A Shy Girls War by Katie Adland 

The following are edited extracts from 3 chapters of a book Katie Adland has written and published recounting her memories of World War II. Katie saw the early part of the war from the serving side of the NAAFI counter, and in that position saw the true cost of combat to the men of the Royal Air Force. A PDF of the book is available to purchase on application, with proceeds being given to charity, for details please contact us by email.

Looking back through the years, Easter Monday 1940 always stands out. It was a personal ‘D Day’ for me – a day etched in my memory forever. I caught a bus and made my way to the RAF Station near Norwich where I was to begin work. On arrival at the gates, I asked a kindly policeman where the NAAFI canteen was. He pointed to a building that was quite a distance away. I took one look through the gates and exclaimed, “Do I have to walk past all those men?” He replied “My dear, you’ll see thousands of those before you’ve finished!” He saw the look on my face and added, “Don’t worry, dear, I’ll find someone to carry your case!” He came back with a very shy airman, who I couldn’t get a word out of, which made things even worse as there were catcalls, wolf whistles, and comments of all descriptions flying around.

After what seemed like an eternity I arrived in the NAAFI with my case. Straight away I was put into what I thought was an absolutely shapeless uniform. The thing that amuses me now is that these uniforms are worn, practically the same, by nurses today. It was a royal blue cotton dress, belted at the back and straight through to the hem, with short sleeves and white piping. The only difference to the nurse’s uniform is that we had the NAAFI crest, ‘Servientur Servietium’, on the lapel. Case unpacked, uniform on, hair off the collar, I was in at the deep end. I barely had time to draw breath.

The provisions for women on an essentially male base were somewhat limited. Eight of us girls shared a dormitory together, so there wasn’t a great deal of privacy. We each had a bed, locker and wardrobe, and the room had a radiator. Fortunately, we were in an RAF station that had been built before the war, on similar lines to all others built in the same period. We lived in relative luxury compared with the Nissen hut accommodation provided on later hastily built airfields, with only a cast iron stove for heat, linoleum floors, and ‘biscuit’ mattresses to sleep on.

Compared with what 1 had previously known in the village, the life on the base was a totally new experience for me. We had station concert parties, dances, and ENSA concerts (Every Night Something Awful) occasionally as well. There was an excellent pianist at the station, who regularly played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and our own Station dance band with good musicians. We were allowed out after 9.30pm and during light summer evenings were granted a two hours extension to go out for a walk, so there was always a sense of something going on. It wasn’t really possible to mix with the Airmen, because there was no real venue except on dance evenings twice a week. The Airmen’s Mess was the only one with sufficient space to hold dances, and their social life was mostly based around the canteen. The Officers had cocktail parties, and the Sergeants and other ranks held social gatherings. After the start of the war, however, civilians were not allowed on Air Force bases; so all socialising was purely among those on the base. There was a dance hall in the town – after a fashion. Dances were held in the saleroom where auctions were held. This was popularly known as the “Sweat Box”.

On joining the air base, my initial hurdle was to get over my nerves. I soon learned to join in, and began to realise that I would have to get used to answering for myself. In the past, of course, my mother had always answered for me, and standing on my own two feet was a totally new experience. This didn’t happen overnight. On the second evening after I started work in the canteen, there was a concert on the base. Someone had to go in and serve cigarettes and chocolates before the performance and during the interval, and I was delegated the job of Usherette. As it turned out, it wasn’t so much that I was taking the money; it was more that the men were dropping their change onto the tray that was shaking in my hands. I was so frightened I didn’t dare look up.

One thing that did my self-confidence the world of good in the early days on the base was learning to dance. I found a willing teacher, and soon picked up the basics in the NAAFI canteen. I danced all the rest of my life while I was fit. Like my uncle before me, I loved to dance. In the past my partner at village hops had been the clod-hopping farming friend who wooed me with chocolates. He trod all over my toes and we made painful progress. Now, however, I was in the arms of a burly great RAF Flight Sergeant who had gallantly offered to escort me round the floor. He was a superb dancer, with a light step and a natural sense of rhythm, and I learned very quickly from him. I also learned very quickly to keep my feet out from under his! For the aircrew stationed on the base, the concerts and dances made something of a distraction from the nerve-racking business of flying. They certainly needed it.

Like most civilians who joined up to serve in the war, I enrolled with very little idea of what life on an operational RAF base would actually entail. I was almost totally unprepared for being brought face to face with tragedy. Sadly this happened all too soon.

