International Women's Day
To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, we are sharing with you some of the wonderful stories of our Royal Star & Garter family.
Amy was desperate to join the Armed Forces, and in 1942, at the age of 17, was given permission to join the WAAF.
Amy trained as a barrage balloon operator. These were huge explosive balloons which were tethered to the ground and floated in the sky above cities or strategically important locations. They forced enemy bombers to fly at higher altitude, making them less accurate when bombs were dropped, and forcing them into range of anti-aircraft guns.
When the Germans began sending over the dreaded V1 flying bombs – known as doodlebugs – the barrage balloons were moved away from the areas with high density and to the coast. Amy said: “When doodlebugs started coming we didn’t want to bring those down on the population, so all the balloons were taken to the south coast to try to stop them getting across.”
Amy then went to work as a plotter, at a station near Hastings, on the south coast. She was there during the Normandy D-Day landings and later on as Allied countries continued to gain the ascendancy over the enemy. She said: “It was a very interesting job. By then it was our planes that were going out in droves to bomb Berlin and industrial areas. We were plotting out hundreds of aircrafts. And then, as so many of them struggled back, we plotted them back home.”
Amy was demobbed in 1945, shortly after WWII finished. By then she was already married to Ted, who she had met in Swansea during the war. Married women were the first to be discharged.
Suzie talks about the impact Covid-19 had on her and the Home.
I remember being at work, it was March (2020), and someone came around with face masks and said we need to wear them at all times in the Home. Everything got real then, and I thought ‘Oh my God!’ I burst into tears, because I didn’t know how I was going to cope with wearing the mask for 12 hours. I put it on and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. But one of my managers gave me a big hug – it was before we were told to social distance – and said not to worry, that we’re all in this together, and that made me feel better.
When lockdown happened I was lucky. I’ve had the opportunity to come to work, had the support of my colleagues, and it got me out of the house. I have had my son at home, which has been so important because I don’t think I would’ve got through this if I was coming back to an empty house with no-one to talk to.
After about a week or so I had to come to a decision. What happens if one of our residents gets Covid while I’m working? I sat down with my manager and said if a resident or colleague gets Covid I can’t go home. The only place I thought I could stay is my other home, which is here. I spoke to all my children and explained to them my plan. I said if anything happens to me, at least I’ve been doing the job that I love. I said to them, “Don’t worry I’ll be fine.”
Looking forward, life has to go on. I go shopping once a week and that’s it. All my time is spent at work or at home. That’s what we have to do to keep our residents safe, we care so much about them. And we’re doing a good job. We’ve all done our bit at work and outside of work. And we’ll continue to do so.
Margaret was born in Birmingham in 1932. Her father served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War as a Navy gunner on merchant ships.
As a child, the Blitz was a terrifying experience for Margaret. She remembers hiding in her grandmother’s cellar, “I was petrified, I used to go into shock, but on reflection it has a sort of bearing on the person you grow into.”
Margaret’s husband Charlie joined the Army in 1950. During his military service, he was stationed in Korea during the Korean War, and in Hong Kong. They married in 1958. Tragically, Charlie died suddenly in front of Margaret and their only child Andrew on Margaret’s birthday in 1981. He was just 48.
In her mid-20s, Margaret realised she had a gift for looking after groups of young children and embarked on a teaching career which would continue until she was in her seventies. She even brought her primary school class into the Solihull Home after it opened in 2008.
Jude talks about falling ill with Covid-19 and her immense pride in the people she works with.
The past few months have been tough, and very sad for us all. I knew that this was going to be something big when the Surbiton Home went into lockdown a week before everyone else. I was actually on jury service at the time and the case I was on was abandoned.
At first, working here during early lockdown was very hard. We were worried about our residents, we were worried about ourselves, and we were worried for our families. Over the weeks and months, we missed simple things like hugging each other, especially when somebody had passed away.
When I got tested it was no surprise it was positive. I was really unwell and there was no doubt in my mind that I had the virus. I had incredible pain in my back and my hips. I was very hot, tight on the chest, I lost the sense of taste and smell, had a bit of a cough. But the main thing for me was it was so painful in my back. I have to say it was very frightening, there was one night where I thought that I might need to go to hospital. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I was just drinking water and eating fruit to try and get some energy.
I tested positive twice and was off work for two weeks. I needed to rest and recover, but I wanted to be at work. I wanted to be doing my job. I knew how hard everybody was working, it was tough. We had a new member of staff that had just started, and I was mentoring them. I was off and I was worried about their induction, I was worried about the residents.
Right now I feel so tired, I think we’re all tired. I think everyone would love to jump on a plane and go somewhere warm and sit on a beach. But we all know it’s not going to happen.
“It was a way of life, we all had to do something. You didn’t think of yourself as being heroic in any way.”
Aged 17 when war broke out, Flo was working at Wandsworth Gas Company. At 19, Flo decided to join the WAAF. Explaining how she chose the Air Force over other forces, she said: “I liked the RAF uniform the most!”
She was given the choice of being a cook or driver and chose the latter, learning to drive in Blackpool where she was taught by a civilian instructor. She failed her first test after the attempted over-taking of a tram went wrong, but was behind the wheel again later that same day and impressed her sergeant enough to get her licence.
Flo was given basic care instructions on vehicles, and would have to go into the pit to grease and maintain them. She learnt how to drive in convoy, keeping the same distance between each vehicle. She was a HQ (headquarters) driver, not attached to a squadron, which meant she could be sent anywhere in the country, however she spent a vast chunk of her military career at a radar station in North Wales. She said: “On that station we drove anything. You could drive ambulance, fire engine… anything. You would go to the motor transport yard every morning and you were given a 658 form, and you would be told ‘this is your job’.”
As an ambulance driver, Flo would also take part in mountain rescue, occasionally attending incidents where an RAF plane had crashed, helping individuals who had become stranded.
Flo also drove many RAF pilots to their planes before they set off on missions. Some never returned: “That was one of the sad things to see,” she said: “I used to drive them to their planes. You would see a young chap run to their plane, and they would fly off. And sometimes they didn’t come back. You’d be thinking to yourself ‘Where is so-and-so?’, and the next day you’d be looking for him and you’d be told, ‘No, he caught it.’”
Flo left the WAAF in 1946. She looks back on her time with pride, but maintains she was only doing what everyone else around her was doing.