Daphne’s life – anything but ordinary

Plane-spotting an important wartime job which Daphne loved to do

Daphne Rickard joined the ATS in 1941.

Daphne Rickard joined the ATS in 1941.

In 1941, 16-year-old Daphne Rickard joined the British army in the AIS, the Auxillary Territorial Service, however it was really an escape from her 12 years in boarding school. Placed with the nuns in a Roman Catholic convent in a small community on the outskirts of London, Daphne spoke highly of the teachers and staff but said she merely endured life behind the barred windows and walled convent.

“I learned all the facts of life in boarding school,” Daphne said.

Her father, a former banker who worked in several Far East locations (Daphne was born in FooChow, China) and then elected mayor of Bedford, England and her mother knew nothing of her enlistment until it was too late.

The AIS was designed to assist, on the home front, with the war effort. After mustering in, Daphne was assigned to the 608183 Heavy Artillery group, living in a barracks (not unlike her convent dormitory) and admitted she had no idea what she was doing nor what she wanted to do.

But as many British subjects believed, Daphne was prepared to do her duty. She was taught how to recognized planes by their silhouettes.

“It was my job to spot planes coming from any direction and fortunately I had very good eye sight and hearing,” she said.

She was tasked with spotting incoming planes of all types using binoculars when on duty along with an instrument called a height-taker. One person on one end would determine the height the plane was flying, another person on the other end would determine its speed and Daphne, peering into an eye piece in the centre of the instrument would quickly calculate when to shoot and then give the order to fire. She said even when off-duty she was always on alert.

Being posted on the Folkston-Dover Coast, her location was directly across the English Channel from Calais, France.

“We knew the German’s were already in the Channel Islands, about 10 miles from England, close to where we were,” she said.

It was during this time Daphne and a girlfriend took time one evening to attend a dance in Folkston. They had stepped outside onto a deck when they noticed a doodlebug heading directly towards where they were standing. A doodlebug was a bomb with a timer that would detonate either when it hit something or the timer went off. Both women figured it must have hit the water below the deck and exploded, spraying them with water.

“There was nothing we could have done, we just stood there,” she said.

Daphne remembers one time when an American plane was approaching.

She identified it as an American plane but, for reasons unknown to them, it wasn’t signalling as it should have.

She was instructed to give the order to shoot the plane.

“We were obligated to shoot him down,” she said, although it wasn’t without a bit of disagreement on her part she added.

When asked if it bothered her to be giving such orders, Daphne said it was either shoot the enemy or know they would drop a bomb on England. Again, she said it was part of their duty to serve their country.

Shifts were long, the job stressful and Daphne was still a young woman. She spoke of a time when her commanding officer told her to get some rest. She returned to her upper bunk, after a particularly long shift, in the Nissen hut and promptly fell asleep. She awoke to someone frantically shaking her bunk. When she looked around almost the entire hut was destroyed by a doodlebug but she hadn’t heard a thing.

Eventually, after D-Day, Daphne was sent to Belgium where her unit took over plane-spotting from the British marines.

The Germans were just across a wide canal from their position.

“The German’s were retreating at this point, but they lobed a bomb into our gun pit,” she said.

“I was returning to the cook house when the bomb went off and I was blown through a window.”

Her wrist was injured and after a trip to a local British field hospital, Daphne returned to her duties.

“All of us accepted that we could be gone in an instant or sent home permanently disabled,” she said matter-of-factly.

After Germany surrendered, Daphne and her unit were returned to Bruge, Belgium where they were given the job of sorting through what was called the dead mail. She spoke and read a little German so she would determine where the mail had come from and where it was going, gleaning any information about the conditions in the country, thus indicating where Allied aid should be sent.

This would be the last of her services to her country.

One of her brothers was in the service in India guarding the Kyber Pass against the advancing German Army into Russia. He was married and had a son there, but after his wife died he brought his young son back to Bedford and Daphne took sick leave to look after her nephew. Another brother, who served in Berma, was interred in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. When he also returned home, Daphne spent time looking after him as he was in very bad shape with several life-threatening conditions including beriberi, a nutrition-based deficiency in Vitamin B1.

After recuperation, she travelled with that brother back to Malaysia.

Finally, it was time to consider her civilian career and Daphne chose nursing, training in Middlesex Hospital in London.

While working in the Stoke-Mandeville Hospital, in Aylesbury, she met her future husband, a Croatian-born orderly Steve Martin.

“He looked after my brother until he passed away in Steve’s arms,” she said.

“My brother had been in the hospital for about year.”

Looking towards their future, in 1954 the couple were sponsored by another of Daphne’s brothers who lived in Vancouver and they emigrated.

Steve worked in the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster and Daphne secured a job with B.C. Tel as an operator.

“I didn’t have my nursing papers so that was the job I found,” she said.

In 1956, Steve was offered a job and a house on the Experimental Farm in Smithers and the couple were on the move again.

Their first two children were born there and Daphne returned to nursing, with Steve looking after the children when she was on night shift.

A move to Trail for a job in a planer mill for Steve, another child and Daphne nursing was the next chapter of their life. The Martin’s moved to Quesnel where Steve finished his career at Cariboo Pulp and Paper. They never regretted emigrating.

Daphne was quick to say Canada has been very good to them.

“I love Canada,” she said with a big smile.

After nearly sixty years, Daphne’s only been back to England once in the 1990s with one of her daughters but admitted she didn’t like the country anymore.

“Everything was old and musty and all the windows are too small,” she said.

Now 88 years old, Daphne remembers the war years vividly and although she doesn’t credit her

life as remarkable,

her stories and

pictures tell another tale.

Quesnel Cariboo Observer