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15 October 2014
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Be Careful What You Wish for: Working at the RN Hospital Haslaricon for Recommended story

by missaniseed

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Joan Holgate (Teather/Fitchew), Elsie Sibley
Location of story: 
Wolverhampton Municipal Grammar School, British Red Cross Hospital Longdon Hall Staffordshire, RN Hospital Haslar Gosport Portsmouth
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 June 2004

Red Cross Nurse Marjorie Joan Holgate, 1943

Some wartime memories, written by MJ Fitchew for the newsletter of Wolverhampton Municipal Grammar School Old Pupils' Association.

On the front of the spring newsletter was a picture of Miss Jones at one of the school camps. At her right hand stood Elsie Sibley. Elsie had a most striking white streak in the front of her dark hair. She left the Wolverhampton Municipal Grammar School a couple of years before I did and the next time I saw her she was standing in the front porch of Longdon Hall RAF hospital. Like myself she had volunteered to do her war service as a British Red Cross Nurse. Through all the months and postings ahead I never again met anyone from the old school.

Longdon Hall RAF hospital

Initially I was disappointed at being sent to Longdon. I had asked for a posting to a Royal Naval Hospital. The sea had always fascinated me; I wanted to be in it - or on it. (Years later I even managed to go under it on a Spanish tourist submarine operating on the Med. It took us down past wrecks and over seaweed forests, deep chasms and through schools of fish.) In our youth if you yearned to go beyond the skyline you had to travel by boat, there were no passenger jet planes. So I longed for the nautical life offered by the senior service.

Longdon Hall was situated far from the sea in the beautiful Staffordshire countryside about five miles from Lichfield. It was an 'edifice of historical interest' but in 1940 it was the residence of a Mr Burnett who had turned it over to the British Red Cross to be used as a hospital by the RAF.

The wards were named after old Staffordshire families: Berkley, Talbot, Anglesey and Chetwynd, with a resident ghost on permanent night duty. The Red Cross appointed a Commandant and a Quartermaster; both high-minded ladies in low-heeled shoes, to administer the hospital, and sisters and nurses to care for the patients. The nursing staff were closely supervised; no patient was allowed to date a nurse without first asking the Commandant for permission. Usually this was refused. As many as 15 nationalities were admitted for treatment: Australians, Canadians, American flyers who had volunteered to fly with the RAF, Poles, Czechs, free French, Belgians, Norwegians and Dutch etc. The Canadian Red Cross sent us food parcels consisting of large tins of butter, jam, marmalade, dried eggs, corned beef, tea and coffee. So we were able to treat our patients to a varied cuisine.

Longdon Hall had a Victorian walled kitchen garden, complete with two ancient gardeners to dig for victory. They managed to produce fresh vegetables, tomatoes, peaches, even strawberries and asparagus: wonderful luxuries in wartime. There were free-range eggs and cream, skimmed from the pans in the cool dairy. We never heard an air raid siren and the only enemy planes we did hear were the German bombers passing high above on their way to bomb Liverpool, Coventry or Sheffield. Our airmen were young and fit and recovered from their injuries with the minimum of help from us, and many soon rejoined their squadrons to fight again.

Time passed and I was delighted to receive a letter and a travel warrant advising me that I had been posted to the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar, Gosport, Portsmouth. My wish had been granted; I could not pack quickly enough! It was farewell to the RAF and Elsie Sibley, whom I never saw again.

The Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar

After a tedious journey in crowded and blacked-out trains I arrived at Portsmouth and took the ferry across to Haslar. I had never seen the sea in winter - it was quite a shock, grey and dirty, with rubbish floating in patches of oil and a biting wind blowing. After a short choppy passage I arrived at the reception centre of the hospital in time for the nightly air raid. Supper turned out to be lukewarm macaroni cheese, on a white plate, followed by rice pudding - on a white plate. We were eventually herded into a large room with bunk beds and primitive washing facilities and told we could have a cup of hot cocoa if we wished. I learned to like cocoa as it was made with evaporated milk. Fresh milk was never to be had. Shore establishments in the navy were issued with rations identical to the ships; baked beans were prolific, they were often bitter in a wishy-washy tomato sauce and were served at times with every meal. I have never eaten them since the war ended.

Next day was devoted to medical examinations and inoculations. These were for typhoid and tetanus and given in our right arms. By the evening we all had painfully swollen right arms, scarlet from elbow to shoulder, and were running temperatures of 103+ degrees. Not even an aspirin was given to ease our misery. We had the greatest difficulty getting dressed or undressed and tried to help each other fasten bras and suspender belts (no tights in those days!) Fifty or so unhappy young women trying to make up bunk beds and cope with starched collars, cuffs and caps.

The RN had its own idiom. The lavatories were the heads, rooms were cabins, and beds were berths. If you left the building you went ashore, if you were late back you were notified as adrift. One did not pull down the flag; one lowered the ensign. The striking of bells regulated time. The kitchen was the galley. All doctors were 'surgeons' and male nursing staff were 'sick berth attendants'.

