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Under the Red Cross Banner - Working for the VAD in Scotland

by vad_liz

Contributed by 
vad_liz
People in story: 
Elizabeth Hamilton
Location of story: 
Scotland
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A3930563
Contributed on: 
21 April 2005

My call up papers arrived on 5th January 1942 and I was posted to Edinburgh Castle, which had been converted into a military hospital. My mother was pleased I wasn’t going very far away — she’d be able, she thought, to visit me on my off-duty days. I was seen off at the railway station by my tearful mother and aunt. I looked along the platform at all the little farewell parties — worst of all were the pathetic groups of forlorn children — evacuees — mugs strung round their necks, clutching gas masks and labelled like so many parcels, off to a strange town to live among people they didn’t know. Some, I believe, took to it; others were very homesick, longing to return home.

I was billeted in 17th Century Blackie House on the Royal Mile, fairly near the Castle. It was a tall, grim building with many stone flights of stairs up to our sleeping quarters. It had a fortress-like atmosphere and was bitterly cold (no central heating then!) It reminded me of the grim castles I’d read about in Gothic romances.

At the Hospital I had my first experience of nursing as a VAD, which meant we were just skivvies. We were never allowed by the QAs (Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps) to do any real nursing, no matter how elementary. They looked down their noses at us and we were given menial jobs — I seemed to spend all my time emptying bedpans and bottles. I was reminded of the similar experience of Vera Brittain in her “Testament of Youth”, about life as a VAD in the Great War.

Fortunately, this initiation period didn’t last long — about six weeks, I think, after which I was thrilled to be told I was being sent to Inverness, the medical HQ of the North Highland Division. That train journey to Inverness in the depths of winter was a memory I’ll never forget. Soon after leaving the suburbs and outlying villages of Edinburgh, we were in Perthshire and there were the Grampians, shining in all their glistening white glory, and loch and river sparkling blue in the winter sunshine.
When we got to Aviemore station, I stuck my head out of the window and took in great gulps of the pine-smelling air. Lucky me, I thought — to be stationed in Inverness, capital of the Highlands, I hoped for a long time. In fact, by good luck, I remained there for two happy years.

My destination was the CRS (Camp) in Cameron Barracks, a few miles from Inverness. The Reception Station was a small hospital for minor ailments such as scabies. There were eight VADs sharing a dormitory. The pharmacist, cook and chief clerk had separate rooms. Our officer in command was a matron, a middle-aged Invernessian who lived in a nearby village. She was a ‘dear’, with a most beguiling Highland voice, who mothered us. She used to wait up for us, coming in late from a dance or outing, with a cup of cocoa or Bovril and crackers. Incidentally, we had to be in by 10:30 pm unless permission was given for a later time. As four of us were clerks working in Divisional HQ office in Inverness, we were provided with bicycles for travel to and from town. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in years but soon polished up my skills and loved it.

Not having any sisters, it took quite a bit of getting used to, sleeping in a large room with strange females — characters every one. The lack of privacy irked me greatly at first — that and the divided camp: the nurses and the clerks kept up a running battle, reminding me of the Angela Brazil girls’ school stories I used to read in my childhood. Being a newcomer, I didn’t take sides and was accused of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. Very soon, however, the troublemakers were posted away, things settled down and I came to greatly enjoy the camaraderie of my fellow VADs.

We had only one bathroom for all eight girls, so were forced to share the bath (one at each end!) It shows my ignorance of the naked female form (let alone the male one!) when I was tickled pink to see, during a bathing session, my red-haired room-mate’s bright red fluff of pubic hair.

A word about our food: it was pretty monotonous, not very appetising, as you can imagine. But, although our meals were not of cordon bleu standard, our VAD cook made imaginative use of the provisions she was given. I shall always remember the hard ‘dog’ biscuits we were glad to eat as a change from bread. How we longed for some chocolate ones!

It was not long after our arrival, during our midday meal, that the war struck home with a vengeance. One of our VAD clerks was asked to go to matron’s room. We all hoped she wasn’t going to be ticked off about some mistake she had made — rules had to be implicitly obeyed in the CRS. Not that at all — worse — it was to be told the awful news that her Flying Officer brother was missing, believed killed. She was to go home immediately to her parents’ house in Edinburgh. The news cast a pall of gloom over our group from which it took us some time to recover.

Our office in Inverness where we four clerks worked was in the Ardross Hotel, which was on the banks of the River Ness facing the imposing Castle. To begin with, I was secretary to the Colonel-in-Chief (a doctor, of course) but found the work neither taxing nor interesting, so applied for a change — as secretary to the Psychiatrist, whose secretary had left to get married. I’d always had an interest in psychology, so found the work very much to my taste. Quickly, I learned that ‘there’s nowt so queer as fowk’. One of the ruses some soldiers tried on in order to get dismissed from the Army was to complain of nocturnal enuresis. I thought it would be difficult to achieve but quite often the occupants of the soldier’s barrack room, perhaps wanting rid of their room-mate, backed up his case and he was able to achieve his objective. In any case, a disgruntled soldier wasn’t much use to the Army.

