Hilda Bragg (née Harber) - Memories of Laindon and World War II

September 3rd 1939 was not an ordinary Sunday. Church bells rang and some people went to a Service but most folk stayed at home waiting to hear the worst.

Hilda with her Medal and Certificate recognising her war service at Bletchley Park. "The Government wishes to express to you its deepest gratitude for the vital service you performed during World War II
Hilda in her Guide uniform outside St Nicholas Church
Hilda in her W.A.A.F. uniform

September 3rd 1939 was not an ordinary Sunday.   Church bells rang and some people went to a Service but most folk stayed at home waiting to hear the worst. 

My Father, most unusually, went to work as Linesmen were thought to be needed.   He drove a G.P.O. lorry at this time taking other experts to work on line faults etc.

By 11.15am we knew we were at war especially when an air raid warning sounded.   This was a false alarm and at 18 years of age I did not fully realise how serious things were – if I had known that almost six years were to pass before normality returned I would have resented the fact that those years would be taken out of my life in common with millions of other people.

My Mother always said that she was glad she had given birth to girls and so was saved the worry of us being on active service although halfway through the war this, in some measure, applied to me.

The air raid warning sounded almost as soon as the radio announcement had finished.  Total disbelief was the general reaction and everyone went outside to see what might be happening.  It was a false alarm but it made us aware of possible danger to come.

The next day (Monday) I, as a Girl Guide Ranger, reported to the First Aid Station over the bridge at Laindon Station.  Volunteers soon became paid staff and this was when I first met my good friend Linda Rose who, in the future, would become Godmother to my children.

Living became more difficult for everyone, families separated either by active service or evacuation, rationing, travel restrictions and the blackout, which was total, with severe punishment for anyone breaking it.   The exception was the railway which could not function without signals.   The River Thames and the railway line gave the German planes a guide to London and we began to dread moonlit nights.  Laindon and the surrounding area escaped the true Blitz but we still had the nerve racking sound of bombers passing over.

With long hours of duty, including alternate weeks of nights and days, the ladies at the Post, including Linda and myself, knitted endlessly.  Cinemas, which had closed upon the outbreak of war, began to open after a few months. On days off (one per week and none at all on night duty) films and the occasional visit to Southend were the chief recreation for all of us.  Southend was declared a no-go area at the time of Dunkirk and only residents were allowed in until 1944 when the threat of invasion receded.  Petrol was rationed then stopped altogether for private use.  Linda’s car had the wheels taken off and stored with the car in her garage in the hope that the tyres would survive the war years.  We had some rest on night duty lying on stretchers on the floor always with the telephone near at hand in case of an amber warning which preceded the red alert when the air raid warning would sound.

Life in Laindon went on – very bad war news at times.  Everyone waited for the 9pm news. Weather forecasts and anything that might help the Germans was banned.  Sign posts and names on railway stations disappeared.  In an almost total blackout the only way to know if you were at your destination was to count the stations or rely upon a porter to call out.   I had occasional rides in Lorries etc. and marvelled at how the drivers could see anything at all with only a small slot showing in headlamps that were not good at the best of times.

More shortages of food meant more queues to be faced and often Corned Beef or Spam had to take the place of meat.  We had to choose between an egg ration of two per week or to keep a few chickens. Although the labour involved was hard we opted for the corn ration for chickens supplemented by potato peelings boiled up.

Clothing coupons came into force making things more difficult, most people had used theirs before the end of the month.  Unless you had a decent stock of linen, renewals of this had to be met from the allowance and, of course, my ration was very much reduced upon entry into the W.A.A.F. where we were in uniform.  People with a garden turned most of it to vegetables or fruit – in this way we were fortunate to live in the country.  We had a William Pear tree which gave a magnificent crop and my Mother preserved this fruit in jars. The Bramley Apple tree also helped but there again jars had to be used as domestic freezers just did not exist.  Any spare eggs were preserved in isinglass (dried swim bladders of fish) and water in a galvanised bucket.   They came out fresh even months later.

1939 gave way to 1940 and a very quiet time followed.  Changes were taking place, young men were called up but still things were fairly normal – the lull before the storm!  At the end of May and into early June Dunkirk and then everyone knew we were in for a very rough time.   The Battle of Britain in July and August followed by the Blitz into early September which was to last for some months.

We were on Crown Hill when the waves of bombers came over in daylight obviously heading for London.   The noise where we were began to make us realise the danger threatening the whole country and we knew that we were heading for a sleepless night with many more disturbed nights to follow. One rainy afternoon at  ‘Pretoria’ in Sandringham Road we heard an aircraft flying low and upon going outside saw the German bomber with the Swastika plainly visible. 1940 into 1941 saw more and more raids except for Christmas Day and Boxing Day – this was only a lull because later in that week the City of London took the full force.

