Date added: 21 Aug 2010
Joan Griffiths - died 29 May 2010. War service 1939-1945 as WAAF Ops Room Plotter attaining rank of Sgt.
Joan was born in Leicester on 4th December 1920. Her father, William Orton, was an architect and had been an Army Officer during World War I, although he never talked about his experiences.
Joan went to kindergarten and then primary school at Sutherland College, Leicester. Her school reports were admirable but her conduct in April 1927 was ‘Good on the whole but too talkative’! She showed improvement, however, because in December 1927 her conduct was described as ‘Good on the whole but rather talkative’ and then, in December 1928, as ‘Good on the whole – talkative at times’!
In 1928 also, the family suffered a tragedy when Joan’s mother died of diptheria and septicaemia. About this time, the family moved from Leicester to Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Joan went to Ashby Girls Grammer School. Her two older brothers, Norman and Douglas, went away to school but Joan was responsible for introducing one of her school friends to Norman who would eventually become his wife.
On leaving school, Joan got a job in Adderly’s department store in Leicester with her friend Pamela Hodgkins. In those days people were generally addressed by their surnames so Joan was known as ‘Orton’ and Pamela as ‘Hodgy’. In September 1939, at the outbreak of war, Hodgy went at the first opportunity to the local recruiting office and returned to Adderleys to say that she had joined the RAF. The very next day Joan went off and did the same. Both girls trained together to be ‘Ops Room Plotters’ in the WAAF. By 1940 they were both at 12 Group HQ and it was 12 Group, along with 11 Group, that controlled the defence of the country during the ‘Battle of Britain’. By working in the Ops Room, plotting the incoming German formations and the fighters being sent up to meet them, they were able to witness this historic battle at first hand.
It was at this time too that Joan met Bill, a bomber pilot who was to become her husband. Their first meeting is best described in Bill’s words:
‘Well, the most important happening of my life took place when I passed the station tennis court one day on my way to the Officers Mess from the flight offices. This vision of a tall, dark girl with very long and shapely legs, immaculately turned out was playing tennis with three other girls. I was immediately smitten. I arranged somehow to make a date. Because my bedroom (which, incidentally, was one in a wooden hut) was passed by the WAAFs going on night duty to the 12 Group Plotting & Operations Room, I was in a good position to arrange future dates, sometimes with her great friend Hodgy. We visited Nottingham for drinks and cinemas – a place called Papplewick, which had a swimming pool and, on one occasion, to Cranwell, when I played cricket for the station.
The path of love moved sweetly whilst 12 Group was at Hucknall but when they moved to Watnall, things changed. Joan started going out with other people – one, an army officer and the other the Earl of Lincoln, who was a Squadron Leader on 12 Group staff. I had the idea that I needed to make her jealous by taking an attractive girl to the same pub where they used to drink – The Royal Oak at Watnall. First of all, I had to find an attractive girl. I saw a poster advertising the election of the Cigarette Queen of Nottingham (Players cigarettes were made there). It was being held in the Victorian Palace Dance Hall. The one who was chosen was very attractive so, after the ceremony, I plucked up courage and asked her for a dance. She turned out to be a dentist’s daughter and used to sing in concerts entertaining the Forces. She agreed to come out with me and naturally I took her to the pub where I knew Joan would be. I don’t think Joan took the slightest bit of notice. I went out with this girl until I got posted to Bramcote.
In moving from Hucknall I thought it would be the last time I saw Joan. I was very downcast. However, it turned out not to be. We moved to Bramcote in December and, in April, Joan and Hodgy hitchhiked from Hucknall. I surreptitiously took them for a flight in a Wellington. I told them when the aircraft was at dispersal and told them to get inside and wait for me. A totally unauthorised flight, but it was fun. I was also over the moon to know that Joan still cared.’
Both Joan and Bill described the War as the happiest time of their lives but conditions were not easy. Joan had memories of living in a Nissen Hut in the woods in the depths of winter, heated by a single stove that was always going out, condensation streaming down the windows, and clothes that were always damp. The food was fairly dire too – Joan particularly remembered the jam which appeared to have no fruit content and was known as ‘red jam, green jam and orange jam’.
Joan had subsequent tours at RAF Wittering and RAF Church Fenton but kept in touch with Bill who went to the Middle East on a B-24 Liberator squadron where he won the DFC. They were married in 1944 and went on honeymoon to Scarborough where they found the beach covered in barbed wire.
After the war, Bill stayed in the RAF commanding a Mosquito squadron at RAF West Malling in Kent in the early 1950s. He was the Wing Commander Flying at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire when it was operating Meteor Night Fighters. Bill was twice a Station Commander, at RAF Butzweilerhof in Germany and at RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire where Joan played a major role as the Station Commander’s wife with such duties as running the Wives’ Club and presenting the prizes at Sports Day.
As a Group Captain, Bill was Air Attache in Budapest from 1960 – 1962 at the height of the Cold War when being followed by the secret police was a frequent occurrence. Then, in 1963, they were sent to Central Africa where Bill was tasked with establishing first the Northern Rhodesian Air Wing and then, after independence, the Zambia Air Force. On leaving in 1967, the Force had gone from nothing to over 30 aircraft for which Bill was awarded the CBE.
For Joan, the many good times were mixed with testing ones too. On one occasion she crossed the kitchen floor at night to switch on the light only to find that she had stepped over a snake. On another occasion when Bill was away, an African tried to break into the house through the roof whilst Joan waited with a loaded pistol below!
Bill’s last tour in the RAF was as Senior RAF Officer at the Allied HQ in Naples from where he and Joan retired in 1973. They moved to Cowbridge in South Wales where Bill, for 10 years, became the Office Manager of the main Welsh branch of Deloittes, the accountants. Retiring for a second time in 1983 they moved to Brockenhurst in the New Forest mainly because some good friends, John and Barbara Lewis, were enjoying retired life in the area.
Life was good until Bill died suddenly in 1998. Joan re-established her life with the help of some very good friends and stayed in Brockenhurst until 2006 before moving to a smaller house in Lymington. The making of yet more good friends here made her final years very happy.