- Contributed by
- Edith Taylor
- People in story:
- Location of story:
- Gillingham, Kent
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 April 2004
AMBULANCE DRIVER-MEDWAY 1940-42 (Part One)
Edith Myra Taylor(nee Messenger) _ Born 8.9.21.
I have been asked for some of my recollections of the War years.
Taking my memory back to the dim and distant past of 65 years ago is no easy feat at my age but here goes;
To give you some idea of my life up to this time I first came to Gillingham with my mother and father and two younger sisters in 1932. My father had come out of the Army after 24 years service and had obtained a job at the Portland Cement works in Gads Hill as Timekeeper and Storekeeper. We lived in Eastcourt Lane, at that time on the outskirts of the town . We had one further pair of semi-detached bungalows below us and after that it was a long narrow country lane bordered by damson orchards and a chalk pit which is now buried by Eastcourt Green - hence why no houses are built upon it. Opposite and below Broadway was a large field stretching from Eastcourt to Featherby Road where in season we would pick beautiful mushrooms early in the morning often chased off the field by the farmer.
When I was 11 years old I was selling poppies door to door for my school and a young man of 18 in South Avenue bought some crosses from me and later that day he came down to our house to buy some more. Little did I know that day that 7 years later I would marry him and stay married for 57 years until his death in 1996.
We met again 6 years later through Eastcourt Tennis Club and became close friends as indeed did all my family. By 1938 it had become a romance and we planned to get married after I had turned 18 which would be in September 1939.
In 1938 my then fiance Sidney Taylor wanted to learn to fly as the political situation at that time was very serious and we felt that war was imminent , so he took himself off to West Malling Airfield and joined the Civil Air Guard.
Things simmered down a bit for the next few months and Mr. Chamberlain's efforts and the well documented phony peace gained us a few months grace.
Our wedding was planned for the middle of September 1939 at St. Pauls Methodist Church in Third Avenue. As the situation worsened by late August my Finance received his calling-up papers for the Royal Air Force with immediate effect. This threw us into a panic as the honeymoon (to Belgium) was booked and part paid for and all arrangements were nearly finalised. We had a home to move into where my finance then lived in Sunnymead Avenue and where I incidentally still live.
The minister of St Pauls had evacuated himself and we were left without a Vicar - we went down to St. Mary's Parish Church at Gillingham Green, after first obtaining a Special Licence at a cost of just over £2. The Vicar kindly agreed to marry us that week-end and had a little chat with me the evening before saying as I remember that “marriage was the price man paid for sex and sex was the price woman paid for marriage” - until then I had not really thought about the sexual side as no one had really enlightened me. We spent all the week before rushing around making new arrangements and getting a cake and flowers etc. It wasn't until 2-days before war was declared that we were notified that the honeymoon trip was cancelled. I was to have had 5 bridesmaids and their dresses were already made (by me) and hanging up, the wedding was for Saturday but on the Friday four of my bridesmaids (my 2 younger sisters and 2 of their friends Enid and Pat Bowgen) were evacuated to Chartham near Canterbury, although we did not know where at that time. The wedding went on as planned with a much reduced guest list and the first thing that met my eyes as I walked with my father down to the church was a big notice on the door stating 'AIR RAID PRECAUTIONS' and giving instructions to black out all lights that night. My husband as he now was had received a couple of days previously a Reserved Job Occupation notice, telling him to arrange installing air raid sirens in the town. As we came out of the church a photographer still there from the previous wedding obligingly took some photographs - incidentally when we went to collect a week later he had committed suicide but we were fortunate to get the photographs developed.
That night (our wedding night) we spent trying to nail lino over the main windows - difficult when you have almost all bay windows and are working in the dark.
