In November, I think it was, I left Scotland for England as my next posting was to Aldershot, the RAMC HQ where I was scheduled to embark on a Clinical Clerks’ Course. This Course was intended for clerks who could act not only as medical secretaries but also help the doctors with minor operations.
I looked forward to this new challenge and to meeting with a new group of VADs. I wasn’t disappointed. There were 25 VADs in the group and a jolly lot they were. The Course was very arduous: we had to take notes galore and learn new medical terms (and had to be able to spell them) and work in the Lab handling instruments (with gloves, of course) and learning their use. I wondered if we’d be allowed to watch an operation but that wasn’t included in our schedule. It was all extremely interesting and as it didn’t involve nursing as such, suited me very well. There was, of course, an examination at the end of the course (a lot of swotting needed for that); Edith, one of the friends I’d made, and I came out on top. Edith became a lifelong friend and I lost her only 18 months ago, in 2002. While on the Course, we went for a weekend to London where she had an aunt who put us up for the night. This was at a time when London was facing a terrifying menace from the Germans in the shape of the Flying Bomb, or Doodlebug, as it was popularly known. This bomb could zoom like a rocket over a large area and, on exploding, cause many fatalities and immense damage. We’d heard about these Doodlebugs but had no idea how terrifying they could be. There was no warning and it was very difficult for our anti-aircraft batteries to trace their movements and predict where they were likely to fall. We were fortunate in that the part of the city we were staying in at the time escaped the attentions of these bombs, but it made us unwilling to do any sightseeing in the city centre. Neither of us had seen St Paul’s or the Palace of Westminster and we had to wait until after the war to visit them.
By Christmas, we were still in our ‘digs’ in Fleet, a rather pretty Hampshire town near Aldershot But the townspeople showed scant interest in us and we were not invited to any social functions during the festive season. We took a poor view of that. Such a lack of hospitality, especially at Christmas, would never have happened in Scotland. I believe that we, the Scots, are a hospitable people. Any servicemen I met, who had been stationed for a time in Scotland told me how much they’d appreciated the kindness shown to them. However, we did get a splendid Christmas dinner at the barracks in Aldershot with entertainment to follow.
By January 1945, I was on the move again, this time to Oxford. I’d always had a yen to visit ‘that sweet City with her dreaming spires’ but, in the event, I was not overly impressed. Perhaps, looking back, I took a jaundiced view of the city because of the intensely cold weather that year: I had digs in a damp, unheated attic. This attic was on the top storey of a big house in Banbury Road, a posh area of Oxford. The owner was a clergyman’s widow who resented having anyone billeted in her house. This appeared to be the general attitude of householders in the town (perhaps in any town). They did not want to be compelled to put up members of the Forces but, if they had spare accommodation, they could not refuse. Even so, this woman could have made some effort to make my stay more comfortable: I was, after all, helping the war effort. Night after night, I had to fill a hot water bottle at the kitchen sink then climb two flights of stairs to my miserable little room. I can tell you I felt very sorry for myself; up till then I had never been in such sub-standard accommodation. As a result, I caught a severe chill and couldn’t leave the house. When I didn’t turn up for work, the Commandant came to see me and immediately had me removed to a nice, warm room in a big house where other VADs were staying.
St Hugh’s College (a woman’s college), where I worked, had been converted into a military hospital for head injuries. I could appreciate the beauty of the building but the work there was of such a melancholy nature that my spell there became the turning point of the war for me — it was the saddest part of my 4 years’ service with the RAMC. The soldiers with head injuries were brought to St Hugh’s from the nearest airport, at Brize Norton. For the first time, it was vividly brought home to me the terrible cost of getting rid of Hitler, one of History’s worst tyrants. I’ll never forget these very young men (most of them hadn’t even reached their prime) being wheeled into the Medical Reception Room; their heads were shaven and pitted all over with little black shrapnel pellets embedded in the skin. These were the paraplegics, never likely to walk again, confined to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives. Others, wounded but able to walk with two sticks, filed haltingly into the room. An orderly would go round inspecting the groups and, if he thought anyone was down in the dumps (as many were), he would stick a cigarette in his mouth.
The work was very interesting but onerous (was I glad of my Clinical Clerk’s training!) and kept me on my toes. One doctor, I recall, praised my spelling of difficult medical terms. I felt really ‘chuffed’.
The other famous colleges I did manage to see were, undoubtedly, handsome edifices but, deprived of their usual purpose, seemed to me to have a woebegone air.
I don’t remember being uplifted or in any way entertained in Oxford but I was possibly too tired or too cold or just too low in spirits to bother very much. I really think it was colder in Oxford that January than it was ever in Inverness at the same time of year and yet Inverness is so much further north.
So I was glad when, in February, I received my first posting overseas. After receiving the usual injections, I was surprised to be kitted out with a khaki battle dress and boots but allowed to retain my VAD cap. I felt as if I was being prepared for service in the field. I had to pose for a photograph and cannot say I was enamoured to see myself in that get up. When we lined up on the dock at Dover, I was pleased to recognize some of my old comrades from the Inverness days in a group of VADs awaiting embarkation. As luck would have it, I was attached to a group bound for Calais and thence to Lille, while the Inverness contingent’s destination was Bruges.