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Dina Markwick – notes on wartime conscription and work
Conscripted into ATS. Travelled to Guildford for Primary training i.e. marching, discipline, etc. and many tests to see where each would be most useful1. First experience of living in bunk beds and palliasses to sleep on – jolly uncomfortable!! – three of them and the gaps between, feet when in bed. Special way to leave them in the mornings, piled up with bed sheets, blanket, pillow on top!! Special way to make your bed too – tuck in just right!!
Uniform issued – from the skin out, bra, suspender belt, khaki stockings, pants – knickers with elastic round legs (khaki). Shoes – very stiff at first2, shirts khaki, and collars separate. Skirt, jacket, plus button plate for polishing, tie, peaked hat – oh and a kit bag! Still after six weeks we were ready for whatever. I was “selected” for a Pre octu3 course at Northampton – the camp was on the race course. Strange arrangement of huts in case of bombing – with slit trenches outside – wonderful for stumbling into in the dark!! Broken leg? We were given different groups to manage – I remember my cookhouse stint – I learned a new vocabulary!! Actually, it all worked well – the clerical group was a different kettle of fish, and then i/c training. After this and other interviews etc at which I turned down the offer to be an officer – just couldn’t afford it!!4 I was sent to a “holding unit” in Pontefract, what a place! We were in bunks in the old barracks – dark, gloomy, and a VERY mixed bunch.
More tests etc. here and I felt I had to get out of the company I was in so volunteered temporarily for the military police – good move!
It meant I was moved out into what were married quarters – a house! My room was Army comfortable – a bed!! Chair and table, and a fire place. AS it was now October/November we were allocated fuel for the fire – otherwise no heating. I remember picking some bronze chrysanths from the neglected garden, and with the fire warmth, and glowing flowers it was “heaven”. The M.P. side meant I was out every night with an NCO visiting the local pubs and at coming in time, going around the outskirts, shining a torch on to unsuspecting couples to remind them the ATS were due inside – pronto!
I once went to collect a girl from Bedford to escort her back to Pontefract from being AWOL. Gosh, she smelt, but she was no trouble, thank heavens. Another time it was escort to the dentist. Apart from Army duties our spare time was taken up in many ways. I wasn’t very pleased when I volunteered to go potato picking on a nearby farm. It was early October I suppose. Anyway, I picked steadily for 4 days, couldn’t manage the Friday – and that was the day the farmer paid his helpers, and I didn’t get my share!! Another opportunity I enjoyed – quite an experience.
We were invited to go down a coal mine in Castleton. At the top we were given a Davy lamp each, and a hard hat. Then into the cage which dropped at an alarming rate, halfway I felt I was going back up again. At the bottom of the shaft, I was amazed to find the walls painted white and the machinery shining, and all lit up with electricity, A walk to the rail head, on to the “carrier” and then off – and into an air cavity. Doors shut behind and then doors the other side opened into the mine proper. We needed our lamps then. The noise was quite something and trucks of coal were pushed along the tracks. After a while here we were taken back to the “air cell” and doors shut. Doors open to the relatively clean side of the mine, and eventually into the cage, back to the surface. How did we get so dirty? After handing in our lamps and hats, we were ushered into a washroom to clean up, we needed it. There was a lot of brushing down done. Escorted to the miners’ social centre for tea and sandwiches, and then the music started for the dancing. There were enough miners to go round as partners, and it all ended up very cheerfully. Eventually my holding stay at Pontefract5 ended.
I was assigned to the Royal Signals, and in the dark night, a party of us were ushered into an Army Scammel truck and we were driven to Fleetwood. We knew we had to board a boat – somewhere in the dark – and we were handed a boarding pass. I really did wonder where we were going – the pass said Rekjavik!! A long trip over the North Sea6. By this time, we had our kit bags with us, and on board I think it was the Rushen Castle, and so to Douglas across the Irish Sea. It was a quiet enough crossing very few were seasick. I talked to a friendly red headed girl called Kathleen, we seemed to have similar tastes and topics so when we landed in Douglas – in daylight – thank goodness – we were marched off to our “hotel” which the Army had requisitioned, it was right on the front, of course, and surrounded by a high fence and barbed wire. I suppose there were about 10 of these hotels for the ATS and Army – all signals. Our group – 93 squad – were assigned to one of them as a squad. Kath and I decided to room together right at the top. Bunk beds, 2 chairs and a table, wardrobe each, and drawers in a chest!! Luxury! All of the squad paired up somehow, mostly friendly we didn’t have squabbles. One of the rooms on the floor with a balcony was a sort of rest room with easy chairs – the fireside sort and often we would lug these outside on to the balcony.
