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Joan Quibell’s Diary — Part Four - 1942 (January - May)

by Joan Quibell

Contributed by 
Joan Quibell
People in story: 
Joan Cattell, Audrey Smith
Location of story: 
York
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3271213
Contributed on: 
14 November 2004

W/167662 Recruit Quibell J. (with brother John)

On 6th January I celebrated my 18th birthday. It seemed a beautiful age to be. Not too old to be silly and not too young to be serious.

We were doing very badly in the fighting in Singapore and of course we had lost Hong Kong to the Japanese. So many boys dying out there, my heart ached with the agony of it all.

February came in with a heavy snowfall and the news of the War in the Far East was desperate. We were retreating in Libya, and Malaya, and Singapore was being bombed to bits. The Russians were doing well but they seemed to be the only ones. On 15th February we learned that Singapore had fallen to the Japanese and the whole British garrison there were either killed or taken prisoner. I felt physically sick at the news.

I was tired and weary and sad. I felt desperately in need of a change of direction and thought long and hard about what I could do. If only I could do something really useful, something that could help to win the War. Girls were being called up into the Forces at 20, if they weren’t in reserved occupations, so that men could be released for combat duty. I supposed I was already doing something for the War effort but there was so much more I could do, I felt sure. I ached to help the Cause.

I mentioned my thoughts to Audrey that night and she immediately cried, “Let’s join up. We can join the A.T.S. together.” I began to shake and my stomach felt full of butterflies. She was echoing ideas that had been rolling around my own head. But what would my parents say? What would their reaction be? I felt quite sick with apprehension but the more Audrey and I talked, the more determined I became. It would be wonderful, I thought. I would be part and parcel of the Great British Army, really fighting for England.

It was Friday the 13th March and we were on night duty at the Post. I didn’t get much sleep. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the decision we had made.

Next day I tried several times to broach the subject with Mother and Pop but the right moment didn’t come and my courage failed me. It was Sunday before I was able to tell them what I wanted to do.

My bombshell was received with silence, and then Pop cleared his throat, asking if I had thought properly about it. “Oh yes” I said, “I’ve thought very hard, and honestly, truly, I’m very serious.” I said I’d probably be called up anyway when I was 20, so I might as well volunteer now. Mother said she supposed I was old enough to know my own mind, and the discussions culminated in them eventually saying they wouldn’t stand in my way, if it was really what I wanted. Audrey’s Aunt and Uncle also agreed to her enlisting. She was keen to join the Medical Corps but I felt Mother would prefer it if I continued to use my shorthand and typing skills.

On Tuesday 17th March, we presented ourselves at the Army Recruiting Office and signed the dotted line. The friendly Sergeant who interviewed us said, providing we passed the medicals, we should get called almost right away. After doing the deed we had a celebratory cup of tea in Lewis’s.

I was so busy during the next few days, notifying all my friends of my stupendous action, and got a variety of responses. Some thought I was completely off my head. It didn’t really matter what others’ opinions were. I- Knew I was doing the right thing. Look out Hitler, now, I thought.

Mother was being a brick, thinking of all sorts of things in her usual practical fashion, such as visiting the dentist and having my hair permed. She even managed to rustle up some coupons from somewhere to get me 3 new pairs of pyjamas.

We had our medicals on 24th March and were both pronounced A1. Nothing now but to wait for the call. To our intense delight this came quite soon. We were to report to Droitwich on 17th April.

On 10th April my elation took a nose-dive because without explanation, I got a letter cancelling my instructions to report to Droitwich and telling me to await further orders. Audrey had no such letter and we were both at a loss to know what it was all about.

On 15th April, I did in fact get my orders. I was to proceed to the A.T.S. Depot in Birmingham on the 24th, for an unspecified destination.

My last week at home was a mixture of emotions. I was apprehensive about the future, but told myself I was doing something positive. And I would get leave. I would come home whenever I could.

On Wednesday 22nd I went to the pictures with Mother. We saw a Sonja Henie film, “Sun Valley Serenade” and in the evening I went to the Post. I had a rousing send —off and promised I would return to see them as soon as I could.

Then here it was, the day before my departure. It went very quietly. Mother and Pop weren’t saying much but I knew how they wee feeling. I just prayed there wouldn’t be any more raids because I couldn’t bear to think of them in danger.

Friday, 24th April dawned beautifully sunny and I reported at the A.T.S. depot at the appointed time. I learned that I was going to York. York! Oh what a long way away.

It was horrible saying goodbye to Mom, Pop and John. Somehow I managed to keep back the tears, but my throat ached. The train left at 10.30 and I leaned out of the carriage window, waving. The three of them were on the platform, waving until the train rounded the bend and they were out of sight.

The journey to York on the steam train long ago took 6 hours and entailed a change at Sheffield. I sat, a bundle of misgivings, in the carriage, trying to read the magazine Mother had given me.

At 4.30 precisely we steamed into York station. The next few minutes are a hazy blur, but somehow I got rounded up, along with several other girls, and herded out of the station to where a covered Army lorry was waiting to transport us. We scrambled aboard and then were away. The vehicle delivered us to Fulford Barracks, home of the West Yorkshire Regiment and now, in addition, a Training Centre for rookie A.T.S.

Our first Army meal was awaiting us. Fried liver, a commodity I have never been over-fond of, served with dark green cabbage. I decided to give this meal a miss. I wasn’t hungry anyway, just tired and miserable.

