St George's Park History
Port Elizabeth, South Africa

The Park St George's Park - Women's Auxillary Air Force Camp
Women's Auxillary Air Force Camp
Ivor Markman
For Airwomen Joy Coffin F266949V and Gladys Coffin F266950V it was a nostalgic experience when they recently returned to the site of the Woman’s Auxillary Air Force (WAAF) camp in St Georges Park where they were accommodated in 1942 during the Second World War.

For Airwomen Joy Coffin F266949V and Gladys Coffin F266950V it was a nostalgic experience when they recently returned to the site of the Woman’s Auxillary Air Force (WAAF) camp in St Georges Park where they were accommodated in 1942 during the Second World War.

Situated close to the Park Lane junction with Park Drive, the last remaining bungalow from the camp is now home to the Sea Scouts.

Although the two women live in Port Elizabeth and have often driven past, it was the first time since 1946 that Joy Robson and Gladys Ryan returned to the specific site.

Robson, who was 16 going on 17, wanted to join the WAAF but her father refused to let her go without her 18 year-old sister.

Both girls upped their age by a year so Robson would be accepted.

"My Dad wrote a letter stating that he would allow us to join the army," said Robson.

After initially signing up the girls were sent to Robert's Heights for two weeks basic training.

There they were issued with smart khaki uniforms and taught to march.

"My mother used mine afterwards when she worked in the garden," she chuckled.

"We were posted to (Port Elizabeth) to learn all about using tools to work on aeroplanes," said Ryan.

They gazed about them as the stood near the old wooden quartermaster’s store, the only remaining building, but after 64 years they can be forgiven for not remembering the camp layout.

"There was a wooden fence right around the entire camp. It was quite a high fence, about (two metres). You couldn't see in. No-one could look in," said Robson.

The fence was built against the guardroom, right on the park boundary.

The guardroom was less than half the size of the remaining building, and apart from an entrance on the side for delivery trucks, was the only way people could enter the camp.

"There would be a member of the Military Police on duty at the main gate," said Ryan.

"There would be a sergeant or a corporal in charge. The guardroom was just big enough for people to walk in and out of and for a bed.

"There was a little (room where) you were put (if you were) on charges and locked up. I don't know if anyone was locked up, but it was there just in case," said Robson.

Once inside the camp there was grass under the beautiful wild fig trees. Across the lawn was the quartermaster’s store from where uniforms, laundry and other equipment was issued.

"They had a big counter behind which there were three or four people. They were permanently (stationed there) and stayed in the camp," said Robson.

"Oh, I see the hatches where we used to line up are still there," said Ryan.

The gravel road which led through the camp is still there and now leads to the Union Cricket Club’s grounds.

On the right of the road the remains of the roller blade rink are also all that remains of the mess hall.

Slightly to the right a small flight of cement steps still leads to the level on which the mess stood and to the old retaining wall.

"We never used those steps. We walked straight across into the mess," said Ryan.

The mess was an airy building with large windows and concrete floors on which stood long, cloth-covered tables.

"There was a hatch to the kitchen from where you were dished up. You always had your fruits on the table," said Robson.

Unlike some military units, the girls of the WAAF were given tasty meals.

"I remember it was such a surprise to get such nice food there, it was really good. The army was probably given the best supplies," she said.

The mess was used for a variety of things. In those pre-TV days when only a few people had radios, the girls had lectures, were shown movies and watched the latest newsreels, such as African Mirror, Pathé and Movietone, once a week.

The Military Police, there to protect the girls, had quarters on the other side of the mess.

Behind the quartermaster’s store was the sick bay.

The girls were given the typical multiple inoculations given to all troops.

"They injected us with all the (inoculations) you would need if you went overseas, yellow fever and anything," said Ryan.

The next day, while marching to the Tech, many of the girls fainted.

"There was a big uproar, (American troops in town at the time) wanted to know what on earth they were doing to the girls in this country. It was terrible," said Ryan.

"The sick bay was the same size as the guardroom. It had a lovely little verandah on the front (where) the girls used to queue if they didn't feel well," said Robson.

Located nearby were the accommodation bungalows and two ablution blocks.

These have all been pulled down and all that remains are piles of brick and concrete.

"(There were) quite a few bungalows we had to pass before we got to ours. I remember we had to turn right because the ablution block was in the middle, at the end of the road," she said.

There were two ablution blocks. Each bungalow consisted of two rooms joined together with eight women in each.

"The bungalows were built with new, new wood. It smelt gorgeous. It was all nice and fresh and new," said Robson.

The outside of the bungalows had a natural brown colour stain while inside the walls were varnished and the natural wood showed through. There were raised wooden floors.

On the door of Robson and Ryan’s room was written "Hitler's Downfall."

"It was Joy's idea to give it that nickname. We were thinking of all kinds of names and I said, ‘Well, we're really going to show them. The wars going to be won anytime now’," said Ryan.

"Joy said ‘Well, it will be Hitler's downfall, won't it?’

"So they decided to call it ‘Hitler's Downfall’.

"I can remember us all having to strip our beds (for) inspections. We had to make up our beds the proper way, the military way," she said.

Even though the bungalow was right next to the Union Cricket Club grounds, they couldn’t see through.

The women stayed at the camp while undergoing training at the Technical College in Russell Road.

There they received three months training, taught to make tools and how to service aircraft such as Tiger Moths and Harvards.

"We formed up in threes outside the gate and marched to the Technical College," said Robson.

Park Drive, Doncaster Road and Cape Road was the route followed to the college where they attended classes in the basement.

"Our instructor was an old bloke, a Hollander, he hardly spoke English," recalled Robson.

"(Gladys) made a pair of pliers that really worked. Mine never did," she laughed.

Robson, nearly 17 years old at the time, was, strictly speaking, not allowed to join up. So she said she was 18 and Robson said she was 19. As both of them were under 21, they had to have a letter from their father giving permission to enlist.

For both of them joining up was new-found freedom.

"Our father was very old and he was very strict. We weren't allowed out a lot. So it was quite nice to be able to come and go as we pleased," said Robson.

"We were allowed out at night and used to go to bioscope. We used to go to the Grand - it was just a walk down the road. There was one "in" night per week when you had to stay in.

"Otherwise we were allowed out till 10 or 11 o'clock according to where you went. We had to sign a register when we went out," she said.

When Ryan turned 17, she invited some fellow volunteers to her home in Newton Park

"It was my coming of age birthday, so my Mum said," said Ryan.

After their three months training was over, the airwomen were promoted to corporal and sent to Wonderboom airfield (15 km north of Pretoria) before eventually returning to 42 Air School in Southdene, Port Elizabeth.

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