WAAF Balloon Unit.


This W.A.A.F badge depicts the W.A.A.F Training Centre part of the Balloon Unit at Cardington. Although not highly visible with the help of a magnifying glass the words RAF Cardington can be seen at the base. This is one of the few items I have ever seen with any reference to W.A.A.F.s at the station.


It is recorded that some 18,000 WAAFs were instructed in balloon trades at Cardington during WW2. After their training these women were sent to areas around Britain to man the balloon. A further 300 more senior ranked WAAFS were trained in all aspects of barrage balloon operating which included driving skills gained by completing a 6 week MT course on site. It is not known where all the WAAFS were accommodated at this time there have been suggestions that some were housed in temporary huts in Shortstown across the road.


The photograph above taken in July 1942 is of WAAFS serving on the Camp during WWII. Here they are shown on parade in front of The Shorts building at Shortstown. Due to the huge numbers of men called up to fight abroad women were deployed across the country to take up support roles. (Original image Beds & Luton Archive Services Times & Citizen collection BP 1362/4 - Photography John Day Ampthill Images).


IWAAFS began arriving at Cardington in 1939. On May 8th 1940 HRH The Duchess of Gloucester visited the station to inspect the WAAF unit and in June 1942 the third birthday of the WAAF was celebrated on the Camp with a rather large cake! (Original image Beds & Luton Archive Services Times & Citizen collection BP 1362/4 - Photography John Day Ampthill Images).


A group of WAAFs in the audience of a visit of the Brains Trust team from the BBC. The Brains Trust was a highly successful radio programme where off beat questions were thrown at a panel of experts. (Original image Beds & Luton Archive Services Times & Citizen collection BP 1467 - Photography John Day Ampthill Images).

Eye Witness Account - One W.A.A.F 's memories of RAF Cardington at the end of the war.

Taken from the BBC WW11 peoples records - below is an extract of W.A.A.F Heather Simpson who joined the W.A.A.F in 1942 and was at Cardington from September 1945 to May 1946.

"In September l945 I received one last posting - to Cardington in Bedfordshire. This move was long overdue, for when I had gone to the Recruiting Office in 1941 I had been promised quick promotion if I opted for the Administrative Branch. I had been made a Corporal within 6 months, which certainly was quick, but in 1945 I was still a Corporal. It often happened that one was posted to another station upon receiving promotion and a year or so earlier a posting with promotion to Sergeant had come through for me. Derrick and I hadn't liked this at all and Derrick had hastened to our Commanding Officer and begged him to stop the posting by saying that I couldn't be spared from my duties at the Medical Training Depot. The C.O. was unable to refuse such a heartfelt plea and did as we asked. This happened on a couple more times and on each occasion he blocked the posting. We were lucky to have such a kind and understanding C.O. We always appreciated what he had done for us and spoke of him with affection over the years. But when the posting to Cardington came through he told me, "I'm sorry I couldn't stop it this time, but never mind, you will soon be demobbed". So there was nothing for it but to tearfully pack my kitbag and depart.

Cardington was the training centre for all Barrage Balloon operators, but training had all but ceased by this time. The great grey balloons flopped sadly overhead like party balloons drooping and abandoned after the party was over. The wind slapped and buffeted them and whistled through their ropes.There had always been a connection with balloons at Cardington. In the l920s and '30s it had been the Royal Airship Works and in the gigantic hangers the huge airships, R100 and R101 were designed and built. I remembered the excitement Gracie and I had felt when, sitting on the open-topped No. 75 bus on our way home from school, we had seen the famous Rl0l making its majestic way across the sky. Soon after that, while taking a party of distinguished people on a demonstration flight, the great airship, of which everyone was so proud, burst into flames, killing everyone on board. We had all spoken in hushed tones of the Rl0l. Its loss seemed to have been a great national tragedy. Was this the reason why Cardington seemed to me to be a sad place? I wondered if its desolate air was caused by the wind moaning round the no longer wanted barrage balloons or by the disappointed ghosts of the men who had worked so hard to build the ill-fated R101.

