Biography of Phyllis Rosalie Miles (nee Dike)

2036687 LACW, Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)

     I was almost 16 when World War 2 was declared , employed as a nursery nurse at The Royal School for Deaf and Dumb Children in Margate Kent, the town where my family lived.

Phyllis and Children from the Royal School for Deaf and Dumb Children, 1940

Click here for an image of the children

    My hours of duty were 6am to 9pm with 2 hours off during the afternoon, and one day off a month, I had to live in, uniform and meals provided, the princely sum of two pounds (about $5) a month being my pay, half of which I had to hand over to my mother to help with the family budget. The air raid sirens were tested immediately war was declared, a most frightening screeching noise, all staff and children were ordered to assemble in the main hall to be counted, and had to stay there until the all clear was sounded, each time there was an air raid this procedure had to be followed. It wasn’t too bad during the day, but was horrendous during the night, I was detailed to assist a male teacher to wake the boys in the dormitory, and help put their dressing gowns and slippers on. To describe the terror of these poor children is impossible as we tried to wake them and assure them that we would care for them, and gathered them together to be counted in the main hall. After about a month of this, by which time most of the staff were on the verge of a nervous break down, I know I was, the authorities decided to evacuate the School from this coastal town near to occupied France, to Goring on Thames.

   I only stayed at the school for a few months, most of the male staff had been called up for the Services, which meant a shortage of staff for all kinds of jobs, time off was rare and the extra duties were imposed mostly on the young females. The one I hated most of all was to polish the office floor of Mr. Swayne, the headmaster, he was usually there at the time and had a walking stick, with which he used to persistently lift my dress and poke me with it , girls of the working class had to put up with that sort of behaviour from their "betters" in those days, but I gave the creep a month’s notice and left to live with my parents in Loampit Vale, Lewisham, London. They had moved away from Margate because of the air-raids not realising that shortly the bombing of London would be much worse than anything that had occurred in the Isle of Thanet. My parents had a flat over a tailor’s business , the owner who was very religious had built a crypt in the basement, when the sirens went off we all had to squeeze into this place, it was hot, airless and stifling at night and very uncomfortable, my brother Peter and I refused to go down and used to watch the bombs and incendiaries bursting through the window of the flat, never realising what danger we were in if a bomb landed near us. My parents had 7 children, 4 were evacuated, I being the eldest and my brother Peter the next oldest looked after ourselves, Reg left home at an early age and worked with Joe Loss’s Band as a general hand, even though we three were still only teenagers, Doreen and Alan went to stay at Newbury with our Grandma Snell and Auntie Eleanor who had a young daughter Pamela, Alan was only a baby at the time, Audrey and Sheila were evacuated to homes in Yorkshire which was organised by the government, they did not have a happy time as the people they were sent to did not want them. My father joined the London Fire Brigade, and my mother got a job in a tobacconist, she was still an attractive and friendly woman and enjoyed the sudden freedom after many years of raising her children. My father was a very jealous man and caused many arguments and fights with my mother, I had jumped out of one difficult situation into another, so packed my bags, such as they were, and left home again. The Underground Railway Stations were used as bomb shelters and many people spent every night there hoping that their homes would still be standing when they surfaced in the morning, I slept in the Underground a few nights until a patrolling policeman asked me why I was there on my own, I can’t remember what excuses I made , but he took me to a small shop and the owner let me have a tiny room, he then took me to a cake factory and I got a job packing fruit cakes. This only lasted a few weeks because I was injured by a "delayed action" bomb going off as we girls were returning to work up an outside metal fire escape staircase. I sustained concussion and some other minor injuries and was taken to Kings College Hospital, a few days after being admitted my mother came to see me, it appears that the policeman had gone through my bags and found my parents address. I was in hospital about a week, still not much improved when we had a very bad air raid with the hospital hit and set on fire, all the patients and staff were transferred overnight to a Military hospital west of London, during that same raid another factory of Sun Pat that packed dried fruit was hit , many of the girls who worked there were trapped and badly burned. I was in the same ward as them for another 2 weeks yet never saw even one of them, screens were in place around their beds all the time and only their awful moans and the smell of burnt flesh came out into the ward. The concussion had given me the most terrible headaches and nothing seemed to help, without any warning or consultation I was given a lumbar puncture. The whole operation was carried out without any medication, was frightening and very painful, and only increased the headaches, I now know that is the usual after effects of a lumbar puncture. Having decided that they could do no more for me, and needing the beds for other patients I was taken to my parents home in Lewisham . I went to the local labour exchange and was given a note to see the manager of Siemens which had a factory at New Cross, after an interview and an adaptability