- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Miss Constance Mabel Curtis
- Location of story:
- From Ireland to Ceylon
- Background to story:
- Queen Alexandra Nursing Corp
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 November 2003
What follows are extracts from autobiographical notes written in 2001 for our family history by my Auntie Connie — Sister Connie M. Curtis — who nursed through World War Two. As of November 2003, she is still alive and extremely alert.
Midwifery training in Lincoln
I left Addenbrookes in 1938 and went to Lincoln to do my midwifery training at the City Maternity Home, which at that time was at 34 Newland. Mr Wells Cole gave lectures twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays.
I took my oral exam at St James Hospital in Leeds, and I passed by exam after six months (as I was an SRN) in 1939. I stayed on as a qualified midwife until I was called up for army service — I had previously joined the Territorial Army at Addenbrookes.
In March 1939, I got a nasty septic finger, and Mr Walters came to see me, and I had to go into County Hospital for three days. Once there, he said I had to stay in for three weeks — resulting in a stiff middle finger of my left hand.
When war was declared in September, I was told to stand by. I got my calling up by telegraph special delivery from the post office on Christmas Eve, 1939, and had to report to Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge, on 27 December. On the train going, there were two other nurses from Addenbrookes as well.
In Cambridge, I was billeted in a house on Downing Street. It was mostly very cold and frosty. During the day I helped out at the hospital.
I got bronchial pneumonia and had to be a patient for nearly three weeks, eventually going home for sick leave. In the meantime the unit, 20th General British Hospital, had gone to France.
After more sick leave, due to a cold, I had to report to Millbank Military Hospital in London. Another nurse, Nurse Gutrass, had also been ill, so I had company, We eventually travelled to France, to Dannes Camier, to join the 20th, arriving about 7.30am. We were met by the matron, Miss Woolerton, who had been my first sister at Addenbrookes.
Encamped in France
We had a tented hospital at Dannes Camier, near Etaples. Opposite was the 17th General Hospital in a big house. We were near a main road and railway station.
When the Low Countries were invaded, Belgian refugees came through, first big cars with lots of luggage, then walkers. Trainloads of refugees passed through as well. We use to go to the station, handing out food to them. It really was heartbreaking, as they had no idea where they were going and what to do.
My 21st birthday present
The hospital didn’t have a lot of war casualties. One night, we had an air raid and went down to the shelter. I had left my watch near my bed and was more worried about that than the air attack, as the watch was a 21st birthday present from my mother and father.
From that day to this, I always sleep with my watch on!
One day we were told to pack everything up, as we were to be evacuated the next morning at 5am. I’d packed everything, but at the last minute I took my hymnbook and Bible out of my hand luggage and left them behind in my trunk.
We were taken to Boulogne, where we got on to a hospital ship — the last one to leave. The sea was as calm as a millpond. We sailed to Southampton, arriving late afternoon. The RTO (Railway Transport Officer) met us there and told us about trains, where to change and so on.
I arrived at Retford station at about 2.30am. The porter said he’d take me to get a cup of tea as the Lincoln train didn’t leave until about 6am. When we got to the refreshment room, it was overflowing with sailors! I don’t know where they were going. They found me a seat until the Lincoln train came in.
I had to wait another hour or two for a bus or train to Langworth, so went to the maternity home to wait. I arrived home just after 9am, much to everyone’s surprise.
Posted to Leatherhead
After a few days, I was posted to the hospital, now the Royal Blind School, at Leatherhead in Surrey.
I was billeted in a house near the hospital with several other nurses. The soldiers were messed in Nissen huts at the back of the main hospital.
Soon after I got there the Queen (who was to become the Queen Mother) came to see us and spoke to everybody — sisters and patients. I felt very proud as she asked me if I had come from Boulogne and how many of us had been there.
In Leatherhead, we had an air-raid warning every time London had one. During raids, I used to go to the Methodist Church, where a lady had lent me a book to read to pass the time.
First of my three escapes
One Monday morning — I was on night duty — I decided to go to the village and return the book. I was nearly home when the air-raid siren went (about 11ish) so I hurried in. I had just had a wash and was about to get into bed when there was a very big bang.
