- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Leoni Seymour
- Location of story:
- Chelmsford, North Wales, Chester, Ormskirk
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 28 January 2004
I watched Princess Elizabeth undergo her training.
Typed by June Grunwald and put on the web with Leoni's permission.
In 1939, the war had begun. I was nineteen. Having attended nursing V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) classes, I was called to work in Chelmsford General Hospital. We wore long-sleeved grey dresses, black stockings and shoes, white starched aprons with a Red Cross motif on the bib. On our heads we wore white linen squares gathered at the nape of the neck. A Red Cross was sewn on the forefront. We also wore black red lined shoulder cloaks. Celluloid white cuffs finished the uniform on special occasions.
Chelmsford Hospital was headed by a wonderfully efficient matron. She had her finger on every department - we all looked up to her. I worked twelve-hour shifts - this included nights - eight p.m. to eight am. Night duty was eerie - sitting in a dimly lit ward - one table lamp on the central desk. I heard the patients breathing as they slept and then a call would come and I would go over and attend to personal needs.
When not carrying out routine jobs we had to make up balls of cotton wool and wind bandages. When morning dawned - night staff went down to the kitchens to start the porridge cooking. I was not good at this - could never get rid of the lumps!
I liked the children's ward and casualty - the latter always busy and full of variety. Few service patients were admitted, those who did come were not serious cases. Air raid wardens came round at night - no chink of light was permissible through the black out curtains. When the siren went I felt a slight amount of fear, especially when I could hear planes overhead. Were they ours or enemy planes? Not many bombs were dropped over Chelmsford, just a few, probably planes unloading en route for home.
The hospital had a balcony at the back overlooking the county cricket ground. I wheeled beds out onto the balcony in summer so patients could watch the play. When I travelled from home to hospital in my Baby Austin to night duty I could see searchlights sweeping the sky in the distance.
Mother decided I should stay in town rather than carry out the four-mile journey, so I stayed eventually with friends in the centre of the town. We had experience in every hospital department, including theatre and post-mortem area. Every time we went out we had to carry our gas mask in its canvas haversack and our tin helmet. Gas drill was quite an occasion as well as first aid lectures.
I worked at the hospital for about eighteen months, then a friend asked me if I would join the Woman's Transport First Aid Nursing Yeomanry - a body first formed in the 1914 war, the FANY corps was soon amalgamated with the ATS to form one company. The FANY flash was allowed to remain, sewn onto the upper arm of the tunic. I left nursing and went to a Transport meeting.
I waited several weeks before travelling to No. 1 Training Motor Transport Centre, Camberley - the building had been a boys' Prep School.
On arrival we were shown our sleeping quarters - had been dormitories. We were given blankets, sheets, towels and soap. A locker stood beside each bed. We put family photographs on the top. We lined up in a big shed and were handed our kits: khaki tunics, skirts, pullovers, slacks, shirts, ties, stockings, shoes and a cap, button cleaning and shoe cleaning material and all our underclothes including pyjamas.
We were also handed a small sewing kit known as a "Housewife". We had to mark everything with our name and number. Meals were eaten in what had been the boys' dining room. Our rations were better than civilian rations.
I went home on leave for my twenty-first birthday. Mother had begged enough ingredients from friends to make my cake. Civilian rations were very sparse.
The Cookhouse at No. 1 was behind the dining room. Cooks and orderlies, who did the cleaning, wore khaki overalls and headscarves tied tightly round their heads. After a tour of the building we were told about the six-week course. It consisted of: vehicle driving, vehicle maintenance, map reading (essential) as all place names had been taken down and all signposts painted over in case of invasion, first aid, anti-gas tuition and drill.
The courses were taken by trained staff. Vehicle driving was easy for us, as one of our joining up stipulations was that we had to be able to drive, but we were not familiar with large ambulances, vans and lorries - double-declutching in those days! The teaching vehicles were mounted on blocks in a field behind the house. One could drive but not move!
We were divided into squads of twenty-five, headed by a squad corporal. She saw we were on time everywhere and took us for drill.
Gas drill was hard. We had to run into a gas filled hut, take off our gas masks for a few seconds and then run out. The gas was obviously not lethal but frightening.