test I was given a position immediately and employed as a submarine cable tester. This was really interesting work, all the staff were so nice and I was more than happy at work. I had to cycle quite a distance to and fro to work passing daily through new bombed areas, one underground shelter had received a direct hit and was just filled in , no bodies recovered . I had this job for about a year and very happy at work, at home it was a very different matter, with another war going on between my mother and father, he even engaged some one to follow my mother, she did have a man friend, don’t know how serious it was, but hard to blame her really. I felt I just had to get away from home again and saw the manager to see if he would allow me to leave the job which being war work was a reserved occupation. I felt that if I could get into one of the Armed Services maybe my life would take a turn for the better, he was unable to give me permission, but arranged for me to go before a government tribunal and state my case, they agreed for me to try to enlist but if not successful in this I was to return to my job with Siemens. I applied for entry into the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force, W.A.A.F, after medical tests and IQ tests was sent to a Training unit for six weeks "square bashing", although home wasn’t happy I must admit I cried for the first few nights as did most other girls. We were all bullied from morning to night, given un-necessary things to do just to make the NCOs in charge feel important, we marched up and down until we could have dropped dead, what that had to do with winning the war I’ll never know, beds had to be made a certain way every day with everything folded up a special way and all our possessions laid out for inspection, personal washing was done outside with no privacy at all. Lectures on all manner of subjects were held and many more IQ tests, at last it was all over and "hell" could be left behind, I was classified as a "Special Duties Clerk" and sent down south to Lady Lonsborough’s Estate where an underground "Special Operations Unit" had been built. Equipped with a headset through which we received information regarding numbers, height and direction of enemy aircraft as they crossed the coast of England, we used this information to move , add to, or modify, the various plaques on the very large Operations map of Southern England laid out in this underground room. On a balcony above us RAF Fighter Command Controllers could assess where the most need was for fighters to intercept the enemy and would direct which Squadrons were to engage the bombers. We were a very happy and close knit unit, all very aware that to some degree we were helping to save our country from defeat, the food, billets and friendly atmosphere made my stay there a happy change from what my life had been previously, I enjoyed my work and became very proficient at it which caused me to be selected for further training as a radar operator. I was posted to Skegness where the training was carried out, at first I was hard pressed to understand the theory of electricity, my schooling had finished at the age of 14, practical things were no problem for me, but advanced theory of radar was very difficult for me to comprehend, long nights spent studying helped me to pass by "the skin of my teeth" the final examinations , a short period of leave was followed by my posting to an operational Radar Unit. It was during this leave that I spent some of my days sitting in the Park attached to the Greenwich Observatory, ( the place where Greenwich Mean Time is set ) all the family were at work of one kind or another and the green , pleasant park reminded me of Dane park near my home in Margate that I used to play in as a child. I was sitting on a park bench day-dreaming when a young man sat down beside me and started to talk about all manner of things, but he was very pleasant and asked if I would be there the next day. We met again the following day and as he had a car we went to Hyde Park, London Zoo, Regent’s Park, during the next few days, I was flattered by the attention and enjoyed his company, he told me he was a dancer, and it certainly didn’t mean anything to me when he said his name was Robert Helpmann. This must have been a bit of a shock for him as he was very well known in the world of ballet, and not to being recognised by some one must have intrigued him, I don’t know why I gave him my home address, but when my mother answered the door to him when he called at my home a day later with a bunch of flowers, I just got all flustered and told her to tell him to go away, "I didn’t like him" I must have panicked at the thought of asking him into the shabby house where my parents still fought and argued with each other. I regretted my outburst and should have contacted him to explain, but I had no idea where he lived or where he worked, he had said he was a dancer, just thought that’s what he liked to do in his spare time! He had been a perfect gentleman to me and treated me like a lady for the past week, I am so sorry if I hurt his feelings, it was at least 30 years later before I realised who he was. Some 50 years later during an interview he was asked if he had ever had any interest in women, he said he had, only two one was married and the other "Didn’t like me" I often wonder if the second one was me or just one of those strange coincidences of life. Even stranger is the fact that my husband and I with our children emigrated to Australia and ended up in Adelaide where we improved our life style and bought a large house on the beach at Tennyson, Reg was at work all day and for something to do I bought a small general shop over the road from our house Robert Helpmann’s sister lived near at hand and one day Robert came into my shop for some groceries, I still felt guilty after all those years and didn’t make myself known to him, wonder if he thought he knew me when he left my shop?

