Remembrance Sunday: The Seven Kings girl who became an RAF bomber mechanic in the Second World War
Women may not have been allowed on the front line in the Second World War but they fought on the home front in agriculture, hospitals and auxiliary armed services.
In the home there were rations and shortages, lack of income with husbands away, being taken away from home with evacuations or, even worse, being trapped in cities as they were bombed.
Not only did women have to fill jobs left by men gone to fight, but there were thousands of new jobs to do in hospitals, the emergency services, factories like the Plessey munitions factory in Hainault and farming in the Land Army.
Auxiliary forces in the military were also opened to women for the first time and thousands of women entered positions in the army, navy and air force.
One Seven Kings girl’s life was turned upside down when she was conscripted into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
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Betty Dearden had just left Ilford Ursuline school, then a convent, and got her first job when war broke out.
Aged 17, she had got a job at the Prudential insurance headquarters in London, but in 1940 she was whisked away from her home in Tavistock Gardens to be evacuated to Torquay with the rest of the office staff.
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But conscription was introduced for women aged between 20 and 30 and, at 21, Betty was called up in 1943.
She said: “I went straight into the RAF and there were two options: you could be a cook or a flight mechanic.
“I had never cooked a dinner in my life and I didn’t fancy getting up at 5am to cook breakfast so I went to be a mechanic.”
Betty, now 90, was trained in secretarial studies and had no experience of machinery but she passed every element of her course first time and was qualified in 16 weeks.
Her first posting was to RAF Lossiemouth on the Scottish coast.
She worked on Wellington bombers and was responsible for repairing and maintaining the bodywork.
Betty said: “When we got to the hangar in the morning there was always a list on the door of the planes that hadn’t returned.
“It was very sad because when the airmen didn’t return from a night bombing, we had to sort out all their belongings for their families.
“There wasn’t a day that went by when you weren’t doing that but you got used to it.
“They were all young men dying, whatever side they were from, and I always thought it was such a waste.
“But it was war and that’s what you had to do.”
But there was fun to be had as well when the pilots, mechanics, camp staff and locals let their hair down and mingled at dances.
Betty made friends for life at the base and fell in love with the beautiful coastline on the remote coast.
When war was coming to an end and victory was in sight in 1945, the government started planning ahead for the enormous demobilisation ahead.
Because of her experience with early computers at the Prudential, Betty was rounded up with other skilled workers and sent down to RAF Eastcote, in Hillingdon, to process the cards of millions of servicemen to relieve them of their military duties.
Betty said she was glad to be closer to Ilford so she could visit her family on the weekends.
It was at Eastcote train station one Saturday that she met her future husband Harold, a fighter pilot who had been serving in the Middle East.
Betty was heading home for the weekend and Harold was also on his way to Ilford to visit his sisters.
Betty said: “I did think he was good looking. He had such lovely hair and there I was looking like a scarecrow.
“We started dating very quickly. It’s funny because we didn’t really have a lot in common. I loved dancing but he wouldn’t know a ballroom if he fell on one.”
The pair were married in 1946, had two children, and were together until Harold’s death in 1989.
Betty and many of the 180,000 other women in the WAAF went back to domestic lives after the war but their strength and skill must be remembered as part of the battle behind the front line that helped secure victory.