Bessie Thomas obituary

Marilyn Cunningham
·2-min read

My mother, Bessie Thomas, who has died aged 96, was a radar operator in the second world war.

Bessie was an office worker before joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1943, starting off in Bomber Command at Snaith in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where as a clerk on special duties her tasks included typing beacon codes on to rice paper and putting metallic strips on to the windows of planes to confuse enemy radar.

She retrained for radar shortly afterwards when she was sent to Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, and later to Darsham in Suffolk. It was there that she traced V1 and V2 bombs coming into the country – on one occasion plotting the course of a missile that she soon realised was coming straight at her own radar station, but which thankfully passed just overhead and landed a few yards behind where she was sitting.

On a trip to London she visited an aunt who bemoaned the fact that “no one is doing anything about these bombs”. Bessie told her she was sure someone would be doing something about the situation, but owing to the Official Secrets Act was unable to relay details of her own role in that endeavour.

Bessie was born in Consett, County Durham, to Arthur Shackley, who worked as a technician at the Consett Iron Company, and Mary Jane (nee Harrison), a dressmaker. Bessie went to Consett senior girls school and then found work in the offices of the the company where her father was employed, before joining the WAAF.

After VE day she was moved to Herefordshire to await demob, and it was there she met her future husband, Lawrence Thomas. They married in 1947 and went to live in Oxford, where my sister Dorothy was born, but soon returned to her roots in Consett.

Bessie was a member of the British Legion for almost 50 years and was well known as a poppy seller in Consett. In recent years she discovered the existence of the WAAF Association and through this was invited to many events, including the 70 years VE Day parade and a Christmas party at St James’s Palace in London.

In 2018 she took part in the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, going on stage to represent the association and rubbing shoulders with Tom Jones, Sheridan Smith and Bryn Terfel. In 2019 she attended the D-day event in Portsmouth, where she was introduced to the air chief of staff, Prince Charles, the prime minister of Canada and Theresa May.

After Lawrence’s death in 2002, Bessie lived alone. She died after a short stay in hospital following a fall. She is survived by me, her grandson, David, and great-grandson, Henry. Dorothy died in 2017.