Freda was posted to the ATS recruiting centre at the Savoy Hotel,
A venue now devoid of any past glamour, carpetless stalls, large bare-boarded rooms turned into officer's dining rooms, iron bedded dormitories and medical rooms.
Access to a grim, grey English channel which the hotel overlooked, was barred by posts and defensive wire, the front view from long curtainless windows bleak and sinister under the threat of Invasion.
The batch of recruits were propelled into the ritual of initiation. Up and down the back stairs, led from room to room by harassed Section Leaders, medical inspection, head inspection, those with nits had to have immediate treatment, baths, a meal, then kitting out. Vests two; knickers, two; skirts, one; jackets, one; cap and cap badge, one; stockings, shoes, one pair. Up and down the back stairs: "Only Officers use the front stairs". In and out, sign please. In line for everything, utterly strange, incomprehensible.
A motley collection of very and not so young girls, some already forming into talkative little gangs, whispering, tittering in contrast to the silent majority.
Naively, Freda, seeing the need, offered to help. A mistake. It earned her the title of Chief recruit, but put her into a bad odour with the more vociferous of her fellow recruits.
"Christ! She's got a bleeding stripe! That's what she got for helping the Section leader!" This as they stood in line for dinner, audibly delivered with a jeering look in her direction.
It was hurtful, but Volunteer Mead's enthusiasm for her training partly overcame her desire to run home. She enjoyed being in the open air, the rhythm of marching up and down the road at the back of the hotel, learning the commands of the drill, being one of a squad, overcoming the absurdity of and growing into her uniform.
The squad marched to Passive Air Defence lectures, gas mask drill and Mead received some training as a storewoman - a category that she had chosen lest the opportunity arose to join her young husband at present in the ordnance corps.
There were air raid warnings when the whole company, helmeted, with gas masks at the ready, trooped down to the cellars, but nothing happened.
Recruit Mead was called to the Subaltern's Office to receive her stripe. She was praised, put in charge of orderlies with a homily on how to give orders, to delegate not to do a job oneself. She had always been used to showing and sharing so had difficulties with the blas‚ girls.
However, still idealistic, she worked too hard, incurring the jealous dislike of a few of her fellow recruits but finding too, some friends for which she was grateful.
At the end of three, sometimes dreadful, weeks she relinquished her stripe and as Vol. Mead, was posted to Longmoor, Royal Engineers, Liss in Hampshire.
Under the illusion that she might join her husband, Mead chose category "Storewoman" when requested to name a preference, although she knew little of either contingencies. She was devastated when she found herself in the cookhouse at Longmoor RET Regiment. "It was all a question of establishment" she was told.
Imagine a vast hangar-like building set with long wooden topped, iron framed tables and chairs. Down the centre a series of ovens and great steel cauldrons that could be swung on pivots to disgorge, when cooked, their contents: porridge, stew, greens, potatoes, all with a horrid resemblance to one another. Surrounding this food factory, were a series of steel hot plates, holding large pans into which the meals were tipped for disposal. Porridge, bangers, baked beans, tea in plenty, bread and butter for breakfast.
Some of the staff were burly ATS girls in khaki headscarves, turban-like, overalled, flat-shoed. Men did all the cooking with soldierly nonchalance, women prepared the vegetables. The other ATS were deputed to serve the men, mainly seasoned R Engineers. Each girl stood behind a hot plate doling out food with large ladles or spoons to the queue of men holding out a metal plate taken from the stack. Cutlery and mugs were part of the men's equipment to be retained by them and shown at kit inspection.
As they queued to receive the melange, the ATS ran the gamut of hungry stares, smiles, remarks. The men, big, burly, overalled, sometimes oil-smeared for they worked in the Longmoor Railway, had no illusions. If they approved of what they observed over the hot plate, there were remarks like "What are you doing tonight, Blondie?" If the ATS were disapproved of, sometimes deservedly so, the men would give a sardonic look only at their food, have their mugs filled with strong tea and pass on without a word. Vol. Mead was terrified and speechless, although in time she came to admire and have great sympathy for the isolation of those dedicated men.
Early each morning that bitter January, she woke to the remote sound of a bugle sounding Reveille.
"Charlie, Charlie, get out of bed"
drag herself out of her cold bed, wash in cold water, dress into uniform, cover it with a denim overall and overcoat, and trudge through the darkness and snow from the ATS quarters to the cookhouse.
One day, she was put to serve greens, overcooked, pulped, steaming stinking greens, until, overcome by a sort of greens sickness, she had to report to sick bay with a raging temperature and the ministrations of the elderly MO. Thence to Queen Alexandra's hospital in Aldershot.
When she returned to duty it was to be put on Quarters Cleaning.
