June’s War-by Mike Davies
Having read the parts of the book Sisters in Arms relating to the B.L.A. (British Liberation Army) campaign in Northern Europe, I thought it might be of interest to set down some of the reminiscences that June related from time to time during our life together.
I can’t keep referring to ‘Mum’ or ‘Grannie’ as it referred to her life in her early twenties, so I shall continue to call her June, as she was always known to me.
On 18th December 1943 she received her Certificate of Training from the Westminster Hospital, London, having completed three years training as a probationer nurse, plus one year as a staff nurse . So she left as an S.R.N., or State Registered Nurse. At this stage of the war virtually all young women and men were directed by the government into some form of National Service. June could either commence another course at the maternity hospital to qualify further as a State Registered Midwife or, as this did not appeal to her, the other options were to become a nursing sister in one of the three services. She discovered that the Queen Alexandra’s Naval and the Princess Mary’s Air Force Sisters were usually confined to large land-based stations. However, apart from being nurses in the field, Army Sisters also staffed the hospital ships with the R.A.M.C. and the Air Ambulances, which was much more appealing to her. Therefore she chose the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve) . Whilst this was being arranged she went to stay with her sister Hazel in Ruislip. Hazel’s husband, Colin, was an aircraft engineer employed at the Boulton-Paul aircraft works, near Wolverhampton. So June and Hazel were left alone with the new-born baby, Louise and Angela. The V1 flying bomb campaign had just started. These were popularly known as ‘Buzz Bombs’ or ‘Doodle Bugs’. On one occasion the Air Raid Warning sounded, so the three of them sheltered in the safest part of the house, which was under the stairs. One bomb exploded nearby and blew in Hazel’s front door and windows. Fortunately there was no further damage but it was frightening enough. Other nearby houses weren’t so lucky and there were many casualties. The last time I was at No. 19 Paignton Road you could still see signs of repaired roofs, etc. on the affected houses.
Eventually June received her call-up papers and went off to Austin Reeds in Regent Street to be measured for her uniforms. In due course she arrived with other nurses in their new uniforms at a camp where they were introduced to Army life. They were the despair of the drill sergeant who did his best to train them in Parade Drill with little success. As June used to say, as we watched the annual parade in the Albert Hall for the Remembrance Day ceremonial on television, nurses in general had no idea how to march. Her next move was to a transit camp near Southampton where they were prepared for a draft to go over to Normandy. Security was very tight and they were strictly confined to camp. But June being June, rather ‘bolshie’ , wanted to see Hazel again before leaving. So she escaped to Ruislip. A few hours later, she returned to find her colleagues in a high state of ‘flap’ as they had received their marching orders and were alarmed that they might have to explain June’s absence.
They all duly embarked and arrived at the Mulberry Harbour, just off the beaches of Arromanches, about the 1st July 1944 (D+25), some three weeks or so after D-Day – 6th June. The Mulberry consisted of huge concrete caissons which were linked by bridges and pontoons to the shore. These had been floated out, towed by tugs, and sunk in a huge semi-circle to form an artificial harbour. This was the answer to the problem of reinforcing the armies with troops, weapons and supplies after the landings. The only nearby ports of Cherbourg, Ouistreham and Le Havre would have been impossible to take in the time needed. Each caisson had its own crew commanded by a junior naval officer. When June and her chums disembarked the young officer was delighted to see the nurses and a welcoming party ensued before he sent them on their way up the beach at Arromanches and on to Bayeux where they joined the 39th BGH under canvas. She said that Bayeux was relatively undamaged whilst Caen had been virtually flattened. She also recalled that soon after they arrived she and other sisters were invited to another party in one of the nearby apple orchards. As a young probationer nurse for the previous years, she likened her life to almost as a nun in a convent, without much experience of outside life, young men or even of alcoholic drinks. On arrival at the party ‘some idiot’ as she described him, gave her a large tumbler of Calvados, the powerful, local, apple-based liqueur. Not knowing any better, she drank it, passed out and had to be taken back to her tented hospital.
Whilst waiting for the ‘breakout’, the nurses and other medical personnel, such as the R.A.M.C. doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, orderlies, etc, got to know one another and settle down to become a cohesive mobile hospital unit. There was very heavy fighting when the Allies tried to force the Germans back, as they eventually did at the Falaise Gap . Consequently June, as a surgical nurse, and the rest had to cope with the hectic flow of casualties. During the occasional lull, these young people would relax as a respite from the stress. June was rather surprised at the behaviour of another nursing sister from Newcastle-on-Tyne (I forget her name) whose ‘party piece’ was to lift up her skirts and do a bit of a dance on top of a table whilst singing the famous Geordie song The Bladen Races.
