Sidmouth woman, 90, remembers Battle of Britain

Barrage balloon operator Frances appears on Battle of Britain DVD

IN THE summer of 1940, the fate of Britain hung in the balance as Hitler’s army prepared to invade our island.

Nazi Germany made short work of conquering all before them until they reached the shores of Normandy, with just the Channel separating them from the UK.

Perhaps he wasn’t prepared for the bulldog spirit of the Brits, who caused his first defeat in the skies over Southern England in what became known as the Battle of Britain.

This week marks the 70th anniversary of that battle and a compelling DVD has been released by 1st Take, which includes an interview with Sidmouth resident Frances Greene about her experiences as a barrage balloon operator.

“They (WRAF) asked me what I wanted to do and I said ‘I’d like to learn to drive, which I never did’,” said Frances, 90, who lives in Mill Street.

“The next thing I knew they had booked me into balloons!”

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Aged just 20, Frances had joined the WRAF and was to serve three of the four years she was in the Forces, as a barrage balloon operator.

She described what her job entailed.

“We used to have to put them up and down and maintain them. Then they were brought down to the ground and fixed and we got inside and made sure everything was alright inside. We then got back out and were called to put it up at whatever height was wanted.”

The sturdily-made balloons were 62-feet long and 25-feet high and were filled with 19,000 cubic feet of hydrogen.

“They wanted us to fix on lethal mini-bombs, so that if a balloon was flying and a plane ran into it, it would blow the plane up,” said Frances.

“It deterred the planes, but occasionally we got one of our own down. Those things happened. It was our job, you didn’t take much notice, you just got on with it.”

Frances has put memories of her time in London during the Battle of Britain to the back of her mind but said: “It was not very good being in London then. It was a long time ago, when you come out [of war] you try to forget it.

“Before I joined up I was working in Bristol and it was worse there than what I saw in London.”

She recalls one night there when she walked the streets after a bomb hit the hotel she was staying in.

“I ended up in a crypt of a church for the night, I was about 18.”

Frances remembers one stormy night when one of the barrage balloons became loose.

“There was a terrific wind. The balloon was flying at 5,000 feet and started to come down. The cable jumped over two or three streets of houses then wrapped itself around a church spire.

“I was up all night trying to get it back, which I did in the end.”

Frances has a copy of the DVD and believes it is good to remember anniversaries such as the Battle of Britain.

“A lot of people don’t know about it and when they see some of the things that happened they are amazed,” she said.

*We have teamed up with 1st Take to offer readers �5 off the Voices From the Battle of Britain DVD which features Frances.

To order by phone (with credit/debit card) call (01454) 321614, (quoting ‘Sidmouth Herald’ offer) or send a cheque/postal order for �9.95 with the completed coupon from today’s Sidmouth Herald, to ‘Battle of Britain’ offer, 1st Take, PO Box 1840, Yate, Bristol, BS37 4WB.