Wilton Quarters, the "Longmoor Attery" was a row of Victorian red bricked cottages used as ATS billets.
Each featureless room contained two iron beds and two lockers, except for the tiny upstairs back room. To occupy one of these was a bit of a bonus as there was no chance of room mate. The quiet ones were at the mercy of the raucous. All were volunteers, Freda was Vol. Mead, Section Leader Catchpole had yet to become Sergeant Major. A few ATS were rough, their language earthy, their habits revolting, but they gravitated to be a powerful little gang. Their ribald laughter was something to be avoided, to cross them was to put oneself at physical risk, it was best to leave them alone. Some were better educated but reckless and opportunist where the troops were concerned, spoiled by the attention given initially by men away from home.
"Men! They treated us like bloody queens when we first came here." quoth Marianne, a very pretty girl.
Her clique were now only interested in the Officers and seemed superficial and cynical. Being in the main employed in the RE offices, they treated other ATS like lower orders so were generally hated. There were undercurrents of scandal, gossip, lesbianism or rumours of it, but in time a feeling of unity and pride, especially of belonging to the Royal Engineers, came to Vol. Mead.
To be in parade that summer with the REs was something to remember. Uniforms had to be immaculate, shoes and buttons polished, caps on straight. To swing through Aldershot in aid of something or other, the men in short sleeve order to the RE anthem played by the RE band was splendid.
"You make fast, I make fast
Make fast the loco,
Make fast the loco
For we're marching up to Apple Pie
Where you can't tell the difference from
Tissue paper, tissue paper, marmalade and jam."
Incomprehensible words to Vol. Mead, but as the soldiers sang it on the march, no less stunning.
"Arms straight!, eyes right!" to the Commanding Officer as he took the salute.
On one occasion, it was Laurence Olivier, handsome in Fleet Air Arm uniform, and his wife Vivien Leigh, beautiful in a little black cloche hat who took the salute. On this freezing January they didn't quite know what to do with Vol. Mead, who was evidently not suited for the cookhouse. So quarters cleaning was an easy alternative. A task which, swallowing her pride, she approached with as much zeal as with all her unendurable jobs, glad she was to be out of the cookhouse
7.00 Coy Assistant's fire to be lit.
Orderly room fire to be lit.
Senior Leader's Office fire to be lit.
Before breakfast if possible. Should the Sick Bays be occupied,
the fires there should be done as well.
Immediately after breakfast Section Leader Hadwin office to be
done and (floor polished) then ask if Coy Commander's office can
be done. This is also polished, hand basin washed, also bath.
The floor of bathroom and landing should be polished and
completely finished by the time Coy C comes back from breakfast.
All stairs are swept and scrubbed later on in the morning,
Coy Assistant's office including basin and bathroom should be
finished by 9.00. Orderly room by 8.30 if possible and Senior
Leader's Office, 8.30.
The telephone room is swept and washed.
All brass taps and handles can be done.
To rise once again to the bugle sounding Reveille, light fires in company offices, one quarter was used for this purpose, clean and blacklead the stoves, polish furniture, then to clean sick bay two rooms next door.
Coy Assistant's bedroom and Senior Leader's bedroom both are
polished every day, grates cleaned and fires laid.
The sick bays are to be kept dusted and fires lit in both
downstairs rooms every day. Scullery sinks are to be cleaned
and floors scrubbed when you think necessary. Sani-bins are
done every day and coal and wood prepared for next morning.
Unwilling to leave this in the drab state that she found it, Vol. Mead bought wall posters and covers for the beds cheering it up to the extent that she was put in charge of it and any AT who became a temporary patient. On one humiliating occasion, a patient had a fit just as Vol. Mead was taking her temperature and bit the thermometer in half causing a panic. No one seemed aware that the girl was an epileptic, least of all Vol. Mead. At this time, the ATS received the honour of incorporation into the Army. Vol. Mead became Private, Section Leader Catchpole became Sergeant Major and Mrs Hall, who was to save Private Mead from ignominy, became Subaltern Hall.
This officer had Private Mead sent on a Passive Air Defence course where she learnt about Aircraft Recognition, mustard gas, phosgene, how to put out an incendiary bomb using buckets, sand and shovels.
She did well and on her return received a cordial note from Sub Hall telling her she was promoted to PAD Lance Corporal and would in due course be recommended for a commission. She proceeded with her duties as PAD Corporal but this promising release from drudgery was squashed for Sub Hall was posted before any of the latter could be realised. It transpired that this Officer was regarded as a "bit of a looney" by the others in the camp. Then "establishment" realised that there was a vacancy in stores, so Lance Corporal Mead spent a short time behind a long counter dispensing kit to new RE recruits.
