Plucky Iris Porter of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force slept in a tent for two long years, swam in the Mediterranean Sea, rode camels, and visited the pyramids – all while serving her country in the burning Egyptian desert during World War Two.
Chatting With Iris
It was an absolute pleasure to chat with Iris Porter of Calgary, Alberta, about her five years in the British air force. Iris has a razor-sharp memory that puts mine to shame, with an uncanny ability to recall dates and faces and places.
I also enjoyed the novelty of speaking with a British veteran. My focus is on Canadian veterans, but sometimes I think that people who immigrated here after the war have been overlooked because they didn’t serve in the Canadian forces, and they haven’t been honoured by their own countries, either.
Although Iris has been a proud Canadian resident since 1948, longer than I have been alive, nobody has ever interviewed her before about her service record!
The Early Years
Iris Audrey Inwards was born September 19, 1920 in Richmond, Surrey, England, the third of six children. Her father served in the merchant marine and her mother was a nurse. After finishing school, Iris clerked in the head office of a women’s dress company in London until she enlisted in the air force on January 2, 1941.
“I wanted to join the WRENs (Women’s Royal Naval Service) because my father had been in the navy, but all they had openings for were cooks and waitresses, so I went across the road and joined the air force instead. I’m so glad I did.”
Iris Begins Her Air Force Duties
Six months later she was called up, in June 1941. Iris did her basic training in Gloucester and was then posted to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.
“I began there as an orderly and worked as the Camp Messenger. I had the secret messages in a leather pouch attached to my wrist, and I ran them around from office to office.”
Here is Iris wearing her smart blue British air force uniform, after which the Canadian uniform was modelled.
She was then sent to RAF Leighton Buzzard where she was trained to become a Clerk, Special Duties. Also known as plotters, these women stood at a giant map table and pushed the model aircraft around according to their positions in the air, sort of an early form of air traffic control.
When she finished her course, Iris began working as a plotter at RAF Barton Hall near Preston, Lancashire. However, this proved to be emotionally draining for the soft-hearted Iris. “I couldn’t stand it. We got to know the boys in Preston, and they were here one day, gone the next. It made me very sad, so I decided to remuster into Pay Accounts.”
Iris Switches into Pay Accounts
After being trained in South Wales, Iris was posted to RAF Church Lawford in Warwickshire, where she did the pay ledger for about fifty WAAFs on the base, who served in a variety of trades such as parachute packers, flight mechanics and shorthand typists.
They slept in metal Nissen huts. Said Iris: “Ours was the last hut on the corner, so we asked the carpenter to make a sign and we put it up. We called our tent ‘Wit’s End.'”
One of her fondest memories is the time she was about to go on a 48-hour leave, and a Canadian pilot trainee named Sloan gave her a tin of strawberry jam. “It was Empress jam, in a gold tin with a picture of a ship on the side. I took it home to my family and we all enjoyed it so much.” At the time, sugar was rationed and sweets were very difficult to find.
Still, Iris longed for greater adventure. In 1944, she and her best friend Kathleen Britain volunteered for overseas duty. They had to make a two-year commitment and couldn’t come home until it was over. “I knew it would be a risk, but we talked it over and decided to volunteer.”
Iris Sails for the Middle East
They began their great adventure on March 25, 1944, when they sailed from Liverpool on the HMS Alcantara, joining a convoy in Scotland and heading south. Eight girls shared a single cabin, sleeping in four double bunks, for the next three weeks, as they headed for their unknown destination, past Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea.
“We passed Tangier in Morocco at night, and the captain told us to go out on deck and look at the lights. We hadn’t seen a city lit up at night for years, because of the blackout at home. It was such a lovely sight.”
The ship turned south at Port Said and entered the 200-kilometre Suez Canal, docking at the foot of the canal in Suez, Egypt on April 9, 1944. That was the beginning of Iris’s two-year stint in the Middle East.
From Suez they took the train about 140 kilometres west to RAF Almaza, just outside Cairo, where they were vaccinated for tropical diseases and given their kit – three skirts and three shirts in beige Egyptian cotton, ankle socks (since the temperatures reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit, it was too hot for stockings), and sandals which they quickly ditched in favour of more serviceable leather shoes.
Iris Begins Her Service at RAF El Gedida
Iris was posted to a base called RAF El Gedida in Heliopolis, an ancient city also known as City of the Sun, just east of Cairo. There she worked in the Base Accounts Office, doing payroll and other accounting duties for hundreds of Royal Air Force servicemen and servicewomen stationed throughout the Middle East, including Cyprus, Malta and Italy.
There were thirty airwomen on this base, composing the First Draft of WAAFs – the very first contingent of women who volunteered.
