- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Dr. Ivy Oates
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 April 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Bill Ross of the 'Action Desk — Sheffield' Team on behalf of Dr. Ivy Oates, and has been added to the site with the author's permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
War breaks out
Sept 3rd 1939 was a Sunday, I was in the Coventry Cathedral at 11 o'clock, the priest went into the pulpit with a piece of paper in his hand and read a message from Chamberlain saying that he had given an ultimatum to Hitler, to which he should reply by 11 o'clock. He had received no such reply, so we were at war with Germany We knew there had been a war in Spain and civilians and churches had been bombed and we looked at our beautiful perpendicular Cathedral with its unique blue glass in the windows. This was a special dye, a secret of a Coventry family, the secret which had been lost, and was therefore irreplaceable. It was decided to remove the windows and store them at Hampton Lucy, so they would not be damaged by blasts.
Coventry Cathedral was bombed and burnt to the ground. Recently, nails from the woodwork had been made into a cross and sent to Dresden, whose Cathedral was also bombed. After the war, all we had were the windows, and a modern Cathedral was built. When one goes in, it looks rather plain, not having a thousand years of history. But when you stand at the east end under the crown of thorns, if you look towards the west end, you see the wonderful vista stained glass.
I was a student at the time, commuting between Coventry and Birmingham. They were the days of steam trains, and New St Station was covered with a tremendous glass dome. The first air raid shattered all the glass, platforms were waist deep in glass and the sparks from the funnels and the opening from the fire doors meant it was very visible from the air. Trains ran at night without lights; later, a cone of black card was put round the lights to enable people to read.
One night, I was going home, there was only one other woman on the platform. Nobody travelled much, the sirens went and the lady said to me, 'We have to go down the luggage subway in the event of an air raid.' So we went underground, to a dark musty passage. Suddenly, she grabbed me and shouted, 'A rat!, a rat!' I'd rather have an air raid than a rat. So we went back on the platform. The train could not get into Coventry because the station had been bombed. So we disembarked at a village called Berkswell. It was after midnight, and they said they would send a bus for us. In the surrounding fields, they had put oil drums. When there was a raid, they set fire to the oil, and black smoke, which you could taste, drifted over the city if the wind was in the right direction.
We approached the city via Hearsall common, and I said that I lived down there, I will get out. The bus stopped, at that moment, a stick of bombs dropped across the common. As I stepped off the bus, the rubble ran round my feet and when I turned round, the bus had gone. No man ever put his foot on the accelerator as quickly as that driver. I walked across the road and some men from the fire unit came out and said, 'You're lucky, you are, Missus.' But I thought it was very funny. I think the bus was helped by the blast.
When I got home, no one was in; they had gone to an air raid shelter. I went round the back of the house where we had French windows, and watched the planes in the sky, like little golden toys. It was very cold, and I thought, 'If no-one comes, I will break a window.' Then a bomb fell and I knew just where it had gone, on the Co-op, my mother's favourite shop. The blast from the bomb blew the door open, but it did not break the window. So I got into the house and thought it very funny that a bomb had opened the door for me. We had no gas because the mains had been hit, but we had electricity. So, I turned the electric fire on its back to warm some milk, and my father came in the front door and said, 'I've been coming over every half hour looking for you. It's a bad raid tonight; we are in the air raid shelter in the school opposite.' I said, 'I am going to spread alarm and despondency.' My mother used to say, 'Those girls know just how to serve me.' In those days, you chose how thick the bacon was to be cut and it was cut in front of your eyes. The butter was patted and wrapped and you tasted the cheese to see if it was 'sharp' enough.
One day, I was at the university and the Coventry students who came in by car were all missing. There was no communication from Coventry. And the word had got round that there had been a terrible raid. By evening, I felt I had to go home because there was no news. The station was out of action so I got a Midland Red bus. As we approached Coventry, the city was burning and the bus could not go into the city. But I said, 'I can walk across the fields.' So they dropped me off.
