A couple of months ago I published a blog post on the Pen-y-lan Road blitz victims. Shortly after that I was put in touch with someone who remembered the night clearly and told me about another group who lost their lives that night. They were members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) who were living in the newly built Lady Margaret’s school caretaker’s house on Colchester Avenue and managing a barrage balloon tethered nearby. They were killed when the house took a direct hit from a German bomb.
Much Googling later and I had failed to turn up any details. The internet seemed to be devoid of any information about the incident. The casualties don’t seem to be on any Cardiff memorials and neither could I find them mentioned in the newspapers, which isn’t too surprising given the censorship in place at the time. The civilian casualties of the Cardiff blitz bombings are listed but of course these were military victims and don’t appear on that list. I tried looking at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records but again drew a blank. Then, last weekend I happened upon a folder on the Cardiff blitz in Cathays library and in there was a copy of a letter to the South Wales Echo in 1997 recalling the same incident.
The letter provided a lot of leads. It pretty much mirrored what I had been told a few months earlier but not only did it list the names of the casualties and the injured but also information about a book written by a WAAF officer, Muriel Pusham, who was stationed at Cardiff Castle and one of the first on the scene afterwards.
Now armed with names I could do a lot more research. Three of the four women named in the letter I found listed on the CWGC website. It soon became clear why I hadn’t found them earlier. There was no mention of Cardiff on their records. I discovered that their bodies, rather than being buried at Cathays cemetery, were transported back to their home towns and buried there. Also, having found their names I could find their squadrons and more information about what happened on the night. This is what I discovered:
- 18/5 02.31
The barrage was flying at 500′ when a “stand-by” followed by a “shine” at 02.34 was received from the Balloon Officer, 10 Fighter Group.
- 18/5 02.41 to 03.35
E/A attacked at varying heights from 1000′ to 10,000′ dropping flares, IB and HE. At approximately 03.10 hours site 53/18 received a direct hit from an HE bomb which killed three WAAF balloon operators. Mary Askell (sic), Betty Stannard and Paddy (sic) Brand and wounded four others, Terry David, Cpl Lilian Ellis, Marjorie Oates and Betty Reynolds. These were the first war casualties sustained by the Squadron.
- 20TH MAY 1943
The remains of three casualties, left for their respective homes. Each coffin accompanied by a W.A.A.F. Officer and N.C.O.
This is what I have been able to find out about the victims:
HELEN ROSS BRAND
Aircraftwoman 1st Class, 953 Balloon Squadron, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service Number 2116411)
Helen Ross Brand was born in 1922 in Keith, Scotland to John Brand and Jessie Ross Brand nee Lobban. She died aged 20. She is buried in Keith (Broomhill) cemetery in Scotland (section B, grave 28). She is also remembered on the Keith War Memorial. The newspaper article reporting her death wrote she was due to be married in three weeks to a RAF Cadet.
Leading Aircraftwoman, 953 Balloon Squadron, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service No: 2045888)
Mary MacAskill was born in c1921 to Norman and Joan MacAskill of Culrain, Scotland. Prior to enlising in 1942 she was training to be a nurse. She died aged 22. She is buried at Kincardine Cemetery, Ross and Cromarty (grave 166) in Scotland. She is also remembered on the Ardgay War Memorial.
BETTY MARY STANNARD
Leading Aircraftwoman, 953 Balloon Squadron, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service Number 2068971)
Betty Mary Stannard was born in Kent in 1922 to Albert James Stannard, an Estate worker from Monkton, Kent, and Mary Eleanor Stannard nee Williams. (Her father Albert worked on the estate belonging to Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram, ornithologist and plant collector and son of Sir William Ingram, owner of London Illustrated News). She died aged 21. She is buried at St George’s in Benenden, Kent (grave reference : Row 13. Grave 59). Betty Mary Stannard is commemorated on the Benenden War Memorial in Kent.
I have added their names to the Roath ‘Virtual’ War Memorial which now has almost 100 names on it, but a lot more to add.