I remember a sad case of a Chaplain who, on his rounds, travelled on a motorbike from camp to camp. It seemed that as he approached a village or town he would stop and expose himself to any female who happened to see him. Pretty innocuous behaviour, you might think, but he was reported to the authorities and eventually his case landed on the Psychiatrist’s desk. It was thought he might be cured by psychiatric treatment but, in the event, it was decided to dismiss him from the Army — a very unfortunate business for his wife and family!

Of course, there were ‘homos’ and ‘pansies’ in the Army and, if found out, they got short shrift from the top brass, no matter how efficient they might be as soldiers.

Off-duty we had a ball. Girls were thin on the ground in Cameron Barracks so you needn’t be a ‘bobby dazzler to get plenty of partners at the dances — there were no wallflowers there. We danced almost every night or went to concerts where the stars of screen and stage entertained us. Sometimes we were taken in those great lumbering trucks (how they shook you up!) to the other camps in the area. I liked all the dances, particularly the waltz and, surprisingly, the tango (though I was no dab hand at that). The tango tune was a haunting melody called ‘Jealousy’ and it sticks in my mind even to this day. Other songs popular then were “Shine on Harvest Moon up in the Sky” and (one of my favourites) “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow” — the idea was to cheer you up when you were ‘browned off’.

We were spoiled rotten by the Quartermaster-Sergeant (the top non-commissioned officer) who saw to it that we got delicacies occasionally, denied to us in our day-to-day fare. This was a big contrast to the NAAFI where, if you were lucky, you might get a fried egg swimming in baked beans and a chokingly dry sponge cake with a scrap of icing on top.

Of course, if you were a real ‘honey’ like our VAD Dispenser, with her black, curly hair and sapphire blue eyes, you wouldn’t need to put up with such plebeian fare: the officers were lining up to take her out, and one she was friendly with for a time, a Dermatologist (a Major) regularly took her to Inverness’s poshest restaurant, the Caledonia. Very occasionally, the rest of us Cinderellas saved up our pennies and splashed out on a meal at the “Cally”, as it was called.

At Christmas time, the Cameron Officers came up trumps, giving a bumper meal in their mess, where they waited on us hand and foot and treated us right royally.

Off duty, at weekends in spring and summer, we would cycle down Loch Ness (no Nessie then) to Drumnadrochit, a village as Highland as its name, or along the Moray coast to Nairn, or to the Beauly Firth, or to the Black Isle and Cromarty. The area is chock-a-block with firths and lochs and the scenery of country and coast, I need hardly say, is truly magnificent.

Shortly after we’d settled in, the Matron gave us an informal, quick, picturesque talk on, of all subjects, emotional relationships. Here’s an account of what she said, as far as I remember it: “nubile girls, such as you (she explained ‘nubile’ as meaning marriageable) are meeting in work and play with male predators lurking in the undergrowth.” We laughed at that description. “It behoves you girls to be on your guard. Remember that some of these married men, away from their wives’ eagle-eyes, are having a whale of a time — they’re making hay while the sun shines, knowing they can easily get out of an awkward situation — the Army can always provide a useful bolt hole. You’ll have to be on the lookout for young bachelors with their ‘easy come, easy go’ philosophy. Some of them might be RAF pilots, nightly risking their lives, so don’t allow yourselves to be bowled over by them, no matter how sympathetic you might feel.”

I think, looking back, Matron should have mentioned there are female predators about too, ready to seduce innocent males, provided they’ve got the necessary wherewithal. Maybe she wouldn’t think any of her girls were like that.

Anyway, her spiel was a warning shot across the bows, as it were, as most of us were inexperienced in sexual matters. Even so, although the Pill was yet to be invented, and sex lessons were not given at school or at home, there were surprisingly few pregnancies among the VAD or ATS girls.

I had some experience of a male predator in the guise of an RAF officer (ground staff) whom I met at a dance in the Barracks. He was a Londoner, older than me, handsome, smooth-tongued and knew how to treat a girl. Though I enjoyed his company, I never thought of him as a possible boyfriend. At one point, our short, 5-day, leaves coincided and he invited me to go with him to London to meet his married sister! Why not his parents, I wondered. When I refused, he called me a ‘canny Scot’. In any case, it wasn’t the done thing then to spend a holiday with a man unless you were officially engaged. Not long after, he was posted to England and I never heard from him again. I later learned that he was a married man with three children! Of course, his friends had never let on — not, that is, until it was safe to do so. ‘Mum’ was, apparently, the word in regard to relationships with the opposite sex. They ‘d set up a kind of male esprit de corps!

Then there was the story of one of the nurses wooed quite assiduously by a Cameron officer. He admitted he was married but spun the well-worn tale that his wife didn’t understand him and, when the war was over, they intended to divorce, and then…… Eventually, he gave her a book of Keats’s poetry and on the flyleaf were written the famous last 4 lines of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

All very romantic, we thought. Perhaps there was genuine feeling here, after all — who knows? After he’d gone, their correspondence soon lapsed. For a time, she was pretty miserable, until she acquired a replacement.

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