Radar Crew going on Shift, Phyllis second from right standing

   My radar posting was to Rolleston Race Course, because there was no proper camp at the race course just the radar unit we were all billeted in private houses in the City of York, it doesn’t say much for people but most didn’t want us in their houses, they were paid by the government and if the house owners had spare room were made to accommodate those service men and women who needed some where to lay their heads. The first place we stayed was a beautiful home, an old man lived there with a nurse to tend him, she was a sour mean person and after a few weeks we were all moved out , never told why. The next place was not much better, 2 of us shared a room, house was very nice, mother and her daughter of about 40 lived there, her son was an aerial photographer and when he came on leave thoroughly disapproved of our being in his house. Once he even reported me for not wearing my cap when in town, right little shit, we stayed on however and did our normal shifts of 6am to 2pm, 2pm to 10pm, and 10pm to 6am. When we finished our late shift at 10pm we were supposed to have some food left out for us, it was usually stale or not at all appetising, so we used to help ourselves to a couple of eggs in a large earthenware jar that was filled with isinglass (a preservative) then boil them, the mother never mentioned the missing eggs perhaps felt that we should have been treated better than we were, The various shifts on radar watch had quite a close bond with one another and formed another bond with the aircrew that they directed, this second bond although close was in effect at arms length, in most cases just another recognised voice on the radio or telephone. One of these aircrew who I really hardly knew had asked his friends on the squadron to give me his dog if the worst should happen and he not return from an operation, sadly I took his dog when his friend turned up with it, another voice lost from our tight knit circle. Hoping that the mother or daughter would not complain about me having this dog, I was so pleased that the daughter made a fuss of him, and gave him food, the poor lost animal had lost his real friend and just howled and howled all night, I had to find another home for him, if possible away from uniforms that would remind him of his loss. I had been helping at the NAAFI ( Navy Army Air Force Institute canteen) on my free evenings and asked the manager if he knew of anyone who could take and look after the dog, he was delighted to do so himself and took the dog home to his wife, he was a conscientious objector couldn’t fight but would do other things to help the war effort, many of the very brave men and women who served and died as ambulance personnel were C.O.s not by any means cowards, just couldn’t kill other human beings, if we all were, the heads of state would not have any one to fight their wars!!

Radar WAAF's, Phyl 4th from left front row

   The job as a radar operator was very interesting, but very tiring on the eyes, 8 hours in front of a flickering old fashioned TV screen, plotting "blips" that appeared amongst the "snow" some were enemy and others the trace of our own aircraft , usually Mosquito’s, no breaks for tea or coffee, just 8 hours of concentrated effort to ensure what we reported was accurate, 3 girls and a controller were squeezed into a small box on the race course, 2 of the girls sat in front of TV screens one checking "blips" on hers, the other reading off heights and quantities of aircraft from the other screen, the third girl was logging all the information, the controller usually male and an officer had his own screen and he passed all the information we had gathered to Fighter Command, IFF ( indication , friend or foe) was used to tell us, from them, This unit was fitted into all operational aircraft, when switched on it sent out a signal which gave the ground radar and radio an indication that the aircraft was friendly, impact switches were fitted so that in the event of a ‘plane crashing in enemy held territory an explosive device would destroy the unit, on bombers this unit was switched off going out on a raid but switched on again approaching England so that the ground could recognise it was a friend aircraft returning to base. Practice makes perfect and this applied very especialy to radar in it’s early days, when conditions of operational readiness permitted, aircrews would take to the air and we would practise finding and following them. Aircrews came and went , some I’m afraid permanently, and of course the same applied to radar crews, a new young officer controller straight from training was sent to take over from our usual controller who had been promoted and posted elsewhere. Full of his self importance and keen to show how clever he was to us "other ranks" did not relay our information correctly, when the exercise had finished he berated us for not doing our job properly, stated that the aircraft could not have carried out the manoeuvres we had indicated, this was too much for us and at the usual after exercise de-briefing with the air crews, the charts that were kept at all times whether operational or practice were produced, these showed that as usual we were correct and the aircrews confirmed this , he vanished immediately never to surface again, another jumped up twit shot down in flames!!