Battle dress, khaki; battle dress, trousers; caps, forage; vests, woollen; pants, woollen; overalls, denim; large, medium and small. Gas masks, antigas. Boots, belts, anklets, web stripes chevrons, badges, cap etc.
Most of the uniforms were impregnated with a chlorine based evil smelling repellent which stung the nostrils.
Lance Corporal Mead hated the work and was shy of the men, sometimes she would, in desperation, decide to go out among them, but nearly always recoiled at the thought of their numbers, their pointed remarks and her inability to parry with a tart or saucy retort.
The Longmoor Railway steam trains ran from Liss, manned by R Engineers as part of their training. It was used by all personnel coming and going from camp.
It ran on to Bordon Camp which became occupied by a Canadian Regiment. The trains were both transit and trysting venues. There was little to do after duty and most places were out of bounds, certainly the mens quarters so the girls used to meet their men on the Longmoor train. Travelling up and down the little line at their leisure, many a romance must have blossomed and died to the click of wheels on sleepers, for one never knew when a posting would occur.
One night, returning from leave as she got off the Longmoor train, she did answer to a soldier's "Hello Blondie, I've seen you before. I'll walk up to the camp with you".
He fell into step. "What's your name?".
She was learning from the other girls, "Kitty", she lied.
She liked her RE. He was a person, tall, well built, not too good looking, she enjoyed his presence beside her, especially when, as they reached the quarters he took her in his arms.
"Well, Kitty, when are you going to meet me?"
She did not want to refuse.
"Monday then, at 6.30 in the square. I'll be waiting, don't let me down."
But she did because she could not be satisfied with her appearance in the mirror, because of her husband, because she knew that if she went, they would make love.
A few days later as she crossed the square she heard a voice, hard with a bitter inflection, "So long Kitty, you rat!".
L/C Mead was sorry. Sorry and humiliated. Sorry that she had denied a lonely soldier that he had thought so badly of her, she liked and never forgot him.
It was on the Longmoor train that she met Lloyd Eisenoor. He was a Canadian stationed at Bordon and it was a kindred sense of isolation that drew them together. A photograph shows a slim, modest young man, "a Blue Nose from Nova Scotia" he told her. He wore a Glengarry, its rear tabs giving an air of jaunty insouciance to his khaki battledress, but
burdened by an overlong great coat and heavy back pack.
In the dark, his arm went round her, he talked with his soft Canadian accent of his home seeming to be glad of her company.
They met several tines on the train. He brought her cake and cookies from home. They held each other and kissed and eventually made love, briefly and gratefully on his part. She could not refuse a mutual need for comfort. She hardly remembered the act, only the warmth and comfort
of another presence in a cold world. One night, as they stood together under the trees on the moor at the end of the quarters, he said "You're too good for me, Blondie."
She didn't know what he meant but she put the little snap of him in her pocket and kept it always.
But the relationship worried her because of her husband, himself in the Army. She felt guilty. When returning from a short leave, she saw Lloyd in Aldershot. He looked across the road towards her, his face alight with pleasurable recognition. She passed on without acknowledging him, quailing inside as she saw his expression change to one of bruised disappointment. They never met again, for the Canadians went to Dieppe and Calais, many never to return.
The Education Hut at Longmoor provided some facilities for music and reading.
Lance Corporal Mead forced herself to attend a gramophone concert.
Stepping out of the freezing night into the hut, she found herself the only female in a concourse of heavily booted soldiers perspiring around a red hot stove. All looked at her enquiringly until Lieut. Norrie, the Entertainments Officer, found her a chair onto which she subsided - self-consciously. Then she heard Stravinsky's "Firebird" and "Pavane for a dead Infanta" by Ravel, indeed a strange environment in which to find enchantment.
This visit led to play reading sessions with one or two other ATs and the production of a one act play for the troops. Mead had a part in this and had the heart warming experience of hearing the gusts of laughter and applause of the audience of troops in the Garrison Hall.
"You were marvellous, Mead" remarked Sgt. Major Catchpole the next day, which was encouraging for that officer sometimes had shown disapproval at the state of Mead's buttons.
The appearance of Sub.Galle as entertainments officer could only have been recruited from the world of ballet and classical theatre.
Tall, slim, immaculate with smooth black hair and centre parting and large dark horn-rimmed glasses caused comment.
Under her tuition a bevy of ATS were pressed into a performance for the troops, a classical minuet and a tableau entitled "Four Seasons". Mead was 'Summer' in a navy blue bathing costume which caused wolf whistles from those troops present.
Sub. Galle did not stay long.
She also joined the garrison choir and rehearsed and sung an anthem:
"What are these who came out of great tribulation?"
One thing the ATS took advantage of was the arrival of transport from Bordon to take the girls to a dance at the Canadian Barracks.
