This article is part 4 of a series about the The Plymouth Blitz.
Words by Mark Rothwell. This article is derived from the unpublished memoirs of Winifred Hooper.
Winifred Hooper was born in Plymouth in 1918 and was educated at a girls’ boarding school in Bideford. Inspired by her friends’ decision to join the various civil defence services during the Second World War, Winifred enrolled, at the age of 22, in the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps (WAPC) at Greenbank Police Station on 3rd October 1940.
The work of the WAPC, known colloquially as ‘wapsies’ by their male colleagues, was wide ranging and included clerical work at the police station, operating the police control room, vehicle repairs, and driving duties. One of the most important of tasks was documenting bomb sites and casualty numbers in the police station ‘war room’. There were twenty auxiliary policewomen working in Plymouth at the end of 1940.
“During the war years, my father had been talking to a friend of the chief constable of the city force. He enquired about a position as one of the newly appointed WAPC girls. The chief constable sent for me and asked me what I wanted to do. I was hoping for a job in the traffic department, but there were no vacancies, so I ended up in the clerical office which was attached to the chief constable’s office. Every night during the war, three members of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps slept in to be ready to help ‘man’ the control room should there be an air raid.”Winifred Hooper
At the time of the formation of the WAPC, there was just one full-time policewoman in the city, Agnes Valentine Mead. Winifred’s recollection of Agnes was that she was not fond of the auxiliary policewoman, possibly leading to her decision to transfer to Oxford City Police in 1942. Winifred served through the tumultuous Blitz years, enduring several evacuations to a contingency police headquarters at Widey Grange. One such evacuation took place after the Blitz period, on 13th June 1943, but is worthy of mention.
“We had done our usual spell of office work during the evening having had our supper in the canteen and gone to bed hoping for a quiet night. We had been lucky for quite some time; things had quietened down considerably, so we allowed ourselves the luxury of going to bed in our night attire. That was a big mistake! We awoke to the wailing of the air raid siren.Winifred Hooper
We tumbled out of bed and threw on a few top garments. We did not stop to dress properly, thinking as on many occasions past the ‘all clear’ would go as we reached the control room or soon after. Little did we think that as we left our so-called little bedroom, that we would not see it again for five days. As we descended the steps to the control room there was the most frightening, screaming, whistling noise which sounded as if it was aiming for my head, then a loud thud and… nothing more. Thank you, God, for that. Everyone was rooted to the spot, then I remembered Sergeant Kenneth Worley came over to me and offered me his steel helmet to put on. Nobody knew what to do.
Then Inspector Denley came down and very calmly announced that we had an unexploded bomb on the court landing just above us. Only those of us who worked with Mr Denley will know and understand how apparently cool and matter-of-factly he dealt with this. Then came the order to evacuate the building. As we left the control room, I think that every telephone that had hitherto remained silent started to ring. It seemed terrible not being able to stay and answer them all. Yvonne and I went to the Charge Office, which was just inside the main entrance to the building, to await further instructions. As we got there, we were confronted with two German airmen who had just baled out over the city and had been brought in by two police officers. They were taken into a nearby office and we were intrigued to see one of them, a blond, good-looking youth, take out a comb and brush his fair locks! They remained at Greenbank only a short time, and later were transferred to Plympton together with other prisoners from Greenbank. The story went around that one of the airmen said that there was no need to worry about the bomb because it was unlikely to go off; the rot having set in in Germany, or words to that effect.
We were then bundled into the prison van and driven by Superintendent Ernie Beale to alternative accommodation at Widey Grange. To date that is the only time I have had a ride in the prison van, and I will never forget it as long as I live. We were thrown from side to side of that van as we sped along. Mutley Plain looked like an inferno, Timothy White’s premises being on fire and flames were reflecting in all the shop windows. As we passed Emanuel Church, a stick of bombs hit the houses just above Hender’s Corner.
After what seemed like an interminable drive, we reached Widey Grange to be met by Ben Frowde, a First Police Reserve, who was the caretaker there. There was no electricity in the grange and somehow nobody knew how to light the Aladdin lamps provided. Having lived in the countryside for many years and used oil lamps, we managed to get some light on the scene. Now to find the telephone switchboard which was in an upstairs room. Neither of us knew too much about working a telephone switchboard, however, now was our time to learn. Then Sergeant Charles appeared on the scene. He helped us, and insisted on lending me his jacket, as what with being scantily clad and suffering I suppose with a certain amount of shock, and being by now about 3am, I was feeling rather cold. All I can say is that we sat there for the rest of the night trying to keep contact with Greenbank and waiting, listening, and praying for those brave men who had stayed behind with that unexploded bomb.
The morning came and we went home for breakfast, but we had to be back by 10am to begin our job in the office which was soon moved from Greenbank to Widey Grange. At lunchtime, a meal was laid on for all staff in the large banqueting hall at Widey Court. I shall always remember walking into that hall seeing the long table laid for lunch and in the centre of the table Ben Frowde had placed a bowl of yellow roses. The sight of those roses must have conveyed to many others as they did to me, a feeling of sanity after the long nightmare. Thank you, Ben, wherever you are, for that kind thought which meant so much at that particular time. Jack Hingston, the Acting Chief Constable, took his place at the head of the table and we all sat around like one big family. We worked at Widey Court for five days and it was pretty chaotic. We were told that the bomb was defused and removed. It was one of the biggest bombs, 1000kgs, to fall on the city. It was said that had it exploded, there would not have been left two stones standing on top of each other. Time passes, and memories fade, but I think that when I look back at those days, I will always remember the wonderful friendliness and comradeship which existed between all ranks and… that bowl of yellow roses.”
The WAPC was disbanded after the war, and its remaining members were permitted to undertake other roles in the police force. Winifred got her wish to get behind the wheel and was for many years a civilian dispatch driver. Although she had no police powers, she wore a smart uniform with the number ‘818’ on the shoulder epaulettes, the significance of which is lost to time. Amongst her duties was rounding up stray dogs and transporting people and equipment between police stations.
“During my 22 years in the force, driving around and around the city, I literally watched as the new city rose from the rubble left by Hitler”.Winifred Hooper
In 1967, Plymouth City Police amalgamated with the Cornwall Constabulary and Devon & Exeter Constabulary to form the Devon & Cornwall Police we know today. Great alterations took place after the merger, and Winifred once again found herself undertaking office work, this time in the Central Registry office at Greenbank, and later at Crownhill Police Station. She retired in 1978.