Please read this in conjunction with the RAF High Street Page
Wartime Experiences of LACW Bessie Shackley - stationed at High Street Darsham, as a 20 year old Radar Operator from 1944 to 1945
When War had started I volunteered for the WAAFs at 17 and left my home town of Consett, asking to do 'special duties' which could have been a number of different things including radar.
I was called up in February 1943 and sent to Innsworth near Gloucester where I was issued with uniform and equipment and given inoculations. I spent about two weeks here on basic training or ‘square bashing'!
From there I was sent to Snaith in Yorkshire which was in Bomber Command. Squadron 150 was based here (Halifaxes, when I was there and Lancasters after I left.)
I went into the Intelligence section where I was a clerk SD (special duties.) I used to type on rice paper to give instructions to pilots about how to recognize beacons by their flashes which varied from day to day. Another part of my job was to cycle round to the planes with packs of ‘window' (thin metallic strips) which were dropped to interfere with the radar when flying over Germany. Additionally, we went into briefings to assist RAF officers by working the epidiascope for weather maps and to show where the airmen were going to bomb as well as handing out briefcases to pilots which contained aids to escape.
I was then posted to Yatesbury in Wiltshire for radar training and subsequently to Scotland to an RAF radar station at Hill Head near Fraserburgh. I also made a brief visit to Roseharty which was a co-station plotting low-flying aircraft and shipping which couldn't be picked up at stations like Hill Head.
After a number of months at Hill Head Radar Station, I travelled by train from Inverness, to Stanmore Fighter Command Southern Headquarters outside London for a night (19th June 1944) to find out where my next posting was to be.
I was subsequently posted to High Street, Suffolk near Darsham with Joan Atkin from Hull who had also been at Hill Head at the same time as me. However, because we were on different shifts, we hardly knew each other until we were posted. We travelled from Stanmore on the train into London but part way through the journey from Stanmore to London, the train stopped and two civilians popped their heads out of the window to ask a guard what had happened. He said that a V1 had just dropped behind the station. The civilians must have had some official connection with the railway as they wanted to know why one of the guards was smoking on the platform and told him to get the other guard off the platform with his cigarette! The poor man would no doubt be in a state of shock! We had previously been talking to each other about the dirty state of the carriage and felt embarrassed once we realized they were probably railway officials!
From London, we caught the connection to Darsham in Suffolk where we asked the Station Master to phone the RAF station for us to be picked up. However, someone from MT (military transport) suggested we leave our kit bags at the railway station and walk to the camp and that they would collect the kit bags later. Joan would have walked but, knowing that camp sites were often far from railway stations, I refused their offer and told them we would wait until they came to pick us up, which they duly did not long after! They thought we were going to be an ‘easy take'. However it was their job to come and transport us. We wouldn't have known where to go, never having been before, with no sign- posts in wartime to guide us.
I have subsequently visited the site of the WAAF camp on two occasions over the years. It is now split (part has been taken over by High Lodge Leisure) and the remains of some wartime buildings are still visible and in use whilst others have been much changed or are in ruins.
The WAAF camp was in a wood away from the radar station. There was no gate-house or sentry post at this site.
On the left were two small brick buildings which belonged to the MOD and stocked equipment and supplies. These were manned by civilians working for the MOD.
On the right was a large, wooden building in which the cooks were billeted. At least one of the cooks lived in the village of Darsham. A road led past our billet on the right which in turn faced sick quarters. Beyond that was a recreation hall with a table tennis table. The hall was used for the occasional, very rare dance but in the time I was stationed at High Street, I can only recall one dance being held on site to which American airmen had been invited. As it was a small site, the WAAF officer who worked in the Admin. Office came round to try to drum up support as the numbers attending were low. As my shift was waiting to go on duty at 10pm, time at the dance was limited anyway!
Although it was the WAAF billet site, it had both RAF and WAAF personnel working there and also had an admin. office a WAAF mess, a sergeants' mess, and a NAAFI.
The NAFFI could be used by colleagues from off-site and contained odd tables and chairs, a piano and a counter from which coffee, tea, snacks and the occasional Lyons apple tart were served up! It was also the place to buy special things like soap or cosmetics. On rare occasions when they came in and news got round, the WAAFs would be in there quickly and the items were soon sold out.
A male sergeant did the cooking on a stove at the WAAF mess and because of the shift patterns, there were only ever small numbers of WAAFs eating when I was there. Consequently, the food was generally good within the limitations of wartime rationing, unlike some of the larger stations with huge numbers of personnel where food was cooked on a huge scale.
The sleeping quarters for WAAFs were in a wooden building which contained three rooms all linked by doors, plus the ablutions which meant we didn't have to venture outside as on some camps. The ablutions had two baths, toilets and washbasins.
There would be four or five of us in a room who were colleagues on the same shift. The rooms contained only beds and wooden ‘lockers' to keep our belongings in.
Although we had facilities to take a bath, at one point we were invited to a big house nearby somewhere off the London Road to take advantage of a leisurely bath in our free time. A maid filled an old-fashioned, large bath for us in a big, high-ceilinged bathroom and we were able to luxuriate for a time!
Opposite our billet was sick quarters.
When off duty, we used to cycle to The Ship Inn at Dunwich for home-made jam and bread and also to Southwold where a Mrs. Denny who lived at ‘Crossways' was one of the volunteers who offered hospitality to service people at a room at the Town Hall in the middle of Southwold. The Dennys ran a Gents' outfitters in the town.
