Life in Wartime Banbury - Margaret Cooper

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Margaret Cooper (nee McKeevor) was born in Banbury in 1924. She was one of three children of William and Ada McKeevor – she had an older brother, William, and an older sister, Mary.

Their grandfather, also William, had come over from Ireland and built a house in the Grimsbury area of the town (now McKeevor Close). It had seven bedrooms and an acre of ground in which were several cottages. In later years the house was demolished and the land sold to the council, who built new houses there.

Margaret attended St John’s Priory School in Banbury, next to the Catholic Church, where she would eventually be married. She left school at 14 and completed a secretarial course, after which she took a job at the Milk Marketing Board in Cherwell St. She was there in 1939 when war broke out and remembers the whole office falling silent as they listened to the announcement on the radio. Not long afterwards, Margaret stood and watched the women on parade in the ATS outside the Town Hall and told herself that as soon as she was eighteen she would join the WAAF.

Life in Banbury was not drastically changed during the war. Clothes and food were in short supply for most, but the McKeevor family were lucky in that Margaret’s brother and some of their other relatives were farmers (a reserved occupation) and from them they received rabbits, pheasants, partridges and more. They also kept chickens and had a big vegetable garden which provided them with fruit and vegetables.

Every family who was able, had to take in evacuees from the London area and the McKeevors were allocated two very nice Jewish boys aged 11 or 12 years, from Bow Central School. Margaret remembers their parents, who had some sort of fabrics business, coming down to visit them and bringing several yards of tweed material which Margaret and her sister had made up by a local tailor.

Miss Brown's cake shop in Parson's Street sold traditional Banbury Cakes and Margaret and her sister would arrange for parcels of these to be sent abroad to their boyfriends serving overseas.

The social life during the war was good, with dances held in Banbury Town Hall and surrounding villages. The McKeevors had a canteen in their Church Hall which served aircrew and servicemen from RAF Upper Heyford and Bicester OTU. They only had beetroot to fill the sandwiches but the air crews did not complain.

Although Banbury was only bombed directly twice during the war, Margaret remembers the terror of hearing German bombers flying over the town towards Coventry. The noise of the aircraft was deafening and the sky was lit up; there were no air raid shelters so her father pushed them all under the dining-room table for safety.

Margaret’s sister, Mary, had gone to work in an ammunitions factory, but when Margaret turned eighteen she stuck to her decision to join the WAAF, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Although WAAFs did not participate in active combat, they were exposed to the same dangers as any personnel working on the Home Front, and many WAAFs lost their lives during the war. Initially, Margaret worked at Bletchley Park on the Enigma Code; she recalls that being stationed there was worse than being in prison. In 1943, she transferred to Chipping Warden air base, home to 12 OTU (Operational Training Unit).

Margaret worked as a Teleprinter Operator in the Signals Office on a 24 hour Watch consisting of three eight-hour shifts. Her work involved receiving and sending out Top Secret messages, and sending telegrams to the next of kin advising of missing aircrew. It was also the job of the WAAFs on duty in the Signals Office to serve hot coffee and rum to air crews returning from night flights.

Although 12 OTU was a training unit, bomber crews there were also involved in “Nickel” operations (leaflet drops), as well as training missions, and there were several aircraft lost or missing. Some crashed locally, and many of the deceased airmen were buried in the Southam Road cemetery in Banbury. In 1943 alone there were 12 crashes involving aircraft from 12 OTU. Margaret remembers one particular crash well; on the 30th April 1944, a Wellington bomber ran out of fuel and landed on the airfield split in two halves. There were no fatalities on this occasion but the Air Gunner was seriously injured and W/O Kenneth W Cooper escaped with a broken knee joint. A few months later, Kenneth and Margaret were married at St John’s Catholic Church in Banbury.

In the years after the war, Margaret worked as a secretary until retirement, at which time she qualified as a dance teacher. She still dances once or twice a week, despite being 86. She lives in Bognor Regis now, but still returns to Banbury to visit her sister who lives in Bloxham.