Memoirs of Millicent McLeod, nee Petrie

Pushing back the curtains to a scene of pristine snowy beauty my mind went back nearly 60 years to the morning of the most adventurous and nerve shattering day of my young life – My call up day.

The snow was deep, very deep, and I immediately thought we would be snowed in, and a cowardly thought flitted through my mind; relief. It was the biggest storm for many years, and bought us munition call up girls a few more days.

We were all around 20 years old, many had never travelled from their homes. Some had been to Aberdeen, Huntly, Elgin but few had been much farther. My father came to the station with me, his face etched with worry and concern; my poor mother had to take to her bed. I was the only girl left at our family at home, two brothers in the army and two left to go. Pretty hard on parents.

At Keith station I met up with two sisters Mary and Jean Paterson, no strangers as we had gone to school together. We teamed up and stayed close through the war years.

Now the rumble of the train was heard, the knees knocked, the tears fell, we stepped aboard. It was a very emotional parting. Toot toot of the old steam train and we were off stopping at every station along the line picking up passengers. All too soon we arrived at Aberdeen and alighted to chaos. The platforms were a milling mass of humanity. Army, Airforce personnel humping kit bags, no porters. We humped our cases and joined the squeeze asking and asking where was our train, what platform, what time would we leave before it dawned on us that we were at the “care of the craws”.

We eventually all got together and after consultation decided to grab the next train south. A wee mistake as we had boarded a train that had several wagons of fish at the end of it! Never mind we were all chucked out at Perth, and again a mad rush for the next train south. I remember now that trains were always packed, mostly uniformed less civilians traveling. Many a train journey was spent sitting on kitbags, cases and in the corridor. First ones on got a seat and then we all squeezed where we could and one thing I must say on that crowded train I never encountered any nastiness of any kind. The men were mostly young around my own age and inside themselves as full of trepidation as any of us. We slept when we could and many a confidence was exchanged and a great camaraderie usually formed.

I’ll skip the journey and tell you a wee story of the last part of the trip. It was from Crewe to Birmingham. We three girls were in a compartment when we were joined by two Lassies we knew, one from Glenlivet and the other from Dufftown. They were very anxious and wanted our advice. Remember we were still travelling on our first journey into England and we thought their accents were so upper-class and that we were the original country bumpkins.

Well, the problem turned out to be this. The Glenlivet Lassie’s father placed a bottle of the “craitter of Highland dew” into her case and instructed her to take good care of it and if she had a cold or felt off colour she had to take her medicine. Well the problem lay in the fact that we did not know where we would be laying our heads, or what type of person we would be staying with and what would they think about a wee lass with a huge bottle of whisky in their luggage! We mused, we pondered, the decision was taken. It was to be left on the train! I put a wee prayer to my dad in apology because I could see his face clearly at the thought of such a heinous act, nearly as bad as going to war.

We eventually arrived in the dead of night in Worcester. We were put into trucks and dropped off at various houses. We three arrived at our billet and I’m afraid I can’t remember anything about that except the landlady was in her 30s.

There are gaps in my memory but we were taken to the station next day. A short journey later we came to this huge complex a “Cadbury’s factory” we were told but my memory is of clean buildings surrounded by grassland. I thought it was very nice.

We were interviewed, and as my friends wanted to be kept together they were sent to the machine shop and provided with brown overalls and all-over hats to keep their hair out of the way. I was taken to a different part after my interview and issued with blue overalls and told I was to be an examiner. A lucky choice I must say and my job saw the ·303 and ·22 ammunition at the end of the production and I pass them on their way.

In the beginning I worked 12 hours a day. Between travelling to and fro we did not see much of daylight and only wanted to sleep.

We changed our digs PDQ. We were unaccustomed to a person sitting at the table with a loaf on her lap waiting for a request for a piece of it. One had to ask, then she leaned forward, slapped the knife in the marge, slapped it on the loaf and cut off a slice. One way of making sure you did not ask for another.

We got hungry a lot and although I hated tea I started drinking it to fill me up and before long I was drinking half pint enamel mugs of it.

