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War Changed Our Lives-Memories of the West London Hospital

by Holywood Arches Library

Contributed by 
Holywood Arches Library
People in story: 
Ada and Bob
Location of story: 
London
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A3244817
Contributed on: 
09 November 2004

Wedding Day

This story was submitted to the Peoples War Site by H Porter of the Belfast Education and Library Board/Holywood Arches on behalf of Ada, the author and had been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the sites terms and condtions.

War changed our lives- Memories of the West London Hospital

To the normal, carefree teenager the thirties were not ominous. Only the wealthy went on Continental holidays and aeroplanes were for the R.A.F. Schools would encourage pupils to correspond with foreign students, mainly French, and occasionally to exchange visits but, in the main, we worked and played happily around our own neighbourhood and met and, married within it.

We had no television but went regularly to the cinema and saw and heard Herr Hitler pontificating to huge crowds of enthusiastic Germans but we did not understand the language. His straight black hair and little moustache were easily recognisable and a gift to the cartoonists, but he belonged to Germany, not to us, and we were safe in our own island. We did not have wars anymore because the League of Nations was there to prevent them.

In August 1939 I visited my French correspondent in Brittany without a care in the world except for coping with the unfamiliar travel arrangements and the language. I travelled by train from Blackpool to Southampton where I had a wonderful fried breakfast in a dockside café for ten pence and later boarded the ship for St. Malo, travelled overnight and slept on deck. An official met me and conducted me and my suitcase to the train. I thought he was a porter and tipped him with a centime which he graciously declined. I discovered later that he was the stationmaster and a friend of my hosts and he wasn’t ‘un homme’ but ‘un monsieur’! The family were very kind and attentive and showed me the best of Brittany in the next 2 weeks.

The rumblings of war had more of less escaped my attention, life being too busy with ice skating, ballroom dancing and messing about in boats, as well as necessarily though not enthusiastically earning my living by thumping a calculating machine to work out the labour costs of a firm of Coach Bodybuilders.

I remember on Sunday 3rd September sitting on the edge of our dining room table at home and listening to the wireless as Neville Chamberlain announced that we were ‘now at war with Germany’. I thought it sounded exciting and was rather proud that we were being so firm, but didn’t think it would make much difference to my life.

At first it didn’t. We each collected a gas-mask from the village school, which was the centre of all activities. We were told they must be carried around wherever we went. The magazines told us how to make them more attractive with pretty covers to match various outfits. We tried them on and decided we’d need to be in extreme danger before wearing them again.

We were issued with Identity Cards and Ration Books, without which we couldn’t buy meat, butter, eggs, sugar or tinned food.

Then the evacuees arrived, school children from the cities who were sent to the countryside to escape the bombs. They were billeted in any household with spare rooms and not all the children, nor all the householders, were too happy about the arrangement. The village was awash with stories of the strange habits and behaviour of their visitors. Child psychology was not studied much by the locals and many children drifted back to their city homes, preferring the excitement and bombs to the peace and boredom.

Conscription had started and young men and also young women were ‘called up’ by age groups and allocated to the Forces. Friends, and my brother, disappeared and occasionally came back, on leave, in uniform.

My employers were no longer Coach Bodybuilders but makers of aircraft panels for the well known firm of Vickers-Armstrong and my job was depressingly unchanged. Because we were doing ‘work of National Importance’ I was in a ‘reserved occupation’ and therefore not liable to be ‘called up’.

Something had to be done.

I surreptitiously applied to the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary which ferried aeroplanes from factories to RAF stations but they politely declined my offer when they found I had no previous flying experience.

My friend had chosen to train as a nurse and I thought I might enjoy that too. It had the added advantage that, on entry to the forces as a State Registered Nurse, one was entitled to a Commission and a much better looking uniform. This would take up to 4 years but the war seemed set to carry on for a very long time.

I applied, was accepted and asked to report to the West London Hospital in March 1943.

There were about 10 of us in my ‘Set’ and we spent 2 months in the Preliminary Training School before being let loose on the wards.

As I had never set foot in a hospital before the initial shock was quite profound, especially when a patient called out ‘Nurse’ and I realised she meant me!

War time conditions brought in a very motley collection of trainees. There were the usual school leavers but also a great many girls of different ages and experience, who had previously worked in other jobs and professions. The salaries and conditions of work were very different from those we had enjoyed before. We were paid £2 per month and uniform, laundry, food and accommodation were supplied.

All nursing staff lived in the Nurses’ Home with behaviour strictly supervised by Home Sister. Freedom was curtailed, weekends disappeared and late nights out required permission or a crafty means of entry. One telephone served us all and male visitors were not allowed beyond the Entrance Hall. We called it the Virgins' Retreat.

