Quite a lot of my friends were talking about volunteering for war work if we had a war.
Then in 1940 one or two girls I knew the country wanted women and girls to join up, so another girl and I decided we would make enquiries. Then off to York to have a medical, we had both written to find out about ATS, Auxiliary Territorial Service for girls.
We passed the medical, my Mother wasn’t very please but Dad said it would be an experience, we were given a date to go to Durham.
Dad took us in his car; on getting there we went to the office and were told where to go to be fitted out with our uniforms and given a cap badge with ATS on, then 2 shirts ,1 jacket, and 1 shirt and undies.
Then we were taken round a field with round tents in lines, shown the wash rooms. We put on our brown shoes and had a walk around, met two young women who had both been stationed at Ripon Camp. So we made friends, and then went to the dining hall.
Can’t remember what we had to eat, then we had to go to an office to find out if there were any vacancies in the kitchens which we found there were. My friend had been a cook in a big house in pre –war.
Then we were shown where we would be sleeping in the round tent, it had been very hot weather. We were all issued with sheets and blankets and pillows and a kit bag, to put all our belonging in. next morning we heard sounds and people saying how hot it had been in the tent.
Next night we were told to sleep in a hut with about 6 other girls, mostly older then us. We had thedoor open all night, it wasn’t so hot with the door open, after breakfast we were all taken to where we would start working, I went to the offices mess kitchens.
One man cook didn’t like the idea of working with women, he was a sergeant, had us doing all the jobs he didn’t like. But the head chef was quite nice, he sent me to the cook house to get a large jug of milk, which arrived every morning before breakfast, I took a large jug and filled it from a large charm. The girls said how creamy the milk was, I had scooped a lot of the cream off the top into the jug.
The girls like it on their cereals, I suppose I should have stirred it round and mixed the cream in.
After that we were shown the offices mass kitchen, there was an older woman in charge , who gave us all the jobs like peeling potatoes and getting the vegetables ready, there was always plenty of good food in the offices mass, I was told they all paid towards their meals.
Then some of us were told we would be moving to a different place, so we had to pack our kit bags, and were given a travel warrant to Hertfordshire, quite a long railway journey, we then were taken to a very large house to be told the place was then know as X, and we were not to be talk about or write home about it. We had an address to send to our families. Not allowed to go far for walks for a few days. Then some of us walked down to the village and local people told us the village was (little Hadham) and the next village was much Haddam ,two of us were sent to a nice little cottage and were told to clean it up as it had been empty a long time. We got on with it using plenty of soap and water and scrubbing brushes ,when that was done two of us were told we would live in it for a while and cook for us and four girls.
Every day someone brought rations for us to deal with, the cottage had an old black leaded range , later some chaps got us a better cooker, we slept upstairs, and soon made it like home but then we were told we were moving again.
We then went to a house to cook for women drivers, then after a while we were told to pack ready to move south, we had a travel warrant to Dover, quite a way from much Haddham, two of us went to sleep, We also had a packed meal then had to march through the streets and past a church and up a rough cliff path past the guard house. A chap shouted “Halt who go there” we were told to say “Friend” a man soldier shouted “Advance Friend and be recognised” and we had to tell the soldier in the guard house our number, mine was 36467, and always give out our number before going up to the cliff path, we were taken to a large building and shown our bedrooms, my friend and I shared a bedroom. It was quite comfy, when we up packed our kit bags and put things into a double chest of drawers, we looked out to see, the lower rooms were for the officers quarters. My job was to see the pantry was well equipped with food.
Great stone jars of jam and rations brought for us to cook, the older women in charge of the kitchen planned the menus and told me what to order. After a while she moved away and we had a chef in charge, he was Jewish a very nice chap to work for. The kitchen had a large slab in the middle to work on and big ovens , he kept asking me to help him mix things , I said “why do you ask me” his reply was I was the only one who was polite to him and never called him Jew Boy. Which the others did, bad manners
The roof of the kitchen was all glass, so we were ordered to always work with our tin hats on; they were heavy to wear all day.
Every day we could hear a whistling sound, it was shelling from over the Channel, could hear it coming ,then a loud bang, luckily we were high up on the cliff near Dover Castle. One day a group of soldiers marched past to a field behind the Castle, then air raid warning sounded
While working in the officer’s mess kitchens, if off duty while things were cooking, we were told to either go up to our rooms or sit on our blankets in the kitchen.