I continued at the First Aid Post until my 21st birthday when, within four days, I received notice to report to the T.A. Hall in Romford to have a medical before joining the W.A.A.F.  On August 26th 1942 I left Laindon, my parents waving me goodbye at Paddington Station on my way to Bridgnorth and a way of life that was to last almost three years.   My single suitcase held only personal belongings; civilian clothing would not be required for a very long time.  Arriving at Bridgnorth, Shropshire , on an R.A.F. Travel Warrant I was loaded into an Air Force lorry together with other girls from the London area.  We had to submit to very strict discipline from that moment.   I became one in a hut of 16 girls, all away from home for the first time and wondering about the future.   For three days we were given lectures on everything from hygiene to exercise and the issue of our uniforms.  The stores were a revelation to us, hundreds of skirts, tunics, ties, shoes and everything needed for service life – brushes for shoes, a gadget to help clean buttons, underwear, caps and even a holder for mending materials.   Even more of a surprise, the male R.A.F. Corporal just looked at each girl and gave orders for someone else to fit us out in a certain size. Practice must have made perfect because no mistakes were made!   Once the uniform was being worn we were again loaded into an R.A.F. lorry and taken to the station where we were put into a train and the doors locked.  Then followed hours in the train due to having to allow more important troop trains through.   At Crewe we were allowed to accept a sandwich and a drink through the carriage window served by W.R.V.S.  There was the usual joke about Wigan Pier when we stopped at the station and then went on to Morecambe.  Here we were once more loaded into a lorry complete with kit bags and distributed into civilian billets. The three weeks spent in Morecombe were exhausting. Drilling, marching followed by lectures then more drilling. The few civilians found the situation amusing but it was far from that to us.   Vaccination and injections were given – one in each arm as if on parade.   The civilians with whom we were billeted were somewhat resentful although we were three to a room and they were paid for having us.   The food was consistently poor, fish and chips from the shop alternating with pie and chips.  Our 2s per day did not go very far in augmenting these meals plus the fact that we were charged 1d for a bath and another 1d for the use of an iron.  As our uniform skirts had to be seen to be pressed at all times, the continual rain drenching us for the three weeks did not help. We were restricted to the town and not allowed beyond its boundary and in wartime this left much to be desired.

With much relief our postings came through and I found myself bound for Hornchurch Fighter Station.   This lasted for nine months and I was able to get home to Laindon on a day off.   Life was hectic with much activity and we were allowed bicycles to travel around the perimeter of the Station. There were spells of night duty here with messages from despatch riders arriving at any time.

After a few months I decided to get out of administration and, with the sanction of my Section Officer, I applied for Tele-printer Operator training. The application was successful and I left Hornchurch for Cranwell.  Military Police were always on the look out for lone travellers and they made sure I reached my destination safely.  Met by R.A.F. transport in Sleaford I arrived in my quarters to see a banner displayed for all newcomers ‘Abandon hopes all you who enter here’.   Not very encouraging! 

Six weeks of intensive training in the use of a tele-printer including learning to touch-type. We were still subjected to the usual parades and yet another test in gas masks in a gas chamber with Phosgene and Chlorine gas.  It was high summer and not very conducive to study.  Some evenings after being paid we visited Smoky Joes on the main road for a snack.  I have been past since and it is now a Little Chef. Apart from study Cranwell had little to commend it and, unbeknown to us, worse was ahead after passing out.

Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire was next and three weeks were spent there without being allowed out of the camp whilst vetting was being carried out.   This was an old place with a history and the usual crop of ghost stories. Thus began a most boring time and everyone was glad to move on.  Private billets in Bedford followed for four weeks and we were introduced to eight shifts and more training.  Transported to Dunstable we were taught to use a huge switchboard not, of course, speaking in the usual way.  All contact was made by tele-printer after having made the connection.  All this was wasted on me and never used again as Bletchley was the next stop and even more intensive training with everything carried out in the strictest secrecy.

At Bletchley we were accommodated in Army huts – 16 girls and a Corporal’s room to a hut.  Here discipline was strict, even on night duty beds had to be made regulation style – three separate small mattresses known as biscuits had to be stacked daily and blankets and sheets folded.   Surprise inspections were made and no way could we risk leaving a bed made.  Compare all the discipline, parades, minimum pay with the civilian employees all living in private billets with very good pay and a completely different lifestyle.  W.A.A.F.s did their bit and sometimes the continual strain of our work caused some girls to have their health break and they were discharged or re-mustered.  The tele-printer was the easy part of training – there followed an intensive course on the Morse code which not only had to be learnt but translated into code on the tele-printer.  Not all girls were suitable for this work.   As well as Morse code there was a further three week intensive training with a form of ticker-tape which punched holes and we had to learn the meaning of the holes.  Everyone worked at top speed and the strain began to show.  It was only in the late 1970s that I heard the name Enigma and realised I had been part of it.

Almost two years passed in this way with little time to worry about personal life.

D Day loomed and all leave was cancelled – this made it uncertain if I could be bridesmaid at my sister’s wedding but the ban was lifted just in time.  Sad stories began to filter through, girls having fiancés killed or wounded, others having brothers and other members of their families missing.   Through all this work had to go on.

