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- 31 January 2004
Audrey. January 2004.
A sense of unease grew in the year before war was actually declared and preparations were brought into being. As when I and other shop assistants were loaned out to assemble gas masks for civilian use. It was repetitive work but a change. The local reporter took a picture.
Soon afterwards, I decided to become a nurse and on a hot day in August 1939, I walked up the hill to the large hospital which housed mentally disabled patients of all ages. The buildings were set amid undulating countryside. The spacious grounds were immaculate. The hospital was soon taken over for emergency use, the patients being transferred to a similar institution in another area.
There was an influx of doctors and trained nurses, some of whom were awaiting "call up", all very secretive of course. Red Cross and St. John's Ambulance nurses also came on the scene as well as student nurses from Newcastle hospitals.
I was allocated to a three-month spell of night duty, in an office situated in the Nurses' Home. My job was to be there to answer the phone should it ring and to immediately contact Matron with any message.
I had Felix, the handsome black cat for company and time to study to my hearts' content. In New Year 1940 I received greetings cards from my pen friends in France, before further correspondence was curtailed.
Early in that year, a local firm built rows of wooden huts for £25,000. They included wards, operating theatres and kitchen premises. I had to help equipped the wards. Iron bedsteads and wooden lockers were installed. Everything from cutlery to surgical instruments and even toilet rolls were stamped with H.M. Gov.
A railway line ran along the top of the hospital and it was used to transport patients. The first intake of war casualties arrived at the time of Dunkirk. The more seriously wounded were admitted to the main part of the hospital. French soldiers arrived on a ward in the huts. I was able to practice my school French, resulting in some hilarity.
When they had recovered and moved on, the beds were filled with chronically ill females, from London.
Living accommodation for nursing staff became short, even though some large houses in the vicinity had been requisitioned for use.
I was allowed to live at home, about 3-4 miles from the hospital. During one snowstorm when the horse-drawn snowplough could not clear a way for the buses, I set off very early to walk to work and made it in time for an 8 a.m. duty. Snow fell in feet then, not in inches and I repeated the effort at least once more.
Trained staff kept urging me to move to a hospital where I could qualify as a State Registered Nurse. So after working on most of the wards in the Emergency Hospital, I left to train in West Yorkshire. The large new hospital was run on similar lines as my previous one. Some wards were set aside to receive war casualties, they were wooden structures left over from use in World War I.
There was no leeway in training because we were at war. We bought our own textbooks and studied in our free time. Few medicines were in use but M and B 693 (Sulphanilamide) came on the scene and helped to combat infections until Penicillin superseded it.
There were shortages of course and even rubber gloves for use in theatre, were patched.
Dressings were packed in metal drums and taken to the basement to be autoclaved. I recall sitting on massive pipes enclosed in asbestos while we waited for the process to be completed.
I used to wonder at the absolute cleanliness of all linen ranging from uniforms to bed sheets. Once, I visited the laundry and saw huge washing machines in use and noticed large hessian sacks full of soda crystals.
An issue of colourful patchwork quilts arrived from America and were placed on our beds in the Nurses' Home.
I missed the countryside surrounding my home but a friend introduced me to walks in beautiful Wharfedale.
Journeys home by unheated trains were sometimes held up in order to let troop trains through.
Like a film, I can mentally replay a ward scene late in 1944. The beds had just been occupied by German wounded of all ages. They seemed bewildered and a little apprehensive as they lay between clean sheets. Only one young boy of 16 years had the hostile look of Nazi aggression as he sat bolt upright in bed with a bandage covering a superficial wound on his head. Next to him was a major who spoke some English and I noticed that he kindly tried to reassure the lad. Tea, plus bread and margarine were given to obviously ravenous men.
As the tide of victory turned against them, the German wounded were neglected. Limbs and torsos were encased in very thick, hastily applied plaster of Paris. In many cases, suppurating wounds and gangrene lay beneath. They were treated with penicillin, the same as our own servicemen.
After being assessed by surgeons, most of the men were taken to the theatre where four operating tables were in place instead of the usual one. I did a short spell of theatre duty at the time. The surgeons worked round the clock removing stinking plasters under general anaesthetic as well as amputating limbs where necessary.
Etched in my memory is the glimpse of quiet compassion on the face of the junior theatre sister as she encouraged a patient to say the first few German numerals into temporary oblivion.
The ante-room was a gruesome sight, when sawn-off limbs exceeded the porter's capacity to remove them.
Back on the ward, most of the wounded made good progress. Young Hans Heinz spoke perfect English as he had stayed for a time with his Scottish grandmother in Edinburgh. When news was relayed on the ward radio, he rapidly interpreted it for the benefit of his fellow countrymen.
Those patients who were fit were sent to prisoner of war camps in County Durham, my home ground.
The war was coming to an end!
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