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Recollections of a Nurse during WW2icon for Recommended story

by Mary_Goodhand

Mary Goodhand during the war

Contributed by 
People in story: 
H. Mary Goodhand nee Stretch
Location of story: 
Smethwick, Birmingham
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 December 2004

I was sixteen years old when war was declared and working as a clerk/typist in my hometown of Smethwick on the outskirts of the city of Birmingham. The situation was regarded as grave and since bombing raids were expected air raid precautions were commenced and ARP units established. These consisted of First Aid and Rescue Services based at Ambulance Stations which often consisted of commandeered commercial garages.

Being a junior member of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade, I decided that I would volunteer for duty at the nearest First Aid Post to my home and reported for duty three or four evenings a week. I was issued with a steel helmet, a navy blue drill overall and an arm-band printed with the words 'First Aid'.

The first months of the war were very quiet, and often referred to as the 'phoney war', but it was to be a very brief respite. This period was used to prepare us for any eventuality and was spent in practising and improving our skills. We worked in teams and each ambulance was manned by a driver, a rescue worker (these two duties were sometimes combined) and an ambulance attendant. The ambulances were well equipped to deal with any type of emergency.

The enemy attacks began in mid-1940 and I had my first experience of bombing raids and their consequences. At one time following the air raid alarm, all the ambulances were drawn up in the road in readiness. I was carrying a tray of tea to the waiting drivers and had just started to cross the road to them when a basket of incendiary bombs burst above. Everyone shouted at me to take cover but I was too stunned to drop the tray, and just stood there frozen to the ground! Fortunately for me there didn't appear to be one with my name on it! It was during one of these experiences that I first met and worked with my husband to be. He was in charge of a Rescue Team and had one of the most dangerous jobs. As the intensity of air raids increased we reported for duty on a regular basis and often worked throughout the night. It was a salutary experience and ultimately responsible for my decision to train as a nurse when the time came for me to report for a job of national importance at the age of 18 years.

Accepted for training

In 1941 I applied to a newly built hospital on the outskirts of Birmingham and was accepted for a four year training as a nurse. It was a voluntary hospital (or teaching hospital), adjacent to the University of Birmingham and its Medical School, and was rated at the time as the most modern hospital in the UK.

The National Health Service did not exist of course until 1948 and before that time there were two types of hospital. Voluntary hospitals were dependent on subscriptions, donations by companies and payment for treatment by private patients. Treatment and medical/nursing training was superior to that offered by the other type of hospitals known as infirmaries which were funded by the local authority and often built near a cemetery! Consequently there was an established fear of patients when admitted to an infirmary that it was a one-way trip to this place!

The late Queen Mother, who was then Queen Consort to HM King George VI, declared this new voluntary hospital open in early 1939, and graciously consented to give it her own name - it was known as the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. All nurses were required to live in, and at no time were allowed to wear their uniform away from the hospital. Very strict rules were observed including that which forbade marriage during the period of training. A difficult decision for many a young girl whose fiancé was due for overseas combat! We were required to pay £20 for our uniform and textbooks, and the salary for our first year was £18. However we did not have to pay for board and lodging!

Our uniform was designed by Nornam Hartnell and broke away from the traditional striped dress and starched collars and cuffs. Our dresses were pale primrose colour for junior nurses, pale blue for seniors and green for sisters - all with soft, white collars and cuffs. We wore brown capes lined with light fawn and matching shoes and stockings. Starched wrap-around aprons were worn on duty and always removed when we left the wards. At no time were we allowed to wear our uniform off hospital premises. Strict hygiene was observed and cross-infection was virtually non-existent.

The medical profession was male-dominated at this time, and female medical students were noticeable by their absence. The nursing profession was all female and no training existed for male nurses until some time after the war. Hospital porters and orderlies were very few and generally were recruited from conscientious objectors. They gave good service, but junior student nurses were often called upon to carry out tasks usually designated to them. One of my first recollections of this was in my first year of training. I was instructed by the Ward Sister to shave the very hairy chest of a patient in preparation for an operation to remove his spleen. In the preliminary training school, we had been taught to use a cut-throat razor on a life-size model, but never in our wildest dreams did we think we would be called upon to put this into practice. The patient in question recoiled in horror on realising my intention, and quickly offered to do the job himself. Needless to say I was greatly relieved!

Life as a nurse

As air raids and military campaigns intensified, our nursing duties and experiences expanded. We received many air raid casualties from surrounding areas, including those from city hospitals. The centre of Birmingham was attacked relentlessly, and there were admissions of casualties which exceeded our capacity. At one particularly vicious bombardment we were forced to put casualties on stretchers in the corridors due to lack of beds. We could see the glow of fires burning in the city, and our own hospital was subjected to attack by incendiary bombs. Medical students took turns to man the roof-tops of the hospital in fire-watching duties, having been trained to deal with threatening incendiary bombs. It eventually became necessary to evacuate hospital patients from some of the wards in order to make room for air raid victims and much later for military personnel from various campaigns. Emergency units were set up in small cottage hospitals and convalescent homes throughout the surrounding area to accommodate the evacuated patients. Some of the injuries sustained by air raid victims were devastating and made an everlasting impression on the young student nurses involved in their treatment. The memory of some tragic cases remain with me to this day.

