In January, 1941 Sylvia Pickering eagerly set off for No.1 WAAF Reception Centre at the Grand Hotel, Harrogate, leaving behind her sheltered home life in rural Lincolnshire to join other young volunteers – some of whom had come from as far away as Australia and New Zealand – to pull together and ‘do their bit’ to save Great Britain from imminent danger and invasion.
Thanks to Sylvia’s rediscovery of some long-stored letters, both written and received by herself, we have the opportunity to peep into the world of a generation of young people who left home early and had to grow up quickly, learning about life and love against the backdrop of a world at war.
Although Sylvia modestly describes her book as a ‘perfectly ordinary story’ of a WAAF at war, it constitutes a very worthwhile piece of social history because it is composed almost exclusively of correspondence written at the time - which Sylvia either sent to or received from friends and family. We must be grateful for her secretarial training which prompted her to keep all this material, which now provides a fascinating insight into the everyday lives of the young men and women of the wartime RAF.
Sylvia’s story takes place in the ‘bomber county’ of Lincolnshire, where so many of RAF Bomber Command’s wartime aerodromes were situated, and we follow her on active duty to the Armoury Sections at RAF Cottesmore and RAF Coningsby.
In her letters, the voice of Sylvia’s youthful self describes such diverse off-duty pursuits as learning to dance the tango, visits to the cinema and horse-riding on her beloved mare, Bridget. (Somewhat unusually, her horse accompanied her wherever she went during the war.) We also discover her views on the potency of pink gin, the problems of transport in the blackout, and many other wartime irritations.
Also prominently featured are the joys and heartbreaks of Sylvia's inevitable romantic entanglements; in particular her relationship with 'Roo' - a young Australian airman with whom she lost touch (as was so often the case in those days) when he was 'posted elsewhere'.
It was to be 50 years before she discovered what had happened to him…