WORDS OF WAR

 

Working with the VAD in Britain and Europe

 

WAR - what a kaleidoscope of memories the word conjures up for me! Memorials to vital moments in a lifetime; for I believe that as we grow older, we possess nothing of real value but the past.

 

The 1930s, as I recall, were dismal years – bleak in the sense that, though the Great War was 12 years behind us, we felt we hadn’t very much to look forward to. Our country had lost the flower of its youth in that war and we were plunged into widespread unemployment in the 30s. Many young men I knew were ‘laid off’, sometimes just as they were beginning a promising career. I remember seeing pictures in the papers of various marches by the unemployed to Downing Street – particularly the Jarrow march – to plead for help for poverty-stricken families.

 

As the Bard said, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, But in battalions!” So to add to our troubles there were premonitions in the papers of a coming war with our old enemy, Germany. Surely not! Unthinkable! Weren’t we assured it would never happen again? Trying to cheer ourselves up, ‘it’s just paper talk’, we said; ‘it’s their job to wind people up and sell papers’.

 

About this time, in one English lesson in school, we studied two poems that summed up what people, in their heart of hearts, may have thought about the possibility of yet another war so soon after the last one. Our English teacher, who had distressing facial injuries received in the Great War, was understandably bitter, which might account for his choosing these anti-war poems. Here is the last verse of the poem entitled “Will it be so again?” by C. Day-Lewis, who writes, in simple language, of the lies and hypocrisy of the powers-that-be:

 

      Call not upon the glorious dead

        To be your witnesses then!

        The living alone can nail to their

        Promise the ones who said:

“It shall not be so again.”

 

The other poem is by probably the greatest of World War 1 poets, Wilfred Owen, who was a serving officer at the time he wrote it; the wonder is he wasn’t drummed out of the Army as a result. From first hand experience he wrote poignantly of the appalling sufferings and dreadful deaths of many soldiers. At the end of “Dulce Et Decorum Est” he wrote:

 

“The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori

(it’s a sweet and fitting thing to die for your country) 

 

It’s an old lie told to, and swallowed by, past generations and even written on many war memorials.

 

And yet, I have to say that at times of crisis, when a country and its people are fighting for their very life, such propaganda (like most war propaganda) may become absolutely necessary.

 

By 1938 even the optimists amongst us were beginning to think the worst. The papers were full of pictures of Adolf Hitler, the German Führer and dictator, always marching with his cohorts of well-drilled Nazis into the surrounding countries of Austria and Czechoslovakia, taking them over without as much as a by-your-leave.

 

We in Britain finally woke up to the fact that Hitler, that ridiculous little fellow, could be another Napoleon! Prime Minister Chamberlain tried tactics of appeasement and I can well remember the pictures of this rather stodgy and humourless man arriving back in London from his mission waving his piece of paper at the waiting crowds, Alas! He’d been taken in, of course: the horse had already bolted!

 

Our fate was finally sealed when, in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and war with Germany was solemnly declared in September.

 

A strange trio Britain was up against indeed (reminiscent of President Bush’s recent denouncement of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an Axis of Evil). The Axis then comprised Germany, Italy, headed by Mussolini and his Fascist Black Shirts, and Japan. What these three countries had in common was their totalitarian regimes, even if not much else.

 

ON THE HOME FRONT IN SCOTLAND

 

Now that the country was at war, we were all under orders. Food, of course, was rationed. What queer things we ate in those days: ox cheek and lamb’s tongues were two regarded as delicacies. Then there were Woolton Pies (Lord Woolton was Minister of Food) – dry-as-dust. We were urged over the radio to try different recipes, using dried egg, also very unappetising. Ersatz coffee was awful. What joy to come across the occasional banana or for my mother to be slipped a nice juicy steak from a friend involved in the black market.

 

It seems, however, that our meagre diet didn’t do us any harm. In fact, we’ve been told since that that the nation was never healthier than when we had to tighten our belts – though I’m not advocating a return to our wartime diet as the answer to today’s obesity problems.

 

Clothes were at a premium and you were glad to wear cast-offs and ‘liquid’ stockings were a godsend – you painted your legs to match the colour of stockings, which were so difficult to come by. Those newly-weds who were setting up house (if they were lucky enough to get one) had to rely on second-hand or ‘Utility’ furniture.

 

Truth is the first casualty of war, so propaganda to keep up our spirits appeared daily on radio and hoardings. Though I’m not suggesting we were told lies (maybe the Ministry of Information was just a bit economical with the truth!). Nightly, we were told about Cockney heroism in London – about the thousands who slept in the Underground and came up smiling every morning. “Walls have ears” was splashed on posters; we were exhorted not to spread alarm and despondency or told to be like Dad – “Keep Mum”.

 

The Forces were, of necessity, as close as oysters about their movements. It was often a case of ‘folding up their tents and creeping silently away’. Many promising romances were nipped in the bud as a result. As some of my friends, lacking understanding, remarked bitterly: “they’re here today and gone tomorrow’.

 

As for our arch enemy, Hitler, to begin with we laughed at  this comical, strutting little fellow with the staring maniacal eyes and a stub for a moustache like Charlie Chaplin’s. Somehow, you couldn’t take him seriously – ‘mad as a hatter’, we thought – till we realised he was a dangerous, wicked madman when we heard with horror of the Holocaust and the ineffable concentration camps. He was a megalomaniac, a madman with delusions of grandeur and an abnormal craving for power. I always saw him as a gigantic mouth forever screaming abuse at the Allies. As for his Nazi followers, they worshipped him as a god and “Heil Hitler” was never off their lips. He was invariably accompanied by podgy Goering, his right-hand man and founder of the Gestapo, the much-feared secret state police and by the Machiavellian Minister for Propaganda, the sinister Goebbels.

 

In the end, we knew that, at all costs, he and his gang would have to be exterminated like so much vermin.