I examined old maps to see if I could work out exactly where the incident occurred. I recall the caretaker’s house in Lady Margaret’s / Howardian school but it wasn’t necessarily rebuilt in the same place as the one that had been bombed. On one of the old maps there are ‘ruins’ mentioned. I wonder if this was the site. If that’s the case then it would be on what is now Hammond Way, not far from the Colchester Avenue junction. I am guessing this barrage balloon site was chosen to try and protect Roath Power Station from being bombed.
Cardiff had quite a lot of barrage balloon sites across the city. They were also flown from Splott park, Cathays park and Roath park recreation ground. I have read recently that the balloons were made and maintained at a base in Ely.
We All Wore Blue: Experiences in the WAAF by Muriel Gane Pushman
This book adds some interesting memories to the incident described above though also contains some mysteries and be warned some gory bits. The author was stationed in various parts of the country during her WAAF career so not all the book is about her time in Cardiff.
She describes there being eight balloon sites in Cardiff, ‘one being in the centre of the docks, the famous Tiger Bay area.’
‘….our headquarters were in the stables at Cardiff Castle’ ‘….. a solitary balloon was flying stoically from the keep.’
‘…..the men were responsible for the maintenance of the balloons and winches, and we were in charge of the girl operators.’
She describes the night of a raid and writes:
- ‘It was not until daybreak that the full horror became known. One of our balloon sites up on a bill on the far side of the city had received a direct hit, blowing the Nissen hut to smithereens and instantly killing several of the girls. The pretty young corporal in charge had her arm and shoulder blown off and suffered dreadful damage to one side of her face. in this appalling condition, she had managed to crawl to the Pioneer Corps position – nearly a quarter of a mile away – to raise the alarm. She had only been married the previous week, …..’
- ‘Now, as I stood with the other officers while the parts of the bodies were collected, I found myself shivering despite the warm sunshine.’
She also describes attending the funerals:
- ‘The next week was a blur. Nothing seemed quite real. We were called upon to accompany the bodies to their respective home town and attend the funerals alongside the families.’
- ‘I had never been to a funeral before and having to attend so many was physically and emotionally draining.’
- ‘……. when the other WAAF officers returned from the funerals in Scotland’.
There were a couple of odd things that stuck me about the information in these quotes. I don’t think I would describe the Colchester Avenue site as being ‘on a bill’. Also she describes never having been to so many funerals before and the other WAAF officers returning from the funerals in Scotland. The three WAAF casualties I have identified, two were in Scotland and one in Kent. So does that mean there are some not yet identified? There is one more name in the letter that appeared in the Echo that I have not been able to trace but there may sadly have been more than that.
A barrage balloon was three times the size of a cricket pitch. The balloons consisted of several panels of very tight fabric, at the back were three fins. The top of the balloon was filled with hydrogen, the bottom half was left empty, so when it was put up at a certain height it filled with natural air. If there wasn’t enough wind, the tail fins looked floppy but in time they filled with air. Balloons lost a certain amount of hydrogen when flying so they had to be topped up every day at the sites.
Balloons were held by cables which were fixed to winches on lorries. Cables were more important than the balloons as an aircraft had only to touch a cable and it would be destroyed straight away. If the balloon was shot it exploded, taking the aircraft with it.
The bombers had to fly over the balloons, so they couldn’t get any accuracy with their bombing, and they couldn’t dive bomb. It was dangerous to be near a cable if a balloon was shot down as the falling cable could kill a person. The winch has an altimeter which told you how high to fly the balloon, as they were flown at different heights. It was a hazardous job when you were winching up in a confined space, in wind and rain. If there was a strong wind the balloon would take itself off. It had to be handled with care because of the hydrogen.
The rope attachments consisted of metal rings which secured the balloon when it was down. Because of wear and tear the ropes were becoming dangerous so they were replaced with wire, and the metal rings were put on the wire.
There were over 15,000 WAAF barrage balloon operators throughout the country, operating 1400 balloons.
(The photographs used in this article are not from the Colchester Avenue location.)
It would be interesting to hear from anyone who recalls this tragic incident.