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15 October 2014
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An Army Nurse's Escape from France and Service in Britain’s Hospitalsicon for Recommended story

by Margaret Ellis

Contributed by 
Margaret Ellis
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 November 2003

I can recall being wakened early one morning by Matron Sowter. I was told to get dressed and not to stop to pack, just to walk out and leave everything. I grabbed a few essentials including, of all things, a quarter-pound packet of tea. The Dieppe bombing raids on a train and two hospital ships occurred before we left Offranville. We were now trying to escape.

British officers bought us dinner

We travelled as best we could, sleeping in barns and haystacks with no food until we arrived at Le Mans. There, British officers gave up their bedrooms for us. I slept on the floor, but they had arranged for the hotel to give us a meal, for which they paid.

Our second night at Le Mans we spent on the railway station and were heavily bombed. Next morning a train arrived, and, joined by other units, we made our way to a Channel port.

Making tea from the engine boiler

The journey across the Channel took 18 hours. There was only one toilet. We managed to make tea using water from the engine boiler. On arrival at Southampton we were allowed one phone call, given a railway warrant and sent on our way home to await recall.

I was met at Lime Street Station by the mother and son of my adoptive family. They had been amazed to hear from me. Another son, who had been with the Royal Artillery in Dunkirk, had got home two weeks before I did and told the rest of the family, 'You'll not see our Margaret again.' He thought I'd never get out of it alive.

All I had was what I stood up in

I was asked about my luggage. Although I had gone over to France with my cabin trunk full of belongings, I answered, truthfully, 'I have only what I stand up in.'

A few days later I was given instructions to report to the matron of the Royal Liverpool Hospital. There, I was told that I was to go to Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield. We had quite a battle with the matron there, who told the patients that we army sisters should be ignored and that she gave the orders. Three of us went to the War Office to sort this out.

We were ordered to take ambulances over to Beverley, near Hull, to evacuate the hospital, which had been heavily bombed, and the patients, servicemen who were very ill.

Goering's nephew on my ward

In due course I was given my orders to report to the matron of Nutley Military Hospital on the edge of Southampton Water. I had three wards. One of Indian troops, all with TB, another of Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) girls, who had been sent back from the battle zone, and a third of three German officers. One of these officers was reputed to be a nephew of Goering: he did not make it back to the Fatherland.

Armed guards for the wards

Later I was to move to the opposite end of the hospital on night duty in charge of three wards. The first ward was full of very ill men, the second of wounded Germans and the third a treatment ward for venereal disease. The German patients, of course, posed special problems. Two of our soldiers were constantly on guard, one inside the door and one outside, both armed.

I had a Voluntary Aid Detachment girl as my helper, who spoke fluent German. She never used that skill until one night when she heard the Germans talking among themselves as she was filling in the register at the ward table. Not realising that one of us spoke their language, they were boasting about the huge bombing raids that they were going to make on our country. She became very angry and asked them, in German, what did they think we were doing?

No married women allowed

I had been posted to this hospital as they were mustering for India. My husband-to-be wanted us to get married, and when I told the matron she asked me to give a month's notice. At that time married nurses were not permitted to serve in the army.

They lost so many sisters through this rule that they changed it. Among many others I, too, was then asked to report back. However, I'd just realised that I was pregnant so I could not do so and my army career came to an end.

[Read Margaret Ellis's account of service in France - 'Tented Hospital'.]

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