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Memoirs of a V.A.D. : Part 3

by St Barnabas Library

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Archive List > Nursing and Medicine

Contributed by 
St Barnabas Library
People in story: 
Edna Smith
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 November 2004

This story has been submitted to the People's War site by Angela cutting of Leicester City Libraries on behalf of Edna Smith and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.


The day came when my name went up on the list for transfer to the main operating theatre. This spell of duty proved to be one of the most unexpected experiences of my nursing career, not so much on account of the work as the conditions under which we worked.

We reported for duty at 7.00 a.m., and the first, very lengthy task was to wash all the walls and furniture in a mild solution of Lysol, a disinfectant guaranteed to leave our hands dry and cracked. This completed, we filled and lit the sterilisers which were large tanks of water with closely fitting lids. When eventually the water came to boiling point, we dropped in the bowls and instruments for the first operation. Equipment was very scarce so we had few spares to cover emergencies; this was a problem, as I will explain later.

After this, we collected our operating gowns. These were all the same size, made for the largest conceivable nurse both in height and girth. I am only 5 feet 2 inches tall and slight in build, so mine reached almost to the ground and had to be wrapped round me twice and tied up with a belt which also went round twice. When I had pinned up the sleeves, I took a large triangular piece of material which served as a head-covering, and was tied at the back with a lumpy knot, making sure that absolutely no hair was visible; then came the masks which were thick and hot. But the footwear was the worst part of the uniform. Rubber was scarce as it was used, I think, for making munitions. So the surgeons and theatre sisters had supplies of rubber gloves and boots, but we made do with bare hands and quite extraordinary 'boots'. These were made of thick hessian and cut out like children's Christmas stockings and seamed round in the same way. These were worn over our shoes, but it was quite impossible to flatten the seams under our feet, so to stand or walk it was necessary to turn our ankles either inwards or outwards, either procedure being very painful. We worked always until 5.00 p.m., often much later, with no break except to grab a sandwich and a cup of coffee when opportunity arose, and I felt certain that my ankles would be permanently damaged, but fortunately they recovered.

Operating lists were long and cases varied, so one surgeon followed another with a break just long enough for us to prepare a new trolley. The surgeons were a random collection of people, some were extremely efficient, others had been retired for years and came back to help the war effort. We thought they were the most bad tempered and ill-mannered group we had ever encountered, but in retrospect, I realise that they were under extreme pressure.

Our principal assignment was to keep the equipment sterilised. The boiling process took half an hour after which, using very large cheatle forceps, we approached the vicious tanks. I wear spectacles, so the moment I lifted the lid and the steam belched out, I could see very little, certainly not the water level. Nonetheless, I plunged in the forceps hoping to catch hold of a dish or instrument and 'land' it safely on a sterile towel, and continued the procedure until I had collected all I needed for the next half hour, so that the next batch could be dropped in - we had two sets for each list of operations, so if anything were dropped we were in great trouble. By now our fingers were red and scalded. The forceps were heavy and as the day wore on our wrists grew tired. I well remember a day when we were working late repairing a patient with severe internal injuries. I was carrying a bowl in the forceps when my fingers slipped and it fell to the floor with a clang, and spun round like a spinning top, making an appalling noise. The surgeon looked over his half-glasses to the sister and said "Tell that nurse to make less noise!" I was too embarrassed to think what to do, so an old orderly stepped forward and put his foot on the bowl. It then had to wait to be returned to the steriliser for the next boiling, and the surgery proceeded without it.

When these seemingly interminable sessions ended, we washed all the swabs and put them to dry for subsequent re-sterilising and use. We then emptied the steriliser, washed the equipment in soapy water - and very hard soap it was - and then rinsed everything in undiluted Lysol. This was vicious for sore hands. To add to that, I was allergic to Lysol, so red and irritating wheals appeared on my arms. I reported to the M.O. who gave me some largely ineffective cream, but his main consideration was to keep the staff fit for work, so he was not too sympathetic.

Not long afterwards, I was sent to the plastic surgery theatre. Most of the work undertaken by the surgeons was under the supervision of the famous pioneer Professor Mclndoe and was re-structuring of faces and some of the injuries were appalling. Some patients faced years of treatment. Operations took many hours and the doctors frequently worked with photographs of the patients before explosions had done their worst.

These injuries were more devastating than any others because disfigurement is so hard to bear. I have seen tough young men with tears streaming down their faces at the sight of themselves, and refusing visitors because the distress would be too great. I have seen wives and parents in a state of collapse. Psychological suffering is often worse than physical. Sometimes the outcome of this surgery was satisfactory, sometimes it was not, and no one could tell how the men would survive, when at last they were discharged from the comparative shelter of hospital.

I think that I felt more drained after this spell of duty than any other.