As I was walking across this country lane, which is now an estate, there was a large aero engine factory at the side of the road, and I thought they may be wanting to bomb it. Then I thought, 'It's all right, because they have painted cows on the roof, so that a pilot looking down will think it was a field.' It was only years later that I found the corrugated iron roofs glowed in the moonlight so the cows were illuminated, making it obvious that they were painted. Then I heard a bomb drop, and Bang bang bang, and a whole herd of cows, terrified by the bomb was stampeding up the lane. I got into the hedge; it was like a western. I walked on a bit, and then another bang. The cows turned and stampeded back. When I got home, after the terrible Coventry raid, my father had gone into the town to see the damage. He had to walk because we lost every bus, so other towns sent us busses; we got busses from Manchester and Birmingham etc. When my father got into town, amongst the burning rubble, he met the king and queen and the mayor. They came up to Coventry straight after the raid.
I was nearing the end of my medical course, and we had to work in the hospitals. I'd been forced to live in Birmingham and I worked at the Coventry General Hospital. The casualty department was chaos. Lorries driving at night had no lights; accidents were occurring continuously. Later, they had black cones on their lights, but the light emitted from them was less than their braking distance. The casualty theatre had three operating couches instead of one. Everybody was pushing past each other.
The working man at that time had one eldorado, ten pounds a week. If a man had ten pounds a week, he could buy a new semi, have a good weekend in the Working Men's Club and go to Blackpool for his holiday.
I was stitching up a wound on a miner and he said to me, 'I wouldn't have your job for 10 pounds a week. How much do you get?' I said, 'I do not get paid, I pay the hospital 52 pounds a year to be allowed to work here.' Trade unions take note, we paid to be allowed to work. Ideas were different at that time. We felt we were getting experience at the hospital, so we paid for it. The attitude of people was of cheerfulness and high morale. One day, a friend came in laughing away. She said, 'You ought to go outside, people are walking on tiptoe, not daring to speak. A landmine has got caught in the telephone wires and the police are getting everyone out, and no-one must make a sound in case it detonates the land mine.' She thought it was hilarious, nowadays people would want six months counselling if they had a land mine outside the house.
I qualified in July 1941 when the war was going very badly for us. I was living at the Children's Hospital in Lady Wood Road. I wanted to specialise in paediatrics. There was a temporary job at the Children's Hospital, which I took. Then I got a job at Victoria Children's Hospital in Hull.
Hull was especially devastating because it not only had the raids other towns got, but it was a port. Planes came over to mine the Humber Estuary. Outside my bedroom door was a school; in the schoolyard was a naval gun. This went off twice every night. My bed vibrated across the room and the windows fell out. I don't know why they bothered to replace them.
Poor doctors nowadays, if they work at night, they have to rest in the day. What would they do if they had an air raid every night, go to bed? There were supposed to be two house physicians. I was the 'two house physicians'. There was one house surgeon. The casualty officer had gone in the forces. The two of us shared the casualty officer's work. The anaesthetist had also gone into the forces. The House surgeon assisted at the operations. So, who were the anaesthetists? The two house physicians; all this for 10 pounds a month.
Because of the air raids, the children were evacuated to a beautiful stately home in Brantingham Dale, which was loaned to us by the Rekitts family. We had wards with oil painting, panelling, chandeliers etc. One afternoon a week, I went to Brand dale and saw to the children and stayed the night leaving everything in order the next day. This was the only night's sleep I would get in a week. Same for Dr Berger, the House Surgeon. She was a Jewess from East Europe who had escaped from the Nazis. I arrived at Brang Dale and the sister showed me a room. She said, 'I expect this was the nursery because there were white cupboards down one side.' I looked through the window; it was the back of the house which at the front looked over the wood and the upper reaches of the Humber. I said, 'This is where Victorians would put their children, at the back of the house.' The sister told Mrs Reckitt I did not like the room, so next week, Mrs Reckitt said, 'I have put you in the King's bedroom. Edward the 7th has slept there.' So I assure you I have slept in the King's bed. The only thing the people of Hull knew about the king was that he was caught cheating at cards.
