December 2023

Twelve Days of Radar – Day Seven

For our next instalment of our Twelve Days of Bawdsey, we are sharing the story of Hilda Pearson.

Hilda joined the WAAF after working as a secretary in Newcastle. She made the decision to join the WAAF after the city was incendiary bombed and told us that it was the smell of burning sugar rations that made up her mind to join the WAAF:

‘I was living in Newcastle, working as a secretary when I decided to join up.

Incendiary bombs were landing on the city and there was a smell of burning sugar. The warehouse that contained our rations was hit and we were extremely cross about it. I made the decision to join up there and then.’

After undertaking entrance tests, each WAAF was graded. Hilda gained the highest grade – grade one – and so had the choice of what branch of the WAAF she wanted to join. She remembered this time:

‘There were a lot of interviews and tests to join the WAAF. You were graded – I was Grade 1, which meant that I had a choice of cipher, photographic interpretation or radar. I chose radar because it sounded most interesting.’

After training, Hilda worked as a radar operator, helping to receive and interpret the signals produced by aircraft. While much of the work undertaken by Hilda and her colleagues involved identify incoming enemy raids, radar operators also played a vital role in interpreting and recording distress signals given off by damaged friendly aircraft. This information would be passed on to Air-Sea-Rescue crews who would attempt to find the crew of aircraft that crashed into the sea:

‘As far as I remember, the crew each time consisted of three operators, two mechanics and the Officer in charge. One operator would sit in front of the receiving screen wearing a headset and mouthpiece which was connected to the main Plotting Room at Fighter Command, and she would be reporting every movement that she saw on the screen using a special formula of words and symbols. Next to her sat another operator as assistant and backup. The third operator would be waiting her turn to take over. The Officer in charge was connected to Headquarters by telephone. The mechanics were kept busy doing mysterious things to the machinery, on which no speck of dust was allowed – between us we did all the cleaning of the room as no domestic staff was allowed in. This was a time when organized groups of bombers would leave East Anglian airfields for Germany, returning later in smaller straggling groups or single planes, some of which might be showing a special distress signal which we could pick up on our screen and an Air-Sea-Rescue unit would be notified of its position.’

Hilda Pearson
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Twelve Days of Radar – Day Seven