The next morning war was declared and my new husband dashed off to work. I had a joint of beef in my hand when a siren went, I dropped it on the kitchen floor and fled next door to my neighbours, where her son and I tried to squeeze ourselves under her kitchen table. His name was Jack and he joined the navy at Greenwich Naval College and went on to high things, later being our representative at the Bikini Atom Bomb Trials and finally Director of HM Dockyards. Back to the morning of the 3rd after a while we realised that nothing much was happening and we ventured out the front door and there looking towards London we could see as we thought dozens of planes which frightened the life out of us. We learnt much later that these were barrage balloons that were raised high in the sky with many chains hanging from them and circling London to stop low flying enemy planes dive bombing the city.
Much has been said about this period for me not to elaborate further - all entertainment was closed down and food and clothing was rationed and we all received our ration books along with identity cards. All private cars had to be disabled and wheels
taken off and we perched ours up on bricks. No petrol was available for private use. The iron chains around the house and park railings all disappeared very quickly, taken for the war effort. Everyday objects which we took for granted such as hairclips, combs and make-up disappeared off the market as all metal went towards munitions and plastic was not at that time available.
In early 1940 the blitz started and as I had to do some sort of war work and I could drive I joined the ARP as an ambulance driver.I had to take a special driving test before I could drive an ambulance and I was surprised to find that the other girl who turned up for the test was Christine Goodhew who had sat next to me at school.We both passed and were sent to the Richmond Road depot which was based in the school. Sadly Christine died in 1941, I believe she had contracted Black Water Fever in India.
We worked in three shifts, 8 hours on, 8 hours standby(reporting for duty if the siren went) and 8 hours off. On two weekends we worked extra shifts so that we got a free weekend every third week. As this was the period of the blitz we actually worked much longer hours and on one occasion I didn't get home for three days. As we were only a short way from Chatham Dockyard and enemy bombers passed above the Medway Towns on their way to London we were constantly busy.
Because of the heavy bombing of London, Coventry etc. we were considered a high risk area and if a major raid happened ambulances had to vacate the towns and drive to an assembly point where we would be sent to another depot. Our assembly point was the garage at the bottom of Blue Bell Hill.
Each shift was composed of a first aid party of four men who treated victims as they were extracted from the rubble. Then there was an ambulance with a driver and an attendant and a sitting case car that took the minor injuries back to a first aid post at Richmond Road Infants School which was staffed by nurses.
When I was there the three ambulance crews were myself and Elsie Colwell (now deceased) who was my attendant.Vi Robinson,driver (now Kirman and living in Toronto)and her attendant Joyce Wren (known affectionately as Jenny, still living in Gillingham and a close friend) The third shift was Mrs Hillier(driver) and Madge Tate (attendant).Our officer in charge was Alf Springate.Another of our volunteers was Councillor Stanley Briggs who was later killed during a raid on the dockyard.
The ambulances were converted from large saloon cars by cutting off the back of the bodywork and adding a canvas cover with a back which could be rolled up.As I had been taught to double declutch this came in very handy as some of the vehicles had 'crash gear boxes'. These were kept under corrigated iron shelters in the playgrounds. The Ford V8's fitted under quite easily but not the Buick which was delivered and given to me to drive.Parking it for the first time in the pitch black I discovered that this one was taller than the shelter under which I was attempting to park it and I removed a section of the guttering.
As a driver I had to check the tyres, radiator and battery each morning. One of the more unpleasant tasks was the cleaning out of the interior after we had carried casualties.
One day when driving along Gillingham High Street there were ominous rumbles from the radiator and we ground to a halt. I unscrewed the radiator cap and a jet of sludge flew into the air. Some soldiers who were watching pushed the ambulance back to the depot. It turned out that children had filled the radiator with sand!
We all had our little incidents. One day Vi returned with her ambulance covered in milk after colliding with a milk float on the lower road and I myself turned into Napier Road and a horse being led up to Bourne and Hilliers milk depot kicked out and dented my ambulance (I don't think anyone believed me).
Off duty we ate at the British Restaurant in Arden Steet where we all sat at long tables.We were told that the meat we were served was whale. We never did know.