But we were young and resilient, and off duty periods, being scarce, were enjoyed to the full. Hitchhiking, if we were in uniform, was easy and safe, the price of coffee was frequently reduced for us, as was admission to places of entertainment. Dance halls, frequented by servicemen were very lively places, and the problems of returning to the nurses homes late at night unobserved added to the excitement. This was usually not too difficult, because we were living in various large houses, vacated by families who had left London for safer areas. Some of these were very pleasant indeed, and gave us a sense of affluence which we certainly did not have. There were no air raid shelters, except in the main hospital, so we sought the safest parts of the houses, and moved in with our blankets and pillows, in the hope of getting a reasonable amount of sleep. Once when I was on night duty, and there was a lot of aerial activity during the day, we left our bedrooms at the top of the house, and moved down into a sitting room and made ourselves comfortable under a grand piano, which we hoped would provide some protection. I fell asleep but was awakened by my friend. "Look at the piano legs" she said, "they will snap if anything heavy falls on the keyboard, and we shall be flattened". I could see her point, so reluctantly we struggled upstairs again, laughing as we visualised us, with arms and legs sticking out, and our bodies wedged under the mahogany!


When I was sufficiently experienced, I applied to be put on permanent night duty. I did this, I confess to my shame, because with the over confidence of youth, I welcomed more responsibility. I was accepted and have never worked so hard in my life, before or since!
I went back to Officers B Ward, which I knew so well. We worked in units of four wards, with one nurse on each. On Officers A there was a state registered nurse, in overall charge, then I was on Officers B, and two other V.A.D’s were on Ward C and D respectively, with the rank and file of servicemen.

In full charge of the hospital of well over a thousand patients, was night sister. She was nicknamed the Dragon, with some justification, but of all the staff in the hospital, I admired her the most. She had an office half way along the corridor where we all phoned her when we had problems, and these arose frequently. She could make quick and accurate assessments and give us the advice we needed and would then cycle down the corridor at great speed to the wards, inspect a patient and give more advice by which time she was needed elsewhere, so off she went. She had tremendous responsibility and had to deal with our mistakes but, over the years I was on night duty, I never once heard a word of criticism from her if we had done our best, she was generous with praise if we had done well.

Hours were long and we worked for 28 successive nights and then had four nights off. We came off duty at 8.00 a.m., had supper, and were then free to go out for the remainder of the morning but had to be in bed by midday.

Duty began at 7.30 p.m., so soon after 6 p.m. I would don my blue uniform dress, white apron with red cross and cuffs, and then set to work on my veil. This was an octagonal garment, with a small red cross on the wide hem on the long side. With the cross carefully placed in the middle of the forehead, the veil was pleated over the head and then pinned into a stiff butterfly bow at the back. It was a lengthy, arm aching task, but the result was very smart.

This feat accomplished, I went down to breakfast, and then reported to the day sister and received her report on all the patients, after which she left me in sole charge, and there I would stay for 12 and a half hours, with no relief, because there was no staff to relieve me.

Depending on the season, it was dark most or all of the time, and our blackout curtains were inadequate, so the ward was in total darkness except for the flashes of searchlights which regularly swept the sky. So I carried a shaded torch, by the light of which I did all my work.

I did a ward round to inspect my patients after which my next task was to take the blankets from the beds and make up beds on spare mattresses which were placed under the beds. Here the more mobile officers would spend the night, the upper mattress giving some protection from the shrapnel which would almost certainly come through the roof before dawn. The more seriously wounded just had to take their chance on the top beds.
This manoeuvre satisfactorily negotiated, I fetched the drugs trolley and gave out the medications for the night, including the sleeping tablets, and soon an air of drowsiness began to descend on the ward. Not for long, however, because suddenly the air raid siren would break the peace, as it did every night at about the same time. As this died away there was a general fidgeting as everyone settled down again, knowing that there would be no all clear before dawn. This was really a relief because until recently warnings and 'all clears' had sounded for every night raid, and it was impossible to remember whether we were in a state of alert, or not. Resignedly, I would fetch my tin hat, worn compulsorily once the warning had sounded, and put it on top of my veil, completely crushing the beautiful bow, which now hung down my back like a horse's tail rather than stretching its wings like a butterfly.

I would still have some wounds to dress, so I collected the trolley and the torch, which the patient involved would hold for me. Often, as I leant over, my tin hat would slide forward and crash against the metal bedhead. There would be groans from the beds - the officers were well accustomed to this disturbance, and I endeavoured to close my ears to the language that I was not intended to hear.

Peace might be restored for a short time, then the distinctive sound of an approaching unmanned bomb the German VI or 'doodlebug', would alert us to the fact that it was coming our way. It had a flame at the back, the engine and flame would cut out a few seconds before it exploded. We all held our breath and counted to four, then we heard the blast and breathed again knowing that this one, at least, had passed us; and everyone tried again to sleep.

The silence would not last though - a chatter and clatter in the corridor announced the arrival of the first air raid casualties, some of whom would have to be accommodated on spare mattresses, quite an undertaking by torchlight, it was so easy to fall over them. Inevitably everyone woke and began a conversation with the newcomers, anxious to hear their experiences. They were tired and thirsty, so the more able patients would collect their crutches, walking sticks and frames, and make and pass round drinks, some of which got spilt, the pandemonium was indescribable.