 

To keep up our morale, we had to be entertained, so ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association, was set up for that purpose: songs, films, radio and stage shows were put on; professional film and stage stars were ‘called up’ and travelled all over the world to entertain the troops wherever they were stationed. Vera Lynn, now a Dame, the ‘Forces Sweetheart’ as she was called, sang sentimental ditties like “We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again” or “The White Cliffs of Dover.” Then there were patriotic songs like “We’ll hang our washing on the Siegfried Line” or “Run, Rabbit run.” J B Priestley, the famous Yorkshire novelist was wheeled on to give short talks in his inimitable way. A female character in one of the comedies made me laugh a lot. She was a moaning Minnie, full of grumbles about everything and would always end her piece by saying, “It’s being so cheerful keeps me going.”

 

The films shown were intended to arouse our patriotism – “In which we serve” and “The Way to the Stars” were both very fine. But the most popular was undoubtedly “Mrs Miniver” with Greer Garson in the lead. It was excellent. Churchill, now the Prime Minister, claimed, in his hyperbolic way that “Mrs Miniver did more for public morale than a flotilla of destroyers!” A film I saw then and thought excellent but which had no connection with the war was “Brief Encounter”, scripted by Noel Coward. It was a great hit; script and acting were first class, with Trevor Howard as the doctor and Celia Johnson the housewife who met accidentally on a railway station platform. Their love affair progressed to the background music of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. It was a lovely, wistful kind of film – very different from a film with a similar story would be in today’s world: the lovers did not commit adultery and both returned to their families. Two other outstanding films I saw then, both about war, were “Henry V”, with Laurence Olivier and “Gone with the Wind”, about the American Civil War. Though an American film, it had three British actors in the lead roles.

 

At this period, things weren’t going at all well for the Allies. One blow after another rained down on our ill-prepared shoulders. Worse was to come: our chief ally, France, surrendered to the Germans, much to our disgust, and that stiff-necked, arrogant giant of a man, General de Gaulle, was appointed head of the Free French forces. So no longer could we rely on the Maginot Line, that fortified bulwark between France and Germany to protect us.

 

In the summer of 1940, however, we were bucked up by Churchill’s famous speech to the nation. I was on holiday in Dunoon at the time, with a girl friend. The hotel was full of lads and lassies having a good time. One night it was announced That Churchill would be making a very important speech on the radio. Everyone stayed in to listen as we felt it would be ominous. Churchill’s voice, with its imperfect sibilants and his strange pronunciation of ‘Nazis’ (sounding, appropriately enough, like ‘Nasties’) was unmistakeable. Towards the end of his speech there was a breathless hush as he announced that we would fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets; we would fight in the hills and never surrender. Unmistakeably it was a stentorian call to action and it certainly galvanized us, his listeners. You could almost see the light of battle in our eyes; there was a straightening of backs, a girding of the loins, as it were. We pictured ourselves being issued with guns and waiting in ambush for the first of the enemy daring to land on our shores, then giving him a bloody nose. It was indeed an exhilarating occasion!

 

Life, I reckon, was never the same after that speech. Up to that point we hadn’t taken the war seriously – after all it was called the ‘Phoney War’ and we had the Maginot Line to protect us, hadn’t we?  It was unthinkable that our island could ever be invaded.  After 1066, only the Spanish and Dutch had the temerity to have a go, but they hadn’t got further than the Channel. However, the French surrender was a bitter blow and the Dunkirk debacle that followed brought home to us the possibility of a German invasion. But as often, we are at our best in times of disaster and the Dunkirk retreat was transformed into “one of our finest hours.”  We had to rely on Press photographs then to see the vast array of ships of every description, rescuing our beleaguered soldiers from the Dunkirk beach.  It was indeed a wonderful, heart-warming sight to see so many men wading out to the ships in orderly fashion, while under enemy fire, and being rescued from the jaws of defeat.

 

When the Luftwaffe started its bombing campaign, you couldn’t see the sky over the Channel for enemy planes – a terrifying sight! But they were deflected from their objective by the skill and courage of our young Spitfire pilots (hastily trained, in planes hurriedly produced). Again, we owed it to Churchill for summing up the nation’s heartfelt thanks with the simple, unforgettable words,  “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

 

On the home front, Anderson Air Raid Shelters were provided for the garden if you had one.  In our case, we had to shelter in the cellars or “dunnies” as they were called under the tenements in Glasgow.  We were fortunate in escaping the nightly hammering some English cities, like London and Coventry, suffered.  However, there was one brilliant moonlight night in March, l940, when the banshee wailing of the sirens started, and we thought at first it might be another false alarm.  Then we heard the distant droning like the sound of innumerable giant bees, growing louder as the bombers approached.

 

“Best get down to the shelter,” said my mother, “and put on your warmest clothes. It’ll be bitter down there.”

My father, in spite of our pleas, refused to budge. He was a fatalist: “I’m not going down there. If my name’s on that bomb, I’ll cop it anyway.” 

 

My mother, agitated by now, thrust into a bag: milk, biscuits, books and her knitting; joining our neighbours, we made our way by torch and moonlight to our shelter. In the harsh light of three naked, electric light bulbs, the cellar certainly looked like a dungeon. The authorities had provided a table, chairs and a cupboard stocked with crockery and cutlery but there was no heating and the air was dank and musty. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a rat scurry across the floor. There were mostly women and children seated around the table. An elderly couple huddled in a corner, holding hands, too frightened to speak. A young mother rocked her fractious baby to sleep while another attempted to interest her two tired lads in a game of rummy. Mr McLeod kept cracking feeble jokes, to everyone’s irritation, while his bored teenage daughter varnished her nails. My mother had brought warm sausage rolls wrapped up in two cosies and, as always, had her knitting to keep her busy. The only serene member was old Mrs Mason, who smiled and talked to her neighbours, shared out the coffee she brought in a flask and handed out dolly mixtures and wine gums to the children.

 

The distant wailing changed to a thunderous roaring. Everyone looked terrified. Every five minutes or so there would be an uncanny silence; then came the peculiar crump-crump sound of a bomb bursting. The silence in the cellar was broken by Mr McLeod shouting, “Don’t worry! If you hear it drop, you’re quite safe.” I thought it was a daft thing to say. Mrs Mason started singing “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’. Uncertainly at first, we all joined in; other old favourites followed, including a full-throated rendering of Harry Lauder’s famous “Keep Right on to the End of the Road”, which drowned out the noise of the dropping bombs. Soon we were all feeling more relaxed: the lads were laughing over a game of Snakes and Ladders and the baby was fast asleep. Even the old couple were smiling.