Two days later we were judged fit enough to be marched to the RN dockyard at Portsmouth to be issued with steel helmets and respirators. Those respirators (gas masks) were hideous. You had to push your chin into the rubber face piece and pull the straps over your head so that it fitted closely. We all needed help from our friends to do this as our arms were still painful and the apparatus was stiff and new. There were great bug-eyed pieces and a long tube like an elephant's trunk that fitted into a canister strapped onto your chest.

Then we were told that we were to be given a demonstration of a gas attack and were marched through a constructed maze to the centre. After a short while we were told by the Chief Petty Officer to remove our gas masks. Immediately tears flooded out from the effect of the tear gas. Made confident that the respirators really worked we were told to put our masks on again. Easier said than done; sore arms and copious tears made the task well nigh impossible. The CPO ran around pushing our faces none too gently into the masks. He left to the last one of the 'hons' who was in a group of former debutantes. She had cheekily mimicked his broad Yorkshire accent by asking him 'Chief, what is a 'deemonsteraytion'?'

I had one more trial to undergo. My father had refused to have me vaccinated for smallpox when I was a baby. Given my present circumstances I decided it would be wise to have this done. Usually the vaccination for smallpox was done at the top of the arm, a suppurating sore about the size of a grape developed and the patient wore a red band around their arm to warn people not to bump into them and knock the scab of. The resulting scar was unsightly when a sleeveless dress or bathing costume was worn. Consequently I asked to have my vaccination done on my hip. As this area had to be kept clean and dry, it was impossible to have a bath or even a shower for at least two weeks. With the help of a friend I devised a way to have a shower. Mary sat on a stool, and putting her hand around the shower curtain, she held a galley pot over the affected area, so preventing the scab from getting wet.

We now found that we had been brought to Haslar to implement the staffing of the Casualty Clearing Centre. Our entire intake had sufficient experience in other hospitals to be of use in treating wounded. The CCC at Haslar was geared to cope with 300 patients an hour. We were each designated a specific task in a team and drilled continuously in setting out the station. When the alarm bell rang announcing that wounded men were being landed at the dock and were being transferred to the station by ambulance, we ran to Sister's cabin, put on a rubber apron, put a packet of cigarettes and matches in our pockets and joined our designated team of surgeons and nurses. When permission was given we could give the wounded men the comfort of a cigarette. This was how I learned to smoke, lighting cigarettes for the lads who could not do this for themselves. Within two or three days all the wounded were evacuated to the countryside, safe from the air raids and the threat of invasion from the grey monsters so near across the channel. We were very afraid that the Nazis would come at any time.

When Haslar was cleared of casualties we set to and cleaned every bit of equipment, sterilised every instrument, scrubbed every table, made up all the beds, rolled bandages and cut up gauze to make dressings ready for the next intake. There were happier occasions. When one of HM ships is commissioned it is usual to throw a party to celebrate. Duty free drink was plentiful in the wardroom, and I learned to enjoy a gin and tonic. A personable young lieutenant would sometimes offer to show you the 'gold rivet put into a Royal Naval Ship during construction for luck'. If you accepted this dubious offer you found that the rivet was situated in some out of the way bulkhead. Unfortunately for the amorous sailor a Red Cross nurse's uniform was so stiffly starched and of such pristine whiteness that even the gentlest hug would have caused most noticeable cracks in the meringue ironed by Mr Wu! A chaste kiss was all that was possible before returning to the party.

I often thought of the bluebell woods and water meadows of Longdon Hall and the songs of the skylarks. At Gosport the noise was insidious; marching feet on the cobble stones, air-raid sirens, bombs exploding, bells ringing, pompom guns firing (oerlikon guns), destroyers whooping, orders being shouted and the cold dirty sea.

Just Nuisance, the sea dog

I began with the coincidence of Elsie Sibley and I will end with another one. Sitting out the night in intensive care with an able seaman, we began to talk, first of home cooking and families and then of our dogs left behind. He told me that he had been to the RN base at Simonstown in South Africa. There he had come across a Great Dane dog called Just Nuisance, who was the only dog to hold the rank of Able Seaman in the RN. This dog was remarkable in that it only bothered to associate with ratings wearing 'square rig', a collar with three stripes and a jersey and bell-bottoms. He travelled on the train from Simonstown to Cape Town for boozy nights out with his seamen 'oppos'. He had his own railway pass, wore a sailor' cap, and had the rank of Able Seaman.

Fifty years later I flew to Cape Town to visit my sister Ann and her husband. They took me to Simonstown and there on the sea front was a statue, life size, of this famous sea dog. I bought a book telling of all his exploits. If anyone would like to read it let me know. The Royal Navy did eventually send me across the sea but that is another story; by that time all of my sea fantasies had evaporated. I had grown up and accepted doing my war service where I could be of most use. Nevertheless - be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.

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