Obituary: Elizabeth Evelyn McLaren, WAAF veteran

Elizabeth Evelyn McLaren. Picture: contributed
Elizabeth Evelyn McLaren. Picture: contributed
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Elizabeth Evelyn McLaren, WAAF veteran, florist and seamstress.
Born: 25 April, 1913 in Stanley, County Durham.

Died: 7 May, 2016, in Carnoustie, aged 103.

Eve McLaren was a young florist who found herself in the midst of the greatest air struggle the country has ever known – the Battle of Britain. Called up for service the month after the declaration of war against Germany in the autumn of 1939, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the WAAF, and was initially sent to RAF Filton near Bristol.

Although the WAAF uniform had been introduced before the outbreak of war it was some time before the full kit was available and, as a result, all she was given at the time was a blue raincoat and navy beret complete with RAF cap badge. The young women were reportedly paid sixpence each for wearing their own clothes underneath the regulation raincoat.

Later she was transferred to RAF Drayton where she received three pairs of Air Force blue knickers, promptly christened “blackouts” due to being elasticated above the knee.

By 1940 she was at the Battle of Britain fighter base, RAF North Weald, in Essex, one of Number 11 Group, Fighter Command’s stations, which housed a squadron of Hurricanes that saw action over Dunkirk that summer. Soon after that mass evacuation of British Expeditionary Force from the shores of northern France, the Battle of Britain commenced. The airfield, like many others across the country, especially those in the south-east, was the target of the German Luftwaffe but the squadrons based there were intent on protecting London, no matter how fierce the enemy assault.

North Weald was the scene of two serious bomber attacks, leaving a number dead and causing considerable damage – one attack put the Operations Room out of action. The first big raid took place on 24 August when it’s thought 200 bombs fell on the airfield, killing nine teenagers from the Young Soldiers Company. Then on 3 September – exactly a year after the war began – it was targeted again, just after its squadrons took off. This time between 200 and 300 bombs were dropped.

McLaren was on duty in the airfield’s decontamination centre when it took a direct hit. The centre was supposedly bomb-proof – a notion disproved that day. Decades later she told the BBC’s People’s War project: “I was there when it got a direct hit but the only trouble was that when they came to get us out they couldn’t open the door!”

She described being trapped inside for some time, talking through the door to her rescuers who feared the roof would cave in if the door was opened. “It was a nasty moment,” she said, with understatement. “They decided in the end they just had to open the door and luckily we all got out safely.”

Hangars and aircraft were destroyed that day and several lives lost. Although there was a further enemy attack that October, with more fatalities, the airfield remained in action during the Battle of Britain.

Later in the war McLaren was posted to the east coast radar stations, a chain of early warning bases stretching along the east and southern shores of the British Isles to track enemy aircraft. As she recalled there few people there so the Air Ministry decided that the base staff should have their own early warning system. “They sent us five geese in the charge of two airmen. They were ferocious geese but the airmen had them under control and even got them to march.”

Elizabeth Eve McLaren was born in Anfield Plain, Stanley, County Durham, more than three years before the start of the Great War. She was one of five children of miner Cubitt Frostic (both correct) and his wife Jane. Educated in the local mining area, where life was tough, she was five-years-old when the First World War ended and subsequently lived through a momentous 20th century – from the suffragette movement to the Jarrow March, the space race and computer age.

After leaving school at 14 she worked on a fruit and veg stall in Stanley and in a fruit, veg and florist’s shop, which sparked a lifelong love of flowers.

Aged 26 when the Second World War began, she met her husband Rob, also a miner, during her service in the WAAF. He had been in the Durham area on holiday and after marrying they moved to his native village of Ormiston, East Lothian.

A talented cook, baker and craftswoman who could knit, sew, make clothes and decorate a house, she was a real homemaker and became a full-time mum on the birth of their daughter Angela in 1945. When her little girl went to school she returned to work, firstly in a Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Edinburgh and later in the capital’s Manclark & Sons clothing factory. Her skills as a seamstress continued to be utilised down the years and she and her daughter made Angela’s wedding and bridesmaid’s dresses.

She also enjoyed entertaining and was a great hostess. Holidays were spent in the UK – she never had a passport – and, despite all that experience in the WAAF supporting the battle in the skies, she had only been in the air once, on a flight over Dundee to celebrate her 60th birthday.

She had never learned to drive or swim but after her grandson began swimming she decided to take it up too. She mastered it in her 70s.

Although widowed in 1989, she was fiercely independent and determined to take things in her stride. Clever, sharp-witted and spirited, she only moved to Carnoustie, to be nearer her daughter, when she was in her 90s and remained in her own home until reaching 100.

She is survived by her daughter Angela, grandson Graeme and great grandson Max.