Radar Girls Having a Picnic. Phyl far left

   We again had to move house , a guest house had been requisitioned and all the radar crew moved in, 2 to a room for sleeping with our own kitchen staff, a much more sensible arrangement we would get our food before and after our shift and no more need to stick hands into isinglass for late night eggs. Shortly after this move I was called to the COs office to be given a travel warrant so that I could go home to London where my parents house had been bombed, my folks had moved to Romer St Lewisham to a much improved house from the old one, but they had lost most of their belongings and furniture. Whether they received any help to replace items that were essential I don’t know, perhaps some extra coupons, everything was on coupons which seemed to generate greater importance than money. I only had a week’s leave and took the opportunity to visit the cinema, walking home after the show I was suddenly jumped on from the back by a young fellow, I threw myself onto the ground and hollered "blue murder", at which he ran off, was chased down the road by people who had seen his actions and after he ran into some one’s house was cornered and caught. This had never happened to me before and feeling a bit shaken up I carried on walking home, shortly after I arrived two policemen came to the house and asked me to come with them to the police station, sitting in the darkness of the back of a police van I could hear someone crying, it was my attacker who kept snivelling and asking my forgiveness. Told the police to let him go, thought he may have learnt his lesson, but they wouldn’t, I had to attend court the following day , he had pleaded guilty so I did not have to give my evidence which pleased me. The youth was sent for psychiatric treatment and the policemen gave me a lift back home, one of them Jim Wardle asked me to go out with him which I did, saw him a few times during my leave, and we wrote to one another for some time even after he went into the Army, when he started to get serious I cried off, as I had done several times before with boy friends, perhaps the strained atmosphere at home left me feeling that this sort of marriage and future was not for me. On my return from leave I was surprised to find that things were in a bit of a muddle, a female corporal was being interviewed by the service police , I was asked to check all of my belongings to ensure none were missing , not that I had much but what I had was all there. This corporal had stolen lots of things, mainly jewellery from the rest of us and posted the items out to someone who sold them, she was discharged from the WAAF’s but nothing of the stolen goods was recovered and no doubt she went on to greater more profitable things!! Because a higher standard of education was required for radar operators, most of the girls came from well to do families, I was one of the very few exceptions but could do the job well because I tried hard, these girls had lovely clothes, and tailor made uniforms they wore when off duty, and our pay of ten shillings a week was made up by their parents so that they could live how they had been used to before the war, for all this they knew my background and treated me as one of them. On my next leave I decided to visit my two sisters Audrey and Sheila who were probably about 8 and 10 at the time, when I arrived I went straight to the school to meet them, their teacher told me that they looked as if they were being ill treated and advised me to take them home . I was shocked at their appearance, so thin and depressed, they couldn’t stay in that billet any more which was in Batley Yorkshire, I went round to the house and collected their clothes and we three walked to the nearest railway station to set out for London. I had my railway warrant but needed to pay for the two girls , when I explained the position to the station master he let me take them on the train with out charge, my mother was very angry about the treatment of the girls , there was little she could do however. I spent the rest of my leave at home, shortly after I returned to my work on radar she arranged for them to be evacuated again, this time they had much better folk caring for them and stayed at this place for the duration of the war. My brother Peter had by then enlisted in the Navy and served on submarines, my other brother Reg was in the Army as a Commando and paratrooper. Still stationed at York and working long hours on radar I was given extra work to do, being a neat and careful writer I was designated to fill in all the graphs compiled during our shift, this meant I had to stay behind after we had finished which made it very late before I could get to the mess to have some food, not that this really worried me but it did make for a very long working day. The Commanding Officer asked another girl and I if we would like to put in application forms to become WAAF officers , we did this , but were told that our services were more important as radar operators, so that fell through. When off duty the girls and I often went to a "tea dance" held in a local hall, music being provided by the talents of three dubious ladies, this was a good place for "girls" and "boys" to get to know one another and to have a little light fun at the same time. An RAF officer seem to be giving me the eye, but didn’t take much notice of it, officers and other ranks were not supposed to mix, not that anyone took this regulation too seriously. Returning to the billet after one of my 2pm to 10 pm shifts I went straight to bed not even going to the mess for any supper, when the other girls came up one of them said that there is some one to see you, I went down and found that it was the officer who had been looking at me, his name was Neil Harris. Asked me if I would go out with him and when I said yes kissed me on the fore head, we dated for quite some time during which he took me to see his mother in Swindon, his brother John was a professional footballer, as his father had been before him, all of them very well known at the Chelsea Football Club, and all made me so welcome , that was a really lovely time for me. I have one memory of that stay which still makes me cringe when I think of it, Neil brought me a breakfast tray up to me in bed, egg bacon the whole works and I couldn’t possibly eat it , a small piece of toast is still a major breakfast for me, didn’t want to be ungrateful so put the lot in my over-night case, no idea what I wrapped it in, possibly my issue bloomers, wonder if they knew and what they thought. Soon after this Neil was posted to India and we wrote to one another, at this time I was also moved yet again this time to North Foreland which is very close to my home in Margate, I was promoted to Leading Aircraft’s woman and for a time as an acting corporal. We were billeted in a requisitioned hotel, quite luxurious if a bit dilapidated, nice bathrooms and a spacious dining room. I had been in the WAAFs for three years , the hectic days of bombing were over, but we still had to do our usual radar work because the odd "jerry "still came over England. we marched in proper formation from our billets to the lookout unit on the cliffs, I was having trouble with one of the male corporals who wanted me to go out with him and when I refused, placed me on report for insubordination, not so timid any more told the investigating officer the reason for the charge he was making and it was immediately dismissed.

