A 97-year-old veteran who contributed to daring clandestine missions during the Second World War had feared that she would spend her service “cleaning loos”.
Joyce Wilding, who grew up in Godstone, Surrey, volunteered in 1943, aged 18. She hoped to become a driver. “It was always thought of as the most entertaining [trade], the most fun and glamorous,” she said.
However, things didn’t go to plan after Wilding and her friend Primrose applied to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) without consulting their parents. Having made it through a daunting interview that felt like being back at school, they were dismayed to learn of their first roles.
“It sounded awful,” she said. “It was called a ‘transmitter hut attendant’. Well, I can tell you, Primrose and I thought we were going to clean loos.”
The veteran, who was speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, said she doesn’t remember how they had discovered the FANY. “I just knew there was some part of the army that was being formed [and] that they needed a group of back-ups — housekeepers, typists, anything. We were drivers, cooks, wireless operators.”
In fact, Tessa Dunlop, who features Wilding in her book Army Girls, said the FANY was an “elite” organisation that had some autonomy within the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the woman’s branch of the army. Moreover, Wilding and her friend joined the section of the FANY that supported the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret organisation conducting sabotage, espionage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.
Hence the intimidating interview.
So their fears of drudgery were unfounded. The transmitter hut where Wilding worked at Thame Park in Oxfordshire was a vital link between agents sending messages from occupied Europe and SOE chiefs in London. And she shouldered a great responsibility.
“I was rung up by the signal office at, say, ten minutes or quarter of an hour before the hour when the scheds [scheduled transmissions] were due, with a number which was the frequency that we had to tune the transmitters to,” she explained. “And so one had to wait, and be very accurate, and then you would hear the Morse code starting and that would be sent through our transmitter hut into the wireless signal office, which would be received by wireless operators and coders and sent on to Baker Street, which was the London headquarters.”
The life expectancy of an SOE agent in the field was six weeks. The Germans sought to detect agents’ transmissions and hunt them down. Sudden radio silence often meant that agents had been captured or killed. “It was horrible really,” Wilding said. “But one was absolutely unable to do anything and I remember we never really mentioned it, never talked about it — just looked at each other and waited for the next one.”
It helped that Wilding and the other FANYs never knew the identities of the agents whose messages they received. In fact, Dunlop said, Wilding may well have received messages from famous figures such as the Anglo-French agent Violette Szabo who was executed in 1945.
There were also plenty of distractions during the FANYs’ time off. “There was never a dull evening,” Wilding recalled. “You were either in the recreation hut with dancing, music, darts . . . Or we played tennis. Because Thame House had wonderful grounds, it was a magnificent house.”
I feel guilty really that I enjoyed it so muchJoyce Wilding
Wilding even brought her pony from Surrey and kept it with a local farmer. “It was one of the most wonderful things to have there because everybody loved it. [And] I had the dog and that was nearly more popular, because when I was on night duty all the other FANYs that were off used to take him down to the pub because it was the best way of meeting people.”
Thame House was also a training centre for SOE agents and Wilding met trainees from various countries who were preparing to go behind enemy lines. One Norwegian man loved her pony and told her that she would always be remembered for having something so unusual. She said it was extraordinary to meet such people and never know their true names or identities.
Later, Wilding achieved her aim of becoming a driver when she was transferred to Essex.
“I got sent to Station 14. It was very secret because it made all the clothes, identity cards and anything [else] the French or Belgians or Norwegians needed for agents to wear or take with them. Because they had new identities and they had to have every possible back-up if they were caught, as they so often were. The FANYs looked after these people that were making all these wonderful things. There were about 20 men and four to six FANYs [including] two cooks and two drivers, one of which I was.”
Her work including shuttling brown envelopes and packages to and from the SOE station. She only learned recently that some of them contained identity papers that were brought over from France by submarine for copying, then returned. She also drove SOE agents to safe houses. And a particular pleasure was being able to fill up her car’s whole tank with petrol. “It was absolutely wonderful when no one else had any.”
There are less happy memories. Once she drove one of the Station 14 staff through the East End of London to pick up some special photographic paper. She said: “It was somewhere past Hackney and the bombing had been dreadful and he said, ‘Do you think we could pop in and see my wife? She only lives round the corner.’ And I remember seeing this woman with two little kids and a bombed house on each side and it was awful and I thought how dreadful it must have been to see me in a great big American estate car, driving about.”
Wilding had to keep the details of her war work secret. She said: “It was very tempting to tell, because my brother thought I was pretty stupid, you know, and he had no idea what I did. I really could have hit him for it.”
She was working at Station 14 when the war in Europe ended. She remembers vividly doing the hokey cokey in Piccadilly with American soldiers on VE Day and being given free drinks by hotels and restaurants. “It was a hilarious day — just a joy, a complete joy,” she said.
After Station 14 was wound up, she worked briefly as a FANY ambulance driver in Bristol but found it deadly dull. “The end of it was driving the ambulance up to London, to Belgrave Square, and walking away with a suitcase. It was rather an anticlimax.”
She married her husband, John, after the war at about the same time the Queen, another former army driver, married Prince Philip in 1947. She was widowed a couple of months before the Queen, after 73 years of marriage.
Of her military service, she said: “I feel guilty really that I enjoyed it so much. It was mainly that one felt useful and there were so many friends and it was the beginning of a completely new era.”