“We were sent out to replace the married men who hadn’t been home for three years,” Iris explained. “Of course, some of us were married women as well, and some of us were already widows.”
Here’s a photo of Iris on the right, and another WAAF, outside the Base Accounts Office.
For the next two years, Iris slept in a huge tent village pitched on the sand. Notice the bicycle parked in front of the tent on the right.
Each tent had a stone foundation and a concrete floor. This is a photo of Iris standing outside her home of two years.
Just two months after their arrival, D-Day took place on June 6, 1944, the successful invasion of the continent by Allied forces.
However, Iris doesn’t remember that this was a cause for celebration. “All we could think about was how many men had been killed or drowned. Today we treat it as a great victory, but it was actually quite a massacre. That’s war, of course.”
Iris was fortunate to have a kind and friendly commanding officer named Jimmy Schofield.
One of the nicest things he did was to give her a beautiful leather-bound photo album for her first Christmas in Egypt. Jimmy even filled it with photographs, and Iris added to these over the years. She cherishes this lovely album, shown here on her lap.
Jimmy also had a sense of humour, which the women appreciated in these difficult circumstances – far from home, and worried about their own families. (Both Iris’s older brother Arthur and her younger brother Jimmy were serving in the British Army.)
Here Jimmy amused them all by dressing up as a sheik.
Iris particularly enjoyed getting to know the Muslims with whom she worked side by side.
“They were absolutely charming,” she said. “They were doing the same work as us. The girls were shorthand typists, and they were really good. The men always treated us with great respect.”
While on their regular leaves, the girls wasted no time in seeing all the sights had to offer. “Kathleen and I took the night train to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Luxor, Thebes, all over the place.”
This is a photograph of Kathleen Britain, Iris’s best air force buddy.
The photo below was taken in Cairo, with the citadel and minaret in the background. The girls were allowed to wear “civvies” (civilian clothes) while off duty.
Iris saw the tomb of King Tut, long before his mummy was encased in glass to protect it from hordes of tourists.
And she saw Egypt’s most famous monument, the Sphinx at Ghiza, with the pyramids in the background.
Iris even had a chance to swim at several Mediterranean beaches, and here she is looking very trim in her two-piece bathing suit.
Of course, there was no shortage of men to go out with. “I had many, many dates,” Iris said, “but nothing serious until I met my husband.” Here she is out walking to “the pictures” with one of her many eager escorts.
Some of the other WAAFs did meet their husbands in Egypt, and Iris attended several weddings.
“One of the Muslim girls from Cairo named Alice had gotten married to one of our sergeants in a white dress, and she was kind enough to loan it to any of the new brides. So the dress was borrowed frequently.”
Iris even has a photo of one friend wearing the borrowed gown!
War Comes to a Welcome End
On May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe was declared at last.
“All the WAAFs were called into the auditorium, and the Air Vice-Marshal thanked us for our service, since all of us who went overseas were volunteers. One of our girls sang ‘Ave Maria.’ It was very touching. The next day there was a big celebration and victory march through Cairo, early in the morning before it got too hot.”
Two months later, the war came to its final conclusion when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. “There was far less celebrating then,” Iris said. “That was a dreadful thing. It seemed such a terrible way to do things.”
War’s end did not mean that Iris could go home, since she had volunteered for two years of service beginning in April 1944. That meant she remained in Egypt until April 1946.
Iris Promoted to Corporal
In spite of their leisure activities, the women worked hard and performed their duties well.
Here Iris, standing in the centre, and four of her friends look so happy because they have all just been promoted from the lowest rank of Leading Aircraftwomen to Corporal, allowing them to add two stripes to the sleeves of their uniforms.
Iris Works with Former POWs
The surrender of Japan meant the liberation of thousands of Allied prisoners who had spent four long years in camps throughout the Far East – not only 140,000 military prisoners, but another 130,000 civilians, primarily women and children.
Altogether the Japanese had established hundreds of prison camps, where both servicemen and civilians were treated very badly.
The call went out at Iris’s station for five WAAFs to volunteer for a program named RAPWI, (pronounced Rap-wee), the Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees, and Iris volunteered.
A temporary camp was set up along the coast at Port Tufik where former troop ships landed every week, filled with thousands of repatriated prisoners of war including men, women, and children, to be outfitted with clothing before continuing their journey to England. Most of them had nothing to wear but rags.
Iris explained: “There was a large wooden hangar, and the Muslim workers built partitions, so there was a section for men, women, and children. We had received shiploads of brand new clothing donated from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the U.S. The workers unpacked the bales of clothing and hung it on racks.
