Maddie was stationed at Oakway to begin with, very convenient to home. This was late 1939, early 1940. The Phoney War. Nothing much happening.
Not in Britain anyway. We were biting our nails, practising.
‘You! Girl in the blue cardigan!’
Five girls in headsets looked round from their switchboards, pointed to their chests and mouthed silently, Me?
‘Yes, you! Aircraftwoman Brodatt! What are you doing here? You’re a licensed radio operator!’
Maddie pointed to her headset and the front cord she was about to connect.
‘Take the damned thing off and answer me.’
Maddie turned back to her switchboard and coolly plugged in the front cord. She toggled the appropriate keys and spoke clearly into the headset. ‘The Group Captain is through to you now, sir. You may go ahead.’ She took off the headset and turned back to the troll who was waiting for a reply. It was the chief flight instructor for Oakway’s Royal Air Force squadron, the man who had given Maddie her flight test nearly a year ago.
‘Sorry, sir. This is where I’ve been posted, sir.’ (I did say it was like being at school.)
‘Posted! You’re not even any of you in uniform!’
Five dutiful Aircraftwomen First Class straightened their Air Force blue cardigans.
‘We’ve not been issued full dress, sir.’
‘Posted!’ the officer repeated. ‘You’ll start in the radio room tomorrow, Aircraftwoman Brodatt. The operator’s assistant is down with influenza.’ And he lifted the headset from her console to perch it precariously over his own large head. ‘Put me through to the WAAF administration unit,’ he said. ‘I want to talk to your Section Officer.’
Maddie flipped the keys and plugged in the cords and he gave her posting orders over her own telephone.
‘Tyro to ground, tyro to ground,’ came the call from the training aircraft. ‘Position uncertain, overhead triangular body of water to east of corridor.’
‘Ground to tyro,’ answered Maddie. ‘Is it a lake or a reservoir?’
‘Lake or reservoir? Your triangular body of water.’
After a short silence, Maddie prompted: ‘A reservoir has got a dam at one end.’
‘Tyro to ground. Affirm reservoir.’
‘Is it Ladyswell? Manchester barrage balloons at ten o’clock and Macclesfield at eight o’clock?’
‘Tyro to ground, affirm. Position located. Overhead Ladyswell for return to Oakway.’
Maddie sighed. ‘Ground to tyro, call on final approach.’
Maddie shook her head, swearing unprettily under her breath. ‘Oh my sainted aunt! Unlimited visibility! Unlimited visibility except for the dirty great city in the north-west! That would be the dirty great city surrounded at 3000 feet by a few hundred silver hydrogen balloons as big as buses! How in the name of mud is he going to find Berlin if he can’t find Manchester?’
There was a bit of quiet in the radio room. Then the chief radio officer said gently, ‘Leading Aircraftwoman Brodatt, you’re still transmitting.’
‘Brodatt, stop there.’
Maddie and everyone else had been told to go home. Or back to their various barracks and lodgings anyway, for an afternoon’s rest. It was a day of such appallingly evil weather that the street lamps would have been lit if it weren’t for fear of enemy aircraft seeing them, not that enemy aircraft can fly in such murk either. Maddie and the other WAAFs in her barracks still hadn’t got proper uniforms, but as it was winter they had been issued RAF overcoats – men’s overcoats. Warm, and waterproof, but ridiculous. Like wearing a tent. Maddie clutched hers tight in at the sides when the officer spoke to her, standing straight and hoping she looked smarter than she felt. She stopped so he could catch up with her, waiting on the duckboards laid over the concrete apron because there was so much standing water about that if you stepped in a puddle it came over the tops of your shoes.
‘Was it you talked down my lads training in the Wellington bomber this morning?’ the officer asked.
Maddie gulped. She had thrown radio protocol to the wind to guide those boys in, bullying them through a ten-minute gap in the low-lying cloud, praying they would follow her instructions without question and that she wasn’t directing them straight into the explosive-rigged steel cables that tethered the barrage balloons meant to deter enemy aircraft. Now she recognised the officer: it was one of the squadron leaders.
‘Yes, sir,’ she admitted hoarsely, her chin held high. The air was so full of moisture it made her hair stick to her forehead. She waited miserably, expecting him to summon her to be court-martialled.
‘Those boys jolly well owe you their lives,’ he said to Maddie. ‘Not one of them on instruments yet and flying without a map. We shouldn’t have let them take off this morning.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ Maddie gasped.
‘Singing your praises, those lads were. Made me wonder though; have you any idea what the runway looks like from the air?’
Maddie smiled faintly. ‘I’ve a pilot’s “A” licence. Still valid. Of course I haven’t flown since August.’
‘Oh, I see!’
The RAF squadron leader set off to walk Maddie to the canteen at the airfield’s perimeter. She had to trot a little to match his stride.
