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Tributes paid to 'amazing' Sheffield woman who joined air force aged 17 during Second World War

Joan Bowskill during her days in the WAAF
Joan Bowskill during her days in the WAAF
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Tributes have been paid to a Sheffield woman who helped the Allies conquer the skies during the Second World War after signing up as a teenager.

Joan Bowskill, who lived for most of her years in Stannington, volunteered for the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) aged just 17 in 1941 and played a vital role preparing pilots for their missions.

Joan in front of the Women of World War II monument in London after it was unveiled in 2005

Joan in front of the Women of World War II monument in London after it was unveiled in 2005

As a batwoman, she was responsible for looking after flying officers, including cleaning their uniforms, and it was in this role she began a fairy tale romance with a decorated war hero which stood the test of time.

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When she met Spitfire pilot Jack Bowskill at a camp in Wigtown, Scotland, he was engaged to another woman but there was an instant spark and it took just one date to persuade him to call off that engagement as he knew Joan was the woman for him.

The RAF's top brass did their best to keep them apart, according to Joan's daughter Carol Gilbey, disapproving of the budding relationship between an officer and a lower-ranking woman.

She was posted to another base in Cambridgeshire in an attempt to keep them apart, but they continued to meet at weekends whenever possible and wrote regularly, with Joan saving those treasured love letters in a special box until her death.

Joan and Jack Bowskill on their wedding day in 1944

Joan and Jack Bowskill on their wedding day in 1944

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They married in 1944, the year before Jack was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for completing a daring reconnaissance mission in which he dodged fierce anti-aircraft fire while flying low over enemy ground.

In one heart-rending entry in her memoirs, she recalls: "When the war heated up I was worried about Jack. It was always in my heart he wouldn't come back to me, because I loved him so much."

Thankfully, he emerged largely unscathed from his many perilous missions and they went on to enjoy a happy life together in Stannington, where they raised their two children.

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After Jack was demobbed in 1947, he worked for his father's firm Don Joinery in Hillsborough, with Joan doing the wages, and Carol recalls how she would joke 'I cleaned his brass buttons when I was 18 and I've been looking after him ever since'.

Spitfire pilot Jack Bowskill, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the bravery he displayed during the Second World War

Spitfire pilot Jack Bowskill, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the bravery he displayed during the Second World War

Joan was heartbroken when Jack died in 1998, but becoming an active member of the WAAF Association helped her through her grief as she forged new friendships to add to the lifelong ones she had made during the war years, and she travelled to London in 2005 for the unveiling of the Women of World War II monument.

She was a keen golfer, who captained Hillsborough Golf Club, and was still knitting until shortly before her death, having only recently completed a batch of bonnets for premature babies at Sheffield's Jessop Wing.

Joan, who died last Wednesday, aged 94, was also a proud and loving grandmother of five, who had nine great-grandchildren.

Carol told how her mother, who was born Joan Paxton in Southend-on-Sea and lived briefly in Wales before moving to London, had made the most of her life.

"Mum's childhood was quite hard but she always said how she had a wonderful life," she said.

"She was such a loving person, who enjoyed socialising and was always the first person dancing at parties. Her house was always full of love and happiness.

"He nickname was Chardonnay Joan because she had a glass every day, and I like to think that was her secret to remaining so active and looking so much younger than her years.

"She was so proud of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and we're incredibly proud of her.

"I've been really touched by all the cards we've had from people telling us what an amazing woman she was."