by Nell Hope
2058265 Sgt N Humpage (Nell Hope)
Balloon Command 17th July 1941 to 4th December 1945
|Most of the girls were faced
with the choice of working in factories or going in the forces. Heaven only
knows why I chose the forces but I did and in 1941 I set off to join up.
My mother went to the station with me and looking back it must have been
hard for her as now she had three sons and a daughter away from home serving
in the Forces. My memory is not as good these days but I will try to show
what life was like for us in those days.
We were first fitted up with uniforms and I remember we all strutted about and were very proud. We had to choose the trade we would like to serve in and with a strange idea I chose Balloon command. I had no idea what it entailed but soon found out!! We had to wait for some weeks before we were sent to Cardington, the training command. During that time I worked on an aerodrome that housed B29 American planes and of course American Air crew. I, at last, came face to face with the reality of war; most of the pilots and crew were very young men and one day we would see them in the mess and then they never returned to base. It's funny how we coped but we just got on with life.
Next I was sent to Cardington and met a balloon face to face for the first time. It was bedded down and it was huge!! It needed a 14ft ladder to furl the fins and I was later to know that ladder very well!! We were taught how to inflate the balloon, deflate it, bed it down and send it up again. It was not easy!! I found out later that that was the easy part; it was different when we were bedding it down in a gale! But I am running ahead. My one lasting memory of Cardington was going on parade with a hot water bottle stuck in my battle dress. All the girls did the same; we must have looked like a load of pregnant ducks. Those Nissan huts were cold!
Leaving Cardington, hoping we knew what we were doing, we were sent to Stanmore to learn how to splice wire and ropes and to learn how to drive the winch that hauls the balloon up and down. That needed some doing when the wind was blowing and the balloon was bashing side to side. Anyway, we somehow passed the course. I met a lot of good friends there and lots of us kept in touch all through our service life. Before we left Stanmore we had to have a passing out parade in front of a Commanding Officer. One of us had to be in charge to take the parade and we all had to nominate someone we thought could do the job; none of us wanted it! Unfortunately I was picked, probably because I could make my voice heard. I don't remember much about it; I was that scared. Apart from the drill we had to put a balloon up and down. We managed somehow and it went up all right. Mind you, I was like a jelly!
Next came our real job. We were posted to our first site and met the crew who we would live and work with. It was a site in Runcorn. The factories in that area were essential to the war effort and we were also helping to guard Liverpool. By this time women had replaced men at all the balloon sites. The men were freed to serve elsewhere. Life on a site was not easy; we had to help get the balloon gassed up, mend any tears and be alert every minute to either fly the balloon or bring it down quickly. If any of our planes were limping back from action they could not reach height so we had to get the balloon down so that we didn't bring our own planes down.
Perhaps I had better explain that on the cable that held the balloon was an armed contraption that would be set off if caught by a plane which would then be dragged down by about 2000 feet of cable. In pitch-black darkness in the middle of the night, with only one torch, I had to bring down that huge balloon, shouting orders to the girl in the winch (who, incidentally had to be a very cool driver) who relied entirely on the one from the middle shouting orders. It was very frightening, but I'm happy to say we never lost a balloon. Our first balloon we called 'Bella' and we kept her the longest. She was covered in patches but still functional.
At first we lived in a Nissan hut with two sergeants and eight girls. The girls took it in turns to cook for the rest of us and some were better cooks than others!! On the whole it worked well and we all made lasting friends. We had no means of bathing so we relied on the people who lived round the site. I was very fortunate to meet a Mr and Mrs Green there and they treated us like family and the friendships carried on all through our lives. Later, they even left Runcorn and came to live in Church Stretton where my husband and myself lived, so something good came out of an awful period.
Eventually, I was posted to a site outside of Cardiff. We ringed the city and were there when they had a terrible raid that devastated the city. One of the Waaf sites had a direct hit and killed everybody. It was a terrible night. Whilst there, we used to use the hospital of Handough for our baths which was convenient. We were also on a route that the American soldiers' lorries used to pass and they would throw sweets to us; things we hadn't had for years.
After Cardiff I moved further south and one of the most outstanding memories of that time was, early one morning, standing outside watching the ships, black with planes and gliders travelling south. We later found out that it was the invasion of France, but what a sight.
When the end of the war was in sight Balloon Command was disabled and I spent my last few months at Bridgenorth in an office working with the Duty Officer. They dispersed the crews of Balloon sites near to their hometowns.
Some of my memories still make me smile. Nissan huts were the coldest things imaginable so on one site, as we were near to a railway line, we used to stand at the side of the rails and the drivers used to throw out big lumps of coal. These were heaven sent as we only had coke and trying to light a fire with that caused many expletives. Another thing I remember is that the Salvation Army were marvellous. If we had been travelling and arrived at a station at night they were always there with tea even if it was only in a jar; they were great. We also travelled to sites far from railway stations and in those days we were grateful of lifts but we were never frightened; everyone seemed to look after everyone else. I even had a lift in a hearse!! (I could have walked faster!)
Although we were at war and everything was scarce, we were all suffering at the same time and everyone cared for each other. My Mother and Father had three sons and a daughter in the Services but they soldiered on. Fortunately, we all got back home but thousands were not that lucky.
Comradeship in the forces is one thing I shall never forget.