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THE WIT THE LAM; Wartime heroines who risked their lives searching for enemy planes.

Byline: DUNCAN GIBBONS

In the latest in a series of fascinating stories to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the Coventry Blitz, reporter DUNCAN GIBBONS speaks to a former searchlight operator from Coventry who risked her life helping to defend London from German bombing raids.

THEY are the unsung heroines of the Second World War, a unique femaleonly regiment providing a last line of defence in our own back yard.

While our soldiers, pilots and sailors were making headlines abroad, this brave band of sisters faced daily death on the streets of London.

Armed only with powerful searchlights to pick out enemy planes for the anti-aircraft guns, they were obvious targets to attack.

Being a member of the 93rd Searchlight Regiment (Royal Artillery) was dangerous, but it was also exciting.

Among them was 18-year-old Kathleen Platt, of Clovelly Road, Coventry, one of thousands of newly-empowered young women eager to 'do their bit' for the war effort.

"We were accepted by the men, there were no problems there at all," said Kathleen, now 86, who still lives in the family home in Wyken.

"So many women were doing amazing jobs during the war: ambulance drivers, on the barrage balloons, in the factories.

"I'm so proud I was in the army, it's something I would not have missed for the world."

After training in West Yorkshire and North Wales, she was posted to a unit in the Sudbury area of London, near Wembley.

The equipment was set up on a cricket wicket - much to the annoyance of club officials - and the women camped in the pavilion.

Up to nine girls worked each searchlight, including radar and radio operators, with Kathleen on the 'long arm' controlling elevation and rotation.

The intense light created by each searchlight was the same as 200 million candles and could scour the skies for miles.

Three searchlights would work together to snare an enemy in their beam and triangulate the plane's position for the AA guns.

"Most of the aircraft flew thousands of feet up and you could easily pick them out for our guns, which would start banging away," said Kathleen. who rose to the rank of corporal.

"But when their bombers came over they sometimes used to bring divebombers which fired at us.

"A bullet grazed me, but no-one was hurt. I was 18. It was exciting, but at 18 you look at things rather differently."

And as with many ex-Battle of Britain pilots today, Kathleen is now philosophical about the old enemy.

"These aircraft were coming over to bomb London and kill people and we were just doing a job, as the Germans were doing a job. I suppose they loved their country just as much as we loved ours."

The searchlights were also used to guide home allied planes returning from bombing missions in Europe, and to help search and rescue teams find people trapped in rubble.

"We used to guide our bombers in to the nearest airfields," she said.

"It was awful, sometimes they would come over with holes in their wings and their engines on fire, getting lower, and lower and lower." The searchlights were also used to identify the dreaded V1 'Flying Bombs' which bombarded London in the final stages of the war.

It wasn't the distinctive noise of their jet engines which struck fear into Londoners, it was when they cut out, meaning they had run out of fuel and were about to fall out of the sky.

Kathleen said: "My God, those horrible things. They sounded like motorbikes. The dogs and cats knew they were coming before we did.

"They were hard to shoot down but the RAF tried to tip their wings."

Kathleen was born in Dovedale Road, Radford, in 1924, and moved to Enfield Road and Humber Avenue, before the family finally settled in Clovelly Avenue in 1937.

She left school at 14 to start work in the print room at GEC in Stoke, before moving to the firm's drawing office as a tracer.

She joined the Auxilliary Territorial Service (ATS) in December 1941 and was sent to Pontefract, in West Yorkshire, to learn the basic skills of marching and saluting.

Three months of summer searchlight training then took place in Rhyl, North Wales, before her posting to London.

Kathleen was demobbed in 1946 and went back to GEC but "hated it" because she had spent four years in the field "making her own decisions".

"Being cooped up again was absolutely dreadful," she said.

She left to wor in a restauran kitchens, but we back to GEC, t time in the buy department, in Street, until sh tired in 1983.

Kathleen was but her fiance, B a bombardier i Artillery, was tr the day after D-D
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Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 23, 2010
Words:793
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