you ever have any reunions or anything like that?
MY: I have WAAF, I joined the WAAF Association in 1988 I think, yeah 1988, and we have had reunions and AGMs, and we started out with between three and four hundred, we’re down to now, I went to my last reunion and AGM in April this year and we went to Coventry and there was only about fifty of us there [pause] but they have allowed, now the RAF, the WRAF and the RAF if any of the ladies want to join and some of them have joined in with us but our standard was laid up in the church in London St Clementine’s and that’s where our standard is now the WAAF standard, [inaudible] Can I help you with anything else? I think we’ve covered nearly everything.
DE: I think you are probably right, we probably have, let’s have a look at the things I’ve scribbled down. I’ve got a couple of questions. One you were talking about going for a Burton, I mean can you just explain that?
MY: Well if you fall, or if you anything odd happens, you say oh you’ve gone for a Burton, but that’s, it’s just a saying it’s like the chads, you know, when you had the wall with the little man’s face above it we called them chads, little imaginary men, [laughter] that did all the things that upset people [laughter] that was it, that was going for a burton that was - , but as I say I don’t know how true that is, I’ve heard it once or twice in different areas so it could be true, because it started right away back then you know.
DE: Where there any other funny sayings or slang terms that were unusual for the forces?
MY: Not really not that I can say on here.
DE: [laughter]
MY: No, no there weren’t any, we used to sing different words to some of the songs but I can’t remember them, you made up your own words sometimes, because we were a right mixture of people in the billets, you know, came from all different places and I mean some places I had never heard of before, when you’re only eighteen you don’t, you just live in your, before you joined up you just lived in your little community.
DE: Yes
MY: And that was it, geography, I must admit I always liked geography at school and I still like geography, I still like to find out where places are and what have you. That, there’s a picture there me at [?] at RAF Cranwell college at the Battle of Britain last year there’s, one, two, three veterans, four veterans and a veterans wife then the air officer commanding of the college and another one there and I was invited as a veteran there last year and I’ve had a another invitation this year to go to the seventy fifth one on the 11th September. So, and that’s through being in the The RAFA, the RAF Association which we belong to, I belong to the Cranwell branch.
DE: I see, you were saying how such a wide selection of different people from different places, did you always get on?
MY: Mostly, yeah they were mostly, yes, and some were older than me because I was younger you know, some had been in two years longer than me before I’d joined up, but no we got on very well together, I never found it difficult. One friend I kept in touch with because she was another Scot she was the one that went in, in to find the flight sergeant and found the wing commander instead, you know about the men
DE: Oh yes, yes.
MY: At Compton Bassett, and I kept up with her till she died, she lived up in Scotland, I visited her, it would be about five years ago she died, and I visited her probably two years before that you know, and that was the last I saw her, but she was the only one that I really kept in touch with because we’d been together for quite a while we were at Banff together then she live up, not far outside of Edinburgh so we did keep in touch, but she’s gone, and the other lady that I said, I met her at one of our reunions and she has died but that’s the one I went to school with.
DE: Oh I see,
MY: She has died [pause] so that’s it.
DE: Ok then
MY: Do you think we’ve covered everything?
DE: I think so, I’ll probably think of lots of more things to ask as soon as I [laughter] walk out the door.
MY: Yes [laughter]
DE: So we’ve been chatting, well you’ve been chatting for 42 minutes
MY: Have I?
DE: Yes, thank you very much.



Dan Ellin, “Interview with Margret Young,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 14, 2024,

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