Shoe and button cleaning was taught and we took great pride in appearances. Issue grey dungarees were worn for vehicle maintenance. I disliked this session, garages were so cold! When payday came, we lined up opposite a desk where the pay officer sat. Coming to the front of the line we had to say our name and number, salute and take our pay packet, about ten shillings, with a chit for chocolate and cigarette ration. These could be bought at the NAAFI canteen.
The office staff were all full corporals and sergeants. Officers too worked in the offices.
Laundry was handed in once a week and collected when announced.
Out of doors we had to run. We became very fit and very hungry!
At the end of the course free rail travel was given for leave.
Social life at No. 1 was fun. Every Saturday evening we were invited to nearby camp dances. Lorries came to transport us to their camp and back to our billets. The boys handed us up into the back of the transport where we sat on the long forms provided. Coming home was more fun - we were lifted down! All drivers wore the cap strap over the crown - no other ATS was able to do this.
At the end of the course we had a big passing out parade. Our parade sergeant major was the essence in smartness. We had to select our postings. I chose Western Command.
I was billeted in a big house with about forty others beside the River Dee and by the bridge, which led to the vehicle garages. Each vehicle was camouflaged. We had to drain radiators each night and hand in the rotor arm: this for safety and theft.
Each day I was given the daily work sheet and logbook of the vehicle allotted. The logbooks denoted time out, time in, mileage in, mileage out, passenger's name, destination and petrol purchase, if any.
I had to work with stores for several weeks, then I was given my own car - a number nicknamed 'Honey'. I got to know the area very well, travelling into Wales, along the North Wales Coast, down to Warrington and up into Liverpool. Taking officers to their destinations, I especially liked visiting Burtonwood, a vast American camp.
If when we were there, it was over a meal-time - great - having a metal tray with spaces for various courses! If we went 'on tour' (away for several days) I had to find the nearest ATS camp and billet there.
After Chester three others, and I, were posted to Warrington. We each had a large ambulance and lived in a dreary barracks. After a few weeks one other, and I, were posted to Ormskirk. I was billeted with a family in the town. We kept vehicles at the hospital.
At this time Liverpool was being badly bombed. We could hear the thuds and see the flashes in the sky. We were ordered to collect two medical orderlies each and evacuate civilian patients from city hospital to hospitals in outer safer areas.
The orderlies were Conscientious Objectors (anti-killing). My two worked in X-ray departments. We had to travel into the city after each night raid. We used stretchers and trolleys to transport patients from hospital to the ambulance.
The Liverpool people were wonderful, offering us cups of tea and cheery words, as we bumped over the hoses curling across the roads filled with rubble and pools of water.
Every now and again we saw flickering flames and wisps of smoke where fires had been and were now almost extinguished. The smell of burning was everywhere. Various air raid wardens and civilian persons wandered about looking tired and exhausted, each helping to tidy up and make method of what had been hectic chaos.
From Ormskirk I was posted to Pwllheli, a small seaside place in North Wales. I was billeted with a family in a house overlooking the sea. I was attached to a medical centre there, in which a cook, two nurses and a medical orderly lived and worked. An officers' training unit was in the village - we soon got to know many of them, there was not much work for us, just one or two journeys to nearby hospitals but we had to carry out cleaning work on the vehicle, when not called out and off duty we made the best of the sea and the beach. I even played tennis on the public courts. Being an out station we could wear civilian clothes when off duty. Dungarees were worn for ambulance cleaning.
I was posted next to Rhosneigr, Anglesey. I was with one other driver. We had one Chevrolet ambulance. I was billeted in a house in the village owned by two elderly Welsh ladies. In daytime we lived at the medical centre, a house with only a road between it and the beach. At the centre there were medical staff and a cook. Bill had been a baker in civilian life so our meals were full of variety tho' sometimes doubtful! The Durham Light Infantry (DLI) were also stationed in the village (a small contingent) not many needed our help - we took the vehicle into workshops some miles away for its inspection. Each vehicle was due for inspection every few months.
The staff in workshops were from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Regiment (REME) and Royal Army Service Corps (RASC).
The DLI had a group photograph whilst we were there. Joan had to sit at one end of the first row. I sat on the other end. Nurses sat on the front row with the officers. A medical officer (MO) who in this case was later drowned when the ship in which he had been travelling to an overseas posting was sunk. On Saturday nights troops from other camps on the island and RAF came to join the dances in Rhosneigr village hall. The DLI Band was brilliant. A shade of the great American Band!
After Rhosneigr eight others and I were posted to the Isle of Man. The journey from Holyhead to Douglas was often rough, especially when the ship became stuck on a sandbank. Sea sickness spoiled the friendly fun!
We were all billeted in what had been a seaside boarding house. Opposite was an Italian Internee Camp. The men walked up and down behind the wire fence, guarded by British troops. A second camp was in the town nearer the beach. In Douglas I became the Brigadier's personal driver.
I had a Ford V8 - the other girls worked at the hospital driving ambulances and one became a dispatch rider as the boys in the workshop taught us all to ride motor bikes. I had to drive the Brigadier wherever he was needed. I had to open his car door, salute the uniform, go round the back of the car before taking the driving seat. When the Brigadier was abroad, I had to unplug the flag on the radiator front. Troops seeing the flag should salute. I smiled as I saw heads suddenly turn away!
On the Isle of Man, I got to know the area well and learned a lot about their folklore. When not on duty the social life was fantastic. We went down to one of the town cafes, all smoke filled - it seemed everyone smoked in those days. We ordered toasted egg sandwiches and coffee - met no end of friends from Navy, RAF and Army. I was in Douglas for about a year - my best posting.
I then went back to Chester - staff car driving again. This time I was part of what was called 'the Pool'. This meant driving army officers from Lieutenant to General. I was eventually sent to Abergavenny, South Wales. I was billeted with the ATS there, who were clerks and very envious of me being able to travel when they were inside offices. We slept in a hut containing about thirty wooden double deck bunks with wash rooms at the end and a row of lock door bath spaces.
I drove a staff car and American officers as well as British. In June I was booked to take a group to Swansea Docks. As we travelled we passed mile upon mile of fully equipped marching American troops all heading for the docks. On arrival the scene was one of acute noise and movement. Troops were boarding the anchored ships to the shouts from sergeants and other persons in charge. Hundreds were already on board, others lined the gangways. They were on their way to go abroad. I left that evening feeling anxious, sad and very apprehensive.
An unexpected storm sprang up that night. All procedures were cancelled. We returned on June 6th - quite a different sight. Everywhere empty of ships, so calm and quiet and just a few people around. It seemed as if the only sound came from our voices and the gentle lapping of the water against the sides of the docks. We now know the full outcome of this time!
I decided I would like to get onto the permanent staff at No. 1 Training Depot, Camberley. I applied, was interviewed and obtained the posting. I went back as a full Corporal Instructor. I had never wanted a commission, I preferred staff car work. Officers carried out office work - that was not for me. I slept in a room in the main building. I was in charge of twenty-five training intakes for the six-week course.
For vehicle instruction I had one student at a time behind the wheel, the rest sat in the back awaiting their turn. Each student was marked for progression. Officers carried out the final test. I took the squad for drill. They became very efficient. We instilled perfection in each and it paid off. Each student went to her posting with pride.
At No. 1 our now Queen Elizabeth came over every day to carry out her training - she was part of a team of sergeants who were with her for every class. The King and Queen visited to see how she was progressing. She passed every course with excellence. She took the salute at our passing out parade as Camberley was closing - we were all being posted.
I was sent on leave to find my parents distraught. Despite living in the wilds of Essex a Buzz Bomb had landed in the meadow behind our house. The blast had blown hundreds of tiles off our roof.
I was posted to Gresford, North Wales. There we slept in huts and eventually had to hand in our kit and receive our pay, travel warrants and demob papers. After some time at home, father found several moth holes in my stored tunic - he burnt it on the bonfire!
My belt which many of us wore with our dungarees I still own and it still fits! It was the 'in-thing' to collect our boyfriend's badges and to fix the badges to the belt! In Essex several of us formed a reunion group. We met for meetings. My medals eventually arrived - issued to every serving person. My grandchildren think them glorious!
I, and others, missed the companionship, discipline, fun and travel. It is good to be with like-minded people again whenever we meet ex-service friends.
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