As the British and Canadian armies battled slowly forward, the R.A.M.C. orderlies, and some Pioneer Corps, became adept at taking down the canvas hospitals, packing them into lorries, moving on to the next site and re-erecting the tented unit. June recalled how the orderlies would erect the sisters’ latrine in the middle of a field. This was protected by a surrounding 7ft high, open-topped Hessian screen. However, the girls hated having to cross the open field in full view of everyone and frequently took refuge in the ample hedges of the ‘Brocage’ . It also happened that when the matron and other sisters were ensconced an occasional cheeky R.A.F. pilot would skim over, just above ground level, to observe the ladies about their morning offices.
I remember being in Cairo with June in 1946, spending the last evening together before she left for her posting in Bir Yakov in Palestine. We were drowning our sorrows in many ‘Horses’ Necks’ and I remarked that she could put away a lot of alcohol without seeming to get the worse for wear. She again referred to the lulls between the hectic periods during the fighting in Normandy. Numerous units, when they had been pulled back out of action for rest periods, would organise a party to which the Q.A.s, as the nearest available females, would be invited. At the end of the evening, all sorts of British, Canadian and other chaps would offer the girls lifts in jeeps, etc. back to their hospital units. June said that one had to keep a clear head to avoid unwanted propositions by strangers.
There was one episode that June said that, reflecting on it afterwards, made her bitterly ashamed of herself. She was on the side of the road when some tanks rolled by. One of them stopped and the tank commander offered her a lift. She agreed, flippantly, on condition that he gave her the sheepskin jacket that he was wearing. Whereupon, she got the lift and the jacket. It was the sort of light-hearted way that things were. However, she said that as she matured she always regretted it, but it was part of being young and irresponsible. She often wondered how the young man fared in a bitter winter without his jacket.
Eventually in September 1944 June was involved in the liberation of Brussels. Either part (or the whole) of the Brugmann Hospital was requisitioned and the 39th B.C.H. became the 101 B.C.H. For the first time since landing in Normandy, the sisters were able to discard their khaki battledress and tin hats and wear their normal grey dresses, trimmed with scarlet, and their white veil headdresses. June was very surprised to find that Brussels seemed little touched by the war. The shops were well-provided with all sorts of luxury goods, like perfumes and make up, food, etc. which had long since been missing in the U.K. The local population gave the nurses a great welcome. The hairdressers, for instance, gave them free perms and hair-dos which were much appreciated after the Spartan life under canvas when it was as much as they could do to get their hair washed. She remembers being taken to her first nightclub and cabaret. In those days she was rather taken aback by the Continental unisex loos. She recalled having to pass a line of men at the urinals in the night club on her way to the ‘Ladies’.
Soon after they were established at Brugmann the ill-fated ‘Market Garden’ and Arnhem operation took place. Although the hospital was what was known as a 1500 ‘bedder’, they treated 3000 casualties. June said it was a dreadful time.
On one occasion when we were passing through Belgium on our way for our holidays, I made a detour to Brussels and drove June to the Brugmann, which seemed to have changed little. We just stopped by the main entrance adjacent to the tramway terminal turning circle for the tram route into Brussels. She remembered how they used to catch these trams on their off-duty. She said it was exactly as she remembered it all those years before.
By Christmas 1944 the unit had moved on and taken over a smaller hospital in Hasselt in the north-east of Belgium, near to the Dutch border. Again they were much involved with casualties from the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. It was also a bitterly cold winter. I am not sure where or when the next incident occurred but in one situation June’s patients also included some walking wounded German S.S. POW prisoners. During the night the sounds of battle came quite near and the POWs became restive. She wondered if they might be tempted to make a break for it. She only had one young R.A.M.C. orderly on duty with her. She was quite touched when this kid (as she put it) told her not to worry as he would look after her.
Possibly on the same trip, mentioned above, I also drove June to Hasselt and we looked for the hospital, but in vain. Eventually we saw a police van parked in a street and had a word with two policemen. One said that he remembered being a child patient in the hospital when he had appendicitis. The hospital had long been converted to their police HQ and they offered to guide us there. We followed their van and there it was, as June remembered it. However, the large house next door, which had been used as the nurses’ home, was now demolished.
The unit’s next move was on to Utrecht in Holland. June found it an entirely different situation from that in Belgium. The country appeared to have been stripped bare. There was very little food and the populace rode around on bicycles, on the wheel rims without tyres.
The next move appeared to be the last as they crossed the Rhine at Maastricht and entered Germany. They took over Admiral Doenetz HQ at Bensberg, near Cologne. He was the last German leader who took over after the death of Hitler. The city had been heavily bombed but the famous cathedral had been left standing. June said that some well-to-do young German ladies were conscripted to clean the building’s floors, walls etc. before it could be used as a hospital. These fraüleins were very sullen and felt the work was beneath them. There was not much sympathy from the British nurses who had carried out these tasks many times.
In August 1945 June was flown back to Northolt in a Dakota for her first leave back in the UK. She never returned to Germany as she was then posted to a hospital at Jamshedpur in India – but that is another story.