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2050056 Leading Aircraftwoman Hilda Mudd

Hilda was born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1923.  Her parents and her uncle Absalom emigrated there from Grassington

 in Yorkshire and set up a smallholding on the prairie.  Her father suffered from pernicious anaemia (where the body can't process vitamin B),

 and in those days there was no effective treatment for it, so he died when she was only 6 years old. 

                                                          Hilda and parents, and Uncle Abe at Kincade Farm in Canada

 

                                                                                     Hilda and Uncle Abe ride in style

LIfe on the prairie was quite tough, so her mother and uncle decided to come back to England when Hilda was 11.  She was an only child, 

and speaking with a funny foreign accent she did not make many friends at school.  But as with many of her generation she left school at 14 

and went to work in a grocers' shop.

When war came she joined the WAAFs as soon as she was able, and at last she found herself able to make friends and fit in.  She also go to 

travel around the UK and meet lots of people.  They were the best days of her life, she said.


 

2050056 Leading Aircraft Woman Hilda Mudd .

 

Hilda in 1941 on her 18th birthday

 This is the story of Hilda Harrison (Nee Mudd) who served with 953 Squadron at Barry and from her service number joined up from

 May 1941 by the Inspector of Recruiting.

"Life on a barrage balloon site was totally different from that of an R.A.F. station. We were a self-contained unit of 14 to 16 young

girls. I was 18 when I did my training in the Midlands . There were some 18,000 of us trained to operate barrage balloons in

and around ports and cities around Britain . We were in the highest paid trade group for the W.A.A.F. because of the

arduous work and what is now called .antisocial hours.; starting at 2/4d per day for Aircraftwoman 2nd Class, plus 4d per day War

 Pay. We were allowed one 24hr pass each week, and two evening passes, weather permitting. Every night, we stood picket duty

on 2 hour shifts. We lived in Nissen huts . those half-moon corrugated iron contraptions; cold in winter, hot in summer. The floors

 were usually bare concrete with a bedside mat. We kept our clothes in empty ammunition boxes. Sites near the centre of the city

would have electric lights. Those not so lucky would have Tilley lamps. Our water came from a stand-pipe in the ablutions hut,

although some sites might have to use one several hundred yards away. There were no baths, of course. Twice a week we went

in pairs to the public baths, usually a bus-ride away. On one site I was stationed on in Barry Dockyard we took the train to have

 our bath. 

Barry Island postcard sent by Hilda to her mother: the "X" marks the spot where the Balloon Barrage was set up in WWII.

All the hot water required on site had to be heated by coke fires. We were not issued with any coal or kindling wood

 and used cleaning rags soaked in dirty sump-oil from the winch to get our fires going. If we happened to be near a railway we

 were lucky, as firemen on the steam engines could often be persuaded to throw us a cob of coal. The toilets were wooden

seats over iron buckets. Once a week, a tanker arrived and we took turns to empty the buckets. We had a rota for duty cook also.

 It was important never to allow the kitchen stove to go out, otherwise it would never get hot enough to cook the next meal.

When the ration truck came we ate well enough, then meals tended to get skimpy until its next visit. The meat would be sausages

or offal. Scrambled dried egg and tinned pilchards also featured largely on our menu. The puddings were invariably prunes and

custard or rice. We were issued with 7lb tins of jam for teas and fried jam sandwiches were a popular delicacy. Sometimes there

 was a slab of cake with the appearance of compressed sawdust which we referred to as .yellow peril.. There was always a slab of

yellow cheese with the texture of common washing soap and the milk was tinned. I spent one Christmas on a training site taking a

 trade test for a promotion. We had one chicken between 22 of us and we boiled the Christmas pudding in the fire bucket!

That site was in a park and the stand-pipe was some distance away. To wash, we put on gumboots and waded into the nearby stream.

 Some mornings we had to break the ice first, but as we were only there for a fortnight it did not worry us too much. The work was

 heavy and the living conditions were rough but as a consequence the discipline on a balloon site was pretty easy-going. We did not

have to stack our beds like they did on a Station. If we had been up most of a stormy night, attending to a balloon that wanted to take

off on its own we were allowed a nap during the afternoon. We did not have to wear a collar and tie. We wore battledress or dungarees

and men's boots or gumboots and sleeveless leather jerkins in winter. We wore a beret instead of the usual peaked cap. This was

more practical for crawling under and around a pitching and tossing balloon on its bed. One of the things to be carefully guarded against

 in those days of severe petrol rationing was getting the tank of our winch syphoned in the blackout. The sites still crewed by airmen were

guarded with a rifle but we girls only had a truncheon to protect ourselves and government property. I do know of at least one intruder

 who found himself in hospital after sampling the weight of a W.A.A.F.'s truncheon. 

