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One Woman's War

Yvonne Ellacott Knapp

(c) 2000, 2008 Yvonne Knapp

Page 2

    My family has a long history of service, with medals from the Sudan and the Crimea. My father was ruined physically and financially by World War I in the 6th Battalion Devonshire Regiment. He was gassed in France in that horrible trench warfare; his bronchial tubes were perforated. This affected his health for life, and finally killed him in 1958. In spite of his health, he volunteered for Fire Duty and was stationed at a bank.

    As soon as the war began, our company was sent to an Embarkation Centre, near Plymouth. We were the 1st Devon Company A.T.S., and wore the colourful patch of the sword Escalabar, in bright red on blue waves to represent the Lake. I still have this, my first patch. I had others after but none as colourful. All the company wassn’t posted to the same area. The clerks stayed in Exeter, attached to the Pay Corps.

    Joining us at Plympton were the members of the 13th Devons, who had trained with us on the Plain.

    Marsh Mills was a very different place from where we trained. The British Expeditionary Force was gathering there and at other ports for the ill-fated invasion of France. We were there to see that they were fed, fed by the hundreds as quickly as possible. We had to adjust ourselves to that kind of operation. We were billeted in the married quarters at Crownhill Barracks. We were issued evening passes to visit nearby Plymouth, where, at that time, there was still food available in the restaurants, and cinemas. We were still a novelty to the civilian population.

    My first assignment was helping with inventory in the Quartermaster’s store. The sergeant in charge was very affable, the and work was easy, only for two weeks, then I returned to my own duties. Sometimes he was my escort to a movie or a meal in town. This was the first of many casual friendships that I made at the places where I was stationed, a pleasant aspect of the comradeship of the Army. The meeting of old friends in unexpected places was a pleasant surprise, and also increased the volume of mail.

    The sergeant in charge of the cookhouse where I was assigned was a Cornishman, as many of the regular Army men were in this area, so close to the line. The holding regiment here was the Royal Devon Yeomanry. This sergeant seemed to be able to manage the most incredible culinary feats with the army rations, and was an inspiration to us on our first assignment. He never seemed to leave the camp! And whenever we came to him with a problem, his favourite expression was "All worry, this war!" And he would set about solving it. He would bully the Quartermaster Sergeant to get more equipment, or better meat from the RASC truck, or pressure the drivers to get here faster to feed the huge black cookstoves that devoured coal at an amazing rate. This was a tall, dark man, browned to a deep tan from service in India. He had a paunch from consuming too many beers in more leisurely days, and his keen eyes missed nothing. He was the scourge of the men on "fatigues," punishment detail. These unfortunates were the source of labour for all the potato peeling, floor mopping, and the cleaning of ablutions and the latrine.

    I only saw the sergeant once in dress blues, with brass shining, that was when the rush was over, and he joined us all at the Rising Sun, a pub in a nearby village, for a farewell party.

    Our next assignment was a hastily put together staging area called Marsh Mills on the road some distance from Crownhill. While we were lodged in this temporary area we learned to do things at unheard of speed with makeshift equipment, and many improvisations. The usual carefully planned routine was impossible, with each person doing several jobs at once. Such a combined effort is rarely seen except in dire emergencies. This same drama was being enacted all over England at this time. Being the only women in the camp, we took our meals, when we had the time, at the sergeants’ mess, and the food was still good; there were no shortages yet.

    When the marshaling began, the cooks were required to work very long hours, and when we got to our barracks at Plumer, we just showered and went to bed. Some of us even fell asleep on the truck.

    At this barracks also was the 6th Devons, once my father’s unit. Among them were young men from the little village where I was born, and with whom I went to school; another generation taking their place in the Army.

    We fed and supplied thousands of men destined for service in the B.E.F. in France. These men arrived in trucks, were given a hot meal, and provided with "haversack rations" to take on the ships. The food they carried consisted of meat sandwiches, the infamous army biscuits (hardtack), canned beef stew and fruit. This procedure went on through day and night; each group, after feeding, being driven straight to their ship. Of course the cooking facilities were inadequate for the number of men streaming into the camp, so stoves had to be put up in the open.

    We managed by supreme effort to provide for all. We stood for hours in the open, frying sausages, with the rain falling into the pans. (Now we know what our ground sheets were for).

    These were, without a doubt, the most grueling days of my army career. I worked ten and fifteen hours each day. I was always clad in the fatigue dress, and always quite dirty. I even burned a hole in one dress and had no clean one to change into! We were far from glamorous, but proud to be the ones who could provide the service. Our unit worked at that pace for several days, until more cooks were sent to us from "G" Company then at Granby Barracks in Plymouth.

    The city was still intact at that time; its terrible devastation was yet to come.

    Plymouth is a lovely old city. The beautiful Guildhall was built of the white granite of the moors, a triumph of the Cornish stonecutters. The large General Post Office had been added much later, and the beautiful St. Andrew’s Church, all of the same source.

    The most delicious pastries were still available at Goodbody’s Café on George Street. As long as the ingredients lasted, we devoured eclairs, cream puffs and meringues with wild abandon! One day we were taken by truck to Plymouth Hoe where we visited the Citadel, a huge fort, with its guns pointing across the Channel. This fort was built by Charles II for defence against the French, but was never used. It was held, of course, by the Royal Artillery. We also visited another fort on a high cliff which we reached by ferry. Its name was Watchouse, a placement of ack ack (anti-aircraft) guns. From this harbour Sir Francis Drake left on his trip to circle the globe. There is also a monument erected where the Mayflower sailed.

