They Also Served
Working in a telephone exchange during WWII
The warning buzzer flashed and blew a raucous raspberry. "Air Raid Warning Red. Miss Smith, Mrs Brown and Miss Jones will remain on duty. The rest of the staff to the shelter." Steel helmets were seized from the backs of swivel chairs and worn at angles, which reflected the personality of its wearer - all of which inflamed the strictly correct supervisor. "They are intended to be worn straight." Gas mask bags were shouldered as chattering operators made their way to the emergency stairs and comparative safety of the basement, magniloquently termed by the Authorities 'The Shelter'. Some girls scuttled palely down the stone steps, but most strolled casually. They would have moved much faster going off duty.
The remaining operators quickly passed on the air raid warning to local ARP posts, police, hospitals and other primary points. They had little time to listen for approaching aircraft; these mostly passed over our little coastal town to drop their bombs on inland targets, but occasionally a raid would be directed against the local arms factory and shipyard. The crunch of falling bombs was a signal for operators to contact other local trunk exchanges and zone centres with the warning "Delay to Seamouth", signifying a bar on all but calls of national emergency.
How many far-off subscribers, one wonders, realised that their own operator's reply to their request for a call to the Seamouth area "I'm sorry, there is a delay to Seamouth. You will be rung later", was not a delaying tactic to annoy them, but an indication that the little town was in the throes of an air raid? Perhaps they would have shown more patience had they been able to see the few operators at Seamouth dealing swiftly and efficiently with the many calls to emergency services.
Eventually, "Air raid message Green" and, finally, "Air raid message White" signalled the end of the emergency and another hectic ten minutes followed, passing these messages and notifying other exchanges - helped this time by the return of the 'evacuees' from 'Hades' - as we euphemistically styled the basement.
Pre-war telephone exchanges were usually part of the Post Office building, many of them on the top floor to allow for access to the equipment. This made them vulnerable to air raids - to say nothing of being a prime target! Seamouth exchange had skylights, which, of course, had to be boarded up, thus entailing our working in permanent artificial light. Pre-war discipline - at least in our exchange - was very strict. No talking to each other on the switchboards, no conversing socially with subscribers, fines for being late on duty. Even off-duty hours were not sacrosanct; our conduct had to be as impeccable outside the building as in it. However, we did manage to snatch a cheery word or two with our 'regulars' and, in those pre-automatic dialling days, many subscribers would recognise the voices of individual operators, especially those saucy operators on the Forces exchanges!
At the beginning of the war, female staff worked eight-hour shifts between 8a.m. and 8p.m., when the male staff took over. As more and more men left to join the armed services, more girls were recruited and duties extended to 10p.m. Later we worked during the night until a sufficient number of disabled men - some being early casualties of the war - could be trained as operators.
For one hour each week, staff were required to wear their specially adapted gas masks while they were operating. Fire drill often coincided with this and we had to run down the emergency staircase - leaving only the supervisor to cope with emergency calls - through the sorting office, out into the street, round the building and back to the exchange via the main staircase, still wearing our gas masks and tin helmets. Passers-by would stop and stare in amazement at the spectacle of about a dozen girls running around the street dressed in this manner, but we were not a bit self-conscious; we were wearing the perfect disguise! Hot and perspiring, we would puff our way up the stairs into the exchange, bathed in an aura of virtue as well as perspiration; we had done our bit, our haloes shimmered in the electric light. Facing a bank of callers' flashing lights we would plug into the nearest and say "Number please", feeling sure that our solid British spirit was shining in our voices. Then bump! Back to earth when an irate subscriber said "Oh, you've finished your cup of tea then?" or "I do hope my flashing didn't cause you to drop a stitch in your knitting". All this we had to take without an excuse or explanation - "Careless talk, doncherknow!"
Only once were we taken into a gas chamber as part of our gas training - this was to test the efficacy of our masks. It all seemed a bit of a lark until we were asked to remove the masks for a few seconds before leaving the chamber to give us an idea of the smell and taste of the poisonous gas - rather nasty for those of us unlucky enough to be at the end of the queue for the exit! What coughing and spluttering! It was difficult to decide which caused the most tears - the gas or the ensuing laughter.
One morning we were made aware by news bulletins that troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk, but it wasn't until later in the day that we realised we were, in a very humble way, a part of that sad epic. Calls were received in rapid succession from kiosks near the docks, made by the callers pressing the emergency button, which was fitted to the kiosks before the advent of dialling. Trunk calls were booked and connected but when the requisite amount of coins was requested - "Please insert one shilling and sixpence. Don't press the button until I ask" - tired and miserable voices told us, "I've no money. Nothing". A little judicious enquiry elicited the information that they had just disembarked from their rescue craft and wanted to let their mothers or wives know that they were safe. Needless to say, no further money was requested from the long queues stretching from each kiosk. We pleaded with distant operators to help with difficult connections; the magic word "Dunkirk" opening many previously locked doors. Most of us in the exchange were in tears, which must have mingled in some telephone-heaven with those of the returned men and their loved ones.
Later that day off-duty telephonists - in common with many other people -spent much of their wage packets on cigarettes which they handed to weary soldiers passing by on their way to entrain for reception depots. French and Belgian troops, completely demoralised, slouched past disconsolately; the British troops marched in an orderly manner in spite of their dishabille and exhaustion, some even managing to whistle a march. All were grateful for the cigarettes.
As the war progressed, an emergency switchboard was installed in 'Hades' so that the exchange could be totally evacuated in the event of an air raid. This was the cause of some disappointment amongst the staff as - improbable as it may seem - it had been deemed quite an honour to be left behind while others took shelter. Many wartime romances sprang up between Post office operators and the servicemen with whom their duties brought them in close liaison. There were even a number of GI brides after the Americans invaded the South Coast.
A change of heart by the Post Office allowed women to be retained after marriage; trained staff could not be wasted. The educational requirement barrier was also breached; no longer was a grammar school education a pre-requisite of employment. Anyone of any age with average intelligence was gratefully welcomed; even the draftees who were directed to the job as an alternative to other services. Compared with the strict rigid training of pre-war years, discipline was somewhat relaxed; new recruits rebelled against the rules, which had governed us inside and outside the exchange. Clothing regulations were waived - after a tough fight, we were actually allowed to come to work stockingless with the advent of clothing coupons - and the monthly pep talks discontinued. These talks, ostensibly, were to refresh us on standard procedures and acquaint us with new ones, but they invariably regressed into a "thou shalt not" lecture.
GPO telephonists were in a reserved occupation - we were not liable to be conscripted into the Forces, Land Army or munitions. Despite this, many girls did leave and found life in the Forces a piece of cake after the strict discipline of the Seamouth telephone exchange.