Joan Awbery: Norwich ATS woman honours Great Yarmouth WW2 victims

Joan Awbery in her ATS uniform.

Joan Awbery in her ATS uniform. - Credit: Submitted: Joan Awbery

Joan Awbery's experiences in the ATS during the Second World War made her determined to mark the sacrifice of 26 servicewomen who lost their lives in a bomb attack at Great Yarmouth.
The memories are still clear in the mind of 101-year-old Joan Awbery as she recalls her days 80 years ago in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during the Second World War.
The anxiety of her parents when she told them their only daughter wanted to answer the call to serve; the trepidation of not knowing what was ahead, and long journeys to new postings in Belgium and Germany.
The experiences helped to shape her life and gave her the impetus to be an integral part of a campaign to honour the memory of 26 other ATS members whose lives were taken in an air attack in Norfolk in 1943.

Joan Awbery has many memories of her ATS years.

Joan Awbery has many memories of her ATS years. - Credit: Submitted: Angela Cox

Joan, who lives in Norwich and is a mother of three, tells her story in her own words:
“I was born Joan Stittle in 1920 in the small market town of Soham, in Cambridgeshire, where I spent the first 21 years of my life. War was declared six days before my 21st birthday.
The government was calling for girls over the age of 17 and a half to serve in the ATS (the women’s branch of the Army), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) to release men for fighting duties. I felt I had to help – most girls did, I think. As my father lost two brothers in the First World War, my parents were somewhat apprehensive, but gave me 
their blessing.
In October 1941 I volunteered for service in the ATS, had a medical examination, was declared A1 and waited. It was not until January 10, 1942 that my calling-up papers arrived with instructions to report to Northampton station, where I would be taken to Talavera Camp for six week’s training.
As I had no brothers or sisters it was, at first, strange to share everything from meals to sleeping quarters with 29 other girls. We were issued with two sets of uniforms, underclothes and pyjamas, four pairs of thick khaki-coloured stockings, a pair of brown lace-up shoes, a personal blanket and groundsheet – and the inevitable gas mask to be taken with us wherever we went.
After the initial six weeks of training in Army rules and regulations, learning how to salute, to drill, to march in time to a band, lectures on how to keep healthy, what best to eat (hundreds of cabbages and carrots apparently), I was somewhat relieved to be posted to Cambridge, where I would have my own small bedroom as I was now a Corporal.
Firstly I was a personal assistant to a Brigade Major in the Cambridge sub-area of Eastern Command and then in the Army Kinema Service. Here training films and one recreational film were taken out to lonely gun or searchlight sites around East Anglia.
I spent two weeks at a Warrant Officers’ and Non-Commissioned Officers’ course in Durham and a week’s gas instruction at Winterbourne Gunner on Salisbury Plain. I then volunteered for overseas duties. I was sent to a holding camp in Bristol, where we spent three weeks waiting for a ship to take us to who-knows-where.
Very early one morning we were despatched in army lorries across the country to Tilbury Docks. We arrived in war-damaged Ostende early next morning, before being transported to Brussels. Here I was billeted in the barracks and allocated to the army’s legal department as a shorthand-typist with an office in the centre of this lovely city.
VE Day on May 8, 1945 was memorable. We heard Churchill’s announcement of victory and were given the next day off work to continue the celebrations.
I was sent to Germany to Bad Oeynhausen, headquarters of the British Liberation Army, and continued my work in the legal department. As some of the inhabitants were still hostile, we could not leave our compound unless accompanied by an armed soldier.
At the end of the war we were urged to go into little museums to see pictures of what had been happening in the concentration camps like Belsen, which the British had liberated finding all those dreadful gas chambers. 
I remember writing home to my parents to say I couldn’t have gone into one of the concentration camps such as Auschwitz because the pictures I’d seen had been so awful.
Finally in July 1946 I was demobolised and went back to being a civilian again. I got a job as a secretary to the chief chemist at Chivers in Histon. I got married to Kenneth Awbery and came straight to Norwich, where we ran a sweet shop and library in Botolph Street until it had to be demolished for the building of Anglia Square.”

Making sure they won't be forgotten

On May 11, 1943, 26 women were killed at Great Yarmouth when enemy fighter bombers made a direct hit on their seafront hostel – the greatest loss of life in one raid in any of the women’s services.

The plaque naming the ATS women victims of a German bombing raid at Great Yarmouth

The plaque naming the ATS women victims of a German bombing raid at Great Yarmouth. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

The women, aged between 19 and 31, died when the enemy raid reduced Sefton House to rubble. Among them was 19-year-old Lillian Grimmer from Cobholm. She should have been on leave but a friend had wanted to go home for her birthday and they agreed to swap leave.
The attack came on a misty morning, when the group of ATS women attached to the Royal Corps of Signals had just marched back to their hostel after a physical training session. Low-flying aircraft could be heard but the sun and sea haze obscured them from view until the last moment, and the 18 Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft swept in, releasing their bombs along the north part of Yarmouth.
Many decades later Joan Awbery, a member of the Norfolk branch of the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association, was told about the awful air raid. Gorleston man, Valentine Grimble had been researching it after discovering several headstones of young women in Caister Cemetery bearing the same date of death. As was the custom during the Second World War, no public information had been released about the raid at the time.
“The parents had all died by then, not knowing what had happened to their daughters,” says Joan. “It seemed as if they had been lost but no-one knew anything about it. I wanted them to be remembered, so I raised funds by holding garden parties at my house. Other branches of the association contributed, and Marks and Spencer and Sainsburys too.”
Enough money was raised to pay for a fitting memorial plaque to be engraved with the names of all the women who had been killed. It was erected on the wall of the Palm Court Hotel, which was thought to be the site of Sefton House.
Joan was proud to watch the plaque be unveiled by Lady Mary Soames, daughter of Sir Winston Churchill, on May 11 1994, 51 years on from that fateful day.

Attendees at the 60th anniversary memorial service at Palm Court Hotel, Great Yarmouth.

Flashback to the 60th anniversary memorial service at Great Yarmouth, to remember the bombing raid on Sefton House that resulted in the loss of 26 lives. - Credit: Archant

Services have been held at the plaque to continue that act of remembrance, but last year the memorial was removed after having been damaged. It has now been repaired, and on Sunday, May 15, 2022 there will be a service to place it at the Imperial Hotel, now considered to be closer to the spot where the women lost their lives.

Subscribe to Let's Talk magazine and enjoy interesting interviews and a lively mixture of features about people, places and life in East Anglia every month. For the latest offers and to subscribe, go to: or call 020 8959 1173.