However there were lighter moments. During my first year I spent time nursing army personnel who were ill or had been injured during training exercises. One young lieutenant had received a bullet wound in his leg whilst on such an exercise in Ireland. He was admitted at mid-week, two days after rations of sugar had been issued to all patients. I knew that there was a tin of glucose in the ward store cupboard, and offered to get some for him to put on his porridge. Imagine the hilarity in the ward when it proved to be salt and not glucose. I was mortified and decided that I would beg a boiled egg from the diet kitchen to compensate. This would be a great treat and the other officers in the ward were very envious, but it wasn't to be my day! As the young man cracked his egg, it exploded and a horrible green mess appeared. Everyone was of the opinion that it was a deliberate joke carried out by me, but there was great hilarity and the young man forgave me.

Later that week we were informed that there was to be an inspection of the military patients by a Brigadier General. Officer patients were in small wards, but the ranks were all nursed in one large ward. As the top brass made his tour of this ward, a Sergeant Major who was one of the patients, called everyone to attention. I've never seen anything so funny as all patients lying stiffly to attention in their hospital bed!

Surgical and theatre nursing

At the end of my first year I was despatched to work as a junior theatre nurse. The theatre block consisted of five large well-designed theatre suites with state of the art equipment, plus two smaller units for minor surgery. It was tough working under a Theatre Sister who demanded nothing but perfection in our duties, and tolerated fools badly. Fortunately I was well suited to the job and luckily made few mistakes. I loved working as part of a team of dedicated people. This proved to be the turning point of my nursing career as I naturally gravitated towards surgical nursing and in particular theatre work. During the war due to a variety of pressures there was difficulty in arranging a structured form of nurse training, and consequently each student was placed according to their particular interest and ability.

My next theatre assignment was in 1942. Morale throughout the country had been at its lowest ebb during 1941 and also early 1942 with disastrous news from the North African campaign. However when 'Monty' was appointed commander of the 8th Army and arrived in the desert, the North African campaign took a new turn. In early October there was a great Allied victory with Rommel's troops being routed, and Tobruk taken. This news was a great boost to the country, but the hospital was told to prepare to receive many casualties. It was feared that there would be many cases of gangrene due to the slow and tedious journey required to bring the injured back to England.

When the convoys started to arrive I was on duty in one of the theatres. Three theatres, including the one in which I was working, were designated to deal with the casualties. Because of the large number, it was decided to have two operating tables working concurrently in each of the theatres in order that treatment could be carried out as speedily as possible. Most were suffering from severe and complicated leg wounds, which had been treated by casualty clearing stations at the front. The treatment comprised immobilisation of the limb in what was then called a Thomas Splint (usually used in treatment of fractured thighs). A very thick plaster of Paris cast was applied over this to the depth of 4 - 5 inches. On admission to the theatre, medical students armed with shears removed the plaster cast, while the surgical team scrubbed in readiness to operate.

The discarded plaster splints and dressings were most offensive and gave off a smell which none of us working at the time will ever forget! However they proved to be the salvation of many young men and saved limbs which would surely have required amputation. There was not one case of gangrene and the particular device came to be called the 'Tobruk Splint'. Whilst operating on the first patient at one table, another patient on the second table was being prepared. On completion of the operation the medical students exchanged places with us to put on a fresh plaster cast. The surgical team then scrubbed and started work on the second patient…. and so on throughout the night. We worked non-stop, as did the other theatres - from 4pm until 8am the next morning. We had the enormous satisfaction of knowing that no amputations had been necessary… but the theatre was a sorry mess. The back lobby was full of discarded and stinking plaster casts and there was blood and plaster on the swing doors of the theatre from the hands of the medical students and porters. In spite of this, everyone went off-duty pleased with their night's work and not a twinge of conscience at leaving such chaos to be restored by the on-coming staff!

Theatre became my own special field and I became most interested in the revolutionary plastic surgery being carried out at this time. I was also privileged to work with some of the surgeons who pioneered this work. There was no such thing as nylon sutures of course, and my fine red hair was often called into use. After being sterilised it was used to repair median nerves which had been damaged in forearm injuries caused by shrapnel. It evidently had the advantage of being both fine and strong! We carried out different types of skin grafts, the results of which were painstakingly slow. Seldom did the theatre staff see the end results of our efforts, but many badly burned pilots were supported psychologically by the young nurses who cared for them post-operatively.