The girls in the canteen were friendly with a young air gunner on the station, and about two weeks after I started work, we were all invited to his twenty-first birthday party. On the morning of the party, the crew of three, the pilot, navigator and the young air gunner whose birthday it was, went out on a mission in a Blenheim bomber. As they took off from the runway the plane hit a tree and the fuel tank exploded into a fireball on impact. -There were no survivors. The shattered stump of the tree still remains near the airfield.

The first time I ever heard the RAF March Past was when I stood with my friends and watched those three coffins being carried out of the gates of the air base. For years I could not hear this without tears in my eyes.

Somehow life went on, although this had been a dreadful first experience for all of us. Working in the canteen kept us fully occupied, but we usually found enough energy to have a social life at the end of our duties. We didn’t exactly have shifts; we worked all day from eight in the morning until nine-thirty at night, except for two hours off in the afternoon. Once a week we had tea duty in the afternoon, when we cleaned out the tea urns, and on that day we had two hours off in the evening instead. We had half a day off a week to ourselves, when we would go into Norwich shopping. When I started work I was earning fifteen shillings a week, which is the equivalent of seventy-five pence in today’s money.

I was mainly serving on the counter for the first two years. We opened the canteen up at lunchtime, and then again at five thirty in the evening, until nine thirty, except the Corporals bar which had an extension to open until ten o’clock and serve alcoholic refreshments. I liked working in the beer bar, as it was rather out of the way of the rest of the canteen and we had more chance to chat with the men. We served suppers in the evening and catered for the ground crews and all others working on the base. Favourites were pie and beans and chips, and date slices. One day a young airman once asked me for a ‘fig leaf’, and I guessed he wanted a date slice! We also sold general requisites like razor blades, matches and cigarettes. I remember that in those days ‘Players Tips’ were one shilling and six pence a packet.

One of the things which always seems strange to me today is that we were given specific tasks to do in the NAAFI, such as putting out flying rations. These consisted of Kit Kats, boiled sweets and barley sugar, and we were told what time they would be picked up. With being a civilian, I hadn’t sworn to the Official Secrets Act, and it has always struck me that this information about the timing of flights could have been a danger if there was a breach of security on the base. The enemy would know when our planes were coming. The girls in the canteen always knew who was going, because the men would come in at lunchtime, and tell us if it was an afternoon raid, or in the evening if it was a night raid, though they were briefed not to tell anyone where they were going.

The station we were on was a complete Blenheim Station at that point, and we were constantly aware of the planes coming and going. At one point during the war, Lord Haw Haw announced on the radio (the wireless) that a successful bombing raid had been carried out on the base with much damage done and personnel killed. The truth of the matter was that a chicken coop had been blown up in the nearby village of Carbrooke, killing a hundred chickens, but this can hardly have been any consolation to listening relatives at the time!

As bombing raids increased in intensity, flying missions inevitably took their toll of lives. It was always hard knowing a plane and its crew had gone down, but some losses were felt more keenly than others. There was one occasion in May 1940 when twelve planes went out, and only two returned to the base. You could have heard a pin drop in the canteen that night. One man turned on the radio, another turned it off. I don’t think anyone knew how to break the silence. We stayed up at night to watch the planes return. This was the ill-fated Blenheim raid on Gembloux in France. During the Falklands War there was much made of the phrase ‘We counted them out and we counted them in’. We were staying up night after night to do exactly that.

Like Guy Gibson, of Dambusters fame, one of the pilots who did not return that night had been in the habit of taking his dog, a golden Labrador, on missions. But the C.O. stopped it. The dog used to lie up on the airfield, waiting for him to come back. On this occasion, it lay up there for about four days. It refused water, and food. Then one evening, approaching dusk, a plane flew low over the airfield, and the officer in charge of the guns alerted the crew and gave the order to fire. Suddenly the dog started jumping up and down and barking in excitement. The officer in charge had the sense to tell the gunners to hold their fire. Somehow the Labrador had recognised that his owner was flying the plane. If the dog had not been left behind, they could have been killed as they returned. A few of the men who were shot down had parachuted out of their planes and were still fit to fly. They managed to commandeer planes to get them home, and some had landed at other airfields. We were so glad to welcome them back.