North Foreland Radar Crew, Phyl Standing 1st left

    Reg Miles was on leave at the time after finishing his tour on bombers and his mother put an article in the local paper about him , hoping some of his old school friends might get in touch, I had known Reg during our school days so sent a short note to say hullo and arranged to meet him. He seemed to fall in love with me right away and just wouldn’t take no for an answer, being the soft hearted thing I am I agreed to get engaged and had to write to Neil and tell him what I had done, I also arranged for one of my friends to write to him, which she did , I got very jealous every time she got a letter from him and told me how lovely he was. Reg was posted on a course to Northern Ireland and we had arranged to get married after he finished his training to fly on passenger aircraft, and I was on the move again this time to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, bombing by German aircraft had nearly ceased so it was a fairly quiet posting , Reg and I were married in April 1945 and I stayed on in the WAAF’s until October of the same year, received 11 pounds in cash ( about $25) a ration book for food and clothing coupons, had no where else to go but home to my parents a small 3 bedroom house in Byron Ave, there were 7 children of all ages and Mum and Dad, and I was pregnant. The local council eventually requisitioned an empty house in Tivoli Rd for me, it was fairly spacious after Byron Ave but no electricity, just gas lights and cooker, no bathroom, outside "thunderbox" toilet, no hot water and only one cold tap in the house. A large fire heated copper stood one side of the kitchen to heat water for bathing and clothes washing, the whole place was filthy and my job while waiting for our first born to arrive was to clean the place ready for my family. My travels with Reg and our children from there to here will be contained in future episodes.

***

Wedding photo April 28 1945

(more to come)

----- Phyllis Miles

       eimeo@bigpond.com

LINKS

Miss Phyllis Dike, Photo, LACW, WAAF

Biography of Reg Miles, Flight Engineer, 432 Sqdn RCAF, 6 Group Bomber Command, RAF

Wedding Photo, Photo of Reg Miles, Flight Engineer, No1SoTT Halton/ MUs/ Bomber Command/ 511 Transport Command, RAF

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