Winnie's moving message offers reminder for all
She grew up between the wars, when parents grieved for the boys who never came home from the Western Front and fascism slowly cast its long shadow over Europe.
Winifred Beane, Winnie to her friends and family, was born in 1922, four years after the guns fell silent at the close of the First World War.
She was raised in Methley, on the outskirts of Leeds, in an age when the 1914-18 conflict was still described as the war to end all wars.
That would sadly prove a forlorn hope and after the Second World War broke out, it was Winnie’s turn to serve her country.
She spent four-and-a-half years in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a radio operator, working to guide the nation’s hero pilots home if they ran into difficulties using their radar.
And yesterday, as she helped launch this year’s Leeds Poppy Appeal, Winnie reflected on her service and spoke movingly of her desire for current and future generations to heed the lessons of the 20th century. Now aged 97 and living in Oulton, she told the YEP: “I think the Poppy Appeal is very important, in as much as we must not let [events like the First World War and Second World War] happen again.
“It’s also important that we still remember and always remember the people who gave their lives.
“It’s not the actual poppy, really, it’s the significance of what it means and what it symbolises.”
Winnie’s time in the WAAF saw her stationed at RAF Ouston, near the village of Stamfordham in Northumberland, after completing her training – or square-bashing, as she refers to it with a smile.
Recalling one of the occasions when she helped a stricken pilot reach safety, she said: “I was sitting there listening and heard ‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday’.
“I spoke to him and got a fix on him and brought him in. He wanted to come and thank me, but I thought at the time, well it’s only part of my job, so I didn’t get to see him. I wish now I had met him – not so he could say ‘oh, thank you Winnie’ and all that kind of thing, it would have just been nice.
“When I look back on what I did during the war, it’s with gratitude. I am proud of what I did and that I was able to do something.”
Winnie, a mother-of-three whose late husband, Charles, saw action at Dunkirk, also spoke of the close bonds forged between the women who served in the WAAF.
“There were great friendships. We never really talked about the work we were doing and we didn’t go out of the camp much, but I remember they were great friendships,” she said. “The [Second World War] was a sad time, of course, but in some ways it was also a good time – people pulled together, the whole country pulled together.”
Yesterday the sacrifices made by so many during the Second World War and other conflicts were in Winnie’s thoughts once again as she attended the local launch of this year’s Poppy Appeal.
She was presented with the city’s first poppy of the year by the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Coun Graham Latty, during the launch, which took place at The Light.
The event also included an act of remembrance and two-minute silence as well as music from acoustic duo Keystone and the Athill Trefoil Guild Ukulele Band.
Guests were addressed by Jeff Gantschuk, chairman of the Leeds branch of the Royal British Legion, with hosting duties being handled by Liz Green, from BBC Radio Leeds.
The Legion had a number of standard bearers on parade, including Martyn Simpson, a 56-year-old RAF veteran from its Barwick and Scholes branch.
Paying tribute to Winnie, he told the YEP: “When people think of the RAF, they think of fighter pilots. People don’t realise it takes scores of ground crew to fuel, arm and service the aircraft. The pilot also has to be fed, clothed and needs communications.
“We are indebted to people like Winnie. Whether a pilot just had a dodgy radar or had been shot up by the enemy, possibly injured and in pain, the likes of Winnie would remain calm, locate where they were and guide them to the nearest and safest airfield.
“This in turn saved many a life and most importantly stopped The Few becoming fewer.” Urging people across Leeds to get behind the Poppy Appeal, he added: “Whilst we remember the fallen in the 1914 to 1918 war, it is important to also think of recent conflicts such as the Falklands, the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. Veterans can be as young as mid 20s.
“They are walking and working alongside you, they would have seen things and been under pressures you would not normally see. Every penny you donate at poppy time helps not just the veteran but his or her family.”