Then the homesickness started and it hit me pretty badly. We were told at the beginning, we could not go back home for six months. This was like a jail sentence and most unfair as the girls near at hand could manage a couple of days off but there was no way we could get to Keith and back in such a short time. There was also the accent difficulty, and I imagined that everyone disliked me because they did not engage me in conversation. I found out later that they had difficulty understanding what I was saying and they were too polite to ask twice. Never mind once I had my holiday at home I never ever suffered homesickness again.

Once back to work I had a different approach to life and started to take notice of things and also to rely on myself and appreciate the good things and face up to the bad.

I explored Worcester; the centre reminded me of Elgin. The cathedral is magnificent, and I loved walking along the banks of the River Severn.

When I returned from holiday we found that we were to work three different shifts, two till ten, ten till six and six till two. I liked this but it separated the times I could spend with my friends as we were allotted different shifts. I eventually moved digs as our landlady was moving house. I moved with our landlady as she only had room for one in her new home and I stayed there for a few years.

I’ll move on a bit and give you a short impression of Worcester.

It had been a quiet city before the onslaught of war personnel invaded. The city was classed as a green area with wooded terrain surrounding it hiding the city and the small towns.

Thus we escaped much of the bombing. I grew to love the magnificent cathedral city with the Severn River running through it. Along the banks run the racecourse and beyond that the cricket ground.

This has all been replaced by a centre precinct and the picturesque streets running down to the river long gone.

Running parallel to the main street was the shambles going back hundreds of years and it was a very popular shopping and social area.

Butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, almost everything in spite of the shortages. Of course they ran out of goods, sweets were a luxury. I covered miles on the strength of rumours that there was some to be had. One particular disaster was when the word came out that oranges had been in a certain shop. We hightailed down there coupons at the ready. Delighted to get some only to find they were marmalade oranges!

Worcester was now bursting at the seams and the powers to be were realising that the civilian workers had to have a place to go in their spare time. A decision was taken and a large house (lovely) which had been a club for Polish officers was now allotted to us and we were invited to attend a meeting.

We arrived and just managed to squeeze round the doors, the large room was packed. Plenty of babble, my friends were not impressed but I was intrigued and I started going there on most nights.

The numbers fell away and left eventually a very nice crowd of workers from all over Britain and some from Worcester itself. Help seemed to be coming to us at last.

Here was a place to wash up and have a shower, buy a cup of tea and toast and make new friends.

Miss Mellor was awarded a very well educated and connected woman of about forty. Both the boys and girls loved her. The committee was formed and I was the chosen representative from the members. We were successful in getting a grant to build a wee hall at the back although I can’t remember where the money came from. We were also granted the use of a place to go in the gorgeous Malvern Hills and this was our weekend hideaway, if we were off duty.

It was a mixed club and the men had tents, the women were granted the first-class accommodation of the loft area. My memory says that every day spent there was sunny, and when we sat out at the long scrubbed table and ate our meal I knew just how lucky we were. We had received a lovely gift from our American comrades of sleeping bags and corduroy brown trousers and jackets. Much to our sorrow we were not allowed to keep these great suits.

It was at one of these weekend camps that I had my most embarrassing moment.

We had all been out at the local villages and home quite late. It was the custom for us to chat until everyone came home. This night there was champing and clamping noises coming up to the loft, where we lay on the floor in our zipped sleeping bags all the world like sardines.

Someone started talking about the rats that the bull underneath us would be disturbing, and as I have a great fear of rats I try not to think too much about their near presence. The all clear was given meaning that everyone had safely returned and we all settle down for the night.

I was just on dropping off when I felt the wiggle of something running up between the two sleeping bags. I grabbed the zip and pulled it over my face and head when my hand felt and clutched this hairy beast. I screamed and screamed, my hand would not open to let it go.

Pandemonium broke loose, I was out of it, screaming the rat, the rat. Then all I could hear was the pounding of the men’s feet coming up the wooden loft ladder. The men’s presence must have relaxed me because I felt my fingers loosen and as I let go my hair, all in a roll that fashion dictated, was let free. The rat!