I shared a room with a friend, so we all went down to the shelter in the garden until the all clear. After a while an air-raid warden came along and asked if we were all right, and we said yes, that we were fine. I shall never forget what he said next, ‘I think you girls should get dressed and go out and find the nearest church and get down on your knees and thank God you are still alive.’ We hadn’t seen the house by then.
When we left the shelter to go indoors we found the front and back doors blown in and the ceilings down. One sister’s cap she had left on the bed was a mass of holes. We had to pack up and leave, but the room where my friend and I were almost in bed was the only one intact — not even a cracked window. It was 2pm before we got to bed that night in another house.
My second scrape with death
I was on day duty, and one early evening between 6pm and 7pm I had to take a patient from the ward over to the main building for an examination. It took place in quite a big room, and when the doctor (Coe) had finished he said, ‘All right, sister. Take him back.’
We were about to leave when he must have had second thoughts because all of a sudden he said, ‘Bring him back. I’ll do another examination.’ We had just got the patient on the couch when there was a terrific bang. We all got on to the floor.
When it was all over, it was decided to keep the patient there for the night. So I left on my own, only to find the front door had been blown in. There was a big tree across it. To this day, I’m grateful to that doctor for having changed his mind, because otherwise the patient and I would both have been killed at that main exit.
Third time lucky
My third escape was the most frightening. It happened during night duty when my nurse and I were just going to have our midnight meal, and we heard a whistling bomb coming down.
The noise got louder and louder, and I really thought we were going to be hit — but the bomb landed about five miles down the road. All I could think of was my mother and father — what they would do.
Posting to Ireland
After Leatherhead, I was posted to Bangor, Northern Ireland, billeted in the Pickie Hotel for a while then the Strand Hotel. Eventually, I was billeted with Mrs MacAfee just round the corner, having all my meals at Strand.
We were waiting for a hospital to be built at Orangefield, Belfast, and had to go to Stranraer for crossing to Larne then take the train to Belfast and Bangor, Northern Ireland.
Two memorable leaves
I was there several months, during which time I had one or two holidays. Once, I travelled with a sister who was going to Manchester, so I thought I would go with her. I arrived on a Sunday morning and rang my uncle’s garage for a taxi to take me to St Clement’s Road, where I had to wait until auntie and uncle returned from church.
That Sunday evening was the night of the Manchester Blitz — very frightening. Owing to it, I had to go to a station quite a distance away to get a train for Lincoln on Monday morning.
On another leave, a bomb fell into the loch just opposite the Strand but didn’t do any damage!
While posted in Ireland, we generally did a lot of walking during the day to keep fit.
After a few months, I was posted to Oxford (Examination School) to join the 35th British General Hospital. We were there only a short time before going overseas.
We travelled up to Glasgow to join the ship, the Durban Castle, for an unknown destination. We sailed up north, south of Iceland then down mid-Atlantic. The first stop was Freetown, where we were not allowed off the ship.
I can’t remember how many ships we had in the convoy, eight or twelve.
Drills and sightseeing
We had boat drill every morning, as well as one or two emergency drills. We had to carry life belts all the time.
Clocks and watches were put on half an hour each night until Cape Town, where we spent three days. I had made friends with a regular naval officer, who took me up to Table Mountain. I didn’t like the lift. On top, it is very flat, and there was a café and souvenir shop.
I also was taken to Simons Town, a big British naval base. I had to get permission to go there.
From South Africa to India
From Cape Town, we went to Bombay (now Mumbai). There we were billeted at the Taj Mahal Hotel, a very big place with air conditioning. My room number was 514, and I shared it with three others.
After ten days in Bombay, I was sent to Peshawar Cantonment, about 10 to 20 miles from Peshawar City. I was there for about three months, during the hottest summer they had had for several years!
Getting around on two wheels
The hospital was quite a long way from the sisters’ quarters, so a bicycle came in useful! The Indians are very quick on the uptake, for example I went into a shop one morning and asked for three packets of STs. As quick as lightning, the man asked, ‘Missus going to move?’ I was, but not for another week.
After about three months, I was recalled to Bombay, where we stayed at the Majestic Hotel for one week before getting on ship for Iraq.
Army khaki and desert
We arrived in Basra, from where we were sent to Asher, a village just outside the city, for a few days. We were moved on to a tented hospital in the Sluba Desert — 38th General Hospital. Each day, I was lent out to work at the 61st BCH [sic], which was further out in the desert, and had transport there and back.