At last the All Clear sounded. The young ones, off their marks like a shot, bounded up the stairs; the rest followed more sedately, all ready to hit the hay.

 

Next morning I went out and was appalled at the devastation: whole streets of houses flattened, just piles of broken stones and slates. Fires were still burning and the air was grey, the smell cindery. In the distance I could see slates cascading down from the roof of a tenement which was still standing. I met an Air Raid Warden, looking haggard.

“Plenty of flak from Jerry last night, eh!” he said.

“Worst job - searching for dead bodies – not like the usual dead bodies, mind – terrible sight.”  He shuddered.

I said, “You’re doing a great job – not many could stand it.

How about the shipyards?” I asked.

“Not bad, I hear, though Clydebank’s copped it. Not up to it, some of them Jerry pilots. Just drop them any old place. Glad to get shot of them Ispect. I heard a couple walking along a country lane got killed last night. That’s Fate if you like.”

“Wonder if there’s much point in taking shelter”, I said. “Anyway, what’s the point of it all – destroy places like shipyards and kill as many ordinary people as possible?”

“The idea is to terrify people”, he said, “so that we give in, though not much chance of that, with our Bulldog at the top! Anyway, our lot would be over the German cities last night, hitting their targets, I hope.”

I walked back home, sad to see those well-built sandstone tenements biting the dust as it were.

 

CALLED TO THE COLOURS

 

The year was 1941 – the year the Act for Conscription of Women was passed. As the war took its toll, more reinforcements were needed in the Forces, especially the Army, so women (aged 19-31), unmarried, with no children and in an unreserved occupation, would be needed to fill the breach – hence the Act.

 

I knew I was ‘for it’ as I fulfilled all the Act’s requirements. After the first reaction, I felt pleased to be doing something for the war effort. Not so my mother, who felt, justly, hard done by. In the Great War she’d lost two young brothers; and my father, as a result of his injuries, had a permanent limp. Just 21 years later, her two sons had to go to war (one sweated it out in Iraq for 5 years). Now her daughter was also being called up. She was bitter about fellows who failed to pass the Army medical because of something trivial like flat feet and were allowed to remain at home and, because of the shortage of skilled men, made money, like, as she said, “slate stanes”.

 

The problem for me was which group of the women’s forces to join. The government were very keen to enrol more ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) to help the Armed Forces but I’d no desire to ‘go square bashing’, salute my superiors or wear that most unbecoming khaki uniform. I’d have liked the WRNS or, failing that, the WAAF, but no joy – they’d closed ranks as the Army had the greatest need. So it was suggested that I join the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), which was attached to the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps). You couldn’t be conscripted into that group. The downside was that there were no ‘freebies’, as was the case with the other women’s forces: they not only received uniforms but also underwear, night attire, toiletries etc. Also, if you had any skills, promotion was swift. In the VAD, promotion was minimal, except for pharmacists or those in charge of the financial side of things in a hospital. I heard of only two VAD corporals. Of course, there were Commandants – they were members of the Upper Class and did most of the organisation in the Detachments. Like those volunteers in Ambulance or Red Cross groups who didn’t have to work for a living, they were the first to be called up.

 

The decision taken, before I could be enrolled into the VAD, I had to attend classes in First Aid and Home Nursing, in which I had to qualify before I could be accepted. I well remember feeling my way gingerly by feeble torchlight (it was not permitted to be brighter than a glimmer) through the darkened streets of Glasgow twice a week to these classes. We had no fears about being attacked, even with a war on; we feared only that the torch would give out and we’d be plunged into complete darkness. Occasionally, the sirens would wail and the searchlights rake the skies, but I never had to take cover.

 

I passed the exams all right but, alas, all I can remember of Home Nursing now is how to make ‘hospital corners’ when making beds and in First Aid never to give a wounded man anything to drink.

 

Once in uniform, I was always terrified when travelling by road or train in case I was summoned to help in the event of an accident. So a fat lot of good my elementary training in First Aid did for me!

 

Came the fateful interview with the Red Cross Commandant for my area. She was a formidable woman, in her fifties, I think, with a cut-glass accent and basilisk-like stare with which she fixed me most of the time, except at intervals when she bared her teeth in what she might have believed was an encouraging smile, but which switched on and off like an electric light. I was taken aback when she addressed me by my surname and asked why I had chosen to join the VAD. I told her I didn’t want to be attached to any of the combatant services. I wanted instead to help the sick and wounded. This was only half true, as I’d no real desire to be a nurse. I told her I had secretarial skills, and she said, “Good, we can use you then in a clerical capacity in the hospitals.” So ended my interview on a positive note. I later discovered that the VAD service consisted not only of nurses, but also cooks, dispensers, ambulance drivers and clerks.

 

UNDER THE RED CROSS BANNER - SCOTLAND

 

My call up papers arrived on 5th January 1942 and I was posted to Edinburgh Castle, which had been converted into a military hospital. My mother was pleased I wasn’t going very far away – she’d be able, she thought, to visit me on my off-duty days. I was seen off at the railway station by my tearful mother and aunt. I looked along the platform at all the little farewell parties – worst of all were the pathetic groups of forlorn children – evacuees – mugs strung round their necks, clutching gas masks and labelled like so many parcels, off to a strange town to live among people they didn’t know. Some, I believe, took to it; others were very homesick, longing to return home.

 

I was billeted in 17th Century Blackie House on the Royal Mile, fairly near the Castle. It was a tall, grim building with many stone flights of stairs up to our sleeping quarters. It had a fortress-like atmosphere and was bitterly cold (no central heating then!) It reminded me of the grim castles I’d read about in Gothic romances.

 

At the Hospital I had my first experience of nursing as a VAD, which meant we were just skivvies. We were never allowed by the QAs (Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps) to do any real nursing, no matter how elementary. They looked down their noses at us and we were given menial jobs – I seemed to spend all my time emptying bedpans and bottles. I was reminded of the similar experience of Vera Brittain in her “Testament of Youth”, about life as a VAD in the Great War.