The search was now on for the rat that had escaped from my hand but I was too mortified to confess that the rat had indeed been my fashion hair style!

So there was a lot of fun and life was a full one although everyone was conscious of our own mortality.

Around this time I decided to go to London and visit relations. My parents were caring for their boys in Keith while the bombing was going on. I had this belief that I was immune and it was so foolhardy in retrospect.

Of course I did not let my mum and dad know. There were bombs alright and my cousins had stopped going to the Anderson shelter but on the night that I was there it got so bad we had to go. They knew by the noise of the planes droning and when you stopped hearing the droning you were in real danger. The silence would be followed by explosions. The sky lit up and now and again huge eruptions as the bombs fell. A never to be forgotten sight, the devastation the next day was a terrible and heartbreaking sight.

I was still not afraid and visited my relations often although I saw some awful sights.

Getting back to the work scene, it became obvious that there was not the same work being processed.  There had apparently been a surfeit of bullets etc that we made and there was to be a move to other things. By this time I had been promoted to the toolroom and trained as a centre lathe turner. There were three women among all the men and we had our own lathe and tools. This was a very good position and being honest very difficult but we got a lot of help from the old boys.

Rumours were rife and soon we were being interviewed and sent to different jobs. I was told that I would be contacted soon and given instructions then. I was not to talk about it as it was of considerable importance not to.

As I waited to be settled into this new position that awaited me I found that I had no wages coming in. I remember being very confused as so many personnel were getting jobs and no word of mine. I decided that I would see the powers that be to complain. It was explained reluctantly to me that I was being screened. This was that all my particulars had to be vetted by the police in Keith and that they had to wait until this was clear. Everything was hush-hush at that time and careless words had to be avoided. I was refused permission to go home but also had to pay digs and live. My landlady advised me to sign on the dole. Through this I was offered a job in a milk maid bar. I loved it, the staff had to wear a halo headband with milk maid embroidered pink on white and white overalls, very fetching. The cafe was situated in the centre of the main street on parallel with the Severn which flowed along below. I was educated quickly by the customers who arrived early in the morning up from the river and learned from hints and winks who they were by showing off full purses and hungry for sandwiches and tea. I weighed them up with awe – fought with my conscience and treated them like the nice women they were!! The next lot were the early workers glad of a cuppy the rest were just the normal pop ins.

At this time the news was around that there were hospital trains on their way to Worcester. The wounded were coming home from the fighting at Alamein. Then on the streets there was the light blue uniform of the hospital, lads stopping in for a cuppy and sandwich. I thought then that they were so quiet not much wonder what they had seen and been through; all were traumatised. We tried to cheer them up but some had lost limbs and eyes and they were the ones who could get out and walk. They came in every day once they found we were quiet and friendly. We tried to cheer them up but it was all so new to them, this person that was now them and what they had been through. I remember the helpless feeling I had, me so untouched by the cruelties of war and those boys so hurt.

My mum wrote and had enclosed the names of two Keith lads who had been wounded. They were at two different hospitals. I visited them. One was William Smith (known as Cookie) of 25 Wellington Terrace previous to his marriage. I knew him well. The other was Sandy Auchinachie  and I remember Basil Rickits but he was walking about in the hospital. They were soon moved and plenty more poor lads to fill their beds. Sadly they are no longer with this. I was moved away to my new job and I think they also were moved to another hospital. I remember feeling so bad seeing these hurt lads and me so untouched by the cruelties of war.

Then I got my orders to be at the corner of London Road at six a.m., where I would be picked up and taken to Deptford – great! It was a small vehicle and it was to be the transport provided, no running for trains. The delay about our taking up our positions was that we all had to be screened, which meant all our past had to be clarified by the police, that we were what we seemed to be.

