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Joy and John Gear today, taken on their Diamond Wedding.
Private Carter, (Joy Gear)
Joy Gear wrote her memoirs 'Private Carter, J.B. (W/150784) 1942 – 1946'
in 2001 keeping a promise she had made to her oldest daughter Mandy who sadly died of cancer. It tells of her life in the Auxiliary Territorial Service and she has given the museum permission to include it in the Make do and Mend Project.
Joy was one of four daughters of Carters, a Yeovil engineering firm, who after the war employed Harry Patch, the last British Tommy who fought in the trenches in the First World War.
Writing in 2001 Joy says
'I shall be 80 years old on my next birthday and, after all these years, I have decided to write about my time during the war, when I was called up to do my bit by the War Office and joined the A.T.S.
Before it all began
1942 was a momentous year for me, quite a lot of 'firsts', in fact. In January I became 21 (key of the door and all that). Coming of age was reduced to 18 years much later.
In February I developed acute appendicitis and had a first spell in hospital, a very frightening experience, especially when the air-raid siren went and everyone rushed off to the shelters. However, I had lots of lovely young men in uniform (so glamorising) at my bedside to cheer me up during my incarceration.
In April I was called up and told I was eligible for war-work, a choice between a munitions factory or the A.T.S., both the other two Services having their full intake at that time. So, I chose the Auxiliary Territorial Service – the A.T.S.
In June I had my call-up papers and was told to report to Reading in Berkshire for basic training – how basic I was about to find out!
I had never been away from home before. I was quite clueless. I can only say I was born at a very early age and was a late developer; however somehow I found myself on a bright June day on Reading Station with dozens of other sweet young things ready to 'do our bit', whatever that was!
We piled into the back of an Army lorry and were taken to Aldermaston, an Army Initial Training Camp, just outside Reading, to be kitted out, taught to march and obey orders, peel spuds and have horrible needles stuck into us.
Camp was mostly wooden huts, 20 beds in ours with a space down the centre. The 'ablutions', (bathroom), mess, cookhouse and lecture-rooms were all wooden huts of different sizes, set in woodland. There was also a barrack square and lots of other girls in khaki. The Prime Minister's daughter, Mary, was in the previous intake.
Next day we were marched to the Q.M Stores and had a pile of uniform flung at us. Well, of course, nothing fitted – my tunic came down to my knees and we had khaki directoire knickers ( I ask you!) – known in the Service as 'passion killers'. Thick khaki lisle stockings, also a tin hat, shoe brushes, mess tin ( for the trenches I suppose!), a 'hussif' for running repairs, like darning holes and sewing on buttons! My 'hussif' was still quite new looking after nearly four years. I hated sewing! We also had 'tools' – a knife, fork and spoon – these last came with you for every meal – forget them and you ate with your fingers! Uniforms got sorted out eventually by a process of exchange and more visits to the Q.M. Stores. I always thought that the man who designed – (designed? Ha!) – the uniform must have been a rabid woman-hater! Who else would put patch pockets on busts and hips and, not content with that, a large brass button on every pocket, shining like the sun! We had to carry our AB64 (Army Pay Book and Identification) at all times in our top right breast pocket. Well, being a natural-born female, you can imagine my pay book took on a curvature all its own and had to be flattened out every pay day.
We were taught to salute (longest way up, shortest way down), rudmimentary drill and marching up and down to orders, psychology tests (putting square little pegs in round little holes) and all that, by which 'they' deduced what job we were most suited for, and that was how I became a driver.
After a week, we had our inoculations, and much to our surprise, we were given 48 hours off duty – for a very good reason! The typhoid vaccine gave a very powerful reaction and all night our hut was filled with moans and groans as all we poor little A.T.s tried to turn in our beds. In the morning arms were hard, swollen and burning and our mates in the next hut, who had had their ration of agony the week before, came in to fix bras (deep pink Army issue) do up buttons, tie ties and brush hair! No wonder we had 48 hours off.
We all had to have a go at the jobs in the camp –cookhouse duties, general fatigues and orderlies (skivvies), so we could decide what we wished to do in the A.T.S. My mate, Dinah, and I were on fatigue duty in the ablutions (I'd always wanted to be a lavatory attendant!); well, after we'd cleaned the row of loos and washbasins, our job was to empty the S.T. bin contents into the incinerator and that is where we committed the unpardonable sin! Taking the shortest route, we staggered across the barrack square, neatly missing a squad drilling, when suddenly we were pulled up short, frightened to death by an absolutely terrifying N.C.O. bearing down on us, shouting with rage! With knees knocking, we put down the bin- the crime! Poor little A.T.s! We innocents had not been told that you never, ever, walk across the square, but always go round – even if its miles! For our pains we were given the job of cleaning out the grease-traps beneath the sinks in the kitchens – Yuk! What did they want it for? I was told it was for greasing shells in the factories, but I didn't believe it. It was a dark plot!