Then the signals course began. Another hotel was given over to training, and we learned the Morse Code, how wireless receivers were made – circuits etc. and progressed from gentle Morse to faster stuff. When we were considered ready – we then went onto shifts – daytime only – to Derby Castle up on the hill. Here the place was wired up to aerials to received messages from overseas and we had two shifts, mornings 8-1 and 1-6 afternoons. We had to march up to Derby Castle but were allowed to walk back on our own. Somehow Kath and I were in charge of our squad and given a stripe L/Cpl – and a bit more pay – I think it was about 5p or rather 5d. I now was in receipt of 1s and 4d pay!! I sent some to my mother – it was deducted and sent by the Army. We were all waiting to begin work on the mainland at one of the Y stations, but all sea crossings were stopped for a time.
We had quite a bit of spare time really.
Kath and I played some tennis, at the local courts, went for bike rides, made friends with the Wrens billeted in the next group of hotels – and able to visit them. There were dances in the town. Plenty of partners – the OCTU had a group there!! The YWCA was a good place to go in free time. They cooked lovely egg and chips for us - EGGS – wonderful! We all had our local favourite drinking holes where we met up with the fellows, and I made friends with the local paper reporter. She was a good sort and told us what was going on. We had Bingo sessions in our leisure hotel, and at our NAAFI farther along the promenade. When we were stuck in Douglas, we amused ourselves – when the tide went out the stretch of sand was big enough for a hockey pitch. Don’t know where the kit came from, but we had many games – usually mixed teams. A number of our “teachers” had returned from India, and they were good players!!
Another leisure pastime was to make up a team and have a scavenger hunt! These were fun. We all had to collect a variety of things – and in a certain time, bring them onto the beach. I remember once we had to collect a dog!! Yes, we all found one from a kind Manx family in town, and of course they were returned. Many friends were made this way7. It was a good time really, we weren’t bothered with bombs, but the workload increased, longer shifts etc.
Eventually a posting to the mainland! Most of our squad went to Harrogate but several of us were despatched to Beaumanor. This large house with a figurehead in the courtyard, was the centre of much of our monitoring etc. we were in the Y Group!! Our WOYG – split into 4 watches ABCD – I was in D watch. Our shifts started at 1pm-7pm. Off until 7am – 1pm. Off until midnight – 7am. Then off. 7pm – midnight – Day off8 until 1pm again etc.
We were in huts dotted about the field – where the aerials were. It wasn’t so bad getting there in daylight, but quite spooky in the dark. I was at Garats Hay camp, close to Beaumanor, and we had to cross the road into the woods – down the path over the stile and then across the field to hut H which was where I worked. We had a short break on all the shifts so that we could go to the NAAFI hut and get a cuppa, and more importantly get to the loos!! At night – this was hazardous – no lights anywhere!! And of course, the NAAFI was the farthest away hut!! (we always went in twos). Working meant headphones on, pencil in hand, one hand busy on the receiver controls to keep the station you were allotted when you started the shift. The changeover was quick. Every “desk” had two connection points, so you slotted into one and when you could hear, the other operator handed over and left.
The Morse messages we received were from German stations mostly, with a stylised opening and closing of messages. The morse was swift, and we wrote in capital letters on to the wireless form – blocks of 5 letters. Occasionally we went in search of another station, if one we were on went silent – then the signal if we found another sender, was reported – hand up – to the supervisor who then tuned into it, and either said OK or carry on – depending on whether it was a new signal or not. If there was too much interference, aerials were changed to your set from the aerial room in the hut. The field outside was festooned with aerials. We knew the Q code – a short form of delivery i.e. QRM – interference (5 points) – our favourite Q code was QFU – Feet under!! This applied to friends outside Garats Hay who welcomed us into their homes and a chance to sit in comfort by a fire in winter!! I had a QFU 5 – very strong – in Quorn, and I was able to visit at any time. They were so warm – and looked after us very well. Two other girls went there too. At no time did they pry into what we did – we were in the Signals and that was that! I kept in touch and visited them after the war, but sadly both have since died, Mama and Pop Martin9.