 

Fortunately, this initiation period didn’t last long – about six weeks, I think, after which I was thrilled to be told I was being sent to Inverness, the medical HQ of the North Highland Division. That train journey to Inverness in the depths of winter was a memory I’ll never forget. Soon after leaving the suburbs and outlying villages of Edinburgh, we were in Perthshire and there were the Grampians, shining in all their glistening white glory, and loch and river sparkling blue in the winter sunshine.

When we got to Aviemore station, I stuck my head out of the window and took in great gulps of the pine-smelling air. Lucky me, I thought – to be stationed in Inverness, capital of the Highlands, I hoped for a long time. In fact, by good luck, I remained there for two happy years.

 

My destination was the CRS (Camp) in Cameron Barracks, a few miles from Inverness. The Reception Station was a small hospital for minor ailments such as scabies. There were eight VADs sharing a dormitory. The pharmacist, cook and chief clerk had separate rooms. Our officer in command was a matron, a middle-aged Invernessian who lived in a nearby village. She was a ‘dear’, with a most beguiling Highland voice, who mothered us. She used to wait up for us, coming in late from a dance or outing, with a cup of cocoa or Bovril and crackers. Incidentally, we had to be in by 10:30 pm unless permission was given for a later time. As four of us were clerks working in Divisional HQ office in Inverness, we were provided with bicycles for travel to and from town. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in years but soon polished up my skills and loved it.

 

Not having any sisters, it took quite a bit of getting used to, sleeping in a large room with strange females – characters every one. The lack of privacy irked me greatly at first – that and the divided camp: the nurses and the clerks kept up a running battle, reminding me of the Angela Brazil girls’ school stories I used to read in my childhood. Being a newcomer, I didn’t take sides and was accused of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. Very soon, however, the troublemakers were posted away, things settled down and I came to greatly enjoy the camaraderie of my fellow VADs.

 

We had only one bathroom for all eight girls, so were forced to share the bath (one at each end!) It shows my ignorance of the naked female form (let alone the male one!) when I was tickled pink to see, during a bathing session, my red-haired room-mate’s bright red fluff of pubic hair.

 

A word about our food: it was pretty monotonous, not very appetising, as you can imagine. But, although our meals were not of cordon bleu standard, our VAD cook made imaginative use of the provisions she was given. I shall always remember the hard ‘dog’ biscuits we were glad to eat as a change from bread. How we longed for some chocolate ones!

 

It was not long after our arrival, during our midday meal, that the war struck home with a vengeance. One of our VAD clerks was asked to go to matron’s room. We all hoped she wasn’t going to be ticked off about some mistake she had made – rules had to be implicitly obeyed in the CRS. Not that at all – worse – it was to be told the awful news that her Flying Officer brother was missing, believed killed. She was to go home immediately to her parents’ house in Edinburgh. The news cast a pall of gloom over our group from which it took us some time to recover.

 

Our office in Inverness where we four clerks worked was in the Ardross Hotel, which was on the banks of the River Ness facing the imposing Castle.  To begin with, I was secretary to the Colonel-in-Chief (a doctor, of course) but found the work neither taxing nor interesting, so applied for a change – as secretary to the Psychiatrist, whose secretary had left to get married. I’d always had an interest in psychology, so found the work very much to my taste. Quickly, I learned that ‘there’s nowt so queer as fowk’. One of the ruses some soldiers tried on in order to get dismissed from the Army was to complain of nocturnal enuresis. I thought it would be difficult to achieve but quite often the occupants of the soldier’s barrack room, perhaps wanting rid of their room-mate, backed up his case and he was able to achieve his objective. In any case, a disgruntled soldier wasn’t much use to the Army.

 

I remember a sad case of a Chaplain who, on his rounds, travelled on a motorbike from camp to camp. It seemed that as he approached a village or town he would stop and expose himself to any female who happened to see him. Pretty innocuous behaviour, you might think, but he was reported to the authorities and eventually his case landed on the Psychiatrist’s desk. It was thought he might be cured by psychiatric treatment but, in the event, it was decided to dismiss him from the Army – a very unfortunate business for his wife and family!

 

Of course, there were ‘homos’ and ‘pansies’ in the Army and, if found out, they got short shrift from the top brass, no matter how efficient they might be as soldiers.

 

Off-duty we had a ball. Girls were thin on the ground in Cameron Barracks so you needn’t be a ‘bobby dazzler to get plenty of partners at the dances – there were no wallflowers there. We danced almost every night or went to concerts where the stars of screen and stage entertained us. Sometimes we were taken in those great lumbering trucks (how they shook you up!) to the other camps in the area. I liked all the dances, particularly the waltz and, surprisingly, the tango (though I was no dab hand at that). The tango tune was a haunting melody called ‘Jealousy’ and it sticks in my mind even to this day. Other songs popular then were “Shine on Harvest Moon up in the Sky” and (one of my favourites) “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow” – the idea was to cheer you up when you were ‘browned off’.

 

We were spoiled rotten by the Quartermaster-Sergeant (the top non-commissioned officer) who saw to it that we got delicacies occasionally, denied to us in our day-to-day fare. This was a big contrast to the NAAFI where, if you were lucky, you might get a fried egg swimming in baked beans and a chokingly dry sponge cake with a scrap of icing on top.

 

Of course, if you were a real ‘honey’ like our VAD Dispenser, with her black, curly hair and sapphire blue eyes, you wouldn’t need to put up with such plebeian fare: the officers were lining up to take her out, and one she was friendly with for a time, a Dermatologist (a Major) regularly took her to Inverness’s poshest restaurant, the Caledonia. Very occasionally, the rest of us Cinderellas saved up our pennies and splashed out on a meal at the “Cally”, as it was called.

 

At Christmas time, the Cameron Officers came up trumps, giving a bumper meal in their mess, where they waited on us hand and foot and treated us right royally.