L/C Mead often wished that she had put her name down to go. Fifteen or twenty would go off singing "You make fast, I make fast the loco" and return to the orderly room singing "O Canada" or some other Canadian ditty. The subject of discussion between them was food, drink and the men in that order. The glamorous Americans had not yet arrived on the scene.
Mead did go once to a dance at Bordon where she stood in an agony of self-consciousness until the Air raid warning sounded and the mess was plunged into darkness. Most of the troops including the pianist departed to take up action stations leaving a few of the Band. Brave in the dark and unable to resist, she went to the piano and started to play. After a moment the band took up the tune, her confidence grew and they played until the "All Clear".
As the summer wore on and "short sleeve order", the sandy paths of Longmoor held many prints of marching feet. Mead spent as much time as she could on the moor among the fir trees, their scent pungent and resinous. She walked shady tracks, found the occasional basking adder or slow worm, chuckling little streams wandered through the heather and the midges took advantage of any alien presence. But it was quiet and the heat of summer lingered within the trees.
She felt free.
The next trial was to be placed in one of the RE offices and given an inventory to complete. All the components for blowing up bridges had to be transcribed onto the requisite Army Form. Auguers Mark 4, Dynamite, etc., etc. Mead worked at it assiduously in an office full of soldiers completely indifferent to her and her shyness. An officer perused the completed inventory. "Not bad for a woman," was his only comment. After a short spell of compassionate leave in order to pass over the proprietorship of the hairdressing salon that she had abandoned to her assistants, Lance Corporal Mead reluctantly returned to Longmoor seeing little but ignominy in her future. But, being back in Civvy Street also repelled her, she felt in limbo, there seemed no place for her. Once again, she had to relinquish her stripe so it was with relief that she received from Sgt. Major Catchpole, the information that the first Physical Training course for the ATS was being held, that applications were invited. She was on the point of asking for a posting to the Orkneys, but, thinking back upon her girlhood netball, her swimming, love of games, and mindful of her Medical record "Physical development excellent", she hopefully applied and was accepted.
At last it seemed that she might find a niche in the "establishment" using the physical energy that she had longed to do.
But she was also mindful of her bleached blonde hair, the fact that she went nowhere without her make-up, mascara, lipstick, a habit that more than one of her superiors had disdainfully deprecated. "Mead, must you wear so much lipstick?"
This was apt to lose her friends and fail to happily influence people but she hid behind her make up and would not relinquish it. But with an effort of will that caused her nightmares, she gave up smoking cigarettes.
A short but dreary Christmas leave, January 1942 New Battle Abbey, Dalkeith, Scotland
Another freezing winter. Thick hard packed snow, an ancient grim greystone building.
The inevitable herding together. Kitting out. PT shorts; shirts, cellular short sleeved; plimsolls; track suits, brown. Notebooks. ATs from all over the country taking the first PT course ever.
The introductory talks were given by ladies from the prestigious College of Physical Training. Monica Hawkes, head of PT, Miss Wales and Miss Phillips instructors, made a great impression on Private Mead as on the others. They were full of enthusiasm for the new project, imbued with a patriotic zeal.
The methods employed by the highly trained teachers were completely different to those of Army physical training which was based on a rigid routine of exercises under strict commands.
Free movement enjoyment and competition was sought by the use of lots of equipment, balls, bean bags, skipping ropes, short concise, clear demonstrations by the instructors, small side team games, exercises, folk dancing, hockey practice, shinty, as well as the use of the equipment in the gymnasium. An instructor's task to inspire, to demonstrate succinctly, to know when to stop, to lead not to boss, to use the voice not the whistle, to improvise when no equipment is available as on a gun site.
Some class practise took place in the splendid gymnasium but on most days of those freezing weeks girls had to leave track suits in the dressing rooms and skitter shiveringly to snowy ground outside, clad only in shirts, cellular and shorts, brown. Incredibly after activities conducted in tortuous arctic conditions everyone skipped back to the gym, warm and glowing to a welcome shower.
But how those limbs began to ache!
After the first few days, all the girls were hobbling about in pain wondering why they had ever volunteered.
Appetites grew. Exercise books became full of little pin men in various stances, anatomy lectures meant drawings of hearts and lungs, notes on that or on dances, notes, notes, notes.
Most of the girls in Mead's room were Scottish so accents and cadences indicating background were varied and acute, but they all suffered together and were friends.
A forty eight hour leave was given in the middle of the course. Mead, suffering from cold and homesickness, decided to go home.
"I'm going home for a bath" she told the others. She caught the night train from Edinburgh which was full to standing room in the corridors with sailors and soldiers. As they sped through the night, she became aware of the young sailor beside her. It was the immaculate whiteness of his blue banded collar and the smell of the hot iron with which it must have been pressed that she never forgot.
