A Senior Moment
'The Secret War'
by Rev. Bob Johnston

December 4, 2016

New Perspectives

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This was a secret war, whose battles were lost or won unknown to the public, and only with difficulty is it comprehended, even now ---. Yet had we not mastered its profound meaning --- all the efforts of the fighting airmen --- all the bravery and sacrifices of the people would have been in vain  ... Winston Churchill

Chip Inkster never set out to become part of this secret war. Born in England in 1924, Yvonne Carpenter (her birth name) left school at 17 and trained for the British Post Office as a telephone operator. Britain had already been at war against Germany for two years and the conflict was going badly for the Allies. Once it was learned that Yvonne had spent her preschool years living with grandparents in Germany, for security reasons her job was terminated.

At the same time, Yvonne noticed a recruitment poster: “The W.A.A.F needs you!” In January, 1942, she had answered the call, signed the Secrets Act, and was fitted out in a striking-looking full uniform of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Her mother was initially dismayed, while her father, with that stereotypical British “stiff upper lip” remarked “You made your bed; now you’ve got to lie on it.” And lie on it she did, for the next 4 ½ years as a radar operator and instructor. Radar was a key component of that “secret war” to which Churchill later referred with well-deserved praise.

Both Germany and Britain had already developed radar before the war began but it was the Brits who made better use of it once conflict broke out. (Interestingly, it was the Americans who coined the word as an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging.) Beginning with the 1940 Battle of Britain, fought in the air between the Luftwaffe and the English spitfires, radar made a huge contribution to defeating the Nazi aerial assault.

Chip Inkster, English war veteran and subsequent “war bride,” shared these stories with me when I recently visited Elgin Lodge in Port Elgin. She explained that on entering the Service, her first name, Yvonne, was quickly replaced with “Chip.” Because her family name was “Carpenter,” the image of wood chips immediately came to mind when her colleagues followed the common practice of assigning every new recruit a suitable nickname.

Chip began her boot camp training in Morecambe, a Lancashire seaside town in North West England. Here she received a smallpox vaccination which temporarily brought on delirium, spots and high fever. She loved the marching drills and learned the secret of keeping those leather air force boots shiny---hot shoe polish, spit and a chicken bone. Then followed a brief posting to the Beer Head base, near a fishing village on England’s South West coast. Chip learned to operate the new “chain home low system” which was designed to track enemy planes flying at low altitude to escape detection from conventional radar defenses.  

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In June 1942 Chip was transferred to RAF/RADAR Station Fairlight in Hastings, Sussex where she would experience her initial personal encounter with war and death. With typical English understatement, she notes in her personal memoir that “---there was lots of air traffic. Bombers and fighters of both the Luftwaffe and RAF. Both ways---all day---and most nights.”

In January of 1943, the pilot of a Messerschmidt fighter escorting German bombers on a raid decided, as he headed back across the channel, to “shoot up the camp.” Just one continuous press of his machine gun, perhaps only for a few seconds, and he was gone, skimming over the water. “The girl standing next to me on the plotting board fell to the floor without a sound. Dead! There was always that deep down feeling that one could not expect to see tomorrow.”

Radar worked by sending radio waves which could reach incoming enemy planes up to 50 miles out at sea. The signal then bounced back to the early warning system, providing British radar operators with estimated numbers of planes, their speed and presumed destination of attack. In the early years of the war, this enabled the much smaller number of RAF aircraft (800 planes against Germany’s 3,000) to scramble its fighters and efficiently deploy them to await the enemy.

One night she noticed an unusual radar blip. It seemed to be a vessel slowly coming toward land but, it kept on disappearing then reappearing on the screen. No allied ship or fishing boat was known to be in the area. One navy officer thought it might just be a flock of seagulls. Eventually, the navy sent out a visual check and discovered a German u-boat lurking offshore. A destroyer was quickly dispatched to sink or scare the submarine away.

During a later posting at RAF Station Yatesbury, Wiltshire, Chip was on duty and bored with her quiet shift. Most of the air attacks were further south, meaning less excitement for the Yatesbury W.A.A.F radar operators and plane plotters.

Chip didn’t spent the whole war staring at a radar screen. She was promoted to the rank of corporal and became an instructor. She even found time to meet a handsome young Canadian soldier, Lieutenant Robert Inkster, better known of course as “Inky.” After hasty romantic encounters limited to sharing infrequent military leaves together, Inky was shipped to Italy with the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards. They were parted for 21 long months. In a future column I will write more about their wartime love affair.

Eventually, Chip married Inky, came to Canada 1946, and raised their family together. She was an avid horticulturist and proud Canadian.

Chip Inkster died peacefully at age 92 on November 26, 2016, seven hours after she and I enjoyed her wartime reminiscences.


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