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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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Wartime Nurse

by ethellote

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Ethel Lote
Location of story: 
Burntwood, Staffordshire
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
26 November 2003

In the early days of World War 2 I was invited to attend a Post Mortem because, as a member of the womens section of the St. Johns Ambulance Brigade my doctor thought that it would be of interest in dealing with war casualties. On arriving at the mortuary we were greeted by two men. One was another doctor who would be assisting at the Post Mortem, and the other was a young man who was Superintendent of the men’s section of the St. Johns Ambulance Brigade, but we had never met.
As the doctors proceeded with their work the shrill sound of the Air Raid Warning Siren was heard and all of the lights failed. There were candles on hand in case of such an emergency, so the young man and I stood on each side of the body holding lighted candles so that the work could be completed. It was rather eerie in that small, cold building with the candlelight dancing on the walls, but as our eyes met during this strange evening we fell in love, although we had not exchanged any conversation. As the air raid continued we hurried away to different places to carry out our First Aid duties.
Two weeks later we met again during an air raid, and by Christmas of 1939 we were engaged, but we could not exchange our marriage vows until 5 years later. We parted in 1940- my fiance to the Royal Naval Sick Berth, where he was attending the wounded on a ship bound for East Africa, whilst I was nursing the casualties of war in this country.
Early in the war I transferred from a local hospital to an emergency military hospital in the grounds of an old psychiatric hospital, where I stayed for the duration of the war. It was originally used for civilian patients from the Birmingham area, but as hostilities increased all of the civilian patients were transferred elsewhere so that the hospital was ready to receive war wounded.
One morning all of the nurses on day duty were roused very early as news came in that wounded were on their way to us. We stood outside of the wards, which were prefabricated buildings, and watched as a strange convoy moved slowly along the driveway from the main gates. This convoy consisted of relief ambulances, buses, lorries, and taxis. As the vehicles began to unload their passengers to transfer them into the wards, we realised that all of these poor soldiers were not only wounded, but absolutely exhausted, all of them were covered with mud from the beaches of Dunkirk. They had arrived in England in the little boats manned by all of the brave men who risked their lives making endless journeys back and forth across the Channel in those little fishing boats. Many, many poor soldiers died as they tried to escape from France. Some of the wounded had been flown to RAF Cosford, transferred in any vehicle that could be used, and then on to the various hospitals. Many of the men were suffering from burst ear drums, which made then disoriented – we called it "bomb happy".
Later we were regularly receiving more and more of the wounded. When some of the men were feeling better they would play "Housey Housey" under the bed clothes and shouting to each other. The reason for the secrecy was because this game, now known as Bingo, was illegal in those days, so someone always had to be on the lookout in case anyone came into the ward.
Many of the Officers had been with the Eighth Army, and were often riddled with shrapnel as well as other terrible injuries. It was a regular occurrence to hear a young man crying with agonising pain in a limb which was no longer there.

We worked 12 hour shifts and sometimes we would be very hungry during the long night shifts. A nurse would slip out of the ward into a field outside and dig up a potato or two which we would then cook. Before we went on duty Home Sister would check appearances. Caps had to be perfectly pleated, cuffs starched, and shoes and stockings neat and tidy.
My fiance had been sent to East Africa in 1940 with the Fleet Air Arm. He worked in a hospital in Mombassa for 5 years. The last time I had seen him was when he was boarding a train at Moor Street station in Birmingham. As I waved him goodbye I joined all of the other weeping people wondering when, or whether, we would ever see loved ones again. As we left the station we suddenly heard the wail of a siren signalling an imminent air raid.
For almost two years I received no letters, then, eventually, a large batch arrived. They had all been censored, with large pieces cut out, but then they were censored again at the hospital, so there wasnt much left to read!
We were married in 1945, on his first leave, after not seeing each other for 5 years. I had been on duty all night at the hospital, arrived home at 9.30am, and was getting married in a little chapel at 11.00am. I arrived there with my father and walked past a guard of honour of St Johns Ambulance personnel to find the chapel packed to the door with stretchers and wheelchairs in the aisles. I had said goodbye to my patients only to find that a coach had brought as many as possible to see me married. I sent my bouquet back to the hospital to be given to a WAAF who was so severely wounded that I knew I would not see her when I returned.

Now, after 55 happy years, I am an 83 year old widow, but those war years will always live on in my memory.

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