It was not long before they were in each other's arms finding mutual comfort in the contact and parting with mutual regret at Euston.
London was warmer. Mead made her way by taxi to the Neville's? Turkish Baths where she indulged her fatigue. After a short indifferent visit to her sister, she braced herself to return to Dalkeith. Monica Hawkes, head of PT had vanished after the first day, but reappeared at the end of the course to watch and judge the prowess of possible PTIs especially with regard to their teaching abilities. Private Mead had suffered some slights because of her bleached hair and by now, tired, face, but she realised that she could teach. That it was a skill that had nothing to do with good looks, something she strove for unavailingly, but everything to do with timing, perception, the ability to enthuse others, to forget oneself. In the gym, Miss Hawkes watched her class. Afterwards she came into the changing room.
"I liked your class, Mead, I liked it very much indeed!".
Even as she spoke, looking at Mead more closely, she drew back. Mead knew for certain that she was thinking, "But I don't think she's the right type". Mead was cast down. "Well", she thought, "that's it. I will try to transfer to the Land Army." So sure was she of her failure and its reason that she approached Miss Wales with a view to getting a transfer but was given a dusty answer. She wrote a poem about the course but didn't attend the final gathering.
"Didn't know she had it in her" remarked someone on hearing the eulogy she'd written, given to someone else to read out.
There was no system of grading or marking on this innovative PT course, all as far as was known, departed as they had arrived, but with injunctions as to how important a new venture this was to the ATS, to carry forward the spirit with which it was hoped they had become imbued.
So Mead returned to Longmoor with little idea as to what if anything would come of her efforts.
A few weeks later, she was posted to Blandford Camp in Dorset as a Corporal Physical training Instructor. She was overjoyed.
She was joined by Corporals Ann Barnes and Lily Chant with whom she had been on the course.
Cpl. Barnes was neat, ladylike, reserved. Lily Chant was a Dorset girl, dark and pretty. It cannot be said that either were enchanted with Corporal Mead.
Blandford Camp 1942
There were three camps at Blandford one following the other on a rising situation with the main thoroughfare running through the middle of each. Mead was stationed at the highest camp. Spider huts, wooden office blocks, ablutions. The Garrison Hall was in the centre camp. At the very top overlooking and opening onto Dorset fields, was the gymnasium.
The three new PTIs shared the gym with the Army PTIs who disapproved of this innovation and bore it with patronising indifference at first, but, having watched the classes and methods so different, they began to show a certain respect for the girls.
It was not east to detail a class of cooks from an overheated cookhouse or a squad of tired orderlies and expect them to don PT kit to enjoy running about like scalded cats or play with balls like children. Most of them were hefty sophisticated worldly cigarette smoking young women and free physical exercise and games sometimes in the open air was "just a lot of bloody rubbish".
To watch their gradually increasing enjoyment and interest, to conquer their resentment was a triumph, profoundly satisfying. Mead loved her job. But she was not so popular with the ATS Officers and made few friends. Partly because she still used make-up and bleached her hair mostly because she could not mix socially.
On her free time on summer days it was on the fields at the back of the gym she went with their ripening corn, grazing sheep and skylarks soaring and trilling under a blue sky. Gradually, the three PTIs became more friendly with the Army PTIs who were very kind. There was Sgt. McPherson, a seasoned Scot, several young Corporals, and Staff Sergeant Barnes a good looking, smart young man who Mead understood to have been a football player for Arsenal. His name was Wally Barnes. Mead fell a bit in love with Wally Barnes but she could never bring herself to show it. But she fell deeply in love with the Dorset countryside. Sometimes, she took a class for a cross country run and upon finding a brook, clear and cool in the summer heat, they all removed plimsolls and sat relaxed with feet splashing in the water, forgetful of the red tape, the uniformity to which they must return.
It was to the "Anvil" in the village of Pimperne that the PTIs most liked to go. This was a long, low, thatched roof cottage set well back from the main Salisbury road. It was a longish evening walk from the back entrance of the camp down the hill, and lovely too. On arrival, enter the dark, cool, low ceilinged room, simply, almost starkly, furnished with a few tables and chairs upon the flag-stoned floor. To be served by the owner's wife who moved about in a graceful, nonchalant manner, always barefoot, her long dark hair framing a calm face. There was always pigeon shot by her husband and deliciously cooked by one or the other.
He could be glimpsed pottering about in white shirt and gray flannel bags, the epitome of prewar country life that soldiers would never know again.