‘Took your licence here at Oakway, did you? Civil Air Guard?’
‘No, sir. But I’ve flown at night.’
‘Now that’s unusual! Used the fog line, have you?’
He meant the fierce gas lamps that line the runway at intervals on either side so you can land in bad weather.
‘Two or three times. Not often, sir.’
‘So you have seen the runway from the air. And in the dark too! Well –’
Maddie waited. She really didn’t have any idea what this man was going to say next.
‘If you’re going to talk people down you’d damn well better know what the forward view from the cockpit of a Wellington bomber looks like in the landing configuration. Fancy a flight in a Wellington?’
‘Oh, yes please, sir!’
(You see – it was just like being in school.)
That is not a WAAF trade. That is what they call it when you go along in an aircraft just for the ride and don’t meaningfully contribute to a successful flight. Perhaps Maddie was more of a backseat driver than a stooge.
– ‘Don’t think you’ve reset the directional gyro.’
– ‘He told you heading 270. You’ve turned east.’
– ‘Look sharp, lads, northbound aircraft at three o’clock, one thousand feet below.’
Once the electric undercarriage failed and she had to earn her keep by taking her turn at the hand pump so they didn’t have to crash-land. Once they let her ride in the gun turret. She loved that, like being a goldfish alone in an empty sky.
Once they had to lift her out of the plane after landing because she was shaking so badly she couldn’t climb down herself.
Maddie’s Wellington joyrides were not exactly clandestine, but they weren’t exactly cricket either. She was counted among the S.O.B. – Souls On Board – when the lads took off, but she certainly wasn’t authorised to be there chivvying along the novice bombing crews as they practised low flying over the high moors. So various off-and on-duty concerned people came pelting out of offices and the men’s and ladies’ tea huts, coatless and white-faced, when they saw Maddie’s RAF mates chair-lifting her in their arms across the runway.
A WAAF friend of hers called Joan and the guilty squadron leader reached her first.
‘What’s wrong? What happened? Is she hurt?’
Maddie was not hurt. She was already badgering the Wellington crew who carried her to put her down. ‘Get off, everyone will see, the girls will never let me forget it –’
Maddie struggled to her feet and stood shivering on the concrete. ‘We got fired on,’ she said, and looked away, burning with shame at how much it had taken out of her.
‘Fired on!’ barked the squadron leader. This was in the spring of 1940 – the war was still in Europe. It was before the disastrous May when the Allies fled retreating to the French beaches, before the siege that was the Battle of Britain, before the thunder and flame-filled nights of the Blitz. In the spring of 1940 our skies were alert, and armed, and uneasy. But they were still safe.
‘Yes, fired on,’ echoed the Wellington pilot in fury. He was white as a sheet too. ‘By those idiots manning the anti-aircraft guns at the Cattercup barrage balloons. By our own gunners. Who the hell’s training them? Bloody daft trigger-happy morons! Wasting ammo and scaring the blue bleeding daylights out of everybody! Any school lad can spot the difference between a flying cigar and a flying pencil!’
(We call our jolly Wellingtons ‘flying cigars’ and we call your nasty Dorniers ‘flying pencils’. Have fun translating, Miss E.)
The pilot had been as scared as Maddie, but he was not shaking.
Joan put a comforting arm round Maddie’s shoulders and advised her in a whisper to pay no attention to the pilot’s language. Maddie gave an uncertain and forced laugh.
‘Wasn’t even sitting in the gun turret,’ she muttered. ‘Thank goodness I’m not flying into Europe.’
‘Flight Lieutenant Mottram has been singing your praises,’ Maddie’s WAAF Section Officer told her. ‘He says you’ve got the sharpest pair of eyes at Oakway –’ (the Section Officer rolled her own eyes) ‘– probably a bit of an exaggeration, but he said that in flight you’re always the first to spot another aircraft approaching. How do you fancy further training?’
The Section Officer coughed apologetically. ‘It’s a bit secret. Well: very secret. Say yes, and I’ll send you on the course.’
‘Yes,’ Maddie said.
To clarify a remark someone made earlier, I confess that I am making up all the proper nouns. Did you think I remembered all the names and ranks of everybody Maddie ever worked with? Or every plane she ever flew in? I think it is more interesting this way.
That is all I can usefully write today, though I would keep on blethering about nothing if I thought that by doing it I could avoid the next few hours’ cross-examination – Engel struggling over my handwriting and von Linden picking holes in everything I’ve said. It must be done … no point in putting it off. I have a blanket to look forward to afterwards, I hope, perhaps a tepid dish of kailkenny à la guerre – that is, cabbage and potato mash without the potato and with not very much cabbage. I have not got scurvy yet anyway, thanks to France’s infinite supply of prison cabbage. Heigh ho –
Ormaie 10.XI.43 JB-S
RAF WAAF RDF Y
Asst S/O Flt Off