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Jean Bates Wartime

Jean Bates Wartime at School and in the WTSR

© Shirleyann

Contributed by  Shirleyann
People in story: Jean Bates and family
Location of story: Woolacombe, N Devon, Exeter, Kent
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A4608399
Contributed on: 29 July 2005

Jean Bates

I was born at Woolacombe, and before the war the village was quiet in the winter, and busy in the summer with visitors. Most of these holidaymakers stayed at the local hotels, or at smaller boarding houses. There were all the shops we needed, except for the occasional larger purchases at Ilfracombe or Barnstaple.
The war changed everything. First we had the arrival of soldiers, these being the Tank Corps, a somewhat gentlemanly group, plus their tanks and weaponry. Some of the officers were billeted at the Bay Hotel, the largest and best-appointed hotel in the village. They left for service abroad after a while, and we had the Royal Artillery, who installed a gun at a position on the sea-front. (It was said that this gun only fired in one direction, so unless the enemy happened to be in a convenient place at sea, it would not have been very effective!) We got used to the presence of soldiers, and others came in due course from British regiments, before the final group, which was the Americans, They were a new experience, and the children especially enjoyed their friendly informality, and gifts of chewing gum and sweets. I was a little too old to cadge such favours, and like most girls of my age —I was in the sixth form at school by now—was inclined to dodge their invitations to walk or dance or whatever!

As well as the military invasion, a number of private schools were evacuated to Woolacombe as well as the children from London schools sent by the Government. The hotels and larger boarding houses had mostly been commandeered by this time, either by the military or by the schools, but a few private houses could accommodate people who wanted to stay either for a short time or for the duration of the war.
I remember the school which took over Watersmeet Hotel. This was Bartram Gables, and we often saw their crocodile walking to church on Sunday mornings. This school was all together in one building whereas some schools needed more than one hotel to accommodate children and staff. High Trees School was one of these, and they needed an extra hotel for classrooms and canteen. At one time during their stay my mother taught at this school, which was mainly for younger children, both boys and girls. She also taught at a school based at a hotel opposite the Watersmeet Hotel, known as the Tate School, which was a small orphanage for girls.
I met a girl from another evacuated school. She was related to a retired couple from Czechoslovakia who were here as refugees. This school was based at the Fortescue Villas, just above the church, and was quite a small school.
The official government evacuees were from a Croydon school and they joined the local primary school, which became so overcrowded the school at Mortehoe had to be re-opened, as well as making use of the Village Hall.

Since I was still at school in Ilfracombe, I was travelling on the bus each day. At first we had to carry our gas masks with us but since there seemed to be no danger of gas as the war went on, they were gradually forgotten. We were not in a danger zone in this part of the country, but I remember at one time having to practise precautionary measures, when we were taken into the field behind the school, to shelter among the cabbages. School meals were not very appetising, but we were used to basic needs by this time. On the whole our education was not much interrupted, though we had hoped at first that exams would be cancelled due to wartime restrictions! Some children from the continent joined the school. I remember a German girl who was placed in our form, who was very clever, and a young boy who spoke very little English at first. He wrote in my autograph album “Gott ist immus mit Wir” (God is always with us”) He was very popular as he was an attractive little boy.
Towards the end of the war, the Americans were practising for the invasion of Normandy. Our coastline was considered to be very similar to the French coast at Normandy, and beach landings were practised, as well as marching across the beach under live firing from the dunes above. There were casualties in both areas unfortunately. Earlier soldiers had positioned huge posts all along the beach to prevent enemy landings, but these had to be removed to accommodate the American exercises.

By this time I had left home, though I returned when possible, and kept in touch with what was happening at Woolacombe. After a year at the Art School in Barnstaple, where I had to travel daily by train with a journey through unlit stations, which meant one had to count the stops en route, I went to Exeter, to work at the headquarters of the county library, which was situated in the St Thomas’ area. This was not long after the blitz in the city, and the streets were lined with ruined buildings. I stayed with relations, who regaled me with their experiences of the raid. Their house had been damaged but was not destroyed. While in Exeter I only experienced one enemy raid, which occurred in daylight, and little damage was done. We were dispatched to the cellar until the All Clear sounded.

While at Exeter I had a notification of a way of National service. I was not old enough for the WRNS, which I would have liked, so applied to the scheme offered, known as the W.T.S.R. (Women’s Technical Service Register). Few people seem to have heard of this branch. It meant training as a draughtswoman for aircraft assembly. There were about a dozen of us in a building which also housed the tracers, who had no need of technical knowledge and were in a different part of the building. We were given sheets of drawings of aircraft parts, and had to transfer them to another sheet, adding certain items, such as the dimensions, measured with absolute accuracy to the nearest hundredth of an inch, and “limits” which were the sizes required for one item to fit into another. This exercise caused me great difficulties, since I was not very good at maths! All the drawings had to be labelled in neat capitals, and I could cope with that! At one stage, we were sent to get experience in practical work. We made tins, using machinery under supervision, and learned to drill and so on. We also had to attend classes in maths, engineering, and electrical sciences, with an exam at the end of the course. I passed the maths and electrical sciences, but failed the engineering paper. Fortunately the end of the war was in sight, and I realised I was not destined to be an aircraft designer. Our accommodation had varied. At the beginning, we used a large house near the Bristol Zoo, where we used the canteen. Later we were moved to an empty swimming bath, with the trainees in the empty pool, and the instructors at their desks on the surrounds above
The end of the war happened while I was in Bristol, and of course there were great celebrations. I joined friends and went to the Centre, where a great crowd had assembled, singing and dancing. There was war damage all round and many people had memories of terrible nights of raids. I had arrived when the worst was over, though wardens and fire- watchers were still needed.

The only other experience of war work was the week at a land camp. Fairly early in the war I went with a friend to a camp near Evesham, where we stayed under canvas, eight in a bell tent. It was a fruit-growing area, so we picked plums mainly, though one day was spent at a jam factory. I was rather disillusioned to find that apricot jam was made from plum stones and carrots! A girl was wading in a tank of jam, wearing Wellington boots! Our job was to sort plums into good specimens and rejects, and we had to do this speedily as the plums appeared in quick succession. It was a long boring day. When we went out to work in the country for a day we were doled out sandwiches, which were thickly cut and rather dry. I forget what the filling was.

Compared with people who were drafted into munitions factories or the services, I suppose my wartime experiences are not exciting. My brother, who was eighteen months older, was in the army, and many other friends were in the services. We followed the news at all times, and had news flashes occasionally at the cinema.
There were dances where we met soldiers or airmen on leave. Everything was in short supply, and food and clothing were rationed, but since everyone was in the same position, we accepted life as it came, and looked forward to the end of hostilities.

Source: BBC WW2 People'st War. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar.