- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Norman Ellis, Sydney Carter, Father John Grosser
- Location of story:
- Birmingham and London
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 12 June 2005
The Friends Ambulance Unit in Summer 1940. Norman Ellis is on the back row, third from left. The man in the front row holding the skull is Sydney Carter, Section Leader, who later wrote two modern hymns, ‘Lord of the Dance’ (an adaptation of a Shaker hymn) and ‘One more step [along the road I go]’.
What follows is the first of two accounts of the World War II experiences of Norman Ellis (1920-2004). It is based on an account of his wartime experiences that he wrote after the war.
Norman was born in Yeadon, to the west of Leeds, on 13th March 1920, almost a year to the day after his father’s return from service in World War I. He attended Woodhouse Grove School, Rawdon, as a scholarship boy and was closely involved with the local Congregational church. At the age of 17 he entered for the annual examination of the National Sunday School Union. The subject for that year was the life of Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese Christian who preached pacifism. Reading Kagawa’s writings strengthened Norman’s belief in pacifism, so that when the Second World War broke out, he registered as a conscientious objector.
Norman wanted nevertheless to work for the defeat of Germany and fascism so joined the Quaker-run Friends’ Ambulance Unit. He underwent two months’ medical training at Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, in 1940. That city was an important centre for Quakerism because the big family chocolate companies of the region, such as Cadbury’s, were owned by Quaker families. During the summer of 1940 a photograph was taken which shows Norman in the back row. At the centre of the front row is Sydney Carter, who later wrote two modern hymns, ‘Lord of the Dance’ and ‘One more step [along the road I go]’.
In October 1940, with the Blitz in its third week, Norman volunteered to move to London, where he spent the mornings helping out in the Casualty Departments of various hospitals and the evenings touring bomb shelters in Stepney, where he rendered first-aid to casualties and reported to the Borough Medical Officer on conditions in the shelters and the incidence of disease. Air raids were common. Of one, he later wrote, "Bombs often came down in groups of three, and we learned to recognize the intervals between the explosions. Once, when we were sitting in the Warden’s Post after returning from our round, we heard two such explosions, and realised that the third bomb would fall on or near us. We were still coming to our feet — I can see Nat [the Chief Warden] now, half way out of the chair behind his desk — when the bomb went off. It demolished a pub about fifty yards away. We ran to the scene as quickly as we could, but there before us was the left-wing Vicar of Stepney, Father John Groser, searching among the rubble for any sign of a survivor." Father John Groser (1890-1966) was later to play the part of St. Thomas Beckett in a performance in Canterbury Cathedral of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and in a 1951 film of the play directed by George Hoellering.
Norman found the work in London useful and enjoyable, but when the air raids ceased in 1942, he felt increasingly superfluous doing "safe, unessential work as an unskilled male nurse". He had continued to read arguments for and against pacifism and in mid-1942 volunteered for the Army. His account of his army experiences forms a separate story.
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