Martha Gamble (nee McSheffrey) Barrage Balloons and Flying Canteens

Discussion in 'The War In The Air' started by handtohand22, May 1, 2010.

  1. handtohand22

    handtohand22 Senior Member

    Basic Training – Innsworth, Gloustershire

    I served from 28th April 1942 until 16th December 1944 as a Leading Aircrafts Woman (No. 2098557) in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. At the age of 20, accompanied by my sister Jessie, I went to Belfast and enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. After the papers were signed, I said goodbye to Jessie and was taken by truck to the Heysham boat. One of the girls on the truck was the daughter of Lady McDonald-Tyler.
    I started my two weeks basic induction, inoculation, square bashing, and finally tear gas exposure and respirator mask testing at Innsworth in Gloustershire. After the third day of training, Miss McDonald-Tyler moved to another unit and received her commission. The square bashing was not only mandatory it was necessary. After the battery of inoculations the arm swinging helped to ease the pain. The inhalation of tear gas was also mandatory. It was important to establish at this stage of your training if you had the capacity to inhale the obnoxious fumes of the barrage balloons.

    Barrage Balloon Training

    After basic training in Gloustershire, I trained as a Barrage Balloon Operator. The aim of the barrage balloon was to discourage the German Air Force from using low-level flying and bombing tactics. The German targets were the English cities and munitions production centres. Higher flying resulted in less accurate bombing.

    My enrolment in the WAAF coincided with the decision to train women for the role of Barrage Balloon Operators in the summer of 1942. By April 1943, some 31,800 WAAF’s were deployed at Barrage Balloon Sites across England. This allowed the men to be redeployed to other tasks.
    The Barrage Balloon Operator’s training involved, Splicing Wire Ropes, Splicing Cord Ropes, Tying Knots, Inflating Balloons, Deflating Balloons, Anchoring Grounded Balloons, Raising and Lowering Balloons, Winch Handling, Repairing and Patching Balloons.

    The procedure for repairing the balloons was to winch them down to ground level first. At ground level they were then anchored with sandbags and concrete blocks and then finally, they were deflated. We were virtually gassed every time we had to get inside the deflated balloons to patch and repair them.

    First Posting – Dagenham, Essex

    After Barrage Balloon Training, I was posted to the London County Council Playing Fields in Dagenham, Essex as a Barrage Balloon Operator. By that time I was known as Mac. Because of our ability to handle the balloons, as operators we were also responsible for providing a 24-hour Guard on the Balloons. There were two women on Guard Duty at night. For that task, we were issued with a tin hat and a truncheon each. Their job was to prevent intruders getting too close to the balloons. When confronted by any person at night, we had to issue a challenge and be prepared to call out the armed guard. The two women on Guard Duty were also responsible for ensuring that the anchored balloons stayed anchored. A change in direction of the wind would twist the anchor ropes and the sandbags and concrete blocks would have to be moved to accommodate the shift. If there was an increase in the wind speed, there was always a danger of the balloons breaking away from their anchoring. On some occasions an errant balloon carried aloft the anchoring itself. Many chimneystacks and residential roofs were demolished in the Dagenham area by anchoring blocks bouncing across them. If an Air Raid Warning was issued, the Guard was also responsible for getting the balloons ready for winching up.
    It was while I was at Dagenham that the WAAF was taken off all Barrage Balloon tasks. I was informed that there were two main reasons for this loss of role. First, females found the task of shifting the anchoring too strenuous. Second, a WAAF was killed during a German daylight raid. At the time of this incident, the woman was operating a winch from the back of a lorry.

    Driver Training – Bedfordshire

    In 1943, all WAAF trained as Barrage Balloon Operators were asked to retrain in a choice of different roles in support of the RAF. I elected to become a Heavy Goods Vehicle Driver. The Driver training took place in Bedfordshire. The two driving instructors were civilians from Southern Ireland.
    My training progressed well until I was handling 3 Ton lorries. But, one week before the test, there was role-changing incident. I swerved the lorry in order to avoid a cat crossing the road in front of me. That concluded my interest in learning to drive anything.
    I then moved to Blackpool for further training. This included Drill Instruction, Route Marching and Stewarding. I qualified as a Leading Aircraftswoman and was placed in charge of the female staff in the Sergeants Mess. Blackpool turned out to be a lovely place, even with the blackouts, so little money was saved during this phase.

    Stewarding – Ballyhalbert

    After Blackpool, I was transferred to Ballyhalbert in Co Down N. Ireland. I was responsible for the female staff in the Airman’s Mess.

    Stewarding – Ballykelly

    Finally, I was moved closer to home. This was Ballykelly, Co. Londonderry, where the famous Shackleton Bombers had their operational base. I was again responsible for the supervision of the female staff in the Flying Canteen during the night shift. After my shift was over, I would return to my billet and try to sleep between 9am and 3pm. This was usually impossible because officers would check out the billets, wake me up and inquire into my reasons for sleeping in the middle of the day. To achieve some respite, I resorted to travelling the sixteen miles home to Kyle’s Brae by bus after my night shift.
    The Flying Canteen was the last watering hole for all pilots and crew before they embarked on their active service missions. Here the crews were issued with everything that was only rationed out to lesser mortals. This included such luxuries as chocolate, fresh fruit, corned beef, jam and sugar.
    The thermos flasks used by the crew to carry their coffee and tea proved to be very expensive luxuries. I found this out when I accidentally dropped one of the flasks and my pay was stopped until the flask was paid for.
    In some respects, working in the Flying Canteen was also an emotionally draining task. I was responsible for making up the meal packs before the mission. I saw the flights off in the evening and then prepared breakfast for the returning crews. On some occasions, the returning crews were short of men, either wounded or killed. On other occasions, the complete crew failed to make it back.
    I finished off my WAAF Service on 16th December 1944.

    Post War Experiences

    I married William Gamble, 6LAA Battery (SR) RA, from Brook Street on the 7th November 1946. The best man was William’s brother, Jim Gamble , 21st Independent Parachute Company. The Bride’s Maid was Nancy Eaton from Shuttle Hill. On the day the Reverend Abbot said to me, ‘Now Martha, do you not think you are taking a bit of a gamble today.’
    Owen and dbf like this.
  2. von Poop

    von Poop Adaministrator Admin

    Interesting stuff H2H.
    Mum? Auntie?
  3. handtohand22

    handtohand22 Senior Member

  4. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    Ronnie, super post. Thanks for sharing this.
  5. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    Seconded :)
  6. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

  7. handtohand22

    handtohand22 Senior Member

    Pathfinders, 21st Independent Parachute Company, Norway 1945.
    Sgt Jim Gamble, 21st Independent Parachute Company and his wife Susan, 1944.
    Marthas wedding 1946
    Martha McSheffrey, WAAF (1942-1944)

    Attached Files:

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