 

Off duty, at weekends in spring and summer, we would cycle down Loch Ness (no Nessie then) to Drumnadrochit, a village as Highland as its name, or along the Moray coast to Nairn, or to the Beauly Firth, or to the Black Isle and Cromarty. The area is chock-a-block with firths and lochs and the scenery of country and coast, I need hardly say, is truly magnificent.

 

Shortly after we’d settled in, the Matron gave us an informal, quick, picturesque talk on, of all subjects, emotional relationships. Here’s an account of what she said, as far as I remember it:

nubile girls, such as you (she explained ‘nubile’ as meaning marriageable) are meeting in work and play with male predators lurking in the undergrowth.” We laughed at that description. “It behoves you girls to be on your guard. Remember that some of these married men, away from their wives’ eagle-eyes, are having a whale of a time – they’re making hay while the sun shines, knowing they can easily get out of an awkward situation – the Army can always provide a useful bolt hole. You’ll have to be on the lookout for young bachelors with their ‘easy come, easy go’ philosophy. Some of them might be RAF pilots, nightly risking their lives, so don’t allow yourselves to be bowled over by them, no matter how sympathetic you might feel.”

 

I think, looking back, Matron should have mentioned there are female predators about too, ready to seduce innocent males, provided they’ve got the necessary wherewithal. Maybe she wouldn’t think any of her girls were like that.

 

Anyway, her spiel was a warning shot across the bows, as it were, as most of us were inexperienced in sexual matters. Even so, although the Pill was yet to be invented, and sex lessons were not given at school or at home, there were surprisingly few pregnancies among the VAD or ATS girls.

 

I had some experience of a male predator in the guise of an RAF officer (ground staff) whom I met at a dance in the Barracks. He was a Londoner, older than me, handsome, smooth-tongued and knew how to treat a girl. Though I enjoyed his company, I never thought of him as a possible boyfriend. At one point, our short, 5-day, leaves coincided and he invited me to go with him to London to meet his married sister! Why not his parents, I wondered. When I refused, he called me a ‘canny Scot’. In any case, it wasn’t the done thing then to spend a holiday with a man unless you were officially engaged. Not long after, he was posted to England and I never heard from him again. I later learned that he was a married man with three children! Of course, his friends had never let on – not, that is, until it was safe to do so. ‘Mum’ was, apparently, the word in regard to relationships with the opposite sex. They‘d set up a kind of male esprit de corps!

 

Then there was the story of one of the nurses wooed quite assiduously by a Cameron officer. He admitted he was married but spun the well-worn tale that his wife didn’t understand him and, when the war was over, they intended to divorce, and then……  Eventually, he gave her a book of Keats’s poetry and on the flyleaf were written the famous last 4 lines of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

    

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

                    A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou

                    Beside me singing in the Wilderness –

                    And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

 

All very romantic, we thought. Perhaps there was genuine feeling here, after all – who knows? After he’d gone, their correspondence soon lapsed. For a time, she was pretty miserable, until she acquired a replacement.

 

So, in this emotional business, inevitably there would be some heartache but, on the whole, I don’t recall any bones being broken and, as the saying goes, (in another context, of course) it was a learning curve for many young, inexperienced VADs who had been let down.

 

You may well ask if we, in our peaceful neck of the woods, ever wondered how our forces were faring in the theatres of war outside our island. We were, of course, intensely interested, but frustrated as news filtered through only slowly, and with little detail.

We did hear a lot about the war in N Africa, where Foxy-faced Montgomery, as he was affectionately known, had scored a resounding victory against the Axis. But the various battles for Tobruk had us on a knife-edge until Monty and his Desert Rats recaptured it during the Battle of El Alamein.

By July 1943, the Italians had surrendered after losing Sicily and Mussolini had been dismissed. We always thought the Italians were half-hearted about the War, were not up to it, and were relieved when it was all over.

 

In the summer of 1943, I was suddenly sent for to go to a camp reception station in Strathpeffer, a spa town some miles north of Inverness. The VAD clerk there was on special leave for 6 weeks and a replacement was urgently needed.

 

We were billeted in a nice villa and I was to be in temporary charge of the office and all that entailed. It seemed to me that my work as Psychiatrist’s secretary could be left in abeyance for 6 weeks while this office job, clearly regarded as more urgent, was tackled. There certainly was plenty to do. The telephone never stopped ringing; correspondence to be read and replied to; provisions ordered from HQ; repairs in the hospital to be seen to – never a dull moment! However, I thoroughly enjoyed the change.

 

I managed, too, to have a look at the glorious countryside around Strathpeffer.

 

1944 was a momentous year. It was on 6th June that the long awaited D Day arrived and the invasion of Normandy began. It was the year, too, when, sadly, I bade goodbye to Inverness and the friends I had to leave behind. I’d been there for 2 ¼ years. I’d had a good war there (as if any war could be called ‘good’) and I’d no idea what awaited me but it was clearly time to move on to fresh fields. I was sent out to yet another CRS in the ‘sonsy’ town of Hawick, a knitwear town in the Borders.

 

I must say I missed my bicycle and the very busy life of work and play I’d had in Inverness.

 

The work in Hawick CRS was quite interesting but not as taxing as it had been in Inverness, which, after all, was the HQ of the Northern Highland Division. So I was glad to be sent for 4 weeks to a hospital in Penicuik, near Edinburgh. There I came upon the pitiful case of a young Black Watch soldier who could neither walk nor move his arms and his voice was just a squeak, difficult to understand. He was suffering from Hysterical Paralysis and it seemed nothing could be done for him – not until he recovered from the hysteria brought on by his battlefield experiences. It would be a very long time, I was told. One thing was certain – he would never be sent to the Front again.

 

Back in Hawick, on my days off, I was taken by car to view the landscape of Tweeddale. Generally, the scenery is very pretty but undramatic compared with the wild mountainous regions of Argyll and Invernesshire.

 

I got on well with the staff at the CRS and when I left I was presented with a navy-blue, hand-knitted sweater of lovely soft wool, direct from the mill.

