'We wanted to forget' - veteran who was one of first female RAF engineers kept WW2 role secret for 30 years

Vera Clachers was one of the first female electrical engineers in the RAF.

There was always a sense of order and discipline about the Corstorphine home where Lorraine Clachers was raised.

But she did not imagine this could have been because both her parents had served in the RAF in WWII, until 1991 when she was in her thirties and looking through old photographs.

“I was just having a rummage through the cupboards at Mum and Dad’s house one day clearing out old things, and I got the magnifying glass out and I recognised my dad in one of the pictures,” she told the Evening News.

Vera Clachers received a War Medal at Edinburgh Castle in 2018. Picture: Robert Perry.

“I came down with the book and I asked ‘so when were you going to tell me about this?’ You should have seen the look on their faces.”

Lorraine’s father Thomas and mother Vera then told her about their experiences in the war, and explained that they had kept silent before because the memories were too painful.

Thomas passed away the same year, but Lorraine now regularly speaks about the war with her mother Vera as she is her carer in the same Corstorphine house the couple moved into in 1956.

“It was a thing you wanted to forget, because of the people who were lost. It altered all our lives,” said Vera, 97.

Vera Clachers in May 2020 with a photograph of herself in 1943.

She joined at the age of 19 in 1943 after a year of training at RAF Melksham, and became one of the first female electrical engineers in the RAF.

She was posted to several bases around the UK, including North Coates in Lincolnshire.

“When you see a plane land and burst into flames and you lose the pilot, it is a funny thing. You forget because you want to forget,” she said.

Vera Calchers as an RAF electrical engineer in 1943.

Among her parents’ memorabilia Lorraine also found a set of porcelain wings, which had been given to Vera by Alec Leggett, an RAF lieutenant who she intended to marry.

But he was reported missing in action during the war, and Vera believed he had been killed.

She then met Thomas, an Edinburgh man, in 1946 when she was posted to Germany to Varn and Sylt to help with the post-war effort.

It was only years later that Lorraine discovered Alec had survived and returned to Britain, and was given an OBE in 1974.

“I wonder if he was traumatised in some way,” she said, “because he came back and married another woman called Vera and he never got in touch with mum.

“It kind of shocked me in a way I think that my mum lived with a broken heart all these years.”

Lorraine tried to contact Alec to ask why he had not tried to find her mother, but discovered he had died in 2008 at the age of 77.

She did manage to get in touch with the Ministry of Defence and see Vera given her War Medal at Edinburgh Castle in 2018, in what is believed to be the longest period of time between the honour being awarded and it being received.

“I didn’t think I was particularly brave at all, I was just one of the gang,” said Vera.

But she was ‘very proud’ to be chosen as one of only a handful of women to take part in the VE day march in London in 1945.

“It was strange, because a lot of people were lost,” she said.

“But we were excited and happy. We celebrated, even though there was nothing to celebrate with.”

Vera added that her experience in the RAF shaped the rest of her life.

“The feeling is there, it will always be there, the training and everything, it stays there. But you carry on with your life.”

Gavin Davey, RAF Benevolent Fund Regional Director for Scotland said that Vera has helped the charity with its ‘Join the Search, Save a Life’ campaign by telling her story and inspiring other veterans to get in touch, some of whom may need support.

He said: “By telling her story, Vera helps us to reach those veterans before it is too late. The Fund provides emotional, practical and financial support to RAF veterans, their partners or spouses and serving personnel and their families.

“This initiative is more important now than ever before with veterans lonely and isolated in their homes.”