One day we decided to go into the cellar under the kitchen to tidy up the place, while down there the sirens went, air raid? What a noise and we could feel the building shaking, when the ALL CLEAR sounder on the camp we went on the stairs and an empty space where the outside wall was had been not safe at all. Our friends who lived in DoverCastle came down to where we were, couldn’t believe we were all safe, but the sleeping quarters had gone, it was good some of us were tidying up the cellar. And a lot of bangs army wagons etc and ambulances. Then all went quiet, planes had flown over and bombed the field we were told not to go outside, and were kept in for several days. The town of Dover was now out of bounds.
There were long army huts with entrance up the cliff and way out the other end; some of us when off duty went in one end and out of the other.
What a difference in the town, house and shops all flattened where we used to walk down to the shops to buy odds and ends ,toiletry ect.
All flattened ,and a little café where some of us went for a coffee or tea, we also made friends with people , one day the air raid warning sounded, some solders shouted to us to get into the shelter, which was all surrounded by big sand bags.
Later the All clear sounded so my friend and I set off up the cliff then warning went off again, a lady came out of her door and shouted “come into my house till the all clear”, she was very kind ,her husband was ill in bed upstairs, their little boy had been evacuated to Wales.
After that she made us some tea, and said it was nice to have someone to talk to, and would we call again.
So when off duty we wrote a long time till her husband died, and then she also went to Wales to be with her little boy, she had to tell him that all his pat rabbits had died, she thought they died of shock with all the vibrations and the bombs.
After a while we got quite used to windows being fired at, we used to creep up the stairs to bed as the windows were often fired at, a plane would fly full length trying to shoot the solders on duty.
We had some big grey barrage balloons fixed outside the windows of cables they were all fried at.
When up in the air we said they looked like big grey elephants.
Eventually I had a week’s leave, so I went back to Ripon, a long journey by train, had to go through to London.
One station had been bombed by then we had been ordered to always wear our army respirators, large gas mask, in case of enemy sending gas over.
There were flags near the sea and if the wind was blowing from the Channel we had to put the army gas mask on, luckily no gas was used.
Of course we all going on leave to take kit bag, blanket and wear tin hat.
When we reached York we must have looked odd, NO ATS wore respirators or tin hats or carried kit bags. When we reached Ripon we walked down from the station, as there were no taxis, people stared at us as if we were very odd, for all there was a big army camp in Ripon, and they had not had a bomb up to then, the Ripon ATS girls stared at us.
When we returned to Dover lots more of London and places had been bombed, we were then told we were moving to Sevenoaks, so we had to collect all of our stuff together in a few days and carry kit bags and blankets etc.
Sevenoaks then hadn’t had any bombs, close we were to work in another big house, the people there were mostly ATS office workers, or drivers for the officers.
We cooked for them, one night while in bed, we heard bombs and planes firing it shoot the whole place, we were told next day that a royal air force plane had been completely shattered, planes smashed many air man killed, so we were told to move again.
I had a bad attack of flu, so had to have the Doctor who sent me to hospital. When I felt better I got sick leave, I could leave my kit bag and blanket at the house where we slept, better then carrying it through London again.
While I was at home I saw my own doctor, as he had know me since I was born, he advised me to rest so I had a bit longer on sick leave.
Then he advised me to get out of the ATS and go into some think not so dangerous, so I went and got a discharge.
I was sorry really but felt weasy, after a while I enquired about joining the Land Army, food production, I got a job in the gardens at Harewood House near Leeds, the garden boys were being called up at a certain age ,even who on food production.
I liked it there growing food and fruit. I lived with the head cowmen’s family in a lovely old house, they had 2 girls, of course we wore another uniform , felt hat, colon shirt, green woollen sweater, fawn breeches ,brown shoes.
I found it very interesting, after a little while another Land Army girl came, who lodged where I was, and we became friends for many years till she married.
The head woman who ran this area of Land Army came to see me, and said a man in a biggish house and garden near Ripon wanted a Land Army girl to work in the vegetable garden, and thought I might like it, so I went for a interview and decided I would go there, I could use my bike as it was only just over a mile.
I could live at home, I did enjoy that garden, and the gardener had a chest trouble so he couldn’t join up as he wanted to go into the forces.
When I met the gardener’s wife I was surprised. We knew each other at school and she used to live near us till she got married.
We grew lots of fruit and vegetables; the big house (not so very big compared with the others) was empty.
We had to see all was well in the house, then we were out in the garden every day, they had a good green house and was full of tomatoes and grapes, lots of vegetables.
I quite enjoyed my wartime experiences, but loved the work in the gardens best of all, as it was very peaceful after Dover.
THIS STORY WAS SENT IN BY MRS MARY ISOBELL BIRKINSHAW AGED 86