Joan Butler (later Gemmell after marriage) was born and brought up in Norfolk.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Joan’s boyfriend was in the Royal Tank Corps. Watching him saluting as he went up the street made her realise she wanted to be involved in the war effort in some way and Joan volunteered for work in the armaments factories at 18 as a civilian employee.
She was posted to Letchworth to train in mechanical engineering at a government training centre and, along with a group of 20 others, Joan learned the basics of mechanical engineering. Towards the end of the course, she volunteered for work on aerodromes as she knew there were lots of them in Norfolk and hoped for a posting near to home. Upon completion of the training, the group was called together and excitedly awaited their postings. Joan was sent to Kirkbride near Carlisle as a civilian attached to the RAF – a long way from Norfolk!
She did not enjoy the atmosphere at Kirkbride and volunteered again for additional duties and, consequently, moved to Swindon to work nearby at RAF Lyneham on gliders – in particular the Hamilcar Glider on the south side of the site.
The Hamilcar Glider came in component pieces from a number of factories across the country, including the fuselage, wings and wheels. Joan was instructed by one worker before qualifying and working on her own, in particular on tail units and cable attachments.
She typically worked around 30 feet above the ground on a gantry tower. Once she slipped, and grabbed the nearest thing to her, but as she had greasy hands, she fell onto the cogs suffering an injury, with her hand being “black and corrugated”.
It would take a week to make a glider as part of a team, working under the direction of the foreman. The production was continuous and generally 6-8 gliders were in production at any one time, prior to delivery to the RAF for onward transit to other aerodromes and then the Glider Pilot Regiment.
On one occasion she was privileged to take a test flight in a Hamilcar. She sat in the co-pilot's seat at the invitation of the pilot. The Hamilcar made several circuits around Lyneham and Joan found the landing exhilarating. Large blocks of concrete were used on test flights to simulate the weight of the cargo.
After VE Day she had to leave the role to look after her invalided mother.
Joan now resides in Norwich.
Compiled from an interview of Joan Gemmell by Derek ArmitageRead More