To celebrate Women’s History Month, SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity is sharing some of the remarkable stories of women who have overcome adversity and are giving back to those who supported them overcome those challenges.
A trailblazer for women in the Forces, Anne Bischoff was one of few female engineers in the RAF in the 1960s. Her military career ended abruptly when she was injured falling off a plane.
Now she spends time volunteering as a caseworker for SSAFA in Germany, a position she decided to take up after the charity helped her. Caseworkers visit clients to work out what type of help they need; because of Anne’s disability she usually did this virtually which has prepared her well to help the rest of the team during the pandemic as all casework is now completed remotely.
A trailblazer for women in the Forces, Anne Bischoff was one of few female engineers in the RAF in the 1960s. Her military career sadly ended abruptly when she was injured falling off a plane.
Now she spends time volunteering as a caseworker for SSAFA in Germany, a position she decided to take up after the charity helped her.
“You had to know how to fight”
Anne joined the RAF in 1965 as an electronic engineer, but she had to fight for her place.
“My job in the Royal Air Force was an electronic engineer, I was one of only two women in the job at that time.
“Originally, I wanted to be a gardener, but my father wanted me to be a schoolteacher, like my sister. He told me that if I trained to be a teacher, he would pay for me to go to university, but if not I had to move out when I finished school. I didn’t have the patience to teach a child the same thing 3, 4, 5 times, but his ultimatum didn’t give me many options. I was 16 and I needed a live-in job where I would get training. I thought ‘If I go into the Royal Air Force, at least they’ll teach me something’. So, I applied, did my tests and got in.
“At first they said to me, ‘what would you like to learn?’ I said I wanted to be a driver, but they said there was no chance because my IQ test scores were too high. Instead they offered me instrument mechanic or an electronic engineer. I said electronics.
“I did my 6-weeks basic training and then they sent me to a station near Nottingham. I went there and presented myself at the guard room, they looked at me and they said, ‘we don’t have women here.’ I said, ‘I’ve been posted here, there’s my chit that says I’ve got to be here, what am I supposed to do with it?’ They sent me for food at the mess so they could ‘sort it out’ and when I came back they said I had to be here everyday for training, but I had to live at a different station. They said ‘You just can’t stay, there’s no women here.’
“Every morning I travelled to the station and every evening I travelled back. My trade was very interesting. Normal airmen come to a base where they learn the job and they learn that in an intake. Each intake has got a number and in these training camps there can be 6 different trades being taught with hundreds of young men and in our intake, there were 30 young people, 29 boys and me. The other intakes all just laughed because I was there, and I wasn’t a young man. There were disagreements over all sorts of things, mostly that our unit wasn’t good enough because it had a woman in it and we therefore had to prove ourselves.
“We were one of the best intakes that they had on our passing out parade, but we had to fight a lot of battles to get there both physically and mentally. You had to know how to fight, and I must admit, I learned quickly. It wasn’t easy. I was nearly 18 years old and had to grow up quickly and learn to stick up for myself. I’ve never since been afraid walking the streets alone at night, the RAF was a good training ground for things like that.
“By the time I joined there were thousands of women in the RAF, but most were either drivers, clerks or in the kitchen or mess. On the technical side, there weren’t many women.
“When I left my training station I went to RAF Benson and quite often I would be seconded onto the Queen’s flight. It was an interesting job. From there, I was posted to St. Mawgan, in Cornwall then RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire where I had an accident and was discharged.
“I was working on an aircraft, and I slipped off the wing, and I smashed my knee up. It didn’t heal well, and though I could walk at the time, and felt I could work, I was discharged.
“I cried. I couldn’t imagine what I was going to do. In total I was in the RAF for 3 years and 2 months, but I wish I could have stayed on.”
“I don’t know how many operations I had, I lost count”
On leaving the RAF Anne had a series of operations for her injury and also had to forge a new life for herself outside the Forces.
“I was used to being on a par with men, I’d only ever worked with men. To be relegated to a second-class citizen it made me awfully unhappy for a while but like everything you get through it.
“The year after I was discharged, I had several big operations my knee to try and save what was left of the joint, and then I started to work for a new Dutch company, making computers. It was the late 60s and that was when computers went from resistors and transistors into solid state, it was an awfully good time. The first computer that I built was about 3m long by 2.5m high, and the last one I built, which was at the beginning of 1972, was no bigger than a big suitcase. It was a wonderful time to be working in computers.
“We were making computers for the oil industry, so they could mix highly toxic chemicals with no need for human contact, which was extremely important work. I was able to travel quite a lot to install these things in the refineries. It was interesting work.
“Then I split up from my husband at that time, and I went to live on a kibbutz in Israel, moving from high technology into field work. I lived there for 6 years, but the bone that was in my knee started to react to all the heat and physical work that I was doing, and I suffered an infection in the bone.
“I had to come back to the UK and I was in hospital for a long time. I don’t know how many operations I had, I lost count. Then I had to retrain again, so I became a typist for social services in Scotland.
“In that time, I went on holiday to Morocco, where I met my husband. He was German and we had a long-distance relationship. All the while, the issues with the bone infection continued.
“The whole of my left side was stiffened, and because of all the operations that I had to have, they had to cut a nerve. I don’t have any feeling from the toes of my left foot up to my shoulder on my left side, though I can use my arm. Eventually I was told, at the age of 28, that I was never going to work again. It was horrifying.
“That’s when I decided to move to Germany to be with my future husband and I have been here ever since. Its been 37 years.
