Norah's War the story of Ursula Norah LEGGATT

The copyright of this story belongs to Michael Sculthorp-Wright (The Author)

 

 

It had been a slow stop start journey from London. Pulling in to sidings to let goods trains pass as war supplies have priority over passengers and hold ups because of bombing. This had gone on repeatedly since we boarded the train at Swindon. Our haversack rations of SPAM sandwiches an apple and a real egg in it's shell, were eaten hours ago. At least there was a WVS tea lady on the platform at Truro for us to wet our whistles. Pulling into Penzance we could see little with the blackout, although I saw an island, with what looked like a castle on it out at sea. The duty driver was outside the station waiting for the four of us with a gharry. We all climbed into the back throwing in our kitbags and cases, just as it began to pour with rain. A voice in the dark shouted “welcome to Penzance ladies”. It almost seemed we were at the end of the world it had taken so long to get here. Pam whom I got to know during training, had been posted to Mark’s Castle several months ago but went back to Yatesbury for update training on CHL and now on her way back. Pam had given us a good out line on how nice Sennen Cove was. I doubted it now in the dark and heavy rain. The journey was long and uncomfortable in the back of the lorry. The canvas cover leaked allowing drips to fall all over us and our kit. Everywhere was blacked out. The only brake was a road block by the Home Guard, they said we were near St Buryan. Pam said that it was a little over halfway to Land’s End from Penzance. We could see away to the East flashes of bombing and the glowing red sky of fires. Gillie Gilmour said it might be Plymouth being bombed again as her family were from Stonehouse, near the Plymouth Naval Dock Yards. Gillie and I together with Pam were to become good friends whilst at Mark’s Castle.

 

We arrived at the small fishing village of Sennen Cove very near Land’s End. I could hear the waves rolling on to the beach quite nearby and the shushing as the water receded across sand or shingle. The duty driver called us to grab our kit and follow, commenting “I hope you have your climbing shoes on”. We walked across the car park past a darkened building which the driver said was Station Admin. On through the dark we trekked until we started up some rather steep steps. Arms aching I stopped and changed arms and carried on. I heard Pam trip on the steps and curse and carried on. I thought we were climbing a mountain. The driver led us on and through a door way and after closing the blackout door, put the lights on. Before us was a very long corridor. “ Ursula Leggatt, Gillian Gilmour and Pamela Blackburn you are in room 14. Joan Ostler your sharing in room 7, welcome to the Sennen Cove Hotel, your WAAF accommodation while you are here. All of you are to parade at the Admin Office at 08.00hrs. The duty cook has a meal waiting for you in the cookhouse. Grab your irons and get a move on before they throw it to the fish. Oh, the cookhouse is at the bottom of all those steps”. We were all dog tired and bone shaken to pieces with traveling. Our beds were calling us.

 

We were up at 0630hrs, looking out of the window I realised why my legs ached. Stretched out before me was a wide sweeping bay which was Sennen Cove way below me. Fishing boats were bobbing on the sea for some distance. There was a fantastic long sandy beach; the war seemed a million miles away. Pam and Gillie were at the door clutching their irons, ready for breakfast. It was so much easier to walk down the steps to the cookhouse now we could see where we were going. I could see the admin block and cookhouse below but nothing else but fisherman’s cottages and a little harbour with towers of what I presume were crab pots and lines of nets hung up to dry. Then I remembered Pam had said the main radar site was some way above the WAAF block and a fifteen min walk along a cliff path. "Come on Norah, we’re starving", lets get down to breakfast before it’s all gone. Grabbing my irons and mug I joined them in the corridor and headed for breakfast. I could see a little more now we were on the steps. A couple of Nissen huts at the bottom of the steps turned out to be the men’s billets next to the Cookhouse and another just above the sea edge. The cookhouse complex was much larger than we thought last night. It contains recreation rooms, ablutions as well as the mess hall.

 

1935 East Sheen, London.

Ursula "Norah" LEGGATT

 

I was 22 and fed up with the lack of work with the depression and the dark clouds hanging over us. I had a good education and a good standard of living. We had a lovely house in East Sheen Avenue, South East London. Father had a successful business in the city as a solicitor. Brother William was making his name as an artist and engraver and Guy had finished University and considering joining the Army as he felt another war might be on the way. This nonsense with the Germans had people worried that there could be another war. I had seen adverts for employment with an English company in Argentina for secretarial situations with a good salary and passage paid. The company was Figorifico Anglo in Buenos Aires. I wrote in February sending an outline of my work so far and what odd references I had. A few weeks later a reply dropped through the door. I had been accepted and a ticket was enclosed. I was to sail on a ship called “Afric Star” which was with the Blue Star Line. The ship was to sail on the 4th of August from Liverpool. Mother and father would drive me up to Liverpool to wave me off. I was off on a great new adventure. The voyage was as good as a holiday. The weather was brilliant and became warmer the farther south we sailed. I was lucky, what little bad weather we had, I did not succumb to; sea sickness did not affect me. I was to live in Ranelagh, Buenos Aires . The late summer of 1939 was to see such escalation that England declared war on Germany on Sunday 3rd September. The dark clouds of war had really settled over Europe. In Argentina we were cushioned from the day to day fears back home. As the weeks went on our papers were talking of phoney war as nothing was happening at home but the cloud really was affecting Europe badly. America was standing fast and was not joining hostilities. In Argentina things carried on pretty much as normal. We were sending ships full of refrigerated meat and Fray Bentos corned beef, to the UK. Reports were coming in of the U-Boat dangers in the Atlantic. Life carried on as normal although we receive heart rending letters from home regarding Dunkirk, the Battle for Britain and the Blitz. It sounded awful. My brother William had been killed in 1940 which affected the family deeply. We were looking forward to Christmas 1941. December the 7th 1941 I was listening to the BBC world Service and the news was coming in of a massive attack by the Japanese on the American Navy fleet in Pearl Harbour. Many were dead and many ships sunk and damaged. America had joined the war! The next weeks were filled with concern quite naturally. Most of us who were expatriates were talking of returning home to join the forces. I made arrangements to return and try to join the RAF. I arrived home on the 4th January 1942. I had sailed on the SS Baronessa and landed back in Liverpool. I went on to join the WAAF and due to my level of education was to be trained in something very secret called RADAR. I was warned that I would wear the badge of a radio operator and was not to mention RADAR in any way. I went through basic training and then posted to RAF Yatesbury for further training. I had hit the ground running.