Mead fell into a disgrace when she fell off a horse and severely sprained her ankle, Sgt. McPherson had been in the Army since its horse days so when he invited Mead and a new young PTI to go riding, as they both had done a very small amount of hacking, they accepted. Three mounts were hired from Belbens Farm in the tiny village of Tarrant Gunville. Mead was given the smallest horse and as they trotted smartly up the Salisbury Road, it proved to be the "wingeist" and hard for Mead to handle. The three turned off to a long ride and broke instantly into a gallop. Sgt. McPherson on his huge horse, took the lead looking comfortable and confident, the young PTI close behind and Mead's mount frenziedly trying to win at the expense of its rider. At the end of the ride, all three came to an abrupt halt and Mead went sailing over the top of her horse to land ignominiously at Sgt. McPherson's feet. Lucky to have no further injury, she made light of her sprain, but it meant a visit to the lady MO who looked very disapproving and a fortnight off duty which displeased everyone.
The visit of the Staff Officer PT came at this time. Mead was out of practice and confidence. Her demonstration was not a success, her critique ran "Cpl. Mead started well but went on too long, etc.". She knew it was true, that good timing was paramount that she had lost touch halfway through her class.
The trouble with life in the ATS was between the job and men, To be good at both was practically impossible. The challenge to what there was of one's femininity by the propinquity of the male sex in uniform with its glamour, the desire to appeal to this, the fear of not doing so, interfered with the dedication that should be given to a difficult but worthwhile skill.
Mead, in track suit, basking in hot sunshine under her favourite haystack watching the sheep grazing peacefully within their wattle folds, begrudged the fact that she must again don the uniform, her marriage - her husband.
Rumours that the Americans were coming to Blandford became a reality.
The Royal Artillery packed their kitbags and, except for a few, the ATS were posted. Corporal Mead was sad. Her last view of staff Sergeant Barnes was a mutual glance across Blandford High Street, a raised hand and a passing on in opposite directions.
She was posted to Birmingham alone, entranced by the long journey on the Pines Express through the unblemished beauty of the West Country, the outskirts of Bath and slowly to the unenticing City of Birmingham, a contrast indeed.
The Anti-aircraft Battery to which Mead was posted was at Kings Heath, a dreary outpost of the city. She saw and felt the utter dreariness of her suburban surroundings, even the countryside, a cycle ride away, seemed dusty and depressing after the golden fields of Dorset. She was impressed by the kindness of civilians in a drab environment, and the number of crippled people.
After taking a class to which most of the girls stationed there were detailed, Mead was promoted to PT Sergeant, although not yet a war substantive corporal.
In less than a month it was discovered that there was no "establishment" for a PT sergeant. Mead was demoted and posted to Didcot, an ordnance depot, as a private.
She was devastated and went Absent Without Leave. After two days spent in Watford with a sneering unsympathetic family, she returned to Didcot to be put on a charge and an interview with a psychiatrist to whom she bitterly complained at "being bandied about".
At Didcot, she began again, heartened by the tolerant understanding attitude of the Senior Officer to whom she was eternally grateful.
This officer, perhaps to avoid trouble, suggested that Mead should continue to take PT and go on another course.
The next course was at Fenham Barracks, Newcastle. Private Mead was no great success, not that she felt that her skill had lost its touch but that she didn't fit in. The officers viewed her with disdain, the official photograph shows her as a tired looking woman with head averted from the camera.
Her Didcot officer listened.
"I didn't do well, Ma'am, but I still think I can teach."
Well, mead, I'm going to make you Sports Sergeant, its up to you to prove yourself."
Another hot summer. Mead took physical training classes around the spider huts and organised sports.
An unexpected encounter with an orchestral musician on the train from London led to hearing Beethoven's Misa Solemnis at Oxford's Sheldonian theatre, a bonus indeed. Her next PT course was a justification for the trust she had been given, she got a distinction and this photograph shows Mead looking well and straight into the camera. As Sports Sergeant she suggested and was put in charge of a fete in Didcot village. Her talent for leadership showed itself in its happiest form.
A gypsy caravan was borrowed for one of the girls who said she could tell fortunes, and an accordion for another who could play.
Mead sent to Fox's in London for gypsy dresses.
The NAAFI manager provided lemonade, tea making essentials, china, sweets, cigarettes, the Army a couple of tents.
On the day before the fete, half a dozen girls went to the village and begged for flowers from garden owners for buttonholes. These were made and put overnight in the bath. The whicker hamper containing the dresses arrived from Didcot station, they were lovely and the surprised girls gleefully adorned themselves. There was no happier sight that summer day than fifteen ATS transformed, each with a tray of exquisite flower buttonholes to sell to the public, each hopping over the little style and across the field to the village green.
Troops helped with teas in the tent, fortune telling in the little round caravan proved popular, and pony rides by courtesy of the gypsies who were there also to keep an eye on their property, took place.
A wonderful day and a tribute in Mead's heart to the confidence placed in her by her Commanding Officer, especially when told that the PRI Fund would pay for any out of pocket expenses which included the dresses!
