“Eve Armstrong may be living in comfort in Greenlaw, but in 1943 she was living in a damp Nissen hut, and walking one-and-a-half miles to RAF Barton Hall to plot British aircraft fighting the Luftwaffe.”
This is how the spry, sharp and bright-eyed former journalist and teacher living in Greenlaw asked me to begin the story of her wartime career in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF): first serving in Fighter Command – the Air Defence of Great Britain – and then in Bomber Command, which controlled the RAF’s bomber forces into enemy territory.
She was born Eve Martin in 1920 in Whalley, Lancashire, and educated at Clitheroe Royal Grammar School, where she achieved a distinction in English literature, helping her find employment as a teleprinter in Blackburn’s Post Office HQ.
When she decided to join the WAAF “to serve my country”, the self-described “village girl” remembers: “I had a dickens of a job getting out of the post office. I was in a reserved occupation. I had to go and see the boss, and persuade him I could do a better job in the WAAF.”
In May 1942, Eve triumphed in her wish to serve with the WAAF, and after a month of “square-bashing” she received training at the RAF station in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, to become a plotter.
Later, she was posted to Fighter Command, 9 Group at RAF Barton Hall in Preston, and to 11 Group at RAF Tangmere near Chichester in West Sussex (the base of legless fighter ace Douglas Bader and the Special Operations Executive who flew agents in and out of occupied France to strengthen the Resistance), and finally to Bomber Command, 1 Group at RAF Bawtry in South Yorkshire.
While not exposed to active combat, the WAAF faced all the dangers of working in military installations on the home front, where they performed intelligence duties, analysed reconnaissance photographs, codes and ciphers, conducted wireless telephonic and telegraphic communications, and played a vital part in the control of aircraft in radar stations and, iconically, as plotters in operations rooms, mapping both home and enemy aircraft positions.
At Bomber Command at RAF Bawtry, Eve worked day and night shifts as a plotter, hand tracking the British bombers flying out on raids, and the surviving aircraft returning home.
“When somebody didn’t come back, then you felt it. To be stood up by someone who’s dead, it’s pretty awful,” she reflected.
“It was pretty awful, too, for these young men. What a waste. Some of them were only 18 or 19, flying out to Berlin for seven hours in these uncomfortable things. They deserved their fried egg when they got back!”
Leading Aircraftwoman Martin’s other day jobs at Bomber Command included analysing the photographs taken by pilots over where they dropped their bombs and mapping the sites on chart to brief the top brass, giving the signal to light up decoy aerodromes to deceive German bombers, and alerting RAF stations of German air raids on the way. At RAF Tangmere, Eve also plotted the waves of ‘doodlebugs’ – the feared German V1 flying bomb – fired at south east England. She once refused a commission, because it would have meant “boring admin”.
Eve was also awarded the War Medal, the War Widows of Great Britain, and the Defence Medal, described as the ‘King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, Civil’.
She met her husband Malcolm, an army Warrant Officer, in the last months of the war in 1945, and married him a year later. After both following careers in journalism – Eve wrote a column for The Lancashire Evening Telegraph for 10 years under the pseudonym Catherine Ross – the couple retired in 1981 to Mountbenger Lodge in the Yarrow Valley from Newcastle, where Malcolm had been editor of the Sunday Sun newspaper.
“We moved up to the Borders because of the local clan name Armstrong,” she explained.
Eve and Malcolm were married for 58 years, until Malcolm sadly died. The couple raised two children: a son John, also a journalist and a daughter, Janet who lives close to Eve in Greenlaw.
Currently, Eve keeps active, learning to play her granddaughter’s keyboard, and reading for the blind with the Borders Talking Newspaper Association (www.btn.org.uk).
She dismisses her great age as unimportant: “It’s just a number. Ages are irrelevant. You make your own rules as you go along. I’m not bothered about being 91. I just wonder how I got here.”