 

Training for Chainhome RADAR

 

I was to learn all about a chain of stations all around the UK. It involved sending out a radio signal in a given direction. If it contacted an aircraft it would bounce back to our receiving station. The time it took to return allowed us to calculate how far away it was. Continuous transmission and return allowed us to calculate how fast it or they were coming and where they were headed. We passed this information to a regional filter room that assessed the information and notified fighter stations and anti-aircraft gunners. It would of course pick up friendly aircraft and to avoid friendly fire a system was devised to assist these friendlies to transmit a call sign to identify them.

Our RADAR technology was constantly updated and improved and consequently we were constantly being retrained to handle the new systems. I had finished my course at Yatesbury in Wiltshire. Along with the other girls on the course and others who were undergoing update training, I queued up to check the posting list on the board. I was posted to somewhere in Cornwall called RAF Mark’s Castle at Sennen near Land’s End. There were four of us heading there. Travel warrants and orders were collected from the Admin Office. I had got to know so many during my training and had many friends’ addresses to keep in touch with.

We collected our haversack rations from the cookhouse and climbed in to the back of the fleet of Lorries waiting to take us to the Railway Station in Swindon. Last night’s air raid on Swindon’s Railway works had fortunately missed the main line although it was evident there was much damage last night. I climbed aboard when the train arrived, together with others headed for the West Country. We found a compartment and settled down for what undoubtedly would be a long journey.

 

RAF Marks Castle, Sennen, Cornwall

 

We waited in the Admin block to be called into see the WAAF CO. A corporal marched us in and stood us at ease. Mam explained that we were to operate the A.M.E.S 2 situated on the cliff above Sennen Cove towards Land’s End. A lorry drive via RAF Sennen, another RADAR site close by, drop off personnel working there and carry on with us to Mark’s Castle at Land’s End. Mam said there was a foot path we could use along the cliff if the weather was fine but it was rather a long walk but enjoyable in fine weather.

We were to operate a three watch system manning the Operations Block under a male Sgt. She gave us the rest of the day off to settle in and familiarise ourselves with the area. As we left the cookhouse earlier we bumped in to a young man who introduced himself as Cyril Jackson the proud driver of a Standard Eight, with which he nearly did for Gillie. He said he was the milk boy and lived locally on a farm. He briefly said that if we walked past the lifeboat station there was Georgina’s Café (Cove Café). The café was the nearest thing we had as a NAAFI. Also right at the end of the end of the road was a Hotel but was also our Officers Mess. Pam said after Cyril went into the cookhouse, “Don’t worry, I’ll take you there. After unpacking our kit and settling our room we took a walk along the cove to Georgina’s café. We climbed the steps into the wooden building and received a warm welcome from the lady behind the counter and wolf whistles from the far corner from a group of soldiers. The lady soon quietened them with a stern comment. We sat at a table and looked at the chalkboard on the wall. The lady came over and introduced herself and then remembered Pam had already been stationed here. “Been on leave or course have you my lover”, Pam put her finger to her lips and said “walls have ears Georgina” to which Georgina laughed. “You can’t keep secrets in Sennen me girl, you should know that by now”. “Ifin we don’t know something about you, we make it up”. We all laughed. Georgina asked what we would like to order. Four tea’s please and some cake please. Pam said we should try the local cake called heavy cake. Georgina corrected her saying it’s Hevva cake, made in the past when good catches of pilchards were made.

The soldiers asked to join us and came over. The chap sat next to me introduced himself as Archie Easton with the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry. They were local troops guarding the different areas of the county. A very boring job it was too he said. They move us around a bit to help with the boredom. We were last in Falmouth. Word has it we are off to the Scilly Isles soon for a stretch. What silly isle is that, I asked. He laughed, it’s Scilly not silly. They are a group of Islands about 28 miles southwest of here. You can see them on the horizon on a clear day. The tea and cake arrived. Archie explained, you see the criss-cross in the cake, that represents fishing nets. It comes from years ago when times were hard for fishing families down here. The women would wait on the beach to see if the menfolk caught fish. If they heard the men on their boats shouting hevva as they heaved in the nets, they knew there would be some money coming in that day and could spend a little on food and some coal. So the women go shopping for mixed fruit and butter to make Hevva for tea. Georgina makes it when she can get the fruit on ration. She gets the butter from a local farm on the QT. "You don'd sound Cornish to me Archie" I said. No, I'm from Edinburgh the others call me Jock.

 

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