It was inevitable that she should be posted again. This time to Southern Command HQ, Salisbury, as PT Sergeant.
A very different scene because the Americans were there.
Mead was billeted at 7, Elm Grove in a room in a house on a hill vacated by another sergeant. She found a couple of lesbian love letters in a drawer and was eyed up by another girl in the mess.
Her job was to take PT at the various ATS units where and when possible. St. Probus, a private school then unused, provided a small gymnasium. Mead had also to go to Wilton House, she acquired a bicycle. The significance of this venue completely escaped her. When she passed through the handsome gates, the house she saw appeared to be an exquisite, empty monument to a lost age, its facade giving no hint as to what, if anything, lay within. The beautiful grounds with the Palladian bridge hid camouflaged Army huts and working units.
ATS coming from duty would emerge reluctantly looking pale and tired take exercise as enjoyably as Mead could make it, then return to their tasks.
There was a canteen just inside the gates. It was said that the Duchess put in time, but never a clue reached Mead as to what it all meant.
The ATS headquarters were the Theological College within the Cathedral Close, a strange old building with many small rooms, and a beautiful little chapel in which Mead played the organ for a short service for the girls.
The sergeant's mess was another old house inside the gates and Mead was later to be billeted in Kings House, an ancient dwelling also in the Close, bare boarded then, but with a long garden running down to the river and espalier apple and other trees, neglected but fruitful. To lie alone in a single iron bed at night in a large creaking room redolent of history was to expect at least one ghost, for Thomas Hardy once stayed here.
Mead was sometimes put on telephone duty in the Theological College entrance.
It was the presence of the Americans that gave the old city a new flavour. They seemed mostly tall, slim, relaxed, young men not particularly good looking, but the uniform was softer almost luxurious in contrast to the rough khaki battledress of British troops. Jackets were a dark cloth, trousers a lighter colour, pockets generous and forage caps, worn forward over the forehead gave a sophisticated air of insouciant assurance. Of course they loved the Cathedral and could be seen strolling in and out gazing up at its immense spire and smiling, always courteous.
Cookies, candy, Camel cigarettes, the currency of love and freely available.
And of course the girls loved them. The phones were always busy when Sgt. Mead was on duty and many were the invitations to meet some gallant GI did she receive. She was often wooed over the phone but her shyness and dedication to her job got no further than a charming conversation.
"I'm gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own" they sang.
On one occasion when standing alone at the gate of the sports field at Bemerton? Village waiting for the arrival of a PT Officer, she was espied by an American GI driving a large caterpillar-tracked vehicle along the road from Salisbury to Wilton. Having seen a woman he evidently wished to become further acquainted, for he and his vehicle careered across the main road over a large intervening space to crash through the gate and fence ending up well inside the sports field. Mead had to run for her life, but was a bit flattered.
Something was pending. Mead was sent on a short course to Eastbourne coast and found the seaside town packed with troops looking nonchalant as they had been commanded and as bored as they felt. One beautiful June morning in Salisbury, awakened by the drone of aeroplane engines, she looked out of the window to watch the Dakotas, their gliders in tow, passing overhead in a steady stream towards France.
The invasion had begun!
She little knew that the whole majestic strategy was being orchestrated as she called "Round in a circle - Run!" to the ATS at Southern Command HQM Wilton House!
The war went on but Sgt. Mead knew little of its horror. Salisbury emptied of troops, rumours of postings caused ATS sergeants to send home to mother whatever became available, boxes of sultanas, cigarettes, pillows, blankets. PT Office addressed Sgt. Mead.
"We are putting on a demonstration of ATS PT in the market place. I want you to take it."
Mead, the private person, would have refused. But Sgt. Mead the trained leader, confident of her skill was happy to conduct a PT class in public. The girls looking smart and agile in their shorts and shirts gave of their best, they received public applause and Staff Officer Barlow seemed quite satisfied.
It was not long before Mead was posted to Glen Parva Barracks, Leicester.
This was a course for Physical Training Instructors to instruct new potential PTIs.
A challenge indeed, and she did well. All her class passed with flying colours, themselves to become PTIs.
Towards the end, it was announced that Monica Hawkes chief of PT would be paying a visit. One morning Sgt. Mead stood alone in the deserted gym. Dust, swept up by the duty gym sweepers in a frenzy of activity filtered up and out through the long doors standing open to receive the morning sun. The equipment room now was receiving attention for everything must be in order. Sgt. Major said "Miss Hawkes will watch your class at 2.30, Mead." She, looking back upon her humiliations the patronising attitude of many of her superiors, the difficulty in proving herself, felt a pang of bitterness towards this officer who, she imagined, might have shown a more positive attitude towards her.
