Battle of Britain profile: Norma Zelia Watts – WAAF radio telephonist

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News Article / September 15, 2020

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Eighty years ago, from early July until the end of October 1940, a deceptively straightforward battle was fought in the skies over England… a battle that ultimately would shape the rest of the Second World War for the Allied Forces in Europe and beyond. It would also shape the future of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

In 2020, the challenges we face with COVID-19 mean there will be no large gatherings, no parades. But with almost no survivors of the Second World War left among us, we must take time to remember those who fought in the Battle of Britain.

Here is the story of Norma Zelia Watts, who was part of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and one of the many Canadians who took part in the Battle of Britain.

By Dominique Boily

Norma Zelia Watts (née Tilley), formerly from Coventry, England, served as a radio telephonist with the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).

During the Battle of Britain, she was the ground contact for the aircrews that fought back the German Luftwaffe in the British skies. Later in the war, she first served with Fighter Command, and then with Bomber Command which is where she met her husband, Flight Lieutenant Jack Vincent Watts, a Royal Canadian Air Force navigator.

During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe attacked airfields and radar stations on the southeast coast of England.

“I started at Fighter Command Biggin Hill, which the Germans bombed the hell out of . . . and killed 30 of us WAAFs, at which point [our leaders] decided they would move us off the base.” The WAAFs then moved to a beautiful home a few miles away from the base.

“It was wicked, the planes would come over and would shoot up those Spitfires … you hated to see it…you just hated to see it. However, it happened.”

The day to day duties of radio telephonists were mainly to keep radio contact with the aircrew, but the WAAFs were also involved in other activities.

“You would be in bed asleep and be awakened by some officers: ‘Get up! Get up! We have to go out there and put out some fire bombs!’ They would give us some shovels and kick us out the door to go out looking for flames and put them out.”

Most of the time, however, her duties were much more serious. The loss of comrades was especially hard to bear.

“You always hoped the news was good. . . . That was a hard part, for us girls, as radio telephonists.

“We were in direct communication with the aircrew, handling take-off and landing telecommunication with them. You would hear them coming back, and if there was a problem you would hear them. . . . They would be asking for ambulances, but of course there would always be one on stand-by because you never knew what was going to land.”

Emergency situations might include loss of an engine, control problems, or wounded on board. “The ground crews have to know. So you were waiting for these guys to come back and you may hear something …but you may hear nothing. You just knew there would be fatalities, you couldn’t avoid it. You would just read the board in the morning to see the names that were crossed out.”

For the WAAFs, it was personal. When they heard a call sign for a landing, there was relief. If they didn’t hear a call sign, it meant an aircraft was missing. Everyone on the ground shared in that fear. “You had to face it, it was a sort of …a deadly kind of business.”

“It was a war. Period.” Mrs. Watts concluded. “The tears came later.”

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