The first bomb I heard come down was a whistling bomb which demolished Hewitts the drapers which stood on the corner Canterbury Street and Windmill Road.Soldiers were send to clear the rubble and stood the dummies in the street dressed in what remained of Hewitts stock. Elsie,who lived two doors away, was blown from the top of her stairs to the bottom by the blast.
A lot of the early casualties were from shrapnel wounds rather than the actual bombs. There were 4 anti-aircraft guns and a lot of pom-poms situated in Featherby Road. Whenever we passed the gun site a sentry would challenge us with "Halt who goes there"and we had to answer "Friend" and he would tell us to advance and be recognised although I never worked out how he could recognise a total stranger. Living near the football ground we could hear the shrapnel pinging on the corrigated roof of the main stand.
When off duty one evening my husband shouted that gas had been dropped and we all hurriedly donned our gasmasks. We later found that the smell came from smoke generators which were designed to cover the towns with a sheet of thick black smoke. Although it seemed funny later it was very traumatic at the time. We were also surrounded by concrete blocks which, in the event of an invasion, would be rolled into the roads as tank traps.
My first casualty was a four year old boy who had a fractured base of skull and I duly took him to casualty at the back of St. Bart's Hospital, my attendant asked a nurse and doctor talking at the door to help us with the stretcher but they said to wait for porters - we went back down to the High Street and got two men passing by two carry the stretcher. The child was dead before he reached the operating theatre. A very sad experience.
One lunch time Elsie (my attendant)and I were eating our sandwiches at a small infants desk, there had been no air raid siren but we could hear a plane and thought it one of ours - suddenly the loud swish of bombs falling and our building shook and the grills in the ceiling discharged a whole lot of soot and dust all over us and our food.
We could see a bomb had fallen on the road opposite the depot(Milburn Road) so off we went. A house a little way along on the left had received a direct hit but neighbours thought both husband and wife were at work (he in the dockyard and she as an Insurance Collector). Someone then said they thought they had seen her go indoors and that she had a purple coat on. After some time searching through the extensive rubble our rescue squad found the coat and hung it on the fence by me. I must say it is no pleasure attending an incident, the road was full of pot holes, flints and lumps of concrete, water was escaping everywhere from the mains and gas also so people were warned not to smoke. An unexploded bomb went off down the road to the right of us and an air raid shelter came flying over the roof of the house. Eventually with the help of her husband and a passing naval officer her body was located under the kitchen table.
I then waited whilst her remains were extricated and wrapped in my two army blankets. We were not suppposed to take bodies but had to leave them for the mortuary ambulance, but as this was occupied down Medway Road where there were several casualties, I had to remove her as she could not be left lying about on the pavement. I remember looking back through the ambulance and just seeing long brown wavy hair hanging over the edge of the stretcher, When I got to the mortuary which was actually a row of garages at the back of the school in Green Street which had been taken temporarily over a few volunteer firemen were sitting about making encouraging remarks to me (maybe because I was an 18 year old platinum blonde had something to do with this). I followed Roy Spenceley (the mortician) into the mortuary to regain my blankets which we had strict instructions not to part with and always to return with two (as these were in short supply and had to be used again)..
I shall never forget the sight that met my eyes, What seemed to me a vast tangled mass of intestines amongst mangled red meat is the only was I can describe it (I won't mention names but the lady could have known nothing about it). As everything was stuck to the blankets we obviously could not retrieve them and had to make our excuses back at the depot, My one memory for a long time was how sick I felt and how I could not stop reaching.
After returning to the depot they they had a womans body from Medway road laid out under the bike shed and were wrapping it in tarpaulin.I remember her feet sticking out and that she was wearing sensible shoes. Many were the stories told by crews coming back from incidents. One was of a baby being bathed in front of the fire which was blown into the fire by a bomb blast.I don't know if that was correct but in another incident I remember a volunteer fireman who was being forceably restrained outside of his house which had been hit and he believed his young son was inside.
Further memories in part two.
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