The Baroness de T'Serclaes (Elsie Knocker)
Part 4 - 1939-78
The newly- formed WAAF, which eventually had a peak wartime strength of 180,000, was something of a shambles at the beginning, having been hastily formed. Even though the much-decorated Elsie probably had more war and administrative experience than anyone and had been a senior officer in the WRAF, she had to start out in the ranks, marching and drilling in the freezing cold of the 1939 winter which, she said, was almost as vile as that of 1914. By now she was 55 years old and it cannot have been easy. She also had to attend lectures on first-aid (!) and was made to sit examinations before becoming an officer.
RAF Barrage Balloons with WAAF Operating Crews 1940.
Image source Wikimedia
Initially she was posted to Balloon Command in London as an Assistant Section Officer, but her next assignment was at 60 Group (Signals) which was engaged in highly secret radar work. She was based at Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire and her job was to supervise the administration and welfare of airwomen at the radar stations. She spent much time visiting the stations, which were dotted all round the coast of Britain, and had the good fortune to be billeted at Ascott House, a Rothschild country home (now a National Trust property).
Ascott House near Wing, Buckinghamshire.
Photo by GianoII, Image source: Wikimedia Commons
After an unhappy period on a further course and a spell training recruits at Morecambe, her next and last posting was as a Squadron Officer (equivalent to Squadron Leader in the RAF and Major in the Army) in Bomber Command in Yorkshire. Owing to the petrol shortage she had sold her car and bought an Ariel Square 4 motorcycle with sidecar and that is how she arrived at her new base, Heslington Hall near York, which did wonders for her credibility with the 'troops'.
An Ariel Square 4 of the period.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Elsie saw something of Kenneth during this period and it was as well she did, for in July 1942 she was sitting in her office at Heslington Hall and opened a signal which read, 'We regret to inform you that your son is missing believed killed'.
Kenneth Duke Knocker
Kenneth Duke Knocker (centre with the sword).
Image courtesy of Paul Knocker ©
As mentioned, Kenneth had joined the RAF and spent part of the 1930s serving in India. In 1940 he became Commandant of RAF Stradishall in Suffolk. He need never have done operational flying again, but continued and in the early hours of 3 July 1942 was commanding a Short Stirling Mk.1 bomber which was limping home when it was shot down by a German fighter near Groningen in Holland. There were no survivors. Kenneth was buried in Westernieland General Cemetery, Groningen and is commemorated on the Ashtead War Memorial. He left a wife, who was herself a qualified pilot, and two sons.
A Short Stirling bomber.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Death Notices in The Times 22 Aug 1942 (Upper) and 03 Jul 1944 (Lower)
Kenneth's death knocked the stuffing out of Elsie and she began to reconsider her future, with some thought of establishing a national women's advisory committee to work in co-operation with Parliament, but her heart was not really in it. And then fate took a hand, when she heard from her foster father/uncle, Lewis Upcott, whose wife had just died: he was over 90 years old, living alone in a large house and wondered if she could go to help. Even then she could not bring herself to say anything particularly kind about the Upcotts, other than that they had been very good to Kenneth. She resigned her commission and went to look after Lewis, eventually bringing him back to Pervyse Cottage in Ashtead. He remained there until his death, which brought her a legacy from his estate.
Before we finish with the Second World War entirely there is a loose end to be tied up.
You will recall that we left the Belgian Baron, Harold de T'Serclaes, in limbo, as he played no further part in Elsie's life after the First World War. However, there was a lot more to his story. Diane Atkinson thinks that Elsie probably knew nothing of it - her version of events was that Harold had been killed in the 1914-18 War - but who knows.
Harold had been highly decorated during World War I and by all accounts was a fearless pilot and patriot, which makes his later actions all the more astonishing.
After retiring from the Forces he opened a zoo with his mistress, Marguerite Anciaux, who was known as the Baroness de T'Serclaes. During the Second World War he became a German collaborator, spying for the enemy, infiltrating the Antwerp resistance movement and denouncing its members; he also betrayed people who hid Jewish families from the Nazis. He had an accomplice in these activities, who was his young 'secretary', Suzanne Marten.
In June 1944 the Allies landed in France and Harold could see what was coming. Shortly before the liberation of Belgium he and Marten fled, first to Antwerp and then to Kessel in Germany. Anciaux stayed behind to dispose of incriminating evidence and went into hiding, but was soon arrested and sentenced to 20 years' hard labour. Harold and Marten went to Berlin where they were provided with new identities and German passports.
In 1947 they were tried in absentia by the War Council of Brussels and sentenced to death by firing squad, but remained in hiding, initially in Austria and then in Italy. Harold was stripped of most of his decorations and his title. Later, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and Marteau surrendered, but Harold did not and remained at large until he died in Rome in the 1950s.
Elsie's later life
I have already described Elsie's welfare and charity work in the introduction and I will not repeat it. Whatever her shortcomings may have been in some areas of her life, there is no denying that she had spent most of it helping others for no financial reward. One might think that this track record should have earned her a civil decoration, as it almost certainly would today, but nothing was forthcoming. In 1959, by which time she was 75, her energies were declining and she decided to retire, although she did later consider doing some more voluntary work. However, she broke both legs in a fall and, when she recovered, spent her remaining years in conventional retirement. In her memoirs she did not sound happy about that and admitted her loneliness.
Elsie in later life.
Image courtesy of the Knocker Family ©2014
Elsie, strictly no longer a Baroness (because Harold's Barony had been taken away), died of pneumonia and senile dementia in an Epsom nursing home on 26 April 1978, aged 93.
Linda Jackson © January 2012