I have a photograph taken somewhere on the coast road between Dunwich and Southwold whilst on a bike ride (still clutching my cycle clips!) In the background are some of the wartime beach defences. There would also be concrete blocks etc. not visible in the photo, to prevent invasion by sea but which also kept locals as well as any enemy off the beaches! Only a few of us had cameras because film wasn't easily available.
We also ventured by train occasionally to Ipswich where we went to the Hippodrome and also by bike to Halesworth's cinema.
I sometimes used to call at a house in Darsham on the corner of London Road to collect milk before going on duty to the radar station and have a photograph of some of my colleagues on the billet site featured with the horse-drawn milk cart.
When we had first walked into our new billet, we met up with two other ex-colleagues - Laura Gunning and another girl from London who had been at Hill Head Radar Station with us but had been posted to Suffolk before us. They weren't allowed to tell us what they were doing at High Street but they knew what our job entailed because they had done it themselves at Hill Head.
When going on duty at night, we used to jump quickly into the wagon as there were lots of rats running around in the wood! We worked three shifts a day and were taken by truck the short distance to the radar site. Some WAAFs, including Laura Gunning would be dropped off on the radar site to the right of the road to Halesworth but I was on the receiver site on the left.
The radar station was surrounded by a security fence and we worked in a bunker underground within this area. The bunker had a blast wall. There were eight of us on duty at each shift moving to different positions every hour. The bunker was dimly lit and the team would work in conjunction with each other. My role was to look at the radar screen for aircraft and distress signals. On screen, this would look like a line which altered in different ways depending on what it was picking up e.g. plane, group of planes, distress signal or V1. It was my job to interpret these signals and by pressing different buttons, to ascertain range, direction, height etc. My colleagues would mark the positions on a large map and pass the information on via an open phone-line.
We had brief breaks in between and a small room was set aside where we could make simple things like tea and toast.
I had to sit a technical written test to become LACW 1 (1st class) which gave me a rise in pay. I still have some of the notes on the back of a message form, made for me by an RAF officer who helped me before I sat the test.
Whilst on duty one night I plotted a V1 coming directly at the station. Luckily it missed the transmitters but landed in the field behind us! Someone at the other end of the phone congratulated me on a good plot - not that anyone could have done a thing to prevent it! The WAAF officer in charge of us went out to see what had happened whilst telling us she wasn't supposed to!
When V2s started to be launched and used against the UK, existing equipment didn't pick them up. You couldn't tell where they were going, unlike V1s which you could trace. I believe the RAF had some intelligence about sites from which V2s were being launched, from aerial photography etc. but that the launch pad sites didn't always remain in the same position. V2s were more sophisticated and the beginning of rocket science and in consequence, the radar equipment had to be rapidly updated to deal with them. Literally overnight, a new piece of equipment appeared in the workspace at High Street. When I came on duty for my morning shift with fellow radar operators, we got a surprise - new piece of equipment was already there so would have been made and put in place overnight by talented radar mechanics.
You could tell it had been done quickly because it was roughly done - strips of metal making a frame with cables within it and a small (maybe 12 inch) round screen rather than a square one previously. We called it 'The Tube' and you had to sit right up to it and put your head very close - it just fitted your face. It was just like looking at a clear screen and operators were only allowed to work on it for 30 minute intervals. Due to this close scrutiny, we had to have our eyes tested every six months.
We had no real training with the new equipment and it was a 'rush job' for everyone in response to a changed situation. The trace we saw on screen would be a brief flash or tiny arc of a few seconds which denoted that a V2 had been launched. When we saw that, we had to shout our own location 'High Street' into our headsets which were linked to a permanently open phone line to give warning. I believe this went through to headquarters. Apparently the equipment also took, or was linked to something which took a film which was then developed by one of the RAF personnel straight after and forwarded on .
None of us knew anything of plans for the D Day invasion however, we realized that something unusual was happening as we could see dozens of aircraft all going out over the sea and swamping our radar screens. This was the start of the invasion but we could only guess at what was happening. It was difficult to estimate the number of aircraft on our screens and when the American planes went over, they didn't fly in tight formation like the RAF. We mainly had to concentrate on looking for distress signals.
When VE Day came about, we celebrated by lighting a bonfire next to the campsite and were allowed into the Sergeants' Mess that night to have a drink in celebration. This was beer with a red hot poker to warm it up! This is the one and only time I have been tipsy which worried me as I wondered what my mother would have to say if she had seen me!
As there was no longer a need for us to plot incoming or outgoing aircraft, our jobs became unnecessary and people were sent to various camps around the country to wait for their de-mob. Towards the end of the war in November 1945, I went by train from Darsham railway station via London to travel on to Hereford carrying all my kit. I was posted to RAF Madley in Herefordshire (No 4 Radio School) to await my de-mob. High Street was still operational when I left but winding down.
It was at RAF Madley that I met my future husband who had been on Air Sea Rescue in Scotland and at Bridlington, during the war.
WAAF Radar colleagues I recall from RAF High Street are Dorothy Dyson also from Consett, Betty Everett from Newcastle, Effie Taylor from Kirkwall in the Orkneys, Vera Reid of Heybridge in Essex, Laura Gunning from near Glasgow, Pat Hennessy of brandy fame, Joan Atkin from Hull who was later posted to RAF Detling, near Maidstone and Jean Mooney from Marlborough, Wilts who was later posted to RAF Madley at the same time as me, prior to be being de-mobbed elsewhere at a later date.