 

UNDER THE RED CROSS BANNER - ENGLAND

 

In November, I think it was, I left Scotland for England as my next posting was to Aldershot, the RAMC HQ where I was scheduled to embark on a Clinical Clerks’ Course. This Course was intended for clerks who could act not only as medical secretaries but also help the doctors with minor operations.

 

I looked forward to this new challenge and to meeting with a new group of VADs. I wasn’t disappointed. There were 25 VADs in the group and a jolly lot they were. The Course was very arduous: we had to take notes galore and learn new medical terms (and had to be able to spell them) and work in the Lab handling instruments (with gloves, of course) and learning their use. I wondered if we’d be allowed to watch an operation but that wasn’t included in our schedule. It was all extremely interesting and as it didn’t involve nursing as such, suited me very well. There was, of course, an examination at the end of the course (a lot of swotting needed for that); Edith, one of the friends I’d made, and I came out on top. Edith became a lifelong friend and I lost her only 18 months ago, in 2002. While on the Course, we went for a weekend to London where she had an aunt who put us up for the night. This was at a time when London was facing a terrifying menace from the Germans in the shape of the Flying Bomb, or Doodlebug, as it was popularly known. This bomb could zoom like a rocket over a large area and, on exploding, cause many fatalities and immense damage. We’d heard about these Doodlebugs but had no idea how terrifying they could be. There was no warning and it was very difficult for our anti-aircraft batteries to trace their movements and predict where they were likely to fall. We were fortunate in that the part of the city we were staying in at the time escaped the attentions of these bombs, but it made us unwilling to do any sightseeing in the city centre. Neither of us had seen St Paul’s or the Palace of Westminster and we had to wait until after the war to visit them.

 

By Christmas, we were still in our ‘digs’ in Fleet, a rather pretty Hampshire town near Aldershot But the townspeople showed scant interest in us and we were not invited to any social functions during the festive season. We took a poor view of that. Such a lack of hospitality, especially at Christmas, would never have happened in Scotland. I believe that we, the Scots, are a hospitable people. Any servicemen I met, who had been stationed for a time in Scotland told me how much they’d appreciated the kindness shown to them. However, we did get a splendid Christmas dinner at the barracks in Aldershot with entertainment to follow.

 

By January 1945, I was on the move again, this time to Oxford. I’d always had a yen to visit ‘that sweet City with her dreaming spires’ but, in the event, I was not overly impressed. Perhaps, looking back, I took a jaundiced view of the city because of the intensely cold weather that year: I had digs in a damp, unheated attic. This attic was on the top storey of a big house in Banbury Road, a posh area of Oxford. The owner was a clergyman’s widow who resented having anyone billeted in her house. This appeared to be the general attitude of householders in the town (perhaps in any town). They did not want to be compelled to put up members of the Forces but, if they had spare accommodation, they could not refuse. Even so, this woman could have made some effort to make my stay more comfortable: I was, after all, helping the war effort. Night after night, I had to fill a hot water bottle at the kitchen sink then climb two flights of stairs to my miserable little room. I can tell you I felt very sorry for myself; up till then I had never been in such sub-standard accommodation. As a result, I caught a severe chill and couldn’t leave the house. When I didn’t turn up for work, the Commandant came to see me and immediately had me removed to a nice, warm room in a big house where other VADs were staying.

 

St Hugh’s College (a woman’s college), where I worked, had been converted into a military hospital for head injuries. I could appreciate the beauty of the building but the work there was of such a melancholy nature that my spell there became the turning point of the war for me – it was the saddest part of my 4 years’ service with the RAMC. The soldiers with head injuries were brought to St Hugh’s from the nearest airport, at Brize Norton. For the first time, it was vividly brought home to me the terrible cost of getting rid of Hitler, one of History’s worst tyrants. I’ll never forget these very young men (most of them hadn’t even reached their prime) being wheeled into the Medical Reception Room; their heads were shaven and pitted all over with little black shrapnel pellets embedded in the skin. These were the paraplegics, never likely to walk again, confined to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives. Others, wounded but able to walk with two sticks, filed haltingly into the room. An orderly would go round inspecting the groups and, if he thought anyone was down in the dumps (as many were), he would stick a cigarette in his mouth.

 

The work was very interesting but onerous (was I glad of my Clinical Clerk’s training!) and kept me on my toes. One doctor, I recall, praised my spelling of difficult medical terms. I felt really ‘chuffed’.

 

The other famous colleges I did manage to see were, undoubtedly, handsome edifices but, deprived of their usual purpose, seemed to me to have a woebegone air.

I don’t remember being uplifted or in any way entertained in Oxford but I was possibly too tired or too cold or just too low in spirits to bother very much. I really think it was colder in Oxford that January than it was ever in Inverness at the same time of year and yet Inverness is so much further north.

 

UNDER THE RED CROSS BANNER - EUROPE

 

So I was glad when, in February, I received my first posting overseas. After receiving the usual injections, I was surprised to be kitted out with a khaki battle dress and boots but allowed to retain my VAD cap. I felt as if I was being prepared for service in the field. I had to pose for a photograph and cannot say I was enamoured to see myself in that get up. When we lined up on the dock at Dover, I was pleased to recognize some of my old comrades from the Inverness days in a group of VADs awaiting embarkation. As luck would have it, I was attached to a group bound for Calais and thence to Lille, while the Inverness contingent’s destination was Bruges.

 

At Lille, we were housed in a semi derelict chateau. I suspect it had been occupied before we arrived by an all-male group – you can tell! The chateau was reckoned to be rat- and mosquito-ridden. Thankfully, I didn’t see any rats but it certainly was beloved of mosquitoes and very soon our faces were covered with bites – not a pretty sight, especially at the dances.

 

The Army food was well nigh uneatable, much worse than any we’d had in Britain. The way the meals were served up made them even less appetising: food was slopped into our mess tins any old way and you had no chance to wash out the tins between the soup, meat and sweet courses – ugh! It’s a wonder we didn’t suffer from food poisoning!

 

Our Commanding Officer listened to our complaints and was most apologetic. The upshot was that we were soon moved to a bright new sanatorium, surrounded by a big garden in a nice part of the town.

 

The VADs there were all English and I soon made new friends of my roommates – Barbara and Stella, both clerks.