We never explained to anybody what we were doing at Beaumanor, our mouths were shut – in fact Meyrick10 never knew until a few years back, when Bletchley became more open! All of our messages from the huts were sent by Lampson11 tubes – underground to Beaumanor house where they were packed and sent to Bletchley every night by a courier on a motorbike. We never knew whether what we had taken down was much use to them – that is individually, we could only tell the urgency of the messages by the way the morse came over, especially when the Allies were advancing, and the Germans were retreating and shutting down the station. If you were lucky to be on a main station CQ – it was always very busy – other times, messages were spasmodic, and you had to be alert – listening to nothing until the restart. It was when I was on a “dull” station that I started crochet (forbidden) to pass the time on duty! Small enough to tuck into my pocket out of sight of the supervisor who prowled up and down!
It wasn’t an exciting job – but monotonous, and away from the dots and dashes we enjoyed ourselves. Local dances in Loughborough Town Hall, hiring a bike and getting around the countryside, picking bluebells in the woods. Climbing the Beacon in Charnwood Forest etc.
As to Bletchley – it was far off then. One of our operators started a newsletter after the war, and this regularly came every quarter, so we kept in touch, then it was understood we could become a Friend of Bletchley Park and visit free. Meyrick and I went down one day – and in the first hut opened, was a video and account of the work at Beaumanor – apparently the main station for B. P. when I first saw it, I exclaimed to Meyrick – good Lord, look at that – That’s what I did in the war!!
One of the guides heard me and quizzed me on what I knew, then gave us a guided tour of B.P. I discovered where our bits of paper were taken, and decoded, found the machine I was used to working, and also some old photos of girls in uniform, two of which I recognised – I had them myself!! So, I was able to put names to the faces – well not all. The Enigma machine12 was being rebuilt when we visited, what a monstrous thing – but there was also a “scrambler” (like the ones we had at Beaumanor, where it was descrambled) to hide the messages. Of course, at Bletchley it wasn’t just decoding our messages – but naval intelligence, and Air Force too.
Of course, Beaumanor wasn’t the only listening post, the Navy and RAF also had their stations, and sent their stuff to Bletchley as we did. After VE Day – we still went on listening – mostly the Russian messages. Then we were all split up and I went to Kedleston Hall, where we learnt how to read the Jap morse – very fast indeed. We were supposed to go to India13 then, but I only got as far as embarkation leave when VJ day was declared, and so I was thwarted!! After that it was wind down time until demob.
1: I believe my mother got an IQ score of 154
2: There was a special way of hardening feet to cope with the shoes, I think it was rubbing feet with surgical spirit.
3: OCTU = Officer Cadet Training Unit
4: My mother’s father had died when she was 12, so she was supporting her mother and sister who was still at school
5: My mother said she remembered the end of shift siren going at the factory up the road, and the girls coming out in their “clogs” – which were just a wooden sole with a fabric strip over the top.
They clattered on the road.
6: Actually, the Irish Sea.
7: Other occasions on the Isle of Man: there was an inspection by the King and Queen one time; Mum remembers the Italian PoWs being held there, they could see them from one of the hotels, I think.
8: On her day off, my mother would sometimes go down to London for the day. She would wait at the end of the lane for one of the lorries taking fresh produce down to the London markets; they would go down at night to be in time for the markets and also for safety. Hopefully, a lorry would stop and give her a lift down. This was something that several of the girls did my mother learned about it from others who were there before her. The drivers “were like uncles”, who were glad of some company on the lonely dark drive down, and the girls had a day out in London. Mum would go dancing; I remember her saying that her dancing partner was the head waiter at the Strand Palace Hotel. She would then get a train back up to go to Beaumanor.
9: I visited Mama and Pop with my mother, they were lovely people. I remember they had a terraced or semi-detached house with a long thin garden, and Pop Martin was a great gardener. There is a photo somewhere of them
10: Meyrick is my father. 11: Lamson.
12: Actually, the Enigma decoding machine.
13: I believe my mother was to go to Bangalore.