Memories of a WAAF (Norma Charlton)

Norma Charlton [Courtesy of Peter Royall]

“I joined the WAAF at the age of 18 in 1941. First posting was to RAF Station Linton on Ouse near York. I worked in the officer’s mess, answering the telephone and serving coffee. The job wasn’t hard but tiring and was all shift work.

During 1941 the station was bombed and our C/O was killed along with many WAAFs and airmen when the air raid shelter was hit. Incendiary bombs fell on our billets and we were kept busy on the roof extinguishing them with sand.

During the summer of 1942, 35 Squadron was transferred to Graveley, Huntingdonshire, a satellite station. I applied for posting and went there in October 1942. Things were much harder there – our WAAF site was about 3 miles from the camp. We were in Nissan huts about 30 in each, very hot in summer and freezing cold in winter, with only 2 pot bellied stoves for heat. We used to dress to go to bed and even resorted to putting on balaclavas and gloves!

We all worked shifts, the worst was 4pm to 12. When our bikes went missing (borrowed!) we had to walk along the icy lanes in the pitch-black darkness. Our shifts were very flexible as sometimes we had a lot of diversions due to the fact that FIDO (fog dispersal) had been installed and the extra crews
had to be fed too. We tried to make things as welcoming as possible by piling on the wood in the dining room stoves so it was warm and cosy when the crews came in.

The road to the ‘WAAFery’ ran parallel with the main runway and my friend (Laura Nash) and I used to wave to the crews as they went off, this was in summertime. Laura and I used to get “flights” often and cadge a ride when the planes were listed for a night flight. This was against the rules but we were never found out! Of course we didn’t have a parachute but thoroughly enjoyed the buffeting when they were practising fighter affiliation. Our favourite pilot was Squadron Leader McDonald, a Canadian, Mad Mac as he was called.

We had a good relationship with the officers and were called by our Christian names. The food was excellent.

Nearest train was at Huntingdon, 5 miles away, and when funds allowed, 5 WAAFs used to hire a taxi which cost 1 pound. We also rode our bikes or hitch hiked. Laura and I were incensed when one day we were trudging along trying to get a lift and who should pass us but a coach load of Italian POWs. I must say that rude gestures were exchanged at these times!

We were able to get lifts to Cambridge in the officer’s transport, hidden in the back.

I met Ben [Benjamin Thomas Royall, Wireless Operator, 35 Squadron] at a Sergeant’s Mess dance in November 1942. In May 1943 we were going on leave to get engaged and he was shot down the night before (*). We had heavy losses that night. Our CO, Group Captain Basil Robinson, whom I had known from the Linton days, ‘arranged’ for a Halifax to go to Linton (I lived at York) and my friend Laura and I got a lift as I was in a state of shock.

As the war stepped up we had a Mosquito Squadron join us. We were working very long hours and table service was discontinued and meals were cafeteria style. We were short staffed and I applied for more help (I was a Corporal and shift supervisor) which was not forthcoming. During the time leading up to D Day we sometimes worked 60 hours per week.

We had lots of good times too, mainly at the village pub, camp dances and films. Sad times of course too when the bombers failed to return or crashed on landing. I’m sure FIDO saved a lot of lives – it was quite a sight when it was lit to see the fog lifting and making the runway lights visible.

When the war finished every available aircraft went to Germany to air lift the POWs. WAAFs were invited officially this time to go and see the bomb damage. I jumped at the opportunity and went over Germany in the nose of the plane – what an experience!”

POSTSCRIPT: At the end of the war, Norma was Mentioned in Despatches (MID) for distinguished service with 35 Squadron. She married Benjamin Royall on 7th July 1945 and settled in Australia in 1946

(*) More on the loss of this aircraft

[Published with kind permission of Peter Royall, who retains the original copyright]