My new post was 10 miles away and it was so new that the place we were ushered into was freezing, only a round stove in the middle for heat. We soon realised there was no toilet and we had to get the car to take this to the nearest village. We were actually situated in an airfield and a couple of days after we arrived eight girls, with more arriving, were happy to see a bunch of airmen erecting what turned out to be latrines. Those boys had great fun banging on the doors and seeing the blushing girls belting for our workplace. However, before very long we were established in a very nice building with a work desk each with a drawer and cupboard underneath. We had a great toolbox and soldering iron of our own. The work was hush-hush, very important that we didn’t talk about anything that was going on. The thing was I don’t think we knew what was going on. Only that we did a job to the best of our ability.

We knew that it was radar and a rough idea of what that meant. The first factory was on the south coast and the second was ours.

It was so situated that it was not seen from the air. We were actually part of the airfield and had freedom to go to their canteen and also to their dancers but we didn’t take it up – 10 miles was a problem then. We knew it was tremendously important to the war effort, and very hush-hush. We didn’t talk of work at all.

We got a lot of talks and told to use our initiative. I came a cropper through this. At that time fuse wire was enclosed in pleated wire mesh and it was a sight to see the silver glitter of the inside belly of a plane my memory says that there was miles of the stuff anyway a lot of yards whipped round and round. Our work was very often “panic stations” as we named it. Mad rush and then too quiet. This day it was panic stations to get it done. My mesh fuse was very tight and the rubber round the inside wires was very difficult to strip so that I could solder it. Looking for a bit of speed I took a duster and soaked it with this liquid and wiped the rubber – great the rubber dissolved and I got weaving – made a neat job.

Weeks later or months, can’t remember, I was summoned to the office and found myself faced by people I had never seen before. One by one they questioned me and all at once it dawned on me what they were talking about. I immediately asked them if it was this they were on about so I had to explain it all in my own way. I was so naive. I wasn’t worried. Then I got the low down my brilliant idea had worked and passed many test until something was seen or found out, I don’t know what anyway. The stuff I used to strip the rubber contained acid and in time had eaten through. My God, I nearly dropped but I wasn’t sent to the tower in fact they told me that it was through things happening like this that new ideas came about and that I had to carry on using my initiative but always, but always to check with my boss before I tried anything out. I was gutted that day. They had mentioned that it was dangerous to have anything less than perfect on a plane.

We had a very important person visit us and he was Sir Stafford Cripps, Cabinet minister. He told us of the important job we were doing and that we would be quite famous having worked on the radar in its infancy. He said we would only need to say what we worked on after the war. Well I can tell you now not one person ever said to me you worked on Radar.

The day came after VJ Day that I was summoned home. My beloved mother had crumpled after the war finished. She had written faithfully to my four brothers and myself – listened to all Lord Haw Haw’s broadcasts and the relief when it was over was too much for her.

I was again asked to go to headquarters and advised not to leave my position. I was a civil servant and that my work was very important and that better things would come in the future and that I had this place more or less for life. I didn’t have to think – I knew where my heart and duty lay but inside myself I was numb. A life style I loved and many friends. Fiddle de dee, such is life. We were brought up properly, we prewar bairns.

Mind you when I think about it now I am pleased that I worked for radar in its infancy. Do you think I might qualify for a medal!!!

There is lots that I have left out that I now remember. The time that Sadie my Glasgow friend and I were at the station when this tall handsome young soldier came off the train and marched past us. My eyes popped out of my head. Horror of horrors he had his kilt on back to front. Sadie said Oh! he is just keeping his pleats straight. Scornfully I said no Scot would do such a thing and we followed him until we met two policemen and told them so they followed him and the let down is I don’t know if he was a spy but his demeanor was nervous and watchful and I’m certain he was.

Another funny feeling inside of us was the invasion of Europe. I lived on the main through London Road and there had been whispers that the invasion was imminent. It started late one night and the trucks, guns etc moved along one after another with the most menacing loud but muted growl. These convoys drove steadily onwards towards the south coast; eerie it was. Our nerves jangled with it and God help all the lives that rode on these vehicles. It went on for weeks on end and the invasion did stop the War and at what a price.


May 1990