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Joan Fanshawe: Battle of Britain Map Plotter

1920 - 2018

'If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into an abyss of a dark new age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth survives for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.' Winston Churchill, the House of Commons, June 1940.

December 29 2018: One of the last surviving map plotters of the Battle of Britain, Joan Fanshawe, has died in New Zealand.

Fanshawe, who was 98, was visiting her two daughters in Auckland and took ill while baking a Christmas cake. She later died in hospital.

Fanshawe (left), whose maiden name was Moxon, joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force at 19 on the declaration of World War II, abandoning plans to study for a social work degree. She enlisted out of a sense of duty, saying that since her father had no sons to volunteer, she would do it instead.

She was on WAAF duty on September 15, 1940 - the day the Battle of Britain came to a head with 1500 aircraft fighting for control of the skies above London. The Royal Air Force was stretched to the limit as the German Luftwaffe pressed to gain supremacy in the air.

Joan recalled 'It became more and more hectic for us to find spaces to put the plots on the table, we realised that this must be such a battle going on.'

'They [the Luftwaffe] thought we'd run out of planes and of course we hadn't,' she said.

Joan had joined up in July 1940, aged 19. Trained as a map plotter – or “croupier” – she was serving in the Operations Room at No. 11 Group’s H.Q., Uxbridge, at the height of the Battle. Moreover, her place on the map was plumb over Dover-Calais, the very hub of approaching enemy formations. By way of illustration, think back to the film 'The Battle of Britain' – remember the scene with the WAAF plotters donning their tin helmets as an enemy attack closed in?

One of 10 special duty WAAF staff, Fanshawe worked shifts in the operations room at RAF Uxbridge in West London.

Their role was to pinpoint both RAF and enemy aircraft positions using flagged blocks and arrows on a huge plotting table and grid reference map of southern England. The crucial success achieved by the Command and Control System was partly thanks to the excellent work a small band of Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) personnel, charged with radar and map plotting work at assorted Group commands – commands that invariably came under frequent enemy attack.

Plotting Room 11 Group September 1940

It was looking down at the plotting table and noting that all the lights indicating the current status of British fighter squadrons were at Squadron In Action that Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill famously asked 11 Group's Commander, the famous New Zealander Air Vice Marshall Keith Park, about committing his reserve aircraft:

'How many more have you got?'.

Park replied: 'None, Sir'.

Witnesses of the event suggested that Churchill's response to news of the lack of additional aircraft was 'quite grave'.

Despite the visit from the British Prime Minister, Fanshawe noted in her diary that she was 'rather annoyed' the Commander-in-Chief's visit had extended her shift by an hour. However, later she reflected: 'I think we realised that we were fighting for our lives. I can't praise Churchill enough.'

'When the weather was good we were frantically busy because the planes were coming up this way, and we were getting our own planes up from the airfields so the table was crammed with blocks and arrows,' she remembers.

'Some days you would have nothing on the table at all and nothing to do. We'd get our reading out or knitting.'

In the last decade she became quite a celebrity in Britain given her role in the war and was an honoured guest this year at the RAF's centenary celebrations in London. Three years earlier she gave a reading at the Westminster Abbey Battle of Britain Day service.

Earlier this year she attended the premiere of British documentary 'Spitfire' (right), which commemorated the men, women and aircraft involved in the victory in the Battle of Britain.

As one of the last surviving map plotters, she also appeared in a number of documentaries about the war.

Her funeral, attended by about 60 people, was held yesterday in Manurewa at the St Elizabeth Anglican Church

WAAF plotters at work in the Operations Room at No. 11 Group HQ at Uxbridge

Fanshawe's ashes are to be returned to Britain where they will be interred in her local Anglican church's cemetery in Stroud, Hampshire.

A regular visitor to New Zealand over the past 18 years, Fanshawe is survived by her son, Lionel, who lives in Stroud, Hampshire, and her Auckland-based daughters, Althea and Dionys.

Sources: New Zealand Herald (author Ryan Dunlop), Stroud village website , BBC Hampshire article

SY 2018-12-30

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