    We walked up a cliff path to the ack ack station where they showed us around, and gave us tea. We saw the huge guns pointing to the Channel that defend the ships in the harbour.

    The ack ack crew welcomed us with the inevitable tea, and some sticky buns. The view from the cliff was magnificent. All the harbour area was laid out beneath us with battleships, submarines and a beautiful pale blue aircraft carrier. The dockyards were busy night and day, repairing and refitting the naval craft to patrol the seas around us and to carry troops to France.

    We kept up correspondence with the gunners on the cliff and made many friends during our stay in the Plymouth area. We were welcomed in the barracks and canteens. We added considerably to our collection of cap badges. The men going overseas, now wearing the new battledress, were unable to take them along. The men were actually pleased because there would be no more buttons or badges at all to clean! All vehicles were painted a drab green, and the lights were reduced to tiny slits.

    All the ships had now left, and there was an eerie silence everywhere. We all gathered one evening for a farewell party. Then we went our different ways, proud of a job well done.

    When we returned to Exeter, it was a changed city. Sandbags were everywhere, air raid shelters had been built, and the cars and buses were driving with little slits of light. There were no more street lights. Everyone carried a flashlight (also with a slit). Air raid wardens patrolled the street checking all the blackouts. There were heavy fines for violations. All military personnel had to show passes to ride the trains. Railway Transport Officers were at every station to check IDs and assist any personnel who missed a train or ran out of money.

    Christmas 1939 was the last one that retained any trace of peacetime festivities. Shortages were beginning to be apparent; housewives gallantly queued for hours to purchase ingredients to make the traditional Christmas pudding, cake and mince pies.

    Buses were always late. Coal was rationed, which meant cold fireplaces in many homes. Meat, eggs, cheese, butter shortening, candy and dried fruit had all disappeared from the stores, or were strictly rationed. The tiny cubes of butter, meat, sugar, dried fruit and bacon and meat were a tragedy in each shopping basket. Each person was registered at a certain store for this allowance. Of course there were many empty places at the table; a lot of children were evacuated from the cities.

    The next unit to which I was posted was the 2nd Battalion Devons, at the Higher Barracks in Exeter, the centuries-old headquarters of the regiment, our first permanent station. I was pleased to be assigned to the officers’ mess. This was an ivy-covered building of mellow brick. To reach it we had to cross the parade ground, and the drill sergeant deafened our ears as he roared his orders to the latest bunch of conscripts.

    To walk into the mess was a transition into a bygone era. The food was served on crested dishes and silver, in the old paneled dining room, with regimental trophies on the long marble mantel. The walls were full of the battle flags and colours of the regiments. On display also were relics of campaigns in India and the Far East of this, the 11th Regiment of Foot.

    The mess stewards wore red uniforms, and in addition to them, each officer had a "batman" to take care of his quarters and his clothes. On special occasions, at the colonel’s order, all the officers had to wear dress uniform to dinner, dark blue with red and gold facings.

    After each dinner a toast was drunk to the King.

    The men of Headquarters Company, who ran the Mess, were very cooperative, and helped us in any way they could, and we found the work very different from the grueling hours at Plympton. The Army had requisitioned several large houses in the city, but none were yet ready for occupancy, a situation not unusual at that time. Therefore, those among us who were close to home were given a victualling allowance and allowed to sleep there; the others were billeted in city homes.

    The house finally assigned to our company was a converted boys’ school named Rowancroft, standing in its own ground, with lawns and trees. Orderlies were sent to clean the whole house when it was ready. We were allowed to choose our roommates. The RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) brought in furniture and recreational items. This was the first barracks the company had since it was formed, and we liked it. Our officers had two bedrooms, a sitting room and a bathroom partitioned off for themselves, but there was more than enough room for all. The sergeants’ mess, the O.R. mess and the kitchen and storeroom were at one end of the house and the showers, bathrooms and barrack rooms were on the other. Each barrack room held six beds, and was heated by gas fires.

    Rowancroft was supplied with easy chairs for the recreation room, a table tennis set, a radio phonograph, and plenty of books. The front windows of the recreation rooms and O.R. mess were huge, and very difficult to black out. They had to be taped in cross-cross patterns as did all windows to counteract blast. We were glad to spend most of our leisure hours there, until recreation halls were opened by different organizations in the city. By this time the city was overcrowded with Army, Marines and Air Force personnel, which led to a very active social life. There were numerous dances, table tennis tournaments, and dart matches in the canteens, a variety of pubs and restaurants, and three movie houses.

    The officers’ mess staff were all in the same barrack room, and went out together a lot. We were very noisy, and got many a "raspberry" from the Orderly N.C.O. Consequently we were moved to a room further away from the Officers’ Mess. This idea caught on, and soon all the barrack rooms had names.

    During the time we were establishing our headquarters, the ATS was getting much larger, and many small companies were no longer practical. So, to our disgust, we were entirely reorganized, splitting up all the original volunteers and making them into a base for new companies to be formed around. Our title was no longer Volunteer, but private, like the men. They were conscripting women, which changed the service entirely.

Stories                                   One Woman's War, Page 3



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