Joining the army
Medical women were not conscripted, but I decided to go into the army and in September 1942, I received a telephone call. 'Do you still want to go in the army?' I was asked. I said 'Yes.' Then they said, 'Go home to Coventry, you'll get your calling up papers.' I know this date exactly because recently, I went to the archives in Hull to look up the Victoria Children's Hospital which doesn't exist any more, and I found that the Victoria Children's Hospital had been started by the Trade Unionists and that in Sept 1942, Miss Ivy Nicholls resigned. I am the only person mentioned in the archive and that must be because they never got so much work from one person for so little money.
When I arrived in Coventry, the papers said, 'Go to the Military tailor and get kitted out. ' I did not know what a cultural shock it was to the tailors who were used to kitting out Generals and Colonels etc, to be suddenly presented with a woman. It had never happened before. The jacket was all right; it just had to be buttoned the other way. They had never made a skirt before, but that was simple utility material. But what to put on my head? They put a peaked cap on my head. I looked ridiculous in this. The men used to say, It went along on its own and I walked under it. However, here am I in uniform, two pips on my shoulder and a first class railway ticket to Leeds, to Beckett's Park, to the Royal Army Medical Corp training college.
Everybody saluted me. The queen was not more saluted than I was on that day. I did not know how to salute, left hand, right hand, two fingers like a girl guide. I was thankful to get into the safety of four walls. There were about 8 women and over 100 men, all doctors. Of course, you have to get immunised. In the crowded hall, three men fainted, but nobody took any notice of them. I heard one man mutter, 'Fancy them doing that in front of these women.'
We had to experience gas. Cylinders of chlorine, phosgene etc. were placed in a field and we had to go and have a sniff at the gas to recognise it, then put on the gas mask to see if it protected us. When the army wished to move over a hundred troops, it marched them. We were lined up, me every inch of 5 feet 2, in a tight utility skirt, and men of 6 feet, 6'4 etc, and away we went. No way could I match the army pace. The Sergeant Major's nightmare, one person in step, me. He was not put out, he put me front row, left side. Everyone to take their pace from me. The seams of my skirt were a great credit to the Coventry Military Tailors. The men on the front row started taking lady like steps, then people behind trying to keep their distance. The ranks and columns wavered and a great peel of laughter rang out. If I could not reach the army pace, they could not meet mine. So we had to amble across to be gassed.
After two weeks, I was posted, first class ticket to Uxbridge. However, I was not to go to Uxbridge, I was to be sent to Colchester in Essex. It was late when I arrived at the station, no one was there. The porter said, 'This is the back of the station, go over the footbridge to the front.' There was the worst thunderstorm that I have ever known. There were thunder, lightening, sheets of rain and no transport because the driver knew the train came to the back of the station, so he was waiting at the back, while I stood at the front. Eventually, he came round. The journey in the blackout and with Essex being flat, we kept running into sheets of water. We arrived at a village called Great Yeldham where the army had requisitioned a large house as a battery headquarters. It had been a disastrous day for them. The DR rider had crashed into a tree and got killed. That was the first Signal. They were attached to an American airfield and the Americans had detonated one of their own bombs and they'd had an explosion. The terrible storm had brought down the electricity cables and they were in darkness, so they stuck candles in beer bottles and were walking round in a Frankenstein way, illuminated by candles.
However, their troubles were not over; out of the storm, the new medical officer arrived, the officers came out of the mess holding the candles. To their amazement, they found their new medical officer was a woman. They didn't know such things existed; in fact they put me in to share a bedroom with the Captain Quarter Master.
I was replacing an officer, Captain Lissack who was posted to North Africa. He said to me, 'I will hand over to you in the morning, but there is no Red Cross brandy.' I said, 'Why not?' Apparently, the Sergeant in charge of the reception station had an affair with an ATS girl who jilted him. So he decided to commit suicide. Well, you can't just say, 'I'm going to commit suicide,' and just do it, so he was drinking the brandy. The Corporal rang the Officers' mess to say the sergeant was going to commit suicide and was drinking the brandy. Then Captain Lissack said, 'He's not having it all, I'm having some.' So between them, they finished the Red Cross brandy by which time, neither was in a fit state to commit suicide.
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