Our Centenary Stories series continues with a tribute to Second World War veteran Noel Davies, who reached his own 100th birthday shortly before his death at the end of 2021. Noel served in the RAF in north-east Africa, later moving to the UK to work first as a civil engineer and then in The Poppy Factory’s production team. Alongside his work, he enjoyed a rich social life fuelled by a love of music and community.
Joining the RAF
Looking back at his wartime service in a video interview in 2015, Noel Davies recalled his determination, as a teenager in the late 1930s, to find a way into the Royal Air Force.
He had grown up with dual citizenship of Sierra Leone on his father’s side, and Nigeria on his mother’s, and had been educated in both countries. It was at his school in Sierra Leone that British military recruiters first came looking for potential pilots, although only a handful of the most academic pupils made it through on that occasion.
Noel told the Living Memorial project: "My bad luck was that the first six all wanted to be pilots and navigators. Because I had dual nationality, I went to Nigeria straight away where it was open to all engineers, and we were recruited."
After training with the Royal West African Air Corps, Noel was sent to a base in Khartoum, Sudan, to help assemble the planes that were urgently needed for the British war effort.
Noel said: "We had at least 10 months’ training, and after that we were transferred to the area where the planes were built. The pilots were trained in Canada. Eventually, we were able to build the planes, service them and roll them on the runway to see that everything was alright. Then the pilot would come and pick it up. We worked on Spitfires, then we worked on Lightnings, then on Venturas and the Lancaster Bombers."
The young Noel was immediately struck by the many varied accents of the British servicemen working alongside him.
"In our school in Sierra Leone, we were taught to speak Oxford English," he said. "They were the ones who read the news and held all the positions. But when I met them, I didn’t know if I was talking to an Englishman or not, because their accents were so different. Eventually you get used to it, and I found out they were exactly like us. In West Africa you get different tongues and different accents, and the same thing happens in England."
Moving to London
At the end of the war, the RAF encouraged Noel to sign up for a further 10 years to build up the air force, working on the development of jet aircraft. Instead, he chose to pursue a different opportunity and moved into civil engineering with a firm based in south London.
"After the war, my engineering past stood me in good stead," said Noel. "I was able to come to England, and because of my certificate and training, I was told I would get a job straight away in the engineering field. I was given a job at a place called Morgan Crucible Works."
Noel's engineering skills were put to use on projects to build up British military capability. And he quickly settled into the community, which soon felt familiar.
"The first thing I noticed was washing on lines hung up outside, just like we do in Africa really. We found they could swear just like us, they were friendly and some of the children would run barefoot, just like children did in Africa. It didn’t take before we managed to join them and work with them."
Life at The Poppy Factory
As an ex-serviceman, Noel joined the Royal British Legion and became vice-chair of the West Indian Association of Service Personnel (WASP). He went to join the production team at The Poppy Factory in March 1962, at the age of 40.
Over the next three decades he embraced the factory community and took part in key calendar events, including the opening of the Army Recruiting Centre poppy shop in November 1968 (pictured), which he attended with the Mayor of Chatham.
Although he finally retired from the factory floor in 1989, aged 67, Noel continued working from home, making poppies by hand from his flat on The Poppy Factory’s estate. He continued to live happily there until a move to a care home in his final years.
Noel reached his landmark 100th birthday on December 21, 2021. He died five days later, on Boxing Day.
An important contribution
Deirdre Mills, Chief Executive of The Poppy Factory, said: "We are enormously grateful to Noel for his work at The Poppy Factory, where he spent more than a quarter of his life as a member our production team.
"Noel played a vital role during the Second World War, assembling and testing the fighters and bombers that proved so critical to Allied success.
"Through his work at our factory creating Remembrance poppies and wreaths, Noel continued to make an important contribution in honouring all those who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars and in subsequent conflicts. He helped to maintain a national tradition that continues proudly to this day, as we seek to ensure that future generations never forget the sacrifice of all those who have given their lives on our behalf."
Love of music
Alongside his lifetime of work, Noel cultivated a life-long love of music. His collection included vintage 78rpm records and 8-track cassette cartridges, rarely seen in the UK, and he enjoyed a wide variety of genres, ranging from 1940s crooners like Buddy Clark and Nat King Cole to 1960s soul, 1970s funk and orchestral film scores.
The Poppy Factory is grateful to Noel’s sister, Rita Ukachi-Lois, for contributing examples of Noel’s collection for display in our visitor centre.
Rita, who works as an Associate Lecturer at the south London campus of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, said: “Although Noel was a lot older than me, in some ways I knew him better than our parents. I was 24 when our dad died, and I got to know Noel two years later when I came back to the UK.
“He loved music and he was always very active, going to dances, functions and party after party. He always had lots of people around him. He lived a full life and we’re all very proud of everything that he did.”