Cardington would always be an ugly, cheerless place with its rows upon rows of Nissan huts intersected by concrete paths and long concrete roads, but a big joy to me was the little N.C.O.'s room that I had to myself at the end of one of the huts. There was just space enough for a bed and a locker and an old ammunition box, which went under the bed and in which I could keep my personal belongings. In the corner about three feet from the bed was a small iron fireplace. Each evening I lit my fire, which glowed red hot and filled the little room with a most luxurious warmth. I was very reluctant to go out in the evenings. I wanted to stay in and stoke up my fire. If the temperature dropped below 80 degrees I began to feel chilly!

I was at Cardington for about eight months, but the time went quite quickly. I was able to meet Derrick every week-end and on one occasion we both applied for 48 hour passes so that we could travel to Sidmouth to buy an engagement ring. Where else could we buy it?

It was nothing but vanity, but I was glad to display a Sergeant’s stripe on my sleeve before I left the WAAF. I really did do a Sergeant's job at Cardington, being in charge of the Admin office with just one clerk to assist me and being responsible to my officer for the whereabouts and well-being of all WAAF personnel.

The war was over and many trained Air Crew were redeployed to Admin and office work, jobs which they did with relaxed good humour. One of these men was a Sergeant Air Gunner called Junior. He had a chip on his shoulder because, although fully trained, he had never flown on ops. He had a chip on the other shoulder because I wouldn't take his protestations of love seriously. "Junior is very fond of you", his friend told me, "He says he does love you, but he wishes you weren't a Sergeant". "Oh, why's that?", I wondered. "Don't you know?" The friend sounded shocked. "Don't you know that no man wants a woman to be his equal. No man loves a clever woman". Poor old Junior. Didn't he know that the world was changing? Womens’ Lib. was a long way off in 1945, but many women had done men’s work during the war and they were beginning to think a little differently about their role in life.

There was another nice old Sergeant at Cardington, probably no older than 40, but with an extremely lived in face; a face that reminded one of empty beer bottles, overflowing ash trays and countless excuses for coming home late. "Aren't you frightened of going back to Civvy Street?", he asked. I said I wasn't. "Surely you are a bit frightened", he almost pleaded. I began to understand when he told me later, "She's sent back my clothes". Evidently "she" didn't mind having fun with him when he was on leave, but didn't want to be bothered with him permanently. I realised that someone of his age, with no roots, would feel very reluctant to leave the security of service life. It was equally hard for many married men who had been away from home for the best part of six years and were preparing to return to a wife and children who had become strangers. As for me, I couldn't wait."


Wendy's mum Mabel Elsie Twiddy - balloon operator at Cardington.


"I think this is of mum at West Raynham."


Mabel Twiddy (Elsie here left with two friends Edyth and Phyl (Phylis?) "Mum, left, hated her first name so everyone knew her as Elsie with two friends."

Above are a group of WAAFs on parade at the station in July 1942. Please take a close look at these ladies it would be great to identify them.

Mabel Elsie Twiddy. Balloon Operator RAF Cardington 1942.

Wendy Rest has kindly sent in photographs of her mother Mabel Elsie Twiddy who was a WAAF balloon operator at Cardington. Mabel later married Alfred William Lister who was also at Cardington at this time. They also have their own page on this website. Thank you Wendy!

" I have photos of both mum and dad in uniform – my mum Mabel Elsie Twiddy was a WAAF and joined up in 1941 and told me she was a balloon operator. Both of them were at Cardington as a distant cousin of mine said mum was dad’s driver as they used to come in uniform to spend free time with her relatives in Bletchley which is not far away. This figures as mums aunt had a small holding with a cow, pigs and hens and also gave them a good meal. She made all her butter and cheese. I really must get service records for my parents from the RAF as another project.

I know dad did his square bashing at Blackpool before being shipped out on convoy to India and Burma. This was the parting of the waves for a few years as dad came out of the air force when he returned to England, while mum stayed in, I think until 1947/8 when she was at West Raynham, Norfolk. Mum by then has 2 stripes on her uniform and was considering going on to be sergeant but dad then resurfaced. They met again but did not marry until 1949 and I followed on in the 1950s."

Wendy also included the photo below of her mother and two of her friends.

Wendy's mum - photo dated 1942