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15 October 2014
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An RAF Nurse's War

by Bridport Museum

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Bridport Museum
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Location of story: 
Northampton, Halton, Wroughton, Abbey Lodge London
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Contributed on: 
26 December 2005

Joan Cool in RAF Sister's uniform

I was a Senior Probationer Nurse at Little Bromwich Fever Hospital in Birmingham when war was declared on September 3rd 1939. I was at the end of my training as a Registered Fever Nurse and was due to take my final exams in October but because of the war the exams were delayed for several weeks.

I remember hearing Mr Chamberlain announcing the fact that we were at war with Germany on the morning of the 3rd September. I was on duty and the staff and the patients were listening to the wireless. I and most of the staff who were off duty spent the afternoon filling sand bags which were built into a protecting wall outside the Office which housed our telephone exchange and the general office. We were fortunate in those first few months as we did not have any air raids.

I sat for my finals and had been accepted for further training for the General Register by Northampton General Hospital, but because of the delayed exam, the results were also delayed. I had to give in my notice to leave Little Bromwich before I knew whether I had been successful. The day I was due to leave the results of the exams arrived by post, and I was very happy that I had passed, and happy that I could go on to Northampton and not have to stay on and resit the exams.
That winter was a severe one and I can remember my father coming in his car to collect me and my bits and pieces which I had accumulated in the previous three years that I had spent at Little Bromwich. I kept in touch with friends there and learned that they did suffer badly when Birmingham was bombed. At least one student was killed and many injured. One thing which one of my friends did tell me, was that, in spite of damage to the water supplies, they did not have one case of cross infection. We were taught a very strict regime of asepsis nursing and this must have been well carried out, as we used to have many different kinds of infectious and contagious diseases in the Hospital.

After a month at home in Bedford, I went to Northampton in the February of 1940. We did not suffer air raids but the occasional bomb was jettisoned, and that was too close for comfort. I can remember when Coventry received its worst attack as, even from Northampton, we could see the night sky lit up with the fires.

We were kept busy, especially in the men’s orthopaedic ward, where I remember nursing Dispatch Riders who had been in road accidents. They didn’t have the benefit of safety helmets in those days. One day we had two members of ENSA admitted. One was the comedian Max Bacon, the other was, I think, a Producer called Steven Williams. They had both fractured both legs and they were not very happy at being in a Public Ward. They were later sent on to a Military Hospital. Whilst they were with us, Max Bacon kept the other patients entertained, but when one of the nurses walked in there would be a sudden silence. I can only think that his stories were for men only!

As I had already qualified as a Registered Fever Nurse I was taken on to do a two year course before doing my General FInals, which I passed in October 1942. I started to do a six month Part I Midwifery, but I had also applied to join the Princess Mary’s RAF Nursing Service, and as I was not happy doing Midwifery I wrote and asked if they would take me without that qualification. They would and said I could join in the January of 1943. So on January 6th 1943 I reported for duty at Halton RAF Hospital, where most of the new Sisters went for training into Service ways. There was, and no doubt still is, a form for everything required - and in triplicate! I was a very junior Nursing Sister and held in awe the Senior Sister who was in charge of the Officers’ ward, on which I had been put to work. She later became Matron-in-Chief, so perhaps I was right to hold her in awe!

After three months at Halton, I was posted to A.C.R.C at Abbey Lodge near Regent’s Park. This was Air Crew Receiving Centre’s Sick Quarters, with a Hospital status, as we had beds for recruits who had been X-rayed during the intensive medical examination given to prospective Aircrew before they could b accepted. If they had been found to have tuberculosis we had to hold them until a hospital bed could be found near their home town. The recruits really did get a thorough examination,of eyesight, chest, ears, etc., and were given all the routine inoculations against diphtheria and typhoid, and a smallpox vaccination. Many of our sick quarter beds were filled by those who had severe reactions to one or other of these jabs.
During my period at Abbey Lodge, from April to October, we had several air raids, during which we had to go down into the basement of Abbey Lodge, which was a block of luxury flats that had been taken over by the RAF. I think it was in September 1945 that the first Battle of Britain Parade was held, and I was one of the eight RAF sisters who took part. Nurses never did any square bashing, and I must admit that our marching left a lot to be desired!

During that summer the King and Queen came to the Sick Quarters and the Sisters were presented to Queen Elizabeth. A great thrill! The long stay patients had made a tooled leather writing case and I recall peering out of the window overlooking the Royal car, and we were very pleased to see that HRH had got it on her knee as they left.

In October 1943 I was posted to RAF Hospital Wroughton, near Swindon, where life was not interrupted by air raids. I worked on various wards, and was in charge of a ward which took casualties flow back from France after D-Day. Wroughton was a Casualty Clearing Station.

I remember seeing the gliders towed by planes, but I’m not sure whether this was on D-Day or when the Battle of Arnhem happened.

My first patient after D-Day was a soldier, still in the uniform of Canada’s Regina Regiment, and he still had his field dressing on his wounds. After Arnhem one side of the ward was filled with patients who had severe leg injuries. Electric cooling fans were played onto the limbs to find out how far their circulation reached so that the surgeon could remove as little of the limb as possible. I remember when we first used penicillin. At first it was given intramuscularly by drip at 3 drops a minute. The problem was to adjust the drip, because as soon as one got it timed and left it, it would speed up far too fast and one had to start again. Thankfully later the penicillin was refined and were were able to give it three-hourly in a syringe.

I think it was Christmas 1945, and I was working as a Junior Mess Sister when we were given either two or three frozen turkeys from the USA. The WAAF cooks were horrified at the thought of having to gut and dress these turkeys. As a child I had regularly seen my father gut and dress boiling fowl, which we got from my grandfather, who kept hens, so somehow I had to remember what to do. I got on with the job and the WAAFs were amazed that I volunteered to do it - much to their relief! I also made the large Christmas puddings but I drew the line at making the Christmas cake in case it did not turn out right, so I got the baker who supplied the Mess with bread to make it with our ingredients.

The Sisters were often invited to parties and dances held by the various military and RAF stations nearby, and life was not dull. We celebrated both VE and VJ Days with parties in the Sisters’ Mess.

I was posted to an RAF Hospital in Germany in 1946. Here the Sisters shared the Mess with RAF Medical Officers and the Admin. Officers. Strictly illicit, I am sure, but our cigarette rations were accepted by our Quartermaster and they covered our Mess bills. I think they were sold on the Black Market!

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