But, she realised, she herself had changed for the better. At 2.15 she stood, neat, trim and fitter than she had ever been, at the door of the gym. Soon the changing rooms were thronged with her squad of PTIs in their brown shorts and brick coloured vests, their whistles of authority slung about each neck. Many were stiff and tired for the work was hard
Mead became aware that a small figure in immaculate khaki had slipped through the main door and was watching. The girls flooded into the gym.
"In a wide circle - Run!" Mead's voice rang out, her teaching class had begun. The girls skip jumped, crouch jumped, sprang lightly in twos, threes, threw balls, high and low, leapt over ropes, became breathless, then at the end, dropped to gradually unroll, having listened and learned some of the skills necessary for success. Mead felt the power of what she had learned in those hard years flowing into her class.
Soon it was over and the girls passed back into the changing room.
She stood to attention before the small figure of Miss Hawkes whose clear voice she well remembered.
"Mead, it has given me great pleasure to watch your class."
She found herself replying, "I'm very keen, Ma'am."
The pleased look was gratifying to Mead. "You are more than that, Mead."
It was the best moment of Mead's life. A real pang of regret came when she received a posting to the Suffolk coast. But, as the roses were fading in Salisbury, in Felixstowe they were just coming into bloom, summer was renewed, the air was clear and sharp, only the doodlebugs on their sinister journey over the coast presented a threat.
Mead's job was to organise and take PT recruits for training as PTIs at the Ack Ack sites when convenient, for the ATS were on active service. This meant an opportunity to see radar equipment and experience the real working end of the Army for the first time - very salutary.
Who, where and when she was given the poem by Joyce Rowe, Mead could not remember but she kept it always, thinking of Lloyd Eisenoor.
The Royal Artillery Physical Training Instructor, a Lithuanian born Glaswegian, was Mead's other half with a similar job as herself. There was, too, a mutual attraction which led to brief but romantic encounters under a seaside moon. The affair, they were both married, came to an end when Mead was sent on the first Physical Training course at the Farnborough Army Scheme of Physical Training, a great privilege, for those who did well were enabled to wear the crossed sword badge on cap and sleeve, a member of the ATS Wing, a proud moment.
Then back to Felixstowe where she once again met and was congratulated by Miss Wales in her 'A' result. She, who had been the inspiration of the first course at Dalkeith.
But, organising scattered squads of ATS in remote gun sites proved unproductive, it seemed that Mead had little to show for her efforts she felt once more in the doldrums. Her posting once more to Glen Parva to teach was a relief, she took up her duties with relish.
To her dismay, the standard of teaching had fallen dismally. All was routine, lectures were given to bored looking students by young instructors sitting on the edge of a desk, smoking cigarettes reading from a precis, a lapse from the inspirational behaviour of her instructors that she found intolerable. Where had it all gone?
To show what could be done, became her objective, but with the end of the war in sight, the incentive, perhaps the inspiration, had gone.
She noted at a sports meeting that the "e" had been added to her name, she was now Sgt. PTI Meade.
As the time for her release drew near, Mead received a warm and congratulatory letter from Miss Hawkes, enjoining her to continue her work in civilian life, as PT being one of the good things especially for women, to come out of the war.
On 22nd June 1945, ANW 48/446 Sgt. Mead, APTC was discharged from the Army.
Testimonial:- Reliable and conscientious. Capable of taking responsibilities and handling personnel. Conduct exemplary.
Signed Captain Hall, Commander
She resolved to live in Dorset
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DIEPPE - August 19th, 1942
It started early, the attacking trek
by sea and sky. Early
and quietly, like a well-told lie.
His hair was very crisp and curly.
I ran my fingers through his hair
while he expressed his views
on this and that and my new hat
and the length of movie queues.
Nothing dramatic. And now he's - there.
And I tune in the News.
The barge-like boats, packed panting tight,
eat up the narrow strip of water,
and in the sky the grey wings wait,
poised on the edge of a well-planned slaughter.
I wait as well - and see it right
in my mind's eye
Then suddenly a white
smoky curtain hides the sand
where the foresaken promenade winds its course,
and men charge up from the sea, hoarse
with excitement .... afraid to swallow lest they miss a sound.
the carefully planned attacks mass in their place
and hundreds, hundreds falling in the race
for shelter from the stuttering guns; falling face-
downwards, just a mile or two of sea between
them and us and all that might have been,
the trampled sand blinding already sightless eyes.
Yet, when all's said and done, who'd have it otherwise?
Women wait long enough for paradise
and if it's now - or in a million years -
it makes no odds. Their blood flows, and my tears
if I could shed them.
There's the pips
and News again of men and planes and ships.
But I already know and feel my lips
grow cold and my heart a hot, hard ball
wedged in my throat. I know they could not all
I never knew who she was.