The duty officer often paid a visit in the small hours.

                            Sutton Coldfield 1947

One Flight Commander I recall drove a very noisy little open-topped car which could be heard a mile away on the still night air. He at

least never caught the guard making cocoa in the kitchen! In some places we were quite an attraction and would often have an audience

 when we were handling a balloon. One such place was Barry Dockyard where the seamen, mostly American, would reward our efforts

 by throwing oranges and lemons over the high mesh fence. These were a great luxury in wartime, although once I was the

receiver of a bottle of scarlet nail varnish . totally useless to any of us. Apart from not being allowed to wear it, we all had ugly hands,

 scarred by rope burns and ingrained with oil from handling pulleys and shackles. There were idyllic summer days when the barrage floated

 5,000 ft above us and we lounged in the sun splicing new guy ropes, but also there were stormy days and nights when we had little rest as

we struggled to keep our balloon on its storm mooring. To achieve this the bow must always be kept into the wind . not easy in a gusting,

veering wind. Each guy rope had to be moved in turn, one point at a time, whilst another girl dragged its 56lb concrete ballast block with it.

As the balloon pitched and tossed in the wind the guy ropes sprang taut and the ballast blocks swung into the air, just at the right height to

smash a kneecap, if you did not stay alert. Finally the great silver hulk was edged back into wind, perhaps only to repeat the process one hour

 later when the direction of the wind changed yet again. To be woken by the duty picket shouting .Out of wind!. was not a welcome sound.

It was also important that the balloon did not rip her belly on her concrete bed or on her own wire rigging, because she was only made of

Egyptian cotton covered in silver dope. To this end, we crawled on hands and knees to adjust the heavy canvass ground sheets under her. It

was important too that we did not get entangled in the shifting wire rigging. In the blackout we worked by torchlight, often cold, wet and weary.

Sometimes we lost the battle to save our charge from destruction. I recall one such winter night in Birmingham with a gale gusting up to 100 mph.

A straining guy rope tore a starboard panel clean out of our out-of-wind balloon, she then floundered like a wounded elephant until all the

hydrogen had escaped. That was a lot of wasted gas, and we were not very popular with Flight Headquarters! However, that was not the only

loss that night. It was the worst storm I remember. The next day when the wind abated, as it curiously often did at dawn, the gas trailer arrived

and we had the tiresome job of inflating a new balloon. We wore plimsolls and no metal about us, for fear of a spark igniting the highly

inflammable hydrogen. It was a cold job unscrewing the caps on the huge cylinders. As soon as the gas began to flow down the hoses everything

became covered in frost. A damaged balloon was not the only occasion when we had this task. The purity of the hydrogen had to be carefully

checked daily and a cylinder or two might be added, but eventually the purity became dangerously low as it became contaminated by air.

Then the balloon had to be deflated and filled with fresh gas. This usually happened in warm weather when the balloon was flying all day.

The gas expanded at altitude and constantly valved off. In the cool of evening the gas contracted and a very flabby object hung in the sky above us!

I never heard of a barrage balloon bringing down an aircraft. They were supposed to do this by means of a mechanism which cut the steel cable

if it was fouled, whereupon the cable would wrap itself round the aircraft. But the balloons did keep enemy bombers at height, when bomb sights

were less sophisticated than they are today. A silver barrage balloon floating in a sunset sky had a curious proud beauty all of its own. At W.A.A.F.

reunions after the war the Balloon Operators always seemed to congregate together even though they did not know each other in service days.

We were still a trade all of our own."

 
After the war, she went to work at Billy Butlin's holiday camp at Filey.  The camp had been used as an RAF station during the war and Billy Butlin 

recruited a lot of his staff from ex-servicemen and women.  She worked in the booking office. Some time in the 1950s she moved to Preston, 

where she lived in lodgings and worked at the Motor Tax office there.  Although she had learned to drive a winch truck during her days in the

 W.A.A.F. she never learned to drive a car herself. It was in Preston that she met her husband Tom Harrison, a painter and decorator.  He had come 

to paint her landlady's lounge.  They were married in 1953 and lived all their married life in a house in a village just outside Preston.  They had 2 

children, Lorna and Graham.


                                                 Hilda relaxing in more peaceful times.

 

Hilda Harrison passed away in 2009, on the day before her 86th birthday. 

What a delightful tale by a woman who in just a few pages summarized her war experiences with a very descriptive flair..