I was acting in a repertory company in Glasgow when France fell in 1940. The only response from my colleagues was, 'Oh dear, how very awkward, what's going to happen to the company?' and it suddenly hit me that I couldn't carry on with this any more. I must do something for the war effort - join the forces - but what could a useless actress do? Then I realized that the one thing I could do was drive, so I left the company and applied to the WRENS (Women's Royal Naval Service). They didn't want anyone for another two years, but then I heard that the FANYs were reforming in Western Command and wanted drivers. So I went to see a Mrs Bentley in London, and when I told her I knew nothing about car maintenance or First Aid she said, 'Oh, that's all right - you'll be taught all that when you get there.' So off I went to Moston Hall, a rather bleak hut hospital outside Chester where I was taught absolutely nothing.
I'd been there a couple of months when this summons came for somebody to go to a place called Knutsford. They must be tough - able to stand nights in the Welsh mountains on manoeuvres, that sort of thing. The others all quailed at this, and since I was the new girl, they said, 'You go'. So I did, although I had no idea what I was going into - I wasn't told anything. What I found when I got to Knutsford was the newly-formed parachute commando, the first 40 troops who'd come from various regiments. This was their training ground. The men were marvellous - I was the only female there - and they were wonderfully friendly. I saw a lot of them because I spent most of my time on the jumping field at Tatton Park, driving the ambulance for the medical officer. It was all very exciting; I'd sever seen a parachutist jump before - I was absolutely dazed at the whole thing - it was all so new.
It wasn't long before they started calling me their mascot: 'Miss Bowman and her blood tub.' As I was the only one doing the job I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the boys used to say that when they went overseas they were going to take my ambulance and have four parachutes attached to it so the ambulance could come down with them. Oh they were a wonderful lot. Everything from dons to gaol-birds - an incredible crowd. We used to meet every night at the George and play endless games of darts and drink a lot of beer - we had an enormous amount of fun. Then we had the first tragedy. It was a routine drop of a stick of men from one of the Whitleys. The last man came out and I thought, 'Oh, they've dropped the overcoats', because they did sometimes drop them separately. Suddenly I saw two hands coming out to feel for the rigging but it wasn't there — the parachute had failed to open. Everyone, absolutely everyone, was shocked; it was the first bad accident they'd had and all that had gone wrong was that the bar to which the parachutes were attached had broken. And all they had to do was to put an ordinary dog leash clip on that bar from then on. It was dreadful. Although the troops were pretty shaken, they were so young and keen that they managed to throw it off. They were so different from ordinary soldiers; they had to be special to get in, and they trained very hard, but they still retained their great individuality. That was the lovely thing about them, because they were allowed to come out of uniform and wear civvies, so they didn't become a mass of trained automatons. Oh no, they had a lot of fun.
They had a balloon in Tatton Park which was used for jumping. One evening, after a rather good dinner, Tony Hibbert decided to jump out of that balloon, wearing his blues, and with his spurs on. Then they were dragging me along saying, 'Now, come on, you're going to jump, but I said, 'No, I'm not — I should break myself up.' Most of them were five or six years younger than me — but I don't regret refusing to jump — I would have broken both my legs.
Although I was only with them for 18 months, I saw many of them maturing into soldiers. They found their first jumps very frightening, of course, but they said the second jump was the worst; for the first one you were so frightened that you weren't even conscious of what you were doing, but by the second one you knew more about it and you'd thought more about it. But then they'd describe the exhilaration of coming down — they said there was nothing like it in the world. Landing wasn't easy, though; we treated lots of scrapes and bangs and broken limbs. One afternoon we had to get the fire brigade in, one poor little chap got stuck up in a fir tree. He could have got down, but he was paralyzed with fright and we had to treat him for shock!
By 1941 the battalion had grown to 500 and they put on a big display at Ringway which Churchill attended. His response was, 'Yes, yes, very fine, very splendid, but where are the rest of them?' Of course, there were no others, and it was then that everything started to change. Colonel Jackson was replaced and they started recruiting a lot more people. Very soon Knutsford became too small to hold them — as it was, they were billeted all over the place. So it was decided they should move to Hardwick. All the men wanted me to go with them, but I couldn't, because the powers that be wouldn't allow my transfer. I was absolutely heart-broken.
When one cockney chap heard I was having to leave, he came up to me and said, ''ere, you know the ol' Germans are cumin' over 'ere, you know that, don' you?’ So I said, 'Yes, they probably will, but never mind.' And he said, 'Now, I want you to 'ave somethin' — I want you to 'ave this.' And he gave me an enormous commando knife. I asked him what I should do with it, and he said, 'Well, say you're drivin' along and they stop you— they will, they'll stop you — and they put their ruddy 'ands on your truck door, so you just take out the knife and chop 'em off!'
Can you imagine? — cutting someone's hands off! But this was just like them; they gave me such wonderful affection and protection. I never fell in love with any one of them, but I loved them all. We all shared a fine sense of comradeship. In those early days we really had a marvellous time; we laughed an enormous amount at a time when there wasn't all that much to laugh about.
This article is reproduced from ‘Men of the Red Beret’, (1990), Hutchinson with kind permission of Max Arthur.
Compiled for ParaData by Harvey Grenville
Reproduced for ParaData by kind permission of Max Arthur
Source: Reproduced for ParaData by kind permission of Max ArthurRead More