‘It was all top secret and very demanding’: the women who helped keep our skies safe in wartime

Sybil Piper started working for the RAF as a 19 year-old, in 1944
Sybil Piper started working for the RAF aged 19, in 1944 - Oliver Dixon

If one thing unites Sybil Piper, Irene Strange and Daphne Washbrook, besides their indefatigable spirit and can-do nature, it’s that when they were young women growing up in the South of England during the mid-20th century, they all sought a little extra excitement from life. Now aged 98, 90 and 82 respectively, they can heartily agree they found it.

In 2024, the Royal Air Force (RAF) will mark 30 years since Flight Lieutenant Jo Slater became the service’s first female operational pilot. Many have followed in her contrails, but before her, women had been playing just as crucial – though slightly less conspicuous – roles in helping to keep our skies safe for decades.

Piper, Strange and Washbrook were three of them. They each had their reasons for joining what was the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), yet found the same camaraderie and sense of belonging once they got there.

Piper, the eldest of the three, is the only one who joined at a time of war. In 1944, at the age of 19, she began work at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire, before becoming a special duties clerk at Bletchley Park during one of the busiest times for the code-breaking centre. Throughout World War Two, some 7,500 women worked at Bletchley, making up around 75 per cent of the workforce.

“We specialised in photographic intelligence at Medmenham, so it was all top secret and very demanding, an exacting job,” she says. “It was my role to coordinate maps for the plotters, we had to work together, but it was like stepping into another world, the discipline and demands of it. But it stood me in good stead for the rest of my life.”

When VE Day came, she experienced relief as well as a strange sense of loss. Suddenly, the job had changed. “Times were different. I shouldn’t say this, but in wartime we were there for a purpose. When it finished we wondered what would happen. We won the war, then suddenly it was all over. So peacetime I found different. In wartime, we were on duty, in service for the country. That wasn’t there after.”

She moved to RAF Odiham in Hampshire, near her home in Farnborough (and current home in Aldershot), where she was allowed to fly in an RAF aircraft of her choice, as a treat. “I chose the Spitfire, obviously, and went up around Hampshire with one of the flying aces… Fantastic.”

It was “a different life in peacetime, more relaxed. Where once we used to be flying every hour of every day, now that wasn’t the case”. She continued clerical work at Odiham, but left in 1947 aged 22 for a new career working in education, and married three years later. Her husband James died 15 years ago.

Piper, second from left, commemorating the Battle of Britain with other RAF veterans in 2023
Piper, second from left, commemorating the Battle of Britain with other RAF veterans in 2023 - Oliver Dixon

Irene Strange “mainly wanted to see the world” when she joined the WRAF in Reading in 1951 at the age of 17. A post to RAF Wilmslow came first, before she trained as a teleprinter operator, as well as a specialist in Morse code. She moved around the country before re-meeting her childhood classmate, Albert, with whom she fell in love.

“He was in the Navy, and we travelled everywhere. Sailing the Red Sea to the Port of Aden, Ethiopia, Libya…” So she managed it, seeing the world, and gained more life experience than she ever imagined possible? “Oh yes.”

Daphne Washbrook, on the other hand, joined the WRAF in 1958 at the age of 17 with a lower bar to clear: “I just wanted to get away from home, to be quite honest.” Pushed, she admits she also wanted to become a nurse, but growing up in Dagenham, her family weren’t able to help her train. “I didn’t know anybody in the Forces at all, I just wanted to get away. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

As the eldest of five sisters, “I was used to a bit of responsibility, which came in handy once I was a nurse in the Air Force. And I loved the life, it was the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service at that time. I found a husband there, too. He was a medic, Gerald, on national service.”

When the two of them intended to wed, they were faced with a choice between staying in the Forces and marriage, such was the convention at the time. “In the end, love won I suppose,” she says. They left, together, in 1960. But it left a lasting impression. “Oh it did, I nursed in civilian hospitals afterwards, but kept in touch with the military. It felt like joining a family, the RAF.”

It’s something you hear often from veterans and ex-service people, the notion that once you wear uniform, you have a bond for life with your chosen branch of the military, and anybody else who also served. In some ways that connection is unspoken: an ease with one another, an ability to share experiences and spot one of your own.

In other ways, it’s a more literal sense of lifelong care, such as in the work of the RAF Benevolent Fund (RAFB), one of four charities supported by the Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. For over 100 years, the charity has been supporting “members of the RAF Family through thick and thin”. This means anything from practical support – offering lifts, helping to buy household goods or even food when the means aren’t available – to emotional support, such as arranging regular coffee mornings for isolated elderly members.

“Something that happens is that people die, and you get cut adrift,” Piper says of ageing, matter-of-factly. “That doesn’t happen thanks to the [RAFB], they’re all such kind people who do community engagement and make sure you’re not forgotten.” Piper has very little family and very few friends left, she says. Without the charity, she’d be even more alone.

Sybil Piper is particularly grateful to the Benevolent Fund's community engagement
Piper is particularly grateful to the Benevolent Fund's community engagement - Oliver Dixon

Irene, by contrast, received a grant that allowed her to purchase a new dishwasher. If that seems a trivial thing, consider the difference it would make to her quality of life, as a widow with very limited funds. A small, vital act of charity by an organisation that looks after its own.

Strange eventually became a journalist in the Middle East and North Africa, but returned to the UK to run “guesthouses for the homeless for 25 years” in Southsea. When Covid hit, isolation did, too. Again, the RAFB were there to help.

“Since then, we’ve connected with other WRAF veterans. We have been taken to lunch and meet up monthly with different ladies. There’s a great camaraderie at our ages, and we have a sense of togetherness.”

That’s what Piper feels. Two years short of a century, she looks back on life with a great sense of satisfaction, she says. It has been 77 years since she left the Royal Air Force, but thanks to its remarkable Benevolent Fund, the Royal Air Force never left her.

“I’ve always been hardworking and given it my best, but it was a remarkable experience, and I’m sure it’s my service training that has stood me in good stead throughout my life,” Piper says. “What the RAFB gives you, more than anything, is a sense of security. And at our age, that’s important.”

The RAF Benevolent Fund is one of four charities supported by the Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Go Beyond, Race Against Dementia and Marie Curie. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2023appeal or call 0151 284 1927

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