There were perks however. Places of entertainment would often send free tickets to the shows. Thus we might find ourselves in the front stalls of a West End Theatre for a matinee performance, or the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square for a morning film preview.

On one occasion six tickets were on offer for a matinee performance of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, conducted by Malcolm Sargent (not then a Sir) at the Albert Hall. My musical appreciation has never been of a high order, but as it was my half-day off and I had no other plans, I casually applied for and collected a ticket from Home Sister, and departed for Kensington High Street and the shops with no firm intention of doing anything in particular.

However, I’d been on duty all morning and my feet soon tired. The thought of a nice free rest propelled me towards the Albert Hall just in time for a last minute entrance into a very superior box.

There was one vacant seat. The other five were occupied by Matron, Assistant Matron, Theatre Sister and two Ward sisters and their combined gaze was definitely disapproving. Fortunately, there was no time for comment but I was very relieved that I’d turned up.

The first six months on the Wards were gruelling and by Christmas, on Night Duty, with aching feet and a very limited social life I was ready to give up.

London was grim, grey and lonely.

I remember standing at a bus-stop on Hammersmith Broadway, unable, because of the pea-souper fog, to see the double-decker bus until it stopped in front of me.

Then Fate took a hand!

I came off night-duty and was allocated to Outpatients, the only place where you had every evening off, plus Saturday afternoon and Sunday.

The Old Town Hall in Hammersmith was just round the corner from the hospital and was being used by the Royal Corps of Signals. They invited us to one of their dances. After that there were many more dances and invitations to the Mess for drinks and the odd cocktail party. Life became much more balanced.

Looking back, I realise that the Colonel of the Signals showed great understanding, realising that his troops needed not only training and discipline but also opportunities to relax and enjoy themselves. He was a Scot, always attended the dances, and was the most energetic mover on the dance floor. I hope he is still doing the Eightsome Reel with the same 'gusto'.

Meanwhile at the Hospital, most of my Set had been sent to Park Prewett, a very large hospital, near Basingstoke, built for the mentally disabled but requisitioned by the Government for the use of the Armed Forces. It was staffed for the duration by various London hospitals, including W.L.H.
Usually each set went for six months in their second year of training and it was regarded as a refreshing change but they were glad to get back to the City.

I would have felt rather aggrieved at being left behind but for the fact that, early in 1944, at one of the aforementioned dances, a tall, young Lieutenant from R.E.M.E appeared.

I was impressed enough to record him in my diary at the time. Three weeks later he reappeared. He had been seconded to the Signals for several weeks and would be in and around Hammersmith, though still billeted in Richmond.

London in the Spring of 1944 was sheer bliss.

On warm, sunny evenings we would amble over Barnes Common to the 'Sun Inn', to the 'Doves' beside the river in Hammersmith or the 'Flask' on Hampstead Heath. On Sundays it was Richmond and a walk up the hill, with panoramic views of cherry blossom and the river, before we reached 'The Lass' for sandwiches and beer.

We went to the theatre to see Kay Hammond in 'Blithe Spirit', then ate at Lyon’s Corner House. We saw Judy Garland in her latest film 'The Wizard of Oz'. We danced at the Cumberland Hotel near Hyde Park Corner, at Richmond and of course at the Old Town Hall.

Then towards the end of May, the Army and the hospital began to make demands and upset our happy arrangements. Robert disappeared for several days just as we were deciding to make our relationship official. I learned, much later because we all took very seriously that 'Careless talk Costs Lives', that he had been sent to Tilbury. The Docks were an amazing sight, filled to capacity with vessels and landing craft in preparation for the Second Front Invasion. To add to the drama, over the Tannoy system and clearly heard throughout the whole area, drifted the voice of Vera Lynn.

On June 1st ,along with several other nurses I received a letter marked CONFIDENTIAL from Matron saying that in preparation for the Second Front we were to make ready to leave for an unknown destination nearer the coast. No date was given, we would have but a few hours notice. On that same evening Bob and I went to the Cumberland Hotel to dine, dance and celebrate our engagement.

June 2nd Bob was posted to Northumberland.
June 4th We were warned to be ready to depart next morning.
June 5th We boarded the coach with great excitement and anticipation. Some optimists thought we were heading for France, others the Isle of Wight, while the more practical suggested Southampton was more likely. The miles rolled by and then some of our more senior companions started to remark, then exclaim, then groan as a familiar landscape began to unfold and we arrived at the entrance to Park Prewett to the cheers of our already installed colleagues.

For newcomers like me the next few days were spent finding our way around the maze of corridors and getting installed in Villa 10 with the other W.L.H nurses already there. We found that the food served in the enormous dining hall was far superior to our city diet. A salad contained a whole hard-boiled egg EACH and the meat looked and tasted more normal. Our previous roast meat was crinkly and tough with slightly yellowish fat and we suspected it was horse.