After a fortnight we were beginning to get the hang of things. I remember kicking my gat several times round the barrack room floor to give it a well-worn look. Then came the day we were told our fates – who were going to do what? As I had been a cashier in a Yeovil firm, I put in to go into the Pay Corps and that is why they made me a driver! (all those little square pegs and round holes!) After three weeks of Aldermaston, I was told that I had to report to Bradbury Barracks, Hereford, for three months driver training, so with a few others, off I went!
The S.A.S elite now train at Bradbury Barracks in Hereford but, even in 1942, it was very Regimental. That summer there were masses of orange marigolds outside the huts and all round the camp. They weren't called 'huts' but 'spiders' – a central bit for ablutions, but lots of other 'bits' going off in all directions which were our sleeping quarters. About 32 girls to one barrack room, in two-tier bunks with monstrous black coke stoves at either end, and notices posted prominently requesting us not to spit! I guess the men were in occupation before us and had been sent overseas. These notices were later taken down, presumably because of our sensibilities.
Here we were paraded for everything, which meant 'falling in' outside your spider to be marched to breakfast and back, to workshop, lectures and Naafi breaks, and back, and it went on like that all day!
This was a very intensive course – in those days nobody but a very few young people could drive, so even to sit in a vehicle was a new experience for lots of us, fortunately not for me – although I'd not been taught to drive ( my Dad thought I was too scatty by half, but clearly the Army didn't!)
In this camp we were all taught by rude instructors, mostly N.C.O.'s and warrant-officers, some of whom we got to like, others not. One particular sergeant took great pleasure in yelling at us while drilling on the barrack square, till the veins stood out on his neck and all of us poor little dears were terrified and stood there knees knocking. Fraught! He would shout at us 'Stind and freeze!!' instead of 'Stand at ease' but we took it on the chin. We learned to swing our arms to the shoulder height of the girl in front when marching ( and if she was very tall, I nearly took off!). We learned to form fours and always started off on the left foot (difficult for some who had two left feet!).
We were introduced to the internal combustion engine (induction, compression, ignition, exhaust) and learned the function of most things under the bonnet. Our 'uniforms' while working on the vehicles and in workshops consisted of all-in-one khaki denims, a baggy kind of romper suit – useful to get mucky in, but most unglamorous. I seem to remember that Winston Churchill had one similar which he called his 'siren suit'. A dozen of us were all leaning into the engine of a 30cst Bedford truck one day while our instructor was demonstrating the electrical system; the monster made the whole vehicle 'live' by holding one of the terminals against the metal side and, as one, we leapt back with loud cries and a nasty shock. We did not think it funny! But the instructors did.
I was friendly with two other girls from the West Country, Anna and Alice, and often went into Hereford for a meal when we were off duty. Almost invariably it was a salmon salad, a relief from Army stodge, and it cost a fortune! When I tell you that we were paid 11 shillings (55p) a week, and six of them went on a salad, leaving just about enough to go to the Odeon cinema, and with a few coppers to spend in the Naafi during the week. Most of the time, of course, we were broke. I used to play on a rackety old piano in the Naafi Warsaw Cocerto was everyone's favourite at the time. ('Come on Somerset, give us a tune!')
Along with the driving we had many more things to learn. Maintenance of our vehicles, learning to figure map reference numbers (because all signposts and place names had been removed, so as not to give any guidance to the Germans if they got here). It must be remembered that at this time no one knew if they would take over this very small island when they had already vanquished most of Europe, and my term in the A.T.S. was 'for the duration'- however long that was to be!
Also, the war news on most fronts was pretty bleak but the A.T.S. were ready for'em! We also had lots of Physical Training ( in awful brown baggy shorts), a spell in the gass chamber in case of gas attack, and had to attend A.B.C.A lectures (Army Bureau of Current Affairs). The gas chamber was horrible. We were O.K. until told we had to remove our gas masks while still inside and keep walking round until we were let out. Wow! Well, we fell outside, but it so affected us that we lay about on the grass, sobbing and moaning and in floods of tears, inconsolable! You should have seen the chagrin and dismay on our sergeants' faces, serve them right! There were 30 of us! It was done, of course, so that we should trust our gasmasks.