 

The summer months in Lille were very hot (with thunderstorms, often during the night). At every opportunity we sunbathed beneath the trees in the garden. Barbara and I had short leaves (5 days), which coincided and she invited me to join her in a visit to Paris (a city I’d always longed to see). She’d been there before the war as an au pair in a doctor’s house in a Paris suburb and there we stayed and met all his family of young people. Food (just before the liberation of France) was becoming more plentiful so we enjoyed some excellent meals, although they were a bit too much for our slimmed-down stomachs. We saw some of the famous Paris sights and had a sail on the Seine, a walk in the Bois de Boulogne. Spring was in the air and we were uplifted to see the pink and white candle-like blossom on the chestnut trees. We were buoyed up, it seemed, with the hope that the war would soon be over. We also saw the very grand buildings of the Palace of Versailles and Napoleon’s Tomb, both closed to visitors then.

 

In time, the three of us acquired, if not boy friends, escorts. Barbara had quite a serious friendship with a sergeant she worked with, while Stella and I palled up with two Army Military Police Officers – huge fellows. They were both married but, while wanting some female company, thought it politic to go around in a foursome. This suited us very well as they took us around in their Jeep to various places of interest in the area. Glyn and Hew, both Welshmen, worked with a Frenchman who was an interpreter, and his family invited all four of us to their flat in Roubaix, a small town near Lille. The family were very friendly and were so pleased to meet us. The parents’ English was worse than our rusty French so we all had a good laugh about that. A typical French meal was quite something, with meat and vegetables new to us. We agreed that the French certainly deserve their reputation as first class cooks.

 

In June came the wonderful news that France had been liberated and the Allies were moving inexorably to their goal – Germany, via Holland and Belgium. I was still in Lille in the summer of 1945 when the Allies reached their objective; the German Army was roundly defeated and sued for peace. The VE Day celebrations were a day of great rejoicing. Our two Welsh friends, who were about to leave Lille, took us out for a superb meal with plenty of ‘bubbly’ to drink. As a leaving present they gave each of us a bottle of that crème de la crème of perfumes, Chanel No 5. Needless to say, we were delighted. I believe I didn’t exactly cover myself in glory when I returned to the hospital in the evening but I at least provided the duty staff with a lot of entertainment. They informed me afterwards, in euphemistic terms, that my behaviour was “quite out of character”.  As Rabbie Burns said,

 

“O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us to see

oursels as others see us!”

 

It’s just as well, I often think, that none of us have that gift.

 

That period in France had undoubtedly given us new experiences and widened our horizons; our next destination – Germany – would   provide us with more. I would be going there with a number of VADs, all strangers, unfortunately. In this constant movement from place to place, I felt we were all like ‘ships that pass in the night’. Such friendships as we did strike up were inevitably transitory for the most part. Having said that, I did keep in touch with a number of VADs I’d met during my Army service – most of whom, alas, have now gone.

 

Even though the war with Germany had ended, we were all rather apprehensive about the kind of reception we might receive there. Dressed in our battle dress, we travelled by rail through Holland and Belgium to our destination in Germany. Our first stop, for a few hours, was at Arnhem where we had sandwiches, tea and a rest, as we had set off very early that morning. We were all in a very sombre mood as Arnhem was the scene (so we learned through the bush telegraph) of one of the worst disasters of the war. I don’t know any details of the battle – all I know was that the Parachute Regiment were involved, many were killed, and that the battle acquired the epithet ‘A Bridge Too Far’. Recently, I saw a moving film of the Battle with myriads of parachutes, like large white umbrellas, crowding the sky, and the paratroopers turning and twisting in the air like hosts of marionettes. An amazing sight!

 

There was plenty of evidence in the town of the terrible destruction resulting from the battle.

 

Worse was to come when we arrived in Germany – our next stop was in the town of Minden. You wouldn’t have known a thriving town had once stood there: it was nothing but colossal heaps of stone, slate and wood. As I’d never seen the awful destruction of a whole town, apart from the ruins of a small part of Glasgow in 1941, I was truly appalled.

 

We were amazed to see human figures emerging, like troglodytes, from their underground holes, trying to carry on some kind of existence – evidence, if any were needed, of man’s unquenchable spirit, his desire to go on living in spite of the loss of nearly all that makes life worth living. So this is what highly civilized people, like Britain and Germany, do to each other, I thought, but then we’ve always known about man’s inhumanity to man.

 

A nice contrast we found when we arrived at our destination, a former sanatorium in the spa town of Bad Oeynhausen in north east Germany. It was a pretty town, which, clearly, had not suffered any bombing and was surrounded by wooded hills. The Sanatorium was, I think, the HQ of a Scottish division – most of the doctors and a few of the VADs were Scots; otherwise, the RAMC contingent was English.

 

As was to be expected, the town’s inhabitants were frozen-faced as you passed them by – never a smile or a ‘guten morgan’. In any case, we were not allowed to fraternise with the Germans, and if any VAD or ATS girl wanted to see a film outside the camp, she had to have at least one male escort. If a number of girls wanted to have a drink at the Bier Keller up the hill, a posse of soldiers had to accompany them.

 

We were very busy receiving casualties from the battlefield – the cessation of hostilities involved much clearing up. I’d always had good relations with the doctors I’d worked with but, for the first time, I crossed swords with the young doctor (a lieutenant) to whom I was secretary for a time. I thought he was a ‘bit wet behind the ears’ and lacked confidence. Previous doctors had always dictated their notes (I was, after all, a shorthand writer) but this chap gave me his notes written in the most crabbed handwriting – quite illegible. I told him so but he refused to dictate, saying pharmacists had no difficulty with his prescriptions. I refrained from pointing out that a pharmacist’s training and experience could not be compared to mine. So we came to an impasse and I suggested he got himself another secretary. This was not so easy to do, so he came up with a compromise – he would print his notes. I thought this was daft and time-consuming. However, from then on we managed to have a fairly amicable relationship.