We discovered the bakery where a friendly baker made tiny loaves which he gave, hot from the oven, to Night Nurses coming off duty.

I was allocated to a surgical ward. It was very large and completely without patients. We shared it with St Thomas’s nurses and all we could do was mend sheets and keep the place clean and ready for action. Nurses in training were never allowed to be idle on duty.

The news of the Allied landings in Normandy came as a relief. We received one casualty, a Marine Commando, who would I think have been happier facing the entire might of Germany rather than the concentrated medical and nursing attention we wanted to give him. He refused to tell us more than his name, rank and number.

Then the others began to arrive. A telephone call would be followed by convoys of weary soldiers tramping into the ward in heavy boots, carrying packs and filling all the empty beds within minutes. A nurse went along each row removing dirty dressings. The House Surgeon followed to assess treatment needed. Another nurse accompanied him to apply fresh dressings. Operating Theatres sprang into action for those who needed immediate surgery. Very quickly they were sorted, treated and tucked into bed.

The medical casualties were more predictable when I did night duty on M3 ward. The telephone would ring to say that a convoy was arriving. We would immediately switch on the big water boiler in the kitchen to make gallons of cocoa, prepare thick slices of bread and butter and fill all the wash basins with hot water.

This time the feet were even more weary, these were the men suffering from Anxiety Neuroses and Battle Fatigue. For them it was dump pack, quick wash, undress, into bed, cocoa and bread and butter, medication and sleep, sleep and more sleep, often for days — surfacing occasionally for food.

Very soon those who were fit enough would move on to hospitals further North, leaving empty beds for the next convoy.

August 1944. Bob left Northumberland and was posted to Bury St Edmunds. He decided to pay me a visit. The very long, large ward was quite empty and as I was on Night duty I put him in a padded cell at the furthermost end. Imagine his surprise when he emerged next morning to go to the ablutions and had to face a long walk through a ward completely filled by an overnight convoy.

September 28. Home on leave for 2 weeks. Bob joined me for the weekend. We decided on January 4th for our wedding. I wrote to Matron in London requesting leave to cover that date. She replied, "The hospital agreed that Nurses may marry during war time. It was not allowed of course in Peace time. I will arrange your leave."

I ordered the wedding cake, arranged to buy a friend's wedding dress for £2 and 26 clothing coupons, to borrow a veil and equip the bridesmaid with a dress previously made for my sister.

Then I packed to return to Park Prewett.
On the day before I was due to leave, a telegram arrived from Bestwood, Notts.
‘Could you extend leave for marriage?’
I replied immediately, "Yes," and sent a telegram asking for extended leave.

October 13. Friday Bob arrived. He was on 10 days embarkation leave before departure to an unknown destination.
October14. We saw the Vicar and arranged to be married by Special Licence. We arranged the reception across the Square from the church and for the cake to be ready in 3 days.

October 16. Bob’s relations arrived.
October 18. Wedding Day. Everything ran very smoothly and we departed for our five day honeymoon in York, Gateshead and Nottingham where Bob rejoined his unit, said a fond farewell, and disappeared for the next year and a half.

I returned home, packed my suitcase and went back to Park Prewett and the Convoys.

Letters arrived and it was obvious that my new husband was now on a ship, presumably heading for the Far East, and enjoying excellent food, wine and unlimited cigarettes.

Eventually the address changed to No.10 Base A&G Workshop India Command, then to 5 Advance Base Workshop SEAC but the letters, delivered almost daily, contained no information about his location. They were all censored and any forbidden information was blue-pencilled out.

In the meantime the Allied advance in Europe continued and hospitals in France took in the wounded. I remember Christmas Eve 1944. A sparsely populated ward was decorated tastefully with holly and ivy and in came a convoy to share our festive fare. They showed no relief, no joy, no ‘great to be home’ — only several expletives and moans about how they had been untimely removed from the French hospital where their Christmas Cheer was all happily planned and where the nurses were obviously preferable to us.

Early in 1945 we were replaced and went back to Hammersmith. VE Day came with great rejoicing and I joined the crowds swirling round Piccadilly Circus and heading down the Mall to Buckingham Palace calling for the King and Queen to appear over and over again. The tube trains were running all night.

VJ day brought more hope and in March 1946 Bob arrived home to be demobbed, given £80 gratuity and a new navy blue civilian suit. I stayed to complete my training, the State examinations were less than 3 months away. That done, I rejoined him in Gateshead where he had been busy sorting out his civilian career as a teacher.

Few, if any houses had been built in the war years and the enormous influx of demobbed service men and women created a big problem. A school in Belfast offered Bob a position which included accommodation.

That is why in September 1946 we boarded a ship bound for N. Ireland, to live, originally for 3 years but eventually for life, happily working, making good friends and rearing our ever increasing family.

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