A FLINTHSIRE woman who recently celebrated her 93rd birthday has recalled her experiences serving in the forces at Dover’s ‘home front’ almost 80 years ago.
Katherine Du Plat Taylor, who lives in Mold, remembers in detail her life as an operations clerk in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, a female reserve section of the Royal Air Force.
Katherine was born in Leitholm, on the Scottish borders, and spent all of her younger years growing up in various parts of the country.
Her family history is full of significant figures in the armed forces. Katherine’s father was a member of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, (KOSB) the regiment raised in 1689 to defend Edinburgh against the Jacobite forces.
Katherine’s first experience of a “proper school” was when she was 14 years old, when an Ediburgh school had been evacuated to a stately home. She attended Rothesay House, a private school near her home, everyday.
Aged 15 when the Second World War broke out in 1939, Katherine was against following her family members into the Royal Navy or the army and instead decided to follow her own aspirations and join the WAAF.
Katherine said: “My mother was horrified when I said that. She wanted me to study domestic science at an Edinburgh college but I said, ‘no, the WAAF.’
”My mother really was not keen on educating girls on anything but how to run a household.”
By 1942, Katherine was 18 and volunteered for the WAAF, and was later called up on August 2, 1942.
The soundest piece of advice Katherine said she ever received came from her father, Colonel Lionel Frederick Machin, moments before she boarded the train to Bridgenorth assembly centre to begin her WAAF career.
Katherine said: “My father put me on the train at 2am, one of those crowded trains they had back then. He gave me two pieces of advice that I keep to this day, and will say to any young person now.
“He said, ‘I expect your mother gave you some advice, but here’s what I will tell you. First, never take your eye off your drink. And second, if you must, put your hand over the top of your glass’.”
It was with these instructions that Katherine departed for Bridgenorth, where she joined a whole lot of other people who were likeminded and wanted to join the air force.
These women, according to Katherine, “all smoked, and were a mix from different parts of the country.” She later found herself sharing a hut with 48 of these young girls, who ranged from Katherine’s age of 18, to 30 years old.
She said: “We all slept in the same room and I was completely out of my depth. I was very shy and quiet.
“I had been to boarding school, but they were from all stratums of society.
“The first thing I remember was being shellshocked when I was handed a tin with paraffin and rags. We each had a 6ft by 4ft space with a bed, a locker and a hook with the floor already polished.
“We were each told to take off the polish with paraffin and re-shine the floor.
“The sergeant in charge didn’t like me because I had a posh accent. But I wouldn’t change.
“I had never polished a floor in my life. She told me to take it all off again and start again while everybody else had polished all right and went off to the pub. I was shattered.”
The “fast-paced” week-long induction at Bridgenorth happened very quickly according to Katherine. She and the other service volunteers underwent medical checks, uniform fittings and intelligence tests.
She said of their living facilities: “We were given three or four sqaure pads wich formed a mattress, four rough army blankets and rough army sheets. We were also given knives, forks, spoons and mugs, and various pieces of equipment.
It was at Bridgenorth that Katherine was told she had been selected as a clerk special duties (SD) and would soon be sent to Morecambe for training along with other recruits. At Morecombe, Katherine experienced “army-type training” where she learned to salute and march.
She said: “I had to swear on the Bible that I wouldn’t tell anyone who I was or where I worked.
“During the route marches at Morecambe, I took the advice of my brothers, who were in the army, telling me not to volunteer for any jobs.
“I took their advice and ended up scrubbing the 101 steps of the Astorium.”
Katherine was then transferred to Duxford, where fighter aircrafts flew from, including the American Eagle Squadron. She worked in an operations room where the aircrafts were controlled from, much like the control towers at current modern airports.
She said: “My job was to put down little coloured arrows showing the path the aircrafts were following across a map. What we received was from the Royal Observer Core, who told us where the aircraft was and we would plot it visually on the table.
“The little coloured arrows we used were according to a clock with different colours on it. When the hand moved to a different colour, we changed the colour of the arrow on the table.
“We used radio direction finding, the latest electrical finding, to pick up beams from enemy aircrafts overseas.
“We would have headphones, get sent plots – around six plots a minute, all in code at speed – and had to find the co-ordinates on a table map so the officer in charge could see where the enemy were and where our fighters were.
“In my first small operations room at Duxford, we could see 100 enemy aircraft over the sea.