“After they disembarked, the prisoners came into the hangar and were given enough clothing to see them through the first few months, including new underwear and pajamas, plus warm outdoor clothing for the winter back in England.
“There was beautiful clothing, most of it new. I remember that was the first time I ever saw a parka, with a fur-trimmed hood and embroidery around the hem. I thought it was gorgeous.”
Iris in Charge of the Toy Shop
After the children received their new clothing, they came into the fourth section. Iris was in charge of the toy shop, and each child was given one toy to keep.
“That was the most touching experience,” she recalled. “Some of the children had never even seen a toy. A few of them had wooden whistles made of twigs, since a man in one of the camps had started a little musical group in an effort to keep them entertained.
“The children would come into my section, emaciated, with swollen bellies due to malnutrition, and I would tell them to choose a toy. I remember one little girl staring at a doll in a push-chair. I said: ‘Sweetheart, you can have that if you want it!’ And she said: ‘For my very own? To take with me on the ship?’ And I said: ‘Yes, darling, you can have it to keep.”
“I felt dreadful when one little boy came in with his father and chose the ceiling fan! I said unfortunately that he couldn’t have the fan, and he started to cry. His father took him outside, and then they came back in, he chose a toy truck instead, with doors that opened at the back. I found a ball to put inside so he would have something in his little truck.”
The WAAFs were also expected to socialize with the prisoners and eat their meals with them. “I remember one man, he was just skin and bone. The table was set for lunch, and there was a big piece of meat on a platter. The man looked at it and his eyes got big, and he grabbed the whole thing and shoved it into his mouth. I guess it was just too much for him. Then he realized what he had done, and he put it back and started to cry.”
The prisoners did not talk about their experience in the camps, Iris said. “They wanted to talk about their future. They talked about seeing their families, going to university. I’ll never forget how grateful they were, especially the women. It was amazing, what they had gone through.”
Iris Meets the Love of her Life
Iris remained at the RAPWI camp from September to December 1945. During the last month, she attended a YMCA dance and met a handsome young man named Donald Porter from London, a Warrant Officer in the Royal Engineers. He had served for the past four years in Suez, and was about to leave for home.
“It was love at first sight, really. The next day I went into town with him to buy a leather handbag to take home to his mother. We had a couple of weeks together before he sailed, and then we wrote to each other for the next four months.”
Iris Concludes Her Great Adventure
In April 1946 Iris sailed for home at last. She had been a valuable asset to the air force, as shown by her release form.
Her final report says this:
“An excellent clerk who has worked most conscientiously and set a very good example to others. She has been held in very high esteem by all sections in which she has worked, and in addition to dealing most efficiently with a much larger and more difficult section of accounts than normal, has cheerfully and willingly carried out several difficult jobs which she was specially asked to undertake because of her very sound accounting knowledge. She has obvious aptitude for accounting work, but, should she decide on any other type of occupation, her diligence and perseverance should enable her to make a success of it.”
After the War
Like so many others, Iris and Donald wasted no further time in getting on with their lives. Just weeks after Iris arrived back in England, they were married on July 20, 1946. She was 25 years old; he was 29. One year, later, baby Anne was born.
At first the young couple had no idea of leaving their beloved England, but they soon changed their minds.
“While I was away my sister Margaret, who had married a Canadian soldier, had already arrived in Calgary as a war bride. She sent me a Sears catalogue, and I wore it out looking at it! Beautiful frilly curtains, colourful sets of dishes, just the way it used to be in England before the war.
“It was Donald who suggested we immigrate, and at first I didn’t want to. I loved England, and I had been away from home for so long. But a year later we arrived in Calgary, and we never lived anywhere else again.”
Don found work immediately as a sheet metal worker, and the couple had three more children: Roy and Kerry, both retired teachers; and Diana, who works at the Law Foundation in Calgary. Anne is a nurse in High River, Alberta.
After the children grew older, Iris worked part-time in the shoe department at Sears Department Store in downtown Calgary for 29 years, from 1967 to 1996. It comes as no surprise to learn that Iris was a loyal member of the Sears staff, appreciated by both her customers and her fellow workers.
Both she and her husband became Canadian citizens. “My husband loved Canada so much that he became a citizen in 1950. I took a little longer and applied for citizenship in 1975.”
Donald Porter died in 2006. Today Iris still lives in the house near Heritage Park in Calgary where she has lived for the past thirty-eight years.
Iris, I will remember your courage on this Remembrance Day and always. Thank you for your dedication to your country, and to the Allied victory that our two countries shared. God bless you.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. This image dated August 30, 1941 shows a reluctant sailor trying to keep his poise while being embraced by a young woman! To see my collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.