- Contributed by
- The CSV Action Desk at BBC Wiltshire
- People in story:
- Barbara Hammond nee Biggs.
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 October 2005
It was on Sunday 2nd September 1939 when at 11am Neville Chamberlain announced in his broadcast to the nation that we were now at war with Germany; a very solemn declaration and a chilling thought. Shortly afterwards our air raid siren wailed and my mother quickly ushered us into the closest spot she could find in the confusion, our small downstairs cloakroom. There were four of us, all adults, and it was quite a squeeze, but fortunately it was a false alarm! I was living with my parents and an elder sister at that time in Hove, Sussex. My two older sisters were both married, one living in Hong Kong and the other in India.
Within a fortnight I had enlisted with the F.A.N.Y. (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) at King's College, London and, whilst waiting to be called up, became a full time volunteer in my local A.R.P.
My summons came on the 10th January 1940. I shall never forget that day. I had just celebrated my twenty-first birthday but, sadly, my mother was unable to come to my joint party with a friend as she had been ordered to bed with a severe heart condition. It was a bitterly cold winter that year and I shivered as I waited for the train on Brighton Station to take me up to London before transferring to another for Dover and where my destination was Shorncliffe Heights.
There I was accommodated in a very grand mansion (Italian style) with other F.A.N.Ys in the 20th (M.T.)Company. It was my first venture in living away from home and I felt very alone and homesick and nervous about the whole situation. There was snow and ice everywhere, and on the first morning I was ordered to drive some lads from the local Army Barracks to see the Army Medical Officer at his sick bay in the nearby vicinity. The vehicle involved was large and needed more water in its radiator before I could proceed. The front bumper started at my knee level and the opening into the bonnet much, much higher, and myself barely five foot four inches tall. So trying to pour the contents of a very large can full of water was an exercise I hoped I would not have to repeat very often! I completely lost my way to the sick bay and I think my chaps must have got there just before lunch. They certainly weren't back in their barracks till just before their tea, and not all that pleased! By then I was exhausted and longing to go home, but that wasn't to be! My ambulance broke down outside the entrance to Dover Railway. I sat disconsolately on the running board and waited for help. Soon two immaculately dressed gentlemen, complete with bowler hats and briefcases emerged from the entrance and got me going.
Owing to my mother's ill health I was given a posting back to Sussex within a week. Was that just coincidence?!
My new home was in South Heighton, above the port in Newhaven, a modern building owned by the Guinness Trust, their holiday home. I loved it there from the very start and made many friends; our main occupation was driving but all took a turn on a daily rota, at cleaning, cooking, clerical work etc. We were also expected to maintain our vehicles. Not much happened during those first four and a half months, it was rather like the 'lull before the storm, which certainly came in its intensity in May, when our troops were surrounded by the enemy in Belgium and France.
Recently on television they have re-enacted those desperate days and the courageous acts of bravery, despair and often solitude in two series on the evacuation from Dunkirk. They certainly rekindled so many memories for me. My unit provided the transport for the troops that managed to get back home, via the naval and other ships sent over to France to rescue them, as they were also doing for those who were landed in Dover. I remember that on one occasion a cry went up from the port that 'The Maid of Kent' had been sunk, but she was only one of many more, having been bombed by the Luftwaffe overhead and on fire before floundering.
One day I drove two soldiers from Newhaven to Banstead in Surrey to a mental hospital there, one with a severely gangrenous leg, both completely exhausted and traumatised, and I often wondered what happened to them in the future. During those days the quayside was thronged with people going about their business. The W.V.S. (as is was called then) dishing out hot drinks and food to Nurses, ambulances, etc and, of course, families and friends searching amongst survivors for their loved ones and comrades. So much emotion, anxiety, despair and sometimes thankfulness on their faces.
During that same Spring, we F.A.N.Ys were given notice from the War Office that it was no longer viable for them to pay for two Women's Services, i.e. the A.T.S. and the F.A.N.Ys, and that they were to be amalgamated (the A.T.S. being much the larger of the two). My pay was then eight shillings and threepence a week. We F.A.N.Ys were given time to make our decision. We could either re-enrol with the 'Auxiliary Territorial Service' or resign and join the Free-F.A.N.Ys without pay and provide our own staff cars. Out of a very large company indeed only two left and returned to the latter. So were were finally re-enrolled and became a part of the A.T.S. but were allowed thereafter to exhibit F.A.N.Y. flashes on the left sleeve of our uniforms.
We remained in South Heighton until towards the end of July. One afternoon our C.O. gathered us together and informed us that we were to move inland early the next morning. She looked very grave. She asked for two volunteers to guard the ambulance convoy overnight - I did till two a.m and my New Zealand friend until six a.m We were both given rifles by the D.C.L.I. (In billets next door) and had received some practice from their R.S.M beforehand. Alright for my companion who was very tall and athletic and managed her weapon with great dexterity. Not so mine, it hung, or rather trailed in my wake, and to fire it, if necessity arose, would have been impossible! I often wonder if they had been loaded. With hindsight, it was Operation Sea Lion', the possible invasion by sea of Germans sent into England, that set the alarm bells ringing, but our R.A.F. was magnificent and had taken over the sky before the end of September and, for the time being, the Luftwaffe was grounded. Germany then decided instead to set its sights towards the East, Russia, where a large part of its military and manual resources was involved for a very long time, and was finally defeated.
Early that same morning I went ahead with an advance party to our next accommodation (on the borders of Sussex and Kent); a disused 'Tea Room and Pleasure Gradens' complete with several empty monkey cages, one of which we rigged up as an office for the C.O. We were able to carpet the floor with bits and pieces lying arouind and even managed a vase of flowers on her desk when she arrived. We slept in a part of the building on the floor on palliasses, filled with straw - very prickly and especially so as I still favoured rather decollete nightwear!
We only stayed there for a short while until moving to a farm near Edenbridge, Kent, during the harvest, and when off duty helped in the fields. That first Summer was particularly hot, and so were our khaki uniforms. We welcomed the tea and homemade cakes and scones provided after our labours.
In early September we went up to Woolwich near to the barracks, but again we were in requisitioned private property nearby. The battle for the skies was at its height and London was being bombed persistently. Late one night, two of us were in our ambulance whilst the air raid was raging. The whole city seemed on fire from the blast of bombs and incendiaries, and one could easily read a newspaper from the glare alone. Noise all around, and help from everybody who was able to provide it. All the emergency services coming to the aid of casualties from the bombing (most of them the civilians who had survived, for the time being anyway). Everywhere that wonderful British stoicism and that uplifting cockney humour. We were very near the Old Kent Road, and often I would drive that way the morning after a raid and marvel at the spirit of those who were already sweeping away the debris of the night before, and giving comfort to neighbours whose homes had been obliterated by the previous nght's horrors. By eleven a.m. each day, queues of school children and others clutched their satchels or bags awaiting their entry to the nearest Tube Station and where most of them lived day and night until the worst of the bombing was over.
When on leave and at home in Sussex for a few days, I felt 'out of it', even though I loved seeing my parents and sometimes my sister who had just enlisted in the W.R.N.S. That continual throbbing of the German planes at night as they came over the coast to disgorge their bombs elsewhere and often to discard those unused on their return, sometimes in our vicinity. I wanted to get back to the thick of it, and get on with it.
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