After what seemed an eternity of hanging around whilst we were checked in and sorted out, I found myself in a large barrack room containing 22 beds. One of these was allocated to me, along with a locker beside it. Folded sheets and hairy grey blankets were on the beds, so our first task was to make them up. The mattress I noticed to my amazement consisted of three flat sections, very hard and thin and known apparently, as biscuits. We were told by the Corporal to get a good night’s sleep as tomorrow was going to be busy. I lay my head on the lumpy pillow and couldn’t stop the tears as I thought of home and family so many miles away.

Next morning we were awoken by the doors bursting open and a strident female voice shouting “O.K. girls, wakey, wakey. Rise and shine.” We performed our ablutions in the communal wash-room and somehow managed to scramble into the Mess for breakfast.

Afterwards we all gathered on the barrack square and were formed into three straggly lines. We then marched, in a fashion, to the Stores, where kitting out began. Piles of creased and crumpled garments were on racks behind the counter and we filed along, being doled out with our entitlements. Most important, of course, the khaki jackets and skirts that seemed to come in two sizes only — too large and too small. A peaked cap and badge was also added. Three khaki shirts, a couple of ties, some khaki knickers (reminiscent of those awful school bloomers) and brown flat-heeled sensible shoes. Khaki lisle stockings, a great-coat and a service respirator just about completed the ensemble. We staggered back to the barrack room to sort it all out. After ironing and pressing we donned our uniforms for the very first time and looked a motley assortment indeed.

Then followed lectures and talks on various subjects like discipline and general behaviour, hygiene and procedure. We were also given a rough outline of what the following month would entail: teaching us how to march, getting us into peak physical condition, inoculating us and vaccinating us against an array of dreaded diseases, assessing our suitability for whatever trade we hoped to pursue, and generally initiating us into Service life.

The next day our training began in earnest. Squads of girls lined up on the barrack square to learn how to march. In the afternoon we had P.T. on an open windy field, before the amused gaze of a handful of Gunners from the neighbouring site.

Church Parade, Station Commander’s Parade, Meal Parade, Pay Parade, Inspection Parade. Life began and ended with a Parade. Innumerable lectures accounted for many hours, not to mention inoculations and vaccinations. We got jabs for tetanus, typhoid, cholera, smallpox and lockjaw.

We went in turn before the Selection Officer for assessment and I was given a shorthand and typing test in addition to general aptitude. I was told I’d be O.K. for a job in my own trade. That was something of a relief.

Life began to perk up. We were getting the hang of marching, becoming accustomed to the food, learning not to mind the lack of privacy and actually finding loads to laugh about. I found a good friend in Joan Cattell and I loved my spare time wandering around York.

Then one night, the bombshell dropped. Quite literally. Hitler decided on a new tactic. Leaving industrial targets for a while, he turned his attention to Cathedral cities — Beddeker raids they were called — and York came in for a particularly nasty one. This night in question, I was on fire picket which meant I had to patrol the barracks and be on watch. At about 1 a.m. the alert sounded. I donned my steel helmet and stood by with my stirrup pump. All hell broke loose. Enemy hammers gave York such a hammering, and the raid was so intense, all girls were ordered into the shelters. So I was relieved of my fire picket duties, which were taken over by the men. I sat in the air raid shelter with all the others. When the raid was over, we returned to our beds for what remained of the night.

Next day we were confined to barracks whilst York was cleared up. So much damage was done. York Railway Station had received a direct hit whilst a train was actually standing at a platform. Many houses were destroyed and many civilians killed.

We proceeded with our drills and parades, P.T. and games. We had to do fatigues. Clad in denim overalls which reached our feet, we were allotted all kinds of tasks. Mine was to pick up litter. Armed with a spiked stick and a bag suspended from my shoulder I viciously jabbed any bits of paper and other debris that I could see, and deposited same in my sack.

The days passed in a welter of drilling, P.T.-ing, being lectured and then at last our 48 hour leave was upon us. I caught the 4 o’clock train from the now partly-operational Station and arrived in New Street at 9.10. Mother, Pop and Johnny were waiting to greet me. I savoured every moment of being at home and was the centre of attention. I regaled them with tales about my Army life — leaving out all the irksome bits — and they said they were very proud of me. On Sunday we had glorious weather and the day passed so pleasantly and swiftly. It was soon 4 o’clock and time to get the train. They all came to see me off.

The following week was “tying up loose ends” and officially passing out as Privates. We had a Company Dance one evening to celebrate. We were all dying to know where we were being posted, and then finally our orders were given. We were being dispersed all over the country, but Joan Cattell and I were cheered to see we were both bound for London. She was to report to Hammersmith and I to Kensington so we knew we wouldn’t stay together, but at least we had the journey.

Our last night in our barrack room was quite moving. It was 19th May and in the few weeks since 24th April we had learned the rudiments of drill, we knew the basic necessities of Army life, we had received our protective jabs, and we had learned to march. We knew about discipline and obeying orders. We weren’t rookies any more and we had cemented a bond of friendship.

On Wednesday, 20th May, we bade each other — and York — fond farewells. It was such a wrench to say goodbye. Packed aboard the train for our various operational units, with our bully beef sandwiches for eating on the way, and our kits weighing us down like little donkeys, we gazed with wistful eyes on the town we were leaving behind.

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