Kathleen Elsie Reader - A WAAF's story.

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IMum with a group of WAAF's                         (Identities unknown)

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WAAF Band Mum shown upon right 

It is great to hear from Colin Reader who  has sent in these photos and information about his mother Kathleen Elsie Reader who was a WAAF barrage balloon operator in the war and spent some time at Cardington. It has been hard to find information about the ladies who appeared at the station it seems they quietly served in the war and then returned to their homes. But these photos clearly show that they were happy in their new roles.

"Having read with interest personal stories of members of the armed forces with connections to Cardington I thought readers might be interested in my mum’s service during the war and her connection to Cardington. Her time in the WAAF was one of her most exciting and enduring memories and a source of great pride which she carried with her for her whole life. Having recently done some research into her service I thought I’d put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and see what came out. There are both gaps in her service records and our recollections of her stories (don’t you wish you listened more closely?)

Kathleen Elsie Swift (known in the family as Molly) was born in Watford in 1919 and grew up with her brother John (known by his middle name as Colin) and sister Brenda in Westcliffe on Sea, her dad was a butcher and her mum was a milliner and dressmaker, mum trained as a dressmaker. Mum joined up at the age of 20 on the 6 May 1940 enlisting at West Drayton, as she was a dressmaker she joined to train as a Balloon Fabric worker and became 890759 ACW2 Swift. One of the first things she did on being issued with her uniform was to unpick it and tailor it properly so she and her friends were the smartest on parade with perfectly fitting uniforms. Mum spent three months training as a Balloon Fabric worker which we believe was at Cardington as most of mum’s memories of that time featured Cardington. She had stories of inflating balloons with air so that BFW’s could climb inside to do repairs and of having to climb up to great heights inside the balloon sheds, in later life mum wasn’t keen on heights so it must have been a difficult thing to do, but she remembered it all as being great fun!

Now an ACW1 she was posted to 16 Balloon Centre in Sheffield in August 1940. Sheffield suffered its worst blitz in December 1940 so she was there during the bombing and did tell a story about the WAAFs kicking incendiaries off the sheds containing hydrogen cylinders! In April 1941 a group of 20 WAAFs, as an experiment, were trained as Barrage Balloon Operators to release men for the war effort, no one really thought women could do this job due to the physical work involved and the conditions they would have to work in.  They were wrong of course, the WAAFs did the job as well as the men although a crew of WAAFs was 16 against 11 men purely due to physical strength.

The first cohort of WAAFs did a 10 week training course starting in May 1941 they were all BFW’s all volunteers, mum volunteered and started the course 1 August 1941 which was the second course for WAAF Balloon operators. She re-mustered as a Balloon operator 13 October 1941 as ACW2. It has been said that Barrage Balloon operating was the hardest job undertaken by women in the war.

Mum remained with 16 BC until February 1943, during this time she had a long stay in Warncliffe Hospital with appendicitis and she was promoted to Corporal. A balloon crew had two Corporals in command so mum was jointly in charge of a crew of WAAFs on a balloon site just outside of Sheffield.

Kathleen Elsie Reader

Mum circled in red above

Mum with a group of WAAF's               ( identities unknown)

Kathleen Elsie Reader (nee Swift) - a WAAFS journey in WW2.

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In February 1943 she was posted to 3 BC in Stanmore Middlesex still as a Corporal Balloon Operator with 913 County of Warwick squadron.


In April 1944 mum married LAC Albert Reader in Westcliffe on Sea, they didn’t spend a great deal of time together as in July 1944 mum was posted back to Cardington in transit to North Weald. By this time barrage balloons were not needed so she retrained as a telephonist which must have been a lot more comfortable and peaceful than hauling barrage balloons about in all weathers. She stayed with SHQ North Weald until she was released at 105 PDC on 12 November 1946 returning to normal life and moving to live in Coventry.


Mum thoroughly enjoyed her time in the WAAF, as can be seen from the photographs, the WAAFs seemed to be having a lot of fun, and some of the friends she made were friends for life. Mum also played side drum in the WAAF band and loved marching in the parades."

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"In later life mum joined the WAAF Association and became a very active member, she was extremely proud of being a WAAF as were all her colleagues and friends in the WAAFA. She always went on all the parades and gatherings, and, as she was a very skilled dress maker, she was always very smartly turned out in her WAAFA uniform. Mum passed away 15 October 2014 at the age of 95, as she was so proud of being a WAAF it seemed fitting that she should take her final journey in her WAAFA uniform."  

Thank you so much Colin for sharing your mums time in the WAAFs with us - Jane.





Website compiled by Jane Harvey. February 2022.