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My Sister Won The War By Alan Rimmer
My sister, Leonora, was only sixteen when she joined the WAAF in 1941 and became a barrage balloon operator. She did this until 1945.
At the end of the war, she went to Egypt where she did clerical work associated with the demobilization of troops that came there from
various countries to the east. She was demobilized in 1947 at the age of twenty-two years, having been six years in the WAAF.
Most of what is reported here is taken from tape recordings my sister made for
me when I expressed an interest in writing of her war experiences.
Operating a Barrage Balloon was anything but routine. There were well established procedures describing how to go about the operation and
maintenance of a balloon but there were always variables which created serious departures from normal routines. The number of girls in the
crew was one of the variables. The fewer the number of girls, the more work that had to be done by those who remained. Perhaps the biggest
variable was the weather followed closely by enemy activity.
"It seemed that all the nasty things happened when the weather was rotten. When we had to bring a balloon down because of weather, if it was
very severe, then we would have to storm bed it, which meant bringing it down until its belly was on the ground and tied down all the way
around. Of course, when it was down that way, you still had to move it and keep the bow into the wind. So, in the pouring rain, the wind
would shift, and we had to get out and drag those heavy concrete blocks, and undo the ropes, move them around and turn that balloon into wind.
Before you got it into that position, those fins that are at the rear of the
balloon had to be furled.
"The balloon is thirty feet high and the ladder is very tall. Two girls had to hold the ladder and, of course, being the tallest girl, I had to furl
the fins. I would let the air out of them, and then roll them up. It would be raining, and the rain went down my sleeves, down the back of my
neck and everybody had chapped hands. I had chapped arms, chapped elbows, and all these little cuts. Miserable! The ladder would be shaking,
and they would be hanging onto the bottom of it and the balloon would be banging up against it because of the wind; it would he pitch black.
I could use my awl to do a lot because they had slipknots that would undo very quickly when we had to release the balloon again.
That was one of the most unpleasant jobs.
“There was nothing related to the maintenance of a balloon that was good to do. It was all dirty work; dirty oil ...your hands... I never took
off my gloves if I could avoid it. I would have all this old engine oil under my nails. There was not a way you could get it out. Then if you had
cuts on your hands and up your arms, they would get oil in them. You just looked
scruffy alt the time you were handling a balloon.
"There was one site I was on. I cannot remember where it was exactly, probably Stoke Newington, but it was on a park because there was
space, and it adjoined a lumberyard. We had a serious storm with a lot of rain and a lot of lightning and there was also an air raid alert on.
Our balloon caught fire and went into the lumberyard. I don't know whether the lightning got it or it was shot at, but it went into the
lumberyard and started a fire there. That was one night. We had just cleared up that thing and we lost another one. We got the other one
inflated and got it up a couple of nights later and that broke loose.
“The cable was dragged across a Held, over the railway tracks, into the town. Now, all the cable was out with the balloon. I cannot think
how it happened as the flying cable is supposed to break free. It might have been shot down because it started to deltaic or, perhaps, the
wind had been too much for it. The rip panel had gone but the cable had not broken, and it had gone all the way across the railway
embankment, across the park, into the town, over the trolley lines. It knocked out all the power at 6 o'clock in the morning in the
"It was back into the gum boots, and the rain gear, and we started following the cable. We saw that where it has gone over the railway
embankment; there was a tunnel that led into the town. We knew we had a dangerous situation and, sure enough, the early morning train
came along. The train picked up the cable. We all realized what was going to happen. It was going to be pulled along and then it would
whip across, which is exactly what happened, so we all ran in one direction and the cable, when it was caught by the train, went in
the other direction, and just scythed out the whole victory garden that was in
the park. It cut everything off. “
“The train just went on. We followed the cable and sang. ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’, as we went. We went into town. They were
pretty mad at us, all these people standing on the street corners, and the balloon had come down in the railway station yard. It was just
lying there, all deflated, and the first thing we had to do was to get all the secretive stuff off, the valves and any other thing that nobody
should see. We then cut the cable into sections. We had been doing that on the way over there, with a big cable cutter, and coiled it up.
We took the balloon, hauled it and put it all in this wheelbarrow and push it back to the site. Of course, there were all these people
standing around without a trolley bus to take them to work and yelling at us.
'It's not our fault!' we said.
“While we thought it was really funny, they didn't think it was funny at all. We took it back and called headquarters. They sent out another
balloon. We lost two in about ten days.
"They then moved us down to the dock area in Wapping, Whitechapel, Elephant and Castle and Stepney. Not the nicest parts of London.
The docks were not too far away, and we had a Nissen hut and a wooden hut, an above ground air raid shelter, an Anderson shelter, an
underground shelter on the site, and a balloon. The balloon (I think it was a dog site) did not fly an awful lot but it could fly in there.
There was enough room for it. But the regular bombing was very heavy. They were still lulling the docks and they would knock out some
of the tenements. It was bad. It was dangerous because there was constant bombing. It was mostly at night. During the day, the V-1's would
come in. These were the first of the flying bombs. They were called buzz bombs or doodlebugs. You could see them coming in. We would
stand outside and watch them. There might be two or three. One would be going off to your right, one to your left and one coming at you.
You would watch to see which was going down first and where it was going, and
then you would make a run for the shelter.
“Many times, the engine would remain on and it would come in like a dive-bomber with a terrible noise as it came in. It was much better
if the engine shut off: it was not noisy that way. You would get the hang of it at the end, but that screaming noise of the plane coming
down was pretty hard to take. But the buzz bombs were thick. I remember one time, we counted eight all at once coming in. Then at
night they had the regular bombing raids. They kept us busy. We slept in the shelters. That was the first time I actually slept in the shelter.
I slept in the surface shelter; I did not like going underground too much. But we had a good surface shelter that had bunks in it. In any case,
the Nissen Hut got bombed. We couldn't sleep in that anymore. We would normally sleep in the Nissen Hut and would go in the shelter
when the siren went off.
Alan Rimmer 2019
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