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15 October 2014
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Wartime Experiences of Mollie Northen

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Mollie Northen, Princess Elizabeth, Senior Commander Wellesley
Location of story: 
Great Britain
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
07 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Wendy Wood of Hastings Community Learning Centre, a volunteer from BBC Southern Counties Radio on behalf of Mollie Northen and has been added to the site with his/her permission. Mollie Northen fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

In 1938 our Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, assured us over the wireless — as it was then called - that it was to be ‘Peace in our time’. Not so, a year later he announced ‘We are now at war with Germany’. As we digested this information the sirens blasted out. It is impossible to describe the excitement. We rushed outside and scanned the sky in the hope of seeing or hearing something. It was a false alarm. I suspect we were really disappointed.

Such action sounds crazy now but we continued to behave in this way whenever there was a dogfight overhead. It was an incredible sight. Aeroplanes everywhere. Planes were shot down followed by parachutists wafting in the air. It was difficult to tell whether they were British or German. The noise was horrendous.

It was different when the doodlebugs came over with a dull boom boom sound. We would wait until the engine cut out, then silence until the explosion. Selfishly, we sighed with relief that it was not our turn Imagine arriving home to find one’s house gone!

I had been trained in first aid by the St John’s ambulance and nursing by the Red Cross and so, as soon as the war started, I volunteered as an ambulance attendant. At first, we manned the local First aid station, where we slept on the floor and had very little sleep because we chattered so long into night. Very little happened. Eventually we had a casualty. A land mine was dropped just behind a house, I once lived in, and a man working in the garden had his shoulder dislocated. He was in great pain but we could do little except get him to hospital as quickly as possible. There were no paramedics with drugs in those days.

When the blitz became intense I was recruited as an ambulance driver. We were out most nights. One sad happening that has stayed in my mind was when a family had to be dug out which took most of the night. Most of them survived including an eighty-year-old grandmother but an eight-year-old boy was killed and we had to take him to the mortuary. I felt, at the time, and even more so now that I am in my eighties, how much that grandmother would have wished for a different outcome.

When the blitz ended I joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, at Camberley, to train as a driving instructor under Chief Commander Wellesley, followed a month later by Princess Elizabeth, who learnt how to maintain her ambulance, as we all did. The female sergeants were very strict in upholding standards. The FANYs always lived in beautiful houses such as Gore court at Otham, Kippington House in Sevenoaks, a castle in Scotland and others where I was stationed in Westerham, Redhill and Chatham.

From there I was commissioned into the army and trained as a specialist messing officer at Aldershot. After that many different places Guildford, Leicester, and an American training centre on a spectacular cliff on the Welsh Coast. Discipline did not come easily to the Americans but they brought their own rations and we had magnificent meals!

That unit was closed and I went to the headquarters of the Royal Engineers in Halifax, where I was responsible for feeding hundreds of troops, usually during the night, in transit to or from overseas postings. Those going out were bright and enthusiastic but the ones returning were often dirty and very tired. The movement of troops was always highly secret. We were given very short notice.

My last posting was to Egypt but by then a young adjutant, bronzed from overseas service, was appointed and ‘foolishly’ I decided marriage was a more exciting alternative so someone else went in my place!

The wonderful spirit of comradeship, throughout the war, is difficult to recapture.

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