 

After a few weeks, I was promoted, becoming secretary to the Ophthalmologist (a major). I found this a very satisfying job in many ways. Unfortunately, on one occasion, I blotted my copybook, an incident I won’t forget in a hurry. After the Clinical Clerks’ Course at Aldershot, I was qualified to help a doctor performing minor operations. I had been successful in helping doctors in this way in the past so, when I was asked by my boss to assist him in a minor procedure, I felt quite confident. I was to hold the slit lamp while the doctor cleared a Canadian soldier’s blocked tear ducts. The soldier was given a local anaesthetic and so was able to see all that went on. As I watched the doctor probing and poking in the lad’s tear ducts, I felt myself getting more and more shaky and I wondered how much longer I’d be able to hold the lamp steady. It was as if my tear ducts were being probed – a strange feeling, hard to describe. I felt ready to faint and did, in fact, pass out. When I came to, I was mortified to see these two, doctor and patient, laughing their heads off. I beat a shameful retreat, knowing quite decisively what a rotten nurse I’d have made. Of course, the story was all over the Barracks in no time and any number of snide remarks made, or so I was told. That didn’t worry me. My fear was that I wouldn’t be trusted to assist the doctors in future – there would be a black mark against me!

 

Apart from that episode, life in the camp was very pleasant, with lots to see and do in our off duty hours. There were the usual nightly dances and ENSA concerts. Those interested in orchestral concerts, like me, were taken on several occasions to the town of Herford to hear the Berlin Philharmonic and famous soloists like Elizabeth Schumann and Yehudi Menuhin. One innovation was “Any Questions”, when a twice weekly panel of officers, NCOs, ATSs and VADs would answer questions on all sorts of topics put to them by the audience. This proved very popular and there were calls to put it on more often. The problem was to find enough volunteers for the panels. For those who enjoyed walking (and I was one) there were rambling groups who would explore the woods and surrounding countryside. By necessity, it was quite restricted since we forbidden to stray too far from the area under British surveillance.

 

Looking back on my four years’ Army service, I think it is remarkable there was, on the whole, so little trouble in these camps where the sexes lived and worked side by side. It could be that we were fortunate in being members of the medical service. I don’t know. However, I wonder if a breakdown of order could have taken place in the camps in Germany because there was seldom enough to do in the evenings and movement outside was, necessarily, severely restricted. The reason for my speculation is an incident that did occur at our Bad Oeynhausen HQ. It concerned a sergeant who had a crush on a VAD nurse. He was a loud-mouthed, overbearing sort and she had no time for him. She would dance with him once or twice of an evening but refused to go out with him. (It was considered not only bad-mannered but also unwise to refuse to dance with a chap unless he was behaving offensively or his dancing left a lot to be desired.)

On this particular evening the sergeant was ‘half seas over’ and much the worse for wear. He asked the nurse, with a nod towards the dance floor,

Dancin’?”

“No,” she said curtly and turned her back on him.

This movement clearly got on his wick and he half staggered towards her.

“I want you, y’know – careful I don’t pounce on you,” he said and made a further movement towards her as she edged away from him.

“You’re out of bounds, sergeant,” she said, trying to laugh the whole thing off.

“So a sergeant’s not good enough for you,” he sneered.

She made to walk quietly away but he grasped her arm and pulled her roughly towards him. By this time, she was a bit frightened and tried to shake him off but he put both arms firmly round her waist and pulled her towards him, attempting to kiss her.

I was standing nearby and called out,

“Watch your step, sergeant. Just think! This will be a turn up for the book.”

He glared at me and told me to push off (and other abusive language), but by this time the noise was attracting unwanted attention from some other ranks, who ridiculed him with shouts of,

“Not quite up to it, sergeant, eh?”

This was enough to make him stop in his tracks and release the nurse. He pulled himself together somehow and shakily took himself off. I wondered what his punishment would be – if a first offence and he was drunk, then perhaps not too severe. In the event he was given ‘jankers’, which was the humiliating punishment of having to peel potatoes outside the kitchen in full view of passers-by. I can’t remember for how long he had to carry out this punishment. All I know is he no longer pestered the nurse. In a way he was lucky not to have been stripped of his 3 stripes or, worse, spend time in the ‘clink’ – locked up in other words, though I think such a punishment would have been an overreaction. I’m pretty certain the sergeant’s mess would not have had much sympathy for the hapless lady, as the VADs were not their flavour of the month. In their eyes we were a snooty lot who gave their favours only to the ‘Pips’ (officers). I found that you had to handle the sergeants with kid gloves; they wielded quite a lot of power and could make life unpleasant for you if you got on their wrong side.

 

With the Japanese surrender in 1945, VJ Day was celebrated but in a much more subdued way than for VE Day. The war was ending with a whimper, not a bang. The final few weeks of my sojourn in Bad Oeynhausen were a winding down process. A call went out for volunteers who had some knowledge of a particular subject or skill who would be prepared to teach it to anyone interested (in their off-duty time, of course) – chess, bridge, languages etc.  I offered to teach the rudiments of shorthand and a number of lads (no girls) turned up to find out how to take down notes swiftly and easily. I think they found the subject quite fascinating but were surprised that to master it required time, dedication and hard work.

 

My demob date was fixed for 5th January 1946, 4 years to the day since I was called up. There were a number of VADs and ATSs (but no men) who would be leaving that day so the final week was spent in a flurry of farewell parties. The day we left the Barracks was quite a sad day. I’ve never liked bidding farewell to buddies whose company I’ve enjoyed over quite a long period. We exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch, knowing in our hearts the promises would be short-lived.

 

My homecoming to Glasgow was a joyous occasion with welcoming parties, even though my brothers were still awaiting demob.

 

I wondered how long it would take to get used to Civvy Street again. I was afraid I’d grown away from my former life and would find it difficult to settle down in the same old groove. However, it wasn’t long before, having struck off the Army fetters, I was busy re-forging new ones (as the cynics would say) in the shape of a marriage!

 

“From you have I been absent

 in the spring” [Sonnet 94]

 

Now summer had come, the war was over and a new life beckoned – in Wales. And there, in 1948, shining on the hills, was Beveridge’s new Jerusalem!

 

 

© E S Bateson