The 61st had a regular army officer also a regular matron. Everything was army khaki and desert, but every night we used to get the most beautiful sunsets that I had ever seen.
On the banks of the Tigris
On 21 December 1941, we went to Baghdad to a big house on the banks of the Tigris. The house was built around a tree, and when it rained we had to put on mackintoshes to get to the dining room downstairs.
We did not have a sitting room and had to stay in our own bedrooms. I shared with Louise Coleman and Nellie Williams — I still have letters every Christmas from them.
Church on Sunday
One Sunday night I went to a CE church — St George’s — with Willie and Colie. It was a small church with flags of all nations around the walls.
To get into town, we had to walk quite a long way or else take a small open boat — a ferry — across the river. We were not there long before we returned to the ship at Basra for an unknown destination, which turned out to be Colombo, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.
Arriving on Palm Sunday
We arrived in Colombo on the afternoon of Palm Sunday, 1942, and were billeted at Wesley College for ten to 14 days. For the evening service, we (non-cons) went to Maradana Methodist Church, a small church with a beautiful stained-glass window of the light of the world.
On Easter Sunday morning, at about 7.30am, Ceylon had its first air raid. A Japanese plane was brought down, and three Japs were killed. Our colonel had them buried at Mount Lavinia, in front of a house that was later the officer’s ward.
That week we went to Mount Lavinia and took over St Thomas’s Training College. It was not very far from the hotel and the sea. I had a medical ward for a long time and then Dysentery and Skins.
Church every other Sunday
I used to go to Colpetty Methodist Church in Colombo every other Sunday night. There I met the reverends Basil Jackson, Max Woodward — who eventually left to become a naval chaplain — John Wright, Eddie Lee and John Dolby.
Service at 5.30pm was followed by refreshments and singsong, and ended at 9pm with prayers. Afterwards, I would catch the 9.40pm train back to Mount Lavinia, where I was met at the station by Sergeant Higgins and escorted to my bungalow.
In Trincomalee and Ragmara
I would spend my day off at YWCA, the Young Women’s Christian Association, of which Miss Estelle Amoron was in charge. I had several holidays up country with Mr and Mrs Abdee and the Misses Annie and Elsie Kellard.
I was lent out again, and this time I went to Trincomalee for two months. Later on, I went to the 51st IGH at Ragmara for five months, looking after East Africans. I was very happy there.
Home via the Palk Strait
Near the end of the war we had to pack up and come home. We got on the train at about 8pm and arrived in Jaffna the following morning, from where we took a boat over the Palk Strait to south India, then the train to Dhulia.
The train to Dhulia stopped at various stations at meal times so we were able to walk around a little. We were on board for five days and four nights, arriving at our destination at night. We stayed in Dhulia one night, then left for Bombay to board the Strathnoaren to come home.
Between Bombay and Port Said on VE day
We left Bombay in early May and were somewhere between Bombay and Port Said on VE day. We had a service of thanksgiving when we got to Port Said.
We came home through the Med and landed at Liverpool. It was raining! I eventually got home safely, though with a bad cold.
Off to Catterick
After a week or more at home, I was sent to Catterick Military Hospital and put on the maternity ward. I was there a few weeks then off sick with a septic finger that I had opened up in OT. After that, I was warded with anaemia, for which I had a course of iron injections.
Cyril, my brother, was also stationed at Catterick. We met once or twice while I was there.
Only hymn-book in Colditz
At the end of the war, I returned to Lincoln and was demobbed at York in January 1946. Before that, though, I had a letter from Revd Max Woodward to say he had been at a Methodist Conference in Nottingham, at a meeting for army, navy and airmen.
The first speaker had been the Revd J. Ellison Platt, an army chaplain who had been taken POW. On his march he had seen a Methodist hymn-book on a rubbish dump at Lille. When he went to pick it up, on opening it, he’d found my name in it — and Addenbrookes.
It had been the only hymn-book in the POW camp at Colditz and was used by all denominations at their services. Of course it was the hymn-book that I’d left in my trunk at Dannes Camier. When Revd Woodward mentioned that he knew me, I eventually got the hymn-book back.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.