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Training as a War Time Nurse in North West London

by novicefootie

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mary Foote
Location of story: 
Edgeware General
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
25 October 2004

When war was declared I started work as a VAD at a First Aid Post. It was in a Health Centre so we were able to learn more and practice more first aid. We had lectures on treatment and later on training in gas warfare. We went through a gas chamber of tear gas with our gas-masks on. We also had a sniff of it, enough to make us tearful!

For a while all was quiet, but then one night there was a raid when a lot of incendiary bombs were dropped. We had a number of casualties with slight burns and singed hair; some had no eyebrows or eyelashes. I was struck by the smell of burnt hair. Later on we had other casualties with actual injuries.

I had a ten minute walk to and from the First Aid post. We had no tin hats, only gas masks so when there were bombing raids I dived into the nearest garden and got down on the grass.
We had shift work and one night when I went home at 10 p.m. and went into the kitchen for my bedtime snack which my mother had left me before she went to bed, I had just finished when there was a hammering on the front door. A warden was there saying “What are you doing here? This road has been evacuated. There is a bomb at the bottom of your garden!” I had to quickly get some nightclothes and he helped me find my mother and sister who had gone to a neighbour on the other side of the road. We were not allowed back until the following afternoon when the bomb had been defused. Actually it was just over the fence in a side garden but quite close to the house. I was amazed at the size of it.

One night when it seemed rather noisy we were alarmed to see how red the sky was. When I looked out of my bedroom window I could see as far as the edge of Hampstead Heath and the city beyond. There the whole sky seemed to be ablaze. It was the docks on fire and the sky was bright red for days afterwards.

When we had bombing raids my mother and I used to sit in the cupboard under the stairs. My mother used to sleep under the dining room table but I went upstairs to bed. One night when I was asleep I was woken up by the first of a stick of bombs and I was out of bed and down the stairs in a flash as though I had slid all the way. My mother said she had never known me to come down so fast. In the cupboard we heard the rest drop. We lived in one of several parallel roads and the next morning we found that in each alternative road a house had been demolished near the end of the road. Fortunately for us our road had been missed out as we were not far from the end of the road.

At the First Aid Post one of us had to go to the Operations Room close by where incoming enemy planes were charted. We sat outside the secret room and were told when enemy aircraft were approaching so that we could ring the post before the sirens went

I felt I would like to work full time in hospital, still as a VAD, as I had done part time work before the war and so I asked to be transferred. Shortly afterwards I began working on the male surgical ward of the local General Hospital. So began a new era of my life.

Going home from the hospital one night I just missed a trolley bus so I walked down to the next stop about 100 yards away by some shops. As I waited, there was a sudden brilliant flash lighting up the whole sky. I dashed into the porch way of a shop right up to the door and crouched down. Immediately there was a tremendous bang and the whole earth shook like an earthquake. It was a bit frightening. However a trolleybus soon came and I got on it. The conductor seemed quite calm. When we got to the Broadway on the Edgware Road I got off the bus to find it all a bit chaotic. There were a lot of police about and all the shop windows were smashed and laying on the ground and people rushing around attending to things. I picked my way through shattered glass until I could turn off to get to my road. My mother was a bit shaken but had coped well. Some of the windows in our road had been blown out. But ours were intact.

The next morning I arrived on my ward to find all beds occupied and mattresses placed all the way up the ward on the floor with casualties. These were soon dealt with and I remember a policeman with a fractured femur. I learned that a whole road had been more or less wiped out by a landmine (I think the sort that came down with a parachute.) There were quite a few fatalities.

It seemed as though the war was going to go on for some time so as I had become interested in the work I decided to train to be a qualified nurse rather than VAD work I was admitted along with about 8 others into the school where we had 3 months full time tuition under an excellent sister tutor. There was a new nurses’ home which was well appointed and we had very good rooms. From the school we were sent on to the wards. We were on duty at 7.30am until 7.30pm apart from half an hour for coffee and half an hour for lunch with 2 hours off during the day which might be free or used for lectures. Our half day was from 7.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. and the evening off was 7.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. with no time off during the day, which was extremely tiring. We were paid £1 per month. Not enough to buy shoes and stockings.

When the raids were on we were expected to sleep on mattresses on the floor of the nurses’ sitting room which was below ground level. Later on we slept in our rooms and could be called up if necessary if there were casualties. During one heavy raid when my friend and I were sleeping in next door rooms on the top floor we were woken up by hammering on our doors. It was the Home Sister shouting at us to come down to shelter, but we were so tired we just told her to go away!

At the end of the first year we had a Preliminary Exam which had to be passed in order to carry on. After the written papers we had to go to the Homoeopathic Hospital in London, for a Viva exam but when we got there we found the front entrance had been bombed and we had to go in by the back way by the dustbins! We went through what seemed rather out-dated wards after our modern ones. We were examined by two rather stiff and starchy sisters or matron, and were asked to explain what a whole row of archaic instruments was used for, but they were quite strange to us!

About this time I heard that my brother had been killed when his plane crashed on his last solo flight prior to getting his wings. Also two of his friends who were pilots had been lost.

Apart from all the hard work we did have some enjoyment. Occasionally my friend Eileen and I went up to town either to a cinema or to get a meal (we were always hungry!) We never had a fresh egg until near the end of the war when a kind patient or visitor gave us one—it was always dried egg! Of course we never saw a banana or orange either. We were amazed to see the way that people were packed together on makeshift beds on the platforms of the Underground Railway stations. One had to tread carefully to get to the train.

Then at the hospital we sometimes had dances with live music from an RAF band. We sent an open invitation to the RAF aerodrome and the Police College, both not far away, and they in turn invited us back to their dances. Many a time we would come off duty feeling quite worn out but after a freshen-up we enjoyed dancing till late.

Towards the end of my training I worked in the operating theatre. Just before D-day we were asked to send a surgical team down to the south coast. I hoped I might go but another nurse was sent as I was near to taking my final exams. Because of that I had to take her place on night duty. I was in the main theatre most of the time with the theatre sister, but I had to run the Casualty theatre on my own. There were often minor casualties from the many factories along the road which worked 24 hours a day on making munitions or some war work. The factory next to us which in peace time made musical instruments used to have “Music while you work” blaring away once a day for the day workers and again once at night. As the night nurses’ rooms were right next to the factory it was difficult sometimes to sleep during the day.

One evening I was just going to the dining room for my main meal around midnight when the air raid warning sounded. Unfortunately I bumped into Matron who said, “ Where are you going nurse? Get back on duty immediately!” That was ridiculous as the bombers hadn’t arrived yet and there was plenty of time to snatch a meal. As it was I had to work all night without food. No wonder I weighed only 7 stone at the end of the war.

We had a man in that night whose arm had been nearly severed by flak from our own guns. It was decided to amputate but I think nowadays with modern technology it might have been saved. At about 5a.m. a porter came and asked for his gold ring. I couldn’t think where it might be until I saw a hand sticking up out of a bucket! I asked the porter to remove the ring.

I think the only time throughout the war that I felt a bit frightened was when at night and alone in the theatre I heard the drone of a V1 or V2. I was hoping it would go away and not stop overhead, for once they stopped we knew they had to come down. You see we had no plastic then, everything was in large glass jars on big glass shelves and there was nowhere to hide. How thankful we all were when the raids stopped.

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