The shift system for us was complicated and all these years later I blame difficulty in normal sleeping originating from that time.  It began with two days 4pm until midnight followed by 24 hrs off duty (only local passes allowed).  Then two days midnight until 9am with 24 hrs off.  This was followed by two days 9am-4pm with 48 hrs off allowing me to go home to Laindon.  I had to leave again on the milk train at 4.13 am to get back to Bletchley by 9am ready to start the cycle all over again.  Sleep was difficult in the huts because some girls were on different shifts and tried to be quiet.  It was not easy to have so many girls sharing a hut – different types of personality many of whom went yankee mad in their off duty times.  Smoking and drinking was common and in some cases pregnancy followed.   However, through all this most of us worked continually with accuracy and speed without the privileges of the civilian workers.

Having to leave Laindon so early on the milk train I arrived in London and into the tube stations with people still sleeping on the platforms to avoid air raids and later buzz bombs. It was a case of stepping between bodies.  Our own position was not good in Bletchley but the life of Londoners and the way they coped with it was a revelation.

Meal times on shift work were really difficult. Getting used to odd times takes some stamina. All our food was extremely good, much better than civilians except when kidneys and gravy were served at 3am ! I could not manage that even when hungry and just made do with dessert as there was never an alternative.  We had our own cutlery and mug which we had to carry around on duty and with only cold water to wash them in they were rather messy. 

A hairdo could be obtained for 3d given by girls specially trained for this purpose.  Not many people took advantage of this because most of us let our hair grow and then rolled it round a ribbon or shoelace to keep it from our collars.

There were bath houses, toilets and basins shared with other huts, of course.  Duck boards were in place to keep us off concrete floors.  The heating in the huts consisted of tortoise stoves which we had to keep in with coke as fuel – no coke no heat.  The smell from these heaters left a lot to be desired.  Our uniforms hung around the hut and there was just a small locker for our own case.  Bed space had to be kept clean and there again the floor was concrete painted over.  For civilians British restaurants were opened in some towns, non-meat dishes or powdered egg and a dessert were served.   They were not allowed to make any profit so I at one time had a meal called Woolton Pie, named after a government minister, consisting mostly of potato.

Going on duty from our huts was a nightmare after dark. Unless there was a moon not a glimmer of light could be seen.

For service personnel the N.A.A.F.I. provided teas and snacks.  It also had small supplies of cosmetics and soap.  Word soon went around when these arrived and it was just bad luck if you happened to be on watch and could not join the queue.  Soap was a luxury and not to be wasted.

Our shoes were repaired by a service cobbler and any renewals or replacements of uniform had to be justified, the garments inspected by an officer. Laundry was attended to by service personnel and collected each week.  Our collars were separate from the shirts and studs had to be used, the collars being so stiff with starch they could be very uncomfortable.

Wartime food, even for civilians, was of very good quality although there was not much of it.   Spam coming in from America bore no relation to the Spam we have now.  The quality was so superior.  There were sausages in tins coming in from Canada which needed to be tasted to be appreciated.  There has never been anything like them in post war years.

Lisle stockings were the norm for most people with silk unobtainable and nylon not yet here. I had a couple of pairs of silk stockings at the time I joined the W.A.A.F. and, following a helpful hint, I put them into a sealed preserving jar and so kept them in good order until my wedding day.  Nylon only came in use for parachutes here although stockings were becoming available in America.

I have not mentioned Dunkirk very much – events overtook us all at the end of May 1940 until June 4th. The whole country expected invasion. My family were on holiday in Bournemouth leaving me at home to work.  The evacuation began at the end of May and on my 19th birthday the little ships were called to help. The whole nation waited day by day – we were given only bare details of what was happening until the troops began to arrive in Dover. Young men who were at school with me in Laindon had, during 1939, joined the T.A. and so were among the first to be called up and sent to France.   Dunkirk saw them wounded, dead or prisoners of war and it greatly affected people in Laindon who knew them. 

Life was grim after the evacuation followed by the Battle of Britain.  We were fully aware that only the 22 miles of the Channel separated us from German invasion.  After 60 years Dunkirk and all it meant is as clear to me as though it happened yesterday. The sacrifices made by both rescuers and rescued can never be fully appreciated.  The population today owes a debt that can never be repaid.

I, together with all young women knew of the fate that could befall us if the German Army reached our shores.  Events in other countries confirmed our fears.   I do not need to spell this out!

All the services were subjected to strict discipline – we all did exactly as ordered and nobody questioned an order.   In this way we managed to get through personal grief and partings which seemed never ending.

Double summertime came into force early in the war.   This meant that we had daylight until just after 11pm at midsummer. 

Only we who lived through the years of war can fully appreciate the way things could have gone without Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain.  At the time it was men and women just doing a job but it was much more than that – it gave us a free life now enjoyed by all.   Looking back we must have been super fit to withstand the pressures of wartime, both mentally and physically.

It is difficult for present generations to appreciate the excitement in the country at the end of the war and for us to see the lights come on again after almost six years of complete darkness.  It is beyond description – nothing could ever compare with it again.  I was able to take up married life on 17th February 1945 after six years of such upheaval, my husband having survived service in the Royal Navy.

Bletchley was a very tough time for me although I do not regret my contribution to the war effort – the experience will always be with me.

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