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Shortly after the great Battle of the Somme, where nearly 20,000 British soldiers had been killed during the initial day, July 1, 1916, letters filtered back that my mother’s husband, Reg Bareham, had not returned from the attack and was “missing in action.”
She then frantically searched nearby hospitals, hoping to find him wounded but unable to identify himself. Her hopes were not finally shattered until Jan. 14, 1917, when she received an official notice that his body had been identified as one of those who had been killed on that tragic first day of the battle.
Later in 1917, she placed me, not yet 2 years old, in the care of her nearby Bareham relatives and joined the newly-formed Women’s Royal Air Force. This is her story, which she typed herself at the age of 95, when she was living in Shelby County, where she died at age 110, the oldest recorded resident in the county.
I have condensed these memoirs for publication, without changing a word and only correcting the few typographic errors it contains. I have used ellipses to indicate where portions of her original manuscript have been omitted. A few subheads have been added.
A Short Resume Of My Services in the Women’s Royal Air Force, W.W. I
By Florence Van Stockum
In the mid years of World War I England was in extreme shortage of fighting men. The tragic battle of the Somme, where 200,000 British soldiers died, to say nothing of the wounded thousands who could never return to the trenches, was one of the main contributors to this condition. [My mother refers to the casualties of the entire battle, not just the first day, when nearly 20,000 were killed] Many wounded men who were not completely healed were often sent back, sometimes more than once to the front lines to do whatever they were able to. Women, then, were called upon to take, if possible the places of men at home. They did farm work, office work, mechanical repairs, and other work which would release a man for the trenches. Soon it became necessary to send out a call to the women of the country to join the military forces.
Feeling, as all girls did, a great sense of patriotism and concern, for the welfare of my Country, I volunteered to go.
A Royal Air Force training station was being organized at Fowlmere near Cambridge, close to my home, and since I could drive I applied for service in the Transportation Division.
Primitive aerodrome – primitive aeroplanes
The aerodrome was large, where aeroplanes were built, and where cadets were trained to fly them. In those early ‘planes, there were no harnesses, merely seat belts. There were no brakes on those ‘planes either. There were no run ways, and the ‘planes were brought down in the fields. If there was a convenient ditch to stop them it helped, or perhaps there was a convenient hedge, but the ‘plane had to run till it stopped by itself.
Barracks at this training station were hurriedly put up for women. They were bare of comfort and miserably cold and damp. There were also eight separate cubicles at the end for transportation girls. These were set apart so that all the other girls might not be disturbed when call for transportation came in the middle of the night. There was one round stove in the middle of this dormitory. There was a recreation room which had a few chairs, a piano, billiard table and another round iron stove, it was also miserably cold and damp.
The Transport Girls
The first morning we were up at 6, then lined up shivering for prayers and roll call, and to be introduced to Mrs. Hall who was in charge. Mrs. Hall looked us over, introduced herself and made it very clear that she was all for discipline and more discipline. She plainly showed her dislike for young girls, and I had a feeling that her eyes too often rested on me, so I decided from that time on that I would stand behind a nice fat girl whenever we had to line up for anything. Our judgment of her soon proved correct, for we soon discovered that she acquired a great satisfaction in nagging girls until they cried. That, I am sure she felt, was her duty and gave her a sense of dominion.
We were assigned to our different duties, dismissed, and struck out for our new adventure. Some of us went to the kitchen, some to offices, and the transport girls to their sheds. I never found out whose assignment it was to light the stove in the dormitory, but it was never lit.
My assignment for my first day was to take my ambulance out to the landing field and watch for crashes, which were almost inevitable. The planes were so fragile and smashed like match wood. We had a crash that day and a handsome young cadet was killed. It was a shocking and frightening experience for me and that night I was ill and couldn’t sleep. I dreaded my next assignment for the field.
Although our eight transport girls had to take their turns on the landing fields, our main task was to carry supplies or personnel to and from the railroad stations of Cambridge and Royston which was a small town close by. During the long dark winter months this often caused problems. The country roads were not paved, and deep ruts would form from rain and slushy snow. We were not allowed to use lights on our vehicles, in order not to guide the enemy to our installation, and sometimes we took the wrong road in the dark, and had to get down and stoop to see if we could find some landmark such as a house or hay stack that we were familiar with by silhouette.
Motor cycling was even harder because not only was it harder to keep the tires out of the ruts, but we had no shelter from the mud that was constantly flying into our faces. We were also exposed in that way to the freezing wind and rain that beat down on us, and we would be spattered with mud from head to foot and our clothes would be soaked through.
The Caxton Gibbet
One lonely road that I frequently had to take was through the village of Caxton. There was a mound at the cross roads there, and on that mound stood a gaunt and ghostly gibbet. The ropes were all rotted and gone but that long naked arm stood out straight and strong, and it always conjured for me a gruesome picture of some dead body swinging in the wind. I had bad dreams after that, especially if I saw it in a fog.
Looping the Loop with a Kentucky Pilot
We had little variety on occasion, however. One day while walking to my shed I met an American pilot who asked me if I would like to go up for a spin. I told him that we girls were not allowed to go up. He said, “I am sure that if I put a helmet and goggles and a long leather coat on you no one would ever know that you were a girl” (and me only five feet one inch)! So I walked to his hangar with him and he fitted me out with the coat coming down to my feet and we walked to his ‘plane hoping no one would see this dwarf pilot. Nobody did. It took three steps of a ladder to get me into the plane’s front seat, and he scrambled in behind. Soon the “joy stick” began to wobble, and I thought we were falling apart before we had even got off the ground. He told me not to touch the joy stick and soon we were off. When we were well up in the air, he shouted to me asking if I would like to do a stunt. I said “Yes” not knowing what a stunt was. In a moment the engine zoomed, the nose tipped skyward and very soon I was upside down in the ‘plane. He had looped the loop.
When my stomach had returned to its proper place, he asked me if I would like to do another stunt. I vigorously shook my head, but he still did the stunt by bringing me down in a tailspin. When I left that plane I was green, and I staggered back to the barracks and went to bed as sick as could be. I had to stay in bed for the rest of the day afraid to tell anyone what was wrong for I knew that if it were ever known that I had been up it would have meant court martial for me and also for Henry Clay Brown, the pilot.
[Note; My mother had informed me that this pilot was from Kentucky, but I have been unable to identify him or his family.]
Next: The Royal Air Force continued