We were honoured that the family of Sylvia Salmon (1922-2013), who served at RAF Duxford during the Second World War, chose to celebrate Sylvia’s life, and fulfill her last wishes, by scattering her ashes on Duxford Airfield.
Sylvia had said that she spent some of her happiest days at RAF Duxford. Her memories have been recorded for posterity by IWM Duxford.
When war broke out in 1939, Sylvia’s Aunt Lizzie told her that she hoped that “she was going to do her bit” and promptly marched Sylvia along to the Army recruiting office near Piccadilly in London. Unfortunately, the Army, in the words of the recruiting officer, “were full” and could not take her. She walked further down the street and joined the Royal Air Force as one of its first members of the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).
Sylvia said, “I was one of the first 50 WAAFs posted to Duxford on 10 October1939. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out I was one of the first 50 WAAFs going to Duxford.”
Her career in the RAF, where she rose to the rank of Sergeant, included various postings but her most memorable was her time at RAF Duxford, where she worked in the Officers’ Mess between 1939 and 1942.
Sylvia said, “I think the Station Admin. Officer was the first one in for lunch and he walked in and he looked in amazement and he said, “Oh my god, women in the mess!” but I have to say that everyone was very, very kind to us there…none of us knew what we were expected to do.”
On her first Christmas at RAF Duxford in 1939, Sylvia reminisced, “I remember we walked into the Mess three or four days before Christmas and there was this huge Christmas tree. It stood from the floor almost to the ceiling and there was a present on it for everyone working in the Officers’ Mess.”
She served here throughout the Battle of Britain and beyond, meeting Douglas Bader and seeing at first hand the effects of aerial warfare on the pilots and ground crew.
Sylvia said “I remember walking into the Mess at lunchtime and I saw an officer I’d never seen before, a flying officer sitting there by himself and I thought he looked a bit lonely so I went over and said hello and asked what he would like for his lunch and he said “hello, old girl” and I thought “this is someone a bit different” and that was my first encounter with Douglas Bader. But as time went on, we got to know him very well. He was an extraordinary man, very kind, very considerate.”
Sylvia had many vivid memories of the Battle of Britain at RAF Duxford:
“What we did find was very difficult, during the Battle of Britain, we had lots of VIPs at Duxford and they were all entertained to lunch in the Officers’ Mess and sometimes, in the middle of lunch, when it would be quiet and we were looking after these very famous people, the squadrons would come back from the battle skies of southern England and they were battle weary, tired, exhausted. And more often than not, there were empty seats in the Mess and we would remember who had occupied them at the previous meal and it was sometimes very sad but life had to go on….”
“… always throughout the Battle of Britain, we found Douglas Bader a tremendous inspiration…. Nothing seemed to bother him. Often he would be just as tired as the others and in pain but he was always laughing and sometimes in the dining room it would be a bit grim and suddenly he would stride in and the whole atmosphere would change.”
“…one day, having gone on duty at 2pm, I was informed that 242 Squadron [then commanded by Bader] had not yet returned for lunch and tea time came and went. Evening dinner came and went and still no sign of 242 Squadron. We were supposed to be out of the Mess at 1900 hrs. Well, we stayed on until 2000 hrs and there was no one around to ask in the Mess where were they so we decided maybe we should go.
Well, the girls had just gone out the door and I’d switched off the last light and I heard Douglas Bader’s voice saying “for God’s sake, don’t leave us.” So we put the lights on and we came back and about half the squadron were asleep and he asked “can we just have some coffee and a little while to rest.” so we left them for a while and I think it was somewhere near midnight when we finally got them fed. And as we watched those young Canadian pilots stagger out of the Mess, holding on to whatever furniture was available, it seemed to us that our fighter squadrons were less than 48 hours away from total collapse from exhaustion but they did carry on for another three days until the end of the Battle of Britain.”
While RAF Duxford was only bombed four times, on three separate days in 1941, life at the fighter station was not without its dangers, as Sylvia remembered: “We just got into the married quarters and the first thing we used to do was to open the windows. Well, as we did so, suddenly we heard rat-tat-tat and we had to hurriedly retreat inwards because this plane was flying along machine gunning the married quarters. There was no warning. The guns remained silent and it just flew level with the rooftops. It flew in from London and flew out towards Royston. I imagine there’s some bullet holes in those houses to this day.”
In 1941, more and more RAF airmen were posted overseas and more WAAFs were brought to RAF Duxford. In the following year, as the United States Army Air Forces took over RAF Duxford, the WAAFs were mostly posted away, although some remained to assist the transition from union flag to stars and stripes.
Sylvia was offered a commission at the age of 18 but knew that she couldn’t afford it. She was sent on a Mess Stewards’ course at RAF Halton and from there was posted to Bomber Command.
As she said, “after the palatial Duxford, it was quite a shock!”
Sylvia’s memories feature as part of the Historic Duxford exhibition at IWM Duxford and we are privileged that she has come home to us.
For further information on Historic Duxford go to iwm.org.uk