“In 1942, after the Battle of Britain, there were few aircrafts left. We lost an enormous number of aircrafts and pilots. They left all machinery, tanks, and ammunition by 1942, and we had practically nothing to defend ourselves.”
These internal operations required a high level of skill, and Katherine had to be “highly trained” to put plots on the map at such speed.
The whereabouts of the operations room had to be kept a secret because without the operations room, the British aircrafts could not find the enemy.
Katherine said: “Entrenched in my memory for so long is the story of the Free Czech Fighter Pilots who fled from Czechoslovakia. I happened to be in the operations room when the commanding officer was talking to the Czech pilots who were taking off in fighter aircrafts, and when they had run out of ammunition, they came back and reloaded, but did not fill up on fuel.
”When they ran out of fuel, they rammed the enemy aircrafts, and lost their lives.
“I could hear the commander shouting at them through the radio, ordering them to stop doing this because we had plenty of pilots, but very few aircrafts.
“We couldn’t afford to lose aircrafts, but pilots we could get any number of.”
Katherine’s career then progressed to Sawston Hall, Cambridge, “a very big operations room in a big stately Tudor manor”.
Here, she was given the “extraordinary” task of training American soldiers over a period of six weeks for the operations room, and also recalled: “We had their rations. It was wonderful.”
Another “heartwrenching” memory was the ‘path finder’ operations in Coltishore. British Mosquito aicraft would fly over enemy bomb targets, lighting them up with incendiary bombs.
The path finders would then fly in very low underneath enemy radar, below the required height to be picked up by the enemy, before flying in to Germany over Holland and returning home.
Katherine said: “It was very heart-wrenching, but also very funny. These pilots would come over and go out with us in the evenings and to our billets where we lived. We would know their call signal sounds.
“Flying so low, they were very easy targets for the enemy and we would wait for their call signals on their return. Many did not return.
“Perhaps it was the boy you were dancing with last night. There were many tears in the operations room.”
In 1943, Katherine was posted to the operations room at Dover, 90ft under the castle on the cliffs, where she was responsible for plotting on a glass screen map the location of pilots who had dropped into the sea, and plotting the location of the aircrafts on an ordinary table map.
She said: “On average we rescued one pilot a day, because by the end of that year we had rescued 365 pilots.
“It was really very interesting, living in a hut on the edge of a harbour with the submarine down below. There were little round stoves in the middle of every hut. It was all we had for heat and if you didn’t like them, you didn’t have heat.”
”When you came off duty in winter, the blankets used to crack like cardboard from the cold. Before going on duty we had to fold all our blankets in a neat pile, and when we came off duty they were frozen.
“The only privilege was that you lived off camp, so nobody knew what you did and we got away with murder.”
Her last memory of action was of Germans shelling the harbour underneath the castle, and they land beyond which included their huts.
“Near the end of my time in Dover, one night we were woken at 1am and told to get out as quickly as possible, put on trousers and our greatcoats, take our blankets and run.
“The Germans were shelling our camp. We were told to when the shells came to tuck up small and throw blankets over the back of our necks. That’s very important still, as the back of the neck is a very vulnerable place.”
After being posted to Coldishore, Katherine was sent to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the group headquarters. There she could go to the theatre in the town for sixpence in the cheapest seats.
She said: “When I came off duty, I remember rushing to the theatre in order to get the cheapest seats. The doors opened at 6:30pm. When I arrived, I asked the lady next to me for the time but a cheeky young army officer answered that it was 6:26pm.
She thought it was a ploy by an army officer to pick up a WAAF, as they often attempted to.
She said: “This officer offered to pay for me, and I was on 10 shillings a fortnight. I told him bluntly I would pay for myself. Of course, I ended up marrying him!”
St John Du Plat Taylor married Katherine in 1945 when she was 20 after months of correspondance.
Katherine had five children and trained as a primary school teacher, later becoming a leading influence at a special unit for delinquents, which she thoroughly enjoyed.
St John pursued a career in the hotel business and ended up running a care home.
The couple moved to Clawddnewydd, in North Wales, and have very fond memories of the friendly Welsh community there.
When St John passed away nine years ago, Katherine moved to Mold to be closer to her fondest pastime – watching performances at Theatr Clwyd.
Katherine recalls listening to a record after she came off night duty in 1942, in the sound of John McCormack’s I’m Afraid to Dream.