Cis McCarthy on her wedding day with husband Charlie
AS the city fell silent last Sunday to remember those who had made the ultimate sacrifice during two world wars and conflicts since, one local woman recalled her time in the RAF during the Second World War.
Cis McCarthy, who lives in Hillsborough and served as a Leading Aircraft Woman during the war was born in Belfast in 1923. She left school at the age of 13 before going onto become a parlour maid in a gentleman's residence at Ballyclare. When war broke out she decided to join up and took the bus into Belfast to enlist.
"I hadn't a clue where the recruiting office was, but on enquiry was directed to North Street Recruiting Office where I enlisted as a Wireless Operator in the WAAF," she continued. "I didn't tell anyone what I had done until my call-up papers arrived and I then made my way home to inform the family. I did know if I have made my intentions known earlier I would have been thoroughly discouraged by my mother and father."
After joining up Cis travelled to Gloucestershire were she was given her kit. "I was issued with a knife, fork, spoon and mug and directed to the cookhouse where the meal was fried potatoes, spam and beans, the staple diet during the war years," she explained.
"From there it was on to our billet where I was issued with 'three hard biscuits', which made a mattress for our bunk bed, two army blankets and a straw pillow.
"Morning brought breakfast at 8am in the cookhouse and then a march to the Medical Officer for a checkup and on to the Stores for the issue of uniform - kit bag, gas mask, three shirts, six collars, two ties, a battle dress uniform (i.e. jerkin and trousers), skirt, jacket and great coat, three pairs of lisle stockings and two pairs of shoes, three sets of woolen underwear in airforce blue with silk knickers for summer wear, and a cap."
During the Battle of Britain there was no need for Wireless Operators so Cis was asked to re-muster to release men for specific jobs. "This led to RAF Bowlee near Manchester for training with barrage balloons. I had to splice two and a half inch manila rope and whip ends with cord, splice wire and other ropes as well as learning the intricacies of the winch which was used for flying the balloons.
"We were accommodated in a hut housing 22 girls in the middle of a field with another hut for cookhouse/ dining room and one for ablutions. Situated beside Eccles docks where merchant ships came in the area was a strategic target.
"Combined with a munitions works nearby the area required a network of balloons at strategic points. It meant constantly being on alert during the night with sometimes two to four girls keeping the balloon turned into the wind. Working outside on those long freezing nights with fingers so numb you couldn't feel them remains a vivid memory."
Cis later trained at Compton Bassett No.3 Radio School in Wilstshire before being posted to RAF Bishopscourt in County Down, where she took messages in morse code and took them to the Code and Cypher Officer to decoded.
"At all postings I encountered great comradeship among the girls," continued Cis. "We all worked together as one unit without class or distinction, sharing and sharing alike, all intent in carrying out our tasks with one hundred percent commitment. Despite the dangers we had no time to be afraid, just keeping busy. This camaraderie existed in our daily work and in socialising together.
"One particular incident still remains vivid in my mind during an air raid at Bowlee in Manchester. The lights went out in our hut, and with the bombs falling all around us one girl, a South African, started to sing 'Begin the Beguine'. Her voice was sweet and pure and you could have heard a pin drop as we listened grouped around the pot belly stove the outside noise forgotten. The magic of that moment still lives in my mind."
Cis first came to Hillsborough to visit her sister who lived in Large Park. During one visit to the village she was spotted by a young man named Charlie McCarthy, who asked around to find out who she was.
"On my next leave he lost no time in asking me out, and we married in Drumgooland Parish Church on 18th January 1944. 66 years later I'm still here, and I reflect on my life and know I wouldn't have changed a thing," she concluded.