I often think of one young man who'd suffered particularly severe injuries. I was called upon to assist three surgeons who had decided to work in unison on this soldier. A Plastic Surgeon and a Facio-Maxillary Surgeon worked together to replace a shattered lower jaw with a piece of bone chiselled from his hip by an Orthopaedic Surgeon. A tube of flesh from his abdomen had been prepared earlier by the Plastic Surgeon, and attached to his wrist. This was called a Pedicle graft and would be used to form a chin. Once the bone had been removed from the hip in readiness for use, the Orthopaedic Surgeon prepared to work on his shattered lower leg. I was kept busy supplying all three surgeons with the correct 'tools of their trade', moving from top to middle to bottom of the table and handing the necessary instruments, sutures etc. My theatre team at this time consisted of one nurse and one orderly! All instruments were selected and sterilised before an operation by the theatre staff since there was no such thing as a Central Sterilising Department as now. I often wonder at the outcome of this surgery on the poor young man.

In May 1944 we had an inkling that something was in the air. We'd been told that we were to remain within call of the hospital if we were on holiday or off duty. When the Second Front did take place on 6th June, wards were emptied in readiness for the expected large number of casualties. The first convoys arrived 9th/10th June and the hospital continued to receive the wounded in the last months of 1944 and early weeks of 1945.

As news of the arrival of convoys filtered through to the public, many were at the railway station to cheer the boys as they were being loaded into ambulances. Precious chocolate and cigarettes were offered to them, and unknowingly to a few German prisoners of war. They were mostly young boys of 15 and 16 years of age, and were convinced that these people were trying to poison them! One ward was entirely given over to the prisoners of war and guarded by the Military Police. Nurses with some knowledge of the German language were drafted to work on this ward. When VE Day was declared on 8th May 1945, there was great relief throughout the hospital and much jubilation! I later joined my husband in Portsmouth after our marriage in June 1945 and continued my work as a Theatre Sister for many years to come.

See also A Romance that nearly went with a BANG! by my husband Ron Goodhand.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Recollections of a nurse during WW2

Posted on: 11 December 2004 by Audrey Lewis - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mary Goodhand,
I read your story with such interest. You describe the treatments in hospital with such detail. I'm pleased you survived the bombings - you did a great job. I like the hairy chest part. I will look at your husband's story.
Kind regards,
Audrey Lewis

Message 1 - Nursing in ww2

Posted on: 10 May 2005 by Gwenneth

Dear Mary
What an interesting story, I began my nursing in 1953 aged 18 in Kent PTS, not wearing uniform when off duty, brings back memories, Tomases Splints we learnt about, but not open razors! How fasinating they used your hair for stiching wounds.
will read your husband story later.
Thank you for bringing back some memories of my nursing days.
Best wishes


Message 2 - Nursing in ww2

Posted on: 04 July 2005 by mgoody Mary Goodhand

Dear Gwenneth
Thank you for your reply. I'm pleased that you found my account of interest. Confining uniform to hospital premises only certainly must have contributed to reducing the risk of cross infection and I find it interesting to know that this was continued certainly in the early years of the NHS. Pity that standards seem to have dropped, although I think that irresponsible use of anti-biotics in recent years must have contributed to the increase of 'super-bugs'!!
Best wishes

Message 1 - Nursing in Birmingham

Posted on: 24 May 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mary -
Most interesting tale of how nurses were trained and how the standards were kept in those days, to-day cross-infection seems to be the "in" thing as it would appear that if a person goes into hospital with one disease - they come out with an altogether different one !
I saw a classic case of this one day while visiting a hospital in XYZ123 - the elevator door opened and revealed a janitor with his mop and bucket on wheels containing what appeared to be liquid mud. he came on board with his cigarette in his mouth - went off at a lower floor and as the door closed on him, started to mop the floor - I wrote to the administrators - but I think they were all out to lunch !

Bring back those fearsome Matrons !


Message 2 - Nursing in Birmingham

Posted on: 04 July 2005 by mgoody Mary Goodhand

Dear Tom
With reference to your comment regarding cross infection problems which exist today by comparison with low risk of yesteryears! There were of course no antibiotics at that time and one of the present problems has arisen due to excessive use of them now and the development of resistant strains of micro-organsisms due to this. I also think that contract cleaning is a problem with little training or supervision being offered. In my day the importance of strict observance of domestic cleanliness before surgical cleanliness could be attained was drilled into all members of the hospital staff, and was closely monitored by ward sisters and the Matron. Also strict discipline regarding uniform, which was never worn off hospital premises and fresh aprons worn when working on the wards and left behind when going off duty. Hand washing between administering any form of treatment to patients was of paramount importance and always carried out by both medical and nursing staff. Removing the power of the Matron was a detrimental step - and they were not all dragons! Thanks for the reply - there is much that can be learned today! Mary


Message 3 - Nursing in Birmingham

Posted on: 04 July 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Mary -
an equal problem to-day is the resistence to learning - why should they suffer - the poor dears - in learning all about it when they can have a quick half an hour seminar via TV, with the inevitable coffee ?
Similarly , no doubt you have seen the preponderance of "Master" builders to-day ? Just before the house falls down !

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Air Raids and Other Bombing Category
Nursing and Medicine Category
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Air Raid Precautions Category
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