21 October 2019
My story – by resident Eileen Webster
Eileen Webster, 97, who lives at Arlington Manor, our care home in Cambridge, has shared with us how she predicted weather climates as one of the first female forecasters in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War.
I was born in Billericay, Essex, in 1922. My father and my grandfather were builders and built bungalows on Station Road, which is where we lived.
I went to school in Brentwood at Brentwood County High School for Girls. In my last year, when I was taking my A-levels, the Second World War broke out. My father had been in the Air Force in the First World War and was still of an age to be called up, however, his eyesight had become bad so he couldn’t go but instead was called to work on the telephones in London.
My parents moved to a house they owned in Kew Gardens and I moved in with a neighbour before joining them a year later after finishing my A-levels. Then I went to work for Shell, which had been evacuated to Bournemouth. We kept accounts for people, like a pension fund for the men. I was just 18 and we were right on the seafront. It was very beautiful.
Shortly after, I decided that I wanted to volunteer for the WAAF, however, when I went for a test, they wouldn’t let me in. I had a problem with my ear when I was younger and the doctor at the time put some very nasty smelling drops in which cleared it. I had a very similar thing happen this time, but stupidly, they put peroxide in my ear, which didn’t really work, so when I came to do my test for the WAAF, I failed and they wouldn’t take me.
I was persistent and wasn’t having any of that, so I decided to go for it again. This time, I was 19 and the war was still going on so of course, they were still calling people to join. I went to the hospital and I finally got them to sort the ear problem out. They ended up using the same nasty smelling drops, which worked. The old-fashioned remedies always do!
To join, we had to go to the office in Bournemouth before they sent you off to Southampton. We were asked to fill in forms which asked the usual; colour of hair, height, eye colour and the rest of it. They realised that I had been there the previous year and I told them it was only the ear that stopped me from being able to join. They went to look at my ear and what did they see? a big piece of wax, so they couldn’t see if the problem was still there. Of course, they had no instruments because it wasn’t that sort of place. One of them asked me if I really wanted to join up – to which another replied: “she wouldn’t be here again if she didn’t!”
In the end, they said yes and it worked out really well in the end that I had joined later, as I discovered that for the first time, the MET office was looking for women to assist the RAF. They found that the women were much better than the boys they took on.
I went on a training course in London to learn plotting weather on a map, which was very interesting. I was then was posted to Hendon, which was quite close to home, which was great, although by then it had been bombed quite badly. I worked there for about a year before the opportunity to become a Forecaster came up. I had previously done geography, and it was the subject that I was most interested in.
People were stationed all over the country and would read the weather for their area and send the readings to a central area that collected them. They would send over three or four five-figure codes, and the numbers would tell you; the temperature, wet or dry, wind direction, cloud, rain, showers, heavy rain, thunder, lightning and lots more. Of course, as it was during the war, everything was sent on a secret line.
To be a Forecaster, you also had to be a WAAF Officer. So, I went on a course in Windemere – which basically taught us to march people around. Then I had to go in front of a tribunal to see if I could become a Forecaster, which was quite something. I managed to secure the position and was posted to Liverpool Speke airport, which is now known as John Lennon. I got to the airport to discover that I was the only one there. I was later joined by an RAF corporal and two members of the WAAF who were living nearby.
It was then plotted on a map and given to me, the Forecaster, who would analyse the pressure, wind speed, wind direction and from this, create a forecast to advise the pilots.
Sometimes, the job of a Forecaster was quite stressful. If you had just done a forecast and the weather turned bad, you always wondered if they were going to land properly and it can be quite a big responsibility. There was one day, just after the War and after D-Day, the weather was bad and it was raining. People were told not to fly and all of a sudden, there was the most dreadful noise. A plane had crashed right in the middle of the airfield just a few hundred yards away. We never knew what happened, or at least they never said. I will never forget that noise.
Shortly after, in 1946, once the war was over, I left Liverpool Speke to start a family with my husband. My husband was previously stationed in London and had worked with the Army to advise on the radar for the D-Day landings. We moved to North London, had our two children and lived there until my husband retired from lecturing. We then moved to Over in Cambridgeshire, where we lived together until he died 20 years ago.
Although I am proud of my career, having my children was probably my biggest achievement in life. They have all grown up now and they have all gone to university and got degrees and super jobs. They have also got children of their own, so I now have five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, with one on the way.
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