After a time, order was restored but frequently I was called over by one of the officers under his bed. I learnt to be prepared for this and guessed that, as I approached the bed, the occupant, who could see only my black stockinged legs, would try to grab these and pull me into bed with him! So as he did so, I jumped back quickly, just out of arm's reach, often banging into the bed behind me. I was experienced in this because it was nightly fun, but I did not know whose turn it was to try. When I was safely away from the bed there would be muffled cheering. When this subsided, I would say, in my sternest voice, "Now, we will quieten down and get some sleep". It was a forlorn hope, I knew, but I would then go back to my office, where I had a very weak, shaded light, to eat my cold supper, which had usually been delivered there by an orderly several hours previously; and it always tasted delicious to me.

Finally, if there were no further incidents, I would make an urn of tea, and, in the dim, cold light of dawn, I would place a mug on every locker, and in a loud voice say, as brightly as I could, "Wake up everyone, tea's up, good morning!"
This announcement would be greeted with sighs and groans of acknowledgement that another sleepless night was over.


The motive for war may be good, it is not for me to judge. War itself is obscene. I learned that at 19, and I have never had any reason to change my mind. But there is some redemption in that it can give rise to the finest qualities of heroism, compassion and self sacrifice of which mankind is capable.

I remember so well a young captain who had won a Military Cross for bravery, second only to the Victoria Cross, and had his leg blown off in the process. What act he had performed we never knew, he would not speak of it. The day came when he was to go to Buckingham Palace to receive his decoration. The previous day a bundle was brought in containing his dress uniform. We unwrapped it, and there we saw a crumpled jacket and trousers, tarnished brasses and buckle, a mud stained leather belt and gloves. We all, nurses and patients, fell into action. We found Brasso and polish, and borrowed an iron from the laundry room. Officers who were able to do so, pressed the uniform, others sat up in bed rubbing and polishing badges, shoes, belt, gloves and crutches, and when we were satisfied with the results, everything was spread out on the ward table.

When morning came the captain dressed, the empty trouser leg was carefully folded back and pinned high under his jacket, a porter arrived and announced that a taxi had arrived. The hero of the day donned his cap and gloves, and with head held high went swinging down the ward on his crutches. He looked splendid and we all lined up to watch him go, not, as so often, with sadness, but with pride. I do not believe that there is any glory in war - but if there is, we glimpsed it that morning.

Then came the spring of 1944, and preparations began for the D Day landings across the English Channel. A large area along the south coast was sealed off; only authorised personnel were allowed to enter it and great secrecy led to speculation that an attack on France and Germany was imminent. There was an almost constant stream of tanks and army lorries through the main routes of London to the South and we grew accustomed to the rumble of this traffic.

Indeed, excitement grew daily, and we regularly listened to the BBC for news but very little was forthcoming. Then we received instructions that all our patients who were 90% fit should be prepared for discharge back to their regiments. Some for the men were impatient to return, really wanting to be part of the great, and hopefully final, offensive. Others had already experienced so much fighting that they feared the impending prospect. There was no choice and we said "good luck" to them with very mixed feelings.

A few days later the news broke that our Army, Navy and Airforce were engaged in battle, and had landed in Europe. Casualties were heavy of course and we prepared for an influx of admissions. This was Deliverance Day - on D Day plus One our first convoy of wounded arrived - among them an officer whom we had discharged only the previous week. So for him it all began again - the pain and incapacity, surgery and all that hospitalisation involves. The tragedy of it all had to be experienced to be believed.
But this was, at last, the beginning of the end, although this was still months away and thousands more deaths and injuries were to occur before then. However, the news got brighter and an atmosphere of optimism began to replace the seemingly endless depression.

At long last, on 8th May 1945, it was announced at midday that hostilities had ended - almost unbelievable news which was greeted with enormous rejoicing. This was V E Day - Victory in Europe.
By sheer good luck it was also the last night of my off-duty period and, with a friend, I went into the heart of London in the evening where thousands of people were gathering. We arrived in Whitehall and stood with the crowds outside the Home Office calling for Winston Churchill who was the hero of the hour, perhaps representing so many unsung heroes. He appeared at a window to acknowledge our cheers.

Then we all streamed down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. Dusk was falling as we made our way singing all the wartime songs. Suddenly all the streetlights were switched on, light flooded the scene - the trees, the buildings, the monuments, the people - it seemed like fairyland after six and a half years of blackout. Then the floodlights of the Palace came on, the balcony doors opened and the King and Queen came out to wave to the cheering crowds. The National Anthem resounded for miles around. We clapped, sang and danced, releasing all our emotions pent up for so long. It was a magical night.
But it ended, and we returned to work. Casualties were still arriving, and continued to do so until hostilities ended in Japan a year later.

Then I was demobilised, went back to civilian life, picked up the threads of my former life and added to this the advantages that post war Europe had to offer. I was alright - but what of all those patients? I often wonder, but I shall never know.

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