Going to war
By early 1939 it had become clear that Europe was on the doorstep of yet another war, and that action had to be taken in order to prepare for what was about to come. The lived experience of the First World War had already equipped individuals, volunteer units, and charitable organisations with previous knowledge around needs and provisions to address the situation at home and on the front. After the declaration of war in 1939, the Joint War Organisation of the Order of St John and the British Red Cross Society started to prepare once again to support the war effort.
Staff shortages and men “unprepared to rough it”
Operations during the Second World War included training medical and nursing reserves as well as the civilian population, provision for the Prisoners of War, caring for the sick and wounded, and transferring aid and patients to the appropriate depots and hospitals. The work of the Transport of Wounded Department, in particular, was highly important as it involved the challenging mission of supplementing ambulance vehicles and personnel overseas and at home, and ensuring help reached those in need in a timely manner. Naturally, performing the relevant tasks of a member of an Ambulance Unit during wartime was not glamorous or easy. The personnel often had to work without the usual comforts of heat and running water, or the basic safety from bomb shells and sufficient rest between shifts. According to a report by the Transport of Wounded Department of the War Organisation, their recruiting body faced great difficulty in finding appropriate staff to establish the Ambulance Units due the shortage of manpower and the unpreparedness of the male staff to work in extreme conditions. Even ex-army officers were unsuitable for this role as, in the opinion of the Deputy-Director of the Department, they were found to be “unadaptable” and “leisurely”.
Calling all women
By the autumn of 1940 the shortage of staff in these important units was evident as male drivers from St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross had either already been called up, or found inadequate, as in the case of ex-army officers and other male personnel. St John Ambulance had at that point no registry of female drivers and action had to be taken immediately to address this need; as a result, the War Organisation appealed to all sources possible. Soon, an army of drivers would form as this urgent call reached St John and Red Cross women from most of the English shires, Scotland (branch of St Andrews Ambulance Association), members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), as well as members in Canada and in South Africa. At one time there were 130 vehicles operating in the South of England, and at the headquarters of the convoy there was a camp of more than 130 women ambulance drivers. In addition to the headquarters camps, there were two advanced bases with an average of 25 ambulances and their drivers each, on call and awaiting orders to move to France. Most of these women were already highly skilled in first aid, driving fast and efficiently in warzone landscapes, mechanics and ambulance repairs, and comfortable working without the reassuring protections of peacetime luxuries. Women developed rapidly in the role and, according to the records of the War Organisation, in most cases women would successfully get promoted from nurses and ambulance drivers to officers very quickly, excelling in their service and overachieving their goals.
“the nights with the wounded, the days with the dead”
Women working in ambulances and other vehicles had to be extremely flexible and to cover a wide range of skills in order to be efficient in their crucial work. They had to be vigilant and careful when following the convoy which was performed mainly at night, adding to the danger involved in the operations. They had to withstand the trauma of war while servicing and caring for others in unsafe conditions surrounded by wounded and dead. Also, as preserving life was often a matter of speed of transport, they had to display high competence in driving; there was one occasion when drivers managed to take casualties from France and the war front to hospitals in England before the end of the same day. In addition, according to an article on the Times around that time, each nurse had to service her own ambulance, internally and externally. The ambulances were designed in a way that would allow the driver to be able to walk from her driving seat down the centre of the ambulance so that she could check on the patient and make sure transportation was smooth for them. Maintaining the vehicle was often also part of this duty and, according to the sources, many drivers would take great pride in their work and develop affection for their vehicles and their dedicated units. As the workload of the Transport Section was becoming increasingly demanding and heavier, eventually, on top of their normal duties, ambulance workers had to care for the infirm and elderly living locally who were being forcefully removed from their homes by the German Forces, adding also to their journeys and stretching their travelling and working hours to their limits.
Women ambulance workers played a vital role in servicing those in need during the Second World War in general, and in the conveyance of the wounded to the British hospitals in particular. Working against all odds and the restrictions shaped by the expectations around their social role based on gender, women at the home front, in France, and elsewhere were present, empowering, and actively shaping history. In 1939 a General wrote with regards to the existence of female personnel in France: “Of course, you can say that we don’t smile on the proposition”. However, women who took part in these life-saving operations proved that their contribution to a more humane world was voicing its vision in the most elaborate way, in an act that demanded to be heard and recognised.
A Century of Service to Mankind. By Ronnie Cole-Mackintosh. London: The Order of St John, 1986.
First Aid. Ed. Walter Scott. London: Dale, Reynolds & Co. Ltd. No.607-Vol. LI. January 1945.
Guernsey’s Occupation Ambulance Service. By Gary Blanchford. Lithuania: Spauda Printing, 2013.
Red Cross and St John War History 1939-1947. Confidential Supplement. Vol 1. & Vol 2. Library of the Museum of the Order of St John, London.
Second World War. British Red Cross Ambulance Services. www.redcross.org.uk
The FANY in Peace and War: The Story of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry 1907-2003. By Hugh Popham. Yorkshire: Pen and Sword, 2009.
Women in Uniform. Ed. Collett Wadge. London: Imperial War Museum, 2003.