“I didn’t speak any German at first, so it was very tough. There was no internet to learn, and few people had computers in Germany. There weren’t many foreigners in Germany at the time and it was all a huge culture shock. I picked up the language over the years by listening to the radio!”
“The RAF Association and SSAFA opened up my life for me.”
Twelve years ago, Anne faced more complications after another accident seriously affected her health. After years of struggling to cope, she reached out for help.
“Twelve years ago, I was out, and I slipped. I couldn’t keep my balance, because I can’t feel my left side, and I was carrying an oxygen cylinder on my back at the time because of my bad asthma, which weighed about 7.5kg. I broke my right leg in several places, and some of the fractures still haven’t healed.
“I’ve got broken bones on one leg, and no feeling on the other, which makes life difficult, and consequently, I use a wheelchair because I don’t like to take too many painkillers.
“My husband died at a similar time to the accident, so I moved to sheltered housing alone. Generally I manage well, and I have a car with hand controls so I can get out and about.
“About 4 years ago I approached the RAF Association for help to buy a lifter to get my wheelchair (which has a motor and weighs 20kg) into my car. It was going to cost me somewhere in the region of about €18,000, and I just didn’t have that sort of money. But without it, things were getting worse and worse. To go to one shop I had to go from my flat to the car, load the wheelchair, take it out to do the shopping and load it all to go home. I couldn’t do it more than once a day, so it would take me a week just to get the things I needed from different stores.
“The RAF Association called and said they would like to ask SSAFA, who have representatives in Germany, to do carry out the casework. A SSAFA representative came to my home and took my details and sent them off to another representative in North Germany. We went back and forth as he needed the odd extra bit of detail from me here and there and when we got the form sorted, he sent it off to a number of charities to request help.
“One day I had a phone call from the caseworker. You could have knocked me down with a feather because he said the full amount would be paid by the RAF Association.
“I had waited so long, and though I hadn’t given up hope, I was a bit worried, because I couldn’t see how I was going to manage.
“You can’t believe the relief; it all went through really quickly after that. What pleased me too was that the money wasn’t put into my account, it was paid directly to the workshop who did the alterations on the car, and there was no hold up, or anything.
“The RAF Association and SSAFA opened up my life for me. I knew then that I could go out, I could go and see my friends. It opened up a whole new world.”
“…there is a lot I can do as a volunteer”
A couple of years after receiving support from SSAFA, Anne was surprised to get a call from a local caseworker. It was the beginning of a new chapter with the charity.
“Last year David, the caseworker in Paderborn, met me for a coffee and asked if I would be interested in becoming a caseworker. I had concerns because I was worried that I couldn’t help people who for example lived in a first floor flat. But he invited me to the AGM of SSAFA in Germany to learn more.
“I met Paul, the Chairman for SSAFA in Germany, and I said to him, ‘I would love to help, because I know how much it can do for somebody, but I’m limited in what I can do’. He said he was sure there is a lot I can do as a volunteer, and now we’ve managed to make it work well.
“I don’t work and I’m relatively free, I can manage to get about now because I’ve got the lift in the car, and when I am allocated a case where they live upstairs or I can’t get into the house, then I meet them for a cup of coffee in a restaurant or a café instead.“Usually I also ask clients for a video of their home too so that I can see their living environment and it works really well. Now, funnily enough, with coronavirus, we do all our caseworking on the telephone, which makes me the same as everybody else.
“It doesn’t help if you look at what you can’t do, that only makes you unhappy. Instead I look at how good life is. I’ve got a little pug, and I go out with him every day. I live on the edge of the town, I’m about 300 yards from a big park, and woods, and open areas. And I’ve got an electric scooter that I managed to buy second-hand, which I can get about with. I’m so lucky you wouldn’t believe it.
“When I look at other people, they haven’t all had the chances that I’ve had, and I can’t help but be happy at what is good. It’s not the life that I would have envisaged when I was 17, but it’s not a bad life.”
“I spend a lot of time trying to spread awareness of SSAFA”
“There are many issues that we support people with, in Germany.
“At the moment we are experiencing the winding down of the British Army in the Rhine. There are several cases of working age veterans married to German partners, who cannot speak German themselves, so struggle to find employment. We deal with a lot of debt.
“And then we support pensioners who haven’t got much income or savings, and they turn to us for financial support when things like washing machines or cookers break.
“At the moment I spend a lot of time trying to spread awareness of SSAFA among the German population who are married to British veterans. Luckily, I now know enough German that I can explain the purpose and process so they know they can ask us for help.
“If I can do it, others can do it too”
“I’m a good listener which helps me do the role well. I’m interested in people. I don’t just take in what they are saying, I can understand what they are not saying too.
“I also find it is important to take time and not rush. The people we meet tell us extremely personal things, and its important to take care and consideration. It helps that I have been through the system myself too and was supported by SSAFA, so I understand what it’s like from their side. I can relate.
“I’ve had an awful lot of help in my life, people have helped me when I’ve been lying on the floor and I didn’t know how I was going to get up. It gives me a feeling of being a part of the world.
“It’s easy to feel on the sidelines when you’re disabled, but to be able to do something for somebody and give them the help I have had, is fantastic. And if I can do it, others can do it too.
“To be a volunteer is a super feeling, it gives you a real adrenaline kick and SSAFA has opened a whole new chapter for me. Although I’m helping other people, I’m helping myself too.
“I’ve met a lot of people at SSAFA in Germany, that I would never have met otherwise and they’re all super people, volunteering because they want to do it, not because they have to and that is a big plus. I’ve never met anyone in SSAFA that wasn’t big-hearted.”