On Remembrance Sunday, we continue our stories of residents who lived and worked through World War 2.
Here, resident Joyce Bisset speaks to us about her time as a Leading Wren in Dover Castle, and her husband Robin who survived Dunkirk.
Joyce is 95 years old and has been a resident at Charlotte Straker House since 2017.
As a 21-year-old girl, Joyce and her friend went to the Wren recruiting office and were told that they had a choice of being sent either to “the North or in the South”. Joyce remembered thinking that they might be posted somewhere in Kent, but instead she found herself at Dover, in the tunnels under the Castle.
“It was a bit of a shock. I thought we might be somewhere outside, maybe in a pretty part of Southern England, and instead we were underground in the dark!”
Joyce and her team of Wrens plotted the movement of Royal Navy and foreign shipping in the English Channel.
“It was very busy, and very interesting. We were right under Dover Castle, in the tunnels, and of course, the English Channel was at its narrowest just there, and so we took shifts in plotting all the shipping movements.
Just the ships, not the planes?
No, as the Air Force looked after the plane movements, and we had to concentrate on the shipping. I joined the Wrens after Dunkirk you know, so I wasn’t involved in that, but it was still very frightening sometimes, especially when we were shelled.
Did you still have to work during the bombings?
“Of course! We were sometimes in the tunnels, and sometimes on the surface, and Dover was a big target, so we could hear the awful sound of the bombs dropping. Unfortunately, being so close to the enormous explosions, my hearing was permanently damaged.”
Was it frightening? Were you scared?
“You just got on with it. Of course, it was frightening, but really in the tunnels, it was the safest place, so we just had to get up and do our best. Everyone smoked in those days. I think it helped a bit. And when we got a break, we used to walk down to this little cubby hole in the side of the cliff and smoke a cigarette before going back to work”.
Did you make some good friends?
“There were girls there from all walks of life, and yes, I made some very good friends. I think being there altogether in the middle of things, sort of threw you all together. And we were all in uniform. The Wrens had an extremely smart uniform, and I was proud to wear it. It was a thick navy blue serge material, with a cap and badge. It was nice and warm!”
Did you meet your husband after the war?
“Yes, my husband (Robin Bisset) was in the Royal Engineers and was in France during Dunkirk. I didn’t know him then, but after he managed to get across the Channel during Dunkirk, he was in hospital for three months.”
“Yes. He was a wonderful musician and told me that he’d played his accordion at the head of the column of Royal Engineers as they walked to the Dunkirk beach. Unfortunately, as he was at the front of the long line of walking soldiers, he was one of the first to drink some water that the enemy had poisoned, and he collapsed and was very ill. His fellow soldiers picked him up on a stretcher and managed to get him on board a ship.
After being carried onto the ships by his fellow soldiers he couldn’t remember anything until he woke up in the hospital based at Tatton Hall, Cheshire. His room looked out across a beautiful lake, his first thoughts were that he had died and gone to heaven! He spent three months in hospital recovering. He was just completely exhausted and demoralised. He was in Egypt you know. And had a terrible time. He was bombed to pieces. It took him a long time to recover from his experiences.”
Joyce’s daughter Sue joins us for our chat.
“After the war” Sue says, “my mum met and married my dad, and she went on to have three daughters. She was always beautifully turned out and loved clothes! Mum was a marvellous home maker and very involved in the local community. She was President of the Women’s Institute in Stocksfield and did a great deal of fundraising for Charlotte Straker Project. After Dad died, she moved to Corbridge and then eventually into Charlotte Straker House.”
After we finished our chat, Joyce is worried about people reading this article. “Who is interested in this story? You mustn’t make out that I did more than anyone else. Other people will have much better stories.”I explain, that she is from a brave generation and the local community, and staff and carers are very interested in what she and her husband did.“I don’t think I was brave. You just had to get on with it. What else could you do? There were people who did far more than me.”
Sue adds, “It’s important that we tell the stories, as they were so brave and went through such a lot in their lives. Please make sure that you say that my Mum has three daughters who are extremely proud of her and love her very much.”
Joyce and Robin on their wedding day.
Joyce and Robin in their uniform.
Joyce is a much loved Charlotte Straker resident!