Towards the end of May 1940, and about a fortnight before I had a weekend pass due, we realised that large numbers of army personnel were pouring into the base in a dishevelled state. They were sleeping temporarily on the floor between beds, then moving through to army camps. They seemed to be in an awful state, and they had no money, so the fellows in the RAF were paying for tea and we had permission to give food and drink, and a ration of cigarettes, and keep a record of this. I asked one poor fellow if he’d been on an exercise. I got a filthy look in reply. I always wished afterwards that I could have seen him again and apologise for what I’d said.

There was a meeting of our own personnel, and the CO requested that we provided 24-hour service. This was obviously a voluntary thing. Each of us took six hours off in any twenty-four. This lasted for two weeks. We had to do our washing and snatch sleep when we could when we were off duty. At the end of the fortnight, my weekend pass was due. I had had no time to write to my mother and father. I rang a family friend, as my mother hated telephones and wouldn’t have one in the house, to tell them I would be coming home. On the way home there was a lot of talk on the bus about Dunkirk. I didn’t like to ask what was going on. When I got into the house, my first question was “What’s all the talk about Dunkirk?” My mother’s reply was “You look as if you haven’t slept for ages, I suppose you’ve been dancing every night!” I bit back the tears and changed the subject.

I often felt throughout the war that if my mother did not want to know about something, she would brush it under the carpet as if it didn’t exist. After lunch, I excused myself and said I’d like to go to bed. My mother brought me a cup of tea when my father came home, and asked if I would like to come down for dinner. My father looked at me while I was eating, and said, “You’ve had a tough time, haven’t you?” I saw my mother’s face. She didn’t ask any questions or say any more to me. Later, I did hear her say to my father “She doesn’t talk at all”. He said, “Give her time.”

I didn’t talk to my mother; because I found it difficult to do so after all I had been through. All she wanted to do was talk about the goings on in the village, which seemed so mundane after all that I had witnessed. She commented so often on how I’d changed. It was impossible not to change under those conditions. I returned to the base, and life went on. Day after day we were losing friends we had made. At times it was almost unbearable. Through it all over the Tannoy, came Vera Lynn singing ‘It’s a lovely day tomorrow’.

If I have ever wanted to gag anyone, it was she. Not because I disliked her, but because of the song. It was so poignant.

It’s a lovely day tomorrow
Tomorrow is a lovely day
Come and feast your tear dimmed eyes
On tomorrow’s clear blue skies

It’s a lovely day tomorrow
Tomorrow is a lovely day
Come and feast your tear dimmed eyes
On tomorrow’s clear blue skies

If today your heart is weary
If ev’ry little thing looks gray
Just forget your troubles and learn to say
Tomorrow is a lovely day

Several of the girls had fiancées who were in France, and when the song “Somewhere in France with you” came over the air they would be in tears:

I meet a someone each day
Who’s never sad, who’s always gay
I know she’s acting a part
You can see what goes on in her heart
There are two eyes, such blue eyes, a-smiling at me
Yet, they’re lonely as only a woman’s can be
For I see all her thoughts are somewhere
Somewhere in France with you

While she’s talking, she’s talking of no one but you
She’s so proud, oh so proud
Of the things you will do
I can see all her love is somewhere
Somewhere in France with you

And when your letters come
They bring a smile, a tear
Each one a sweet sounvenir
Only one of a million who’ll never complain
For she knows that the sunshine will follow the rain
Every beat of her heart will always be
Somewhere in France with you
Somewhere in France with you

One day, one of the airmen we knew well came in at lunchtime, shook hands with us all and wished us goodbye. So we said to him, “Are you being posted?” He said, “No, I’m off on a mission”. So we said “Oh, we’ll see you at teatime.” He said, “No, you won’t.” He was killed that afternoon. He must have known his chances of survival had been virtually non-existent. In the face of the odds, we almost had to stop feeling to be able to continue working.

Life had become so uncertain for everyone on the base that folk would grasp at straws for some reassurance of what the future held. At that time we had a mother and daughter working with us, and the mother practiced reading teacups. Of course, being young and foolish, we all wanted our teacups read every mealtime. It was all tea leaves in those days, as we didn’t have tea bags. The very same day as our friend was killed, at teatime, she read someone’s cup in the canteen. She put it down, and then she said, “I shall never read another”. We were sure she must have seen his death. She was very friendly with the airmen, as in a mother and son relationship, and she stuck to her word, and would never read anyone’s teacup again.

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