There was a system in the camp called P.A.D. – (Passive Air Defence). Everyone had a job to do and a place to go in the event of an air-raid. It was a drill, of course. I don't think Hereford ever had an air-raid. Well, one day, yours truly was late and found myself at the back of the queue in the NAAFI and I'd just got my cup of cocoa in my hot little hand, when the siren sounded – right in our break. Instead of putting my cocoa down and haring off to my designated place, I held it very carefully and started at a sort of walking-run to get there (the camp was now quite deserted except for Carter and her cup of cocoa). Suddenly the tannoy started up –'That girl – name and number' What me? Yes there I was on a charge again –spud bashing! This was not as bad as it sounds, because although there were a lot of personnel on the camp, we had a machine to do the actual peeling. So all we had to do was keep the machine filled and then take out the eyes. There were five other offenders and we were soon gassing away to pass the time and quite forgot the machine, so the spuds that had gone in the size of fists, came out like marbles and had to be buried in the swill-bin – for pigs (lucky pigs!) We got a bit fed up with this so eventually we eyed one, threw one in, etc, until we'd finished. Punishment over and no repercussions! ('Carter, must try harder!').
We started our driver training in earnest, mostly on 5cwt trucks, utilities and Bedford 30cwts; learning to 'stop and start' to numbers on the barrack square; driving in 1st gear at a walking pace in large circles – dozens of us.
We each had a log book in which we had to record the hours actually spent behind the wheel with, hopefully 80 hours logged by the end of the course. There were three stages – wide main roads, town and traffic in Hereford, then into Wales's Black Mountains. Once familiar with the mechanics, we were allowed outside on nice broad, not too bendy country main roads, where there was hardly any traffic because of petrol restrictions – rationed for all non-essentials. There was, after all, a war on!
When each stage was reached we were tested by a C.S.M. (Company Sergeant Major) who sat in the cab with us while we just got on with it and hopefully passed. One night we had to do our first spell of night-driving in convoy in the Bedford trucks – one little A.T. in the cab with the instructor and three of us lying in the back on our respirators, waiting our turn. I lay there on a wonderful late August night, clear and lovely, and I wondered what the devil I was doing, prone in the back of an Army truck 'somewhere in England'. That's when you think of home and wonder what all your family and friends are doing. I was fairly homesick, I admit, and it didn't really get any better, but everyone was in the same boat, so you just had to make the best of it.
All road signs, sign posts, even little village Post Offices, were blanked out and the regulation Army vehicle lights were pretty grim. I regularly lost the red rear-light of the truck in front of me – like if you stare at a star and it disappears – also, we had to keep a certain distance from the vehicle in front – I guess some of it, looking back, was more luck than judgement. Anyway, despite racketing round Herefordshire all night, we still had to get up at reveille at 6am in the morning – the bugler never failed us.
The A.B.C.A. lectures actually took the place of wireless and newspapers. We were always tired and never had time to listen or read. I would fall asleep before 9 o'clock with 30 other girls chattering and putting up the blackouts all around me, well before lights-out at 10.15 (That bugler again!)
Our last and final test came and I found myself driving in the Black Mountains in Wales, on test with the R.S.M. in the inevitable Bedford truck. This was hair-raising –all steep gradients and hairpin bends on very narrow roads. Now one had to double de-clutch to change gears on this vehicle and, as I was only 5ft. tall I had to sit on my respirator to reach the pedals. I was a bit fraught! I was even more fraught when the R.S.M. stopped me on a gradient about 1-in-5- made me get out and watch while he removed his gold pencil from his pocket and stuffed it under one of the wheels.
'I'll fail you if you run over my pencil' he said. Well it worked. I was more afraid of his flipping pencil than I was of failing, but I reckon I shed about 3lbs in the process! We had to do our reversing on the barrack square, in a system of poles and tapes resembling narrow places you couldn't drive out of, again in the Bedford 30cwt. Again, this was no piece of cake as we had no rear-view and driving mirrors, so the only way to see was to open the door and lean out backwards, at the same time trying to keep your seat on your respirator. One little touch and the whole caboodle came down – a very black mark!
It was hot and I perspired in streams, but I safely made it – another 3lbs gone! 80 hours logged – I was now a qualified Army driver! There was another load of kit to take on board now that we were officially M.T. (Mechanised Transport).
Our A.T.S. skirts were too skimpy to step up into lorries ( without showing most of our khaki bloomers) so we were issued with slacks, a leather jerkin (which I loved), gabardine raincoat, battle-dress blouse(with no brass buttons), leather gauntlet driving gloves and permission to wear officers' braid ties, and no darns in our stockings! As we were to be driving officers, we had to be smart at all times.
When I looked inside my driving gloves, I saw they were made in Stoke-sub-Hamdon, a village close to my home, and the thought brought a lump to my throat. That's homesickness again!
Before we left Hereford there was a concert put on in the Garrison Theatre, which was great fun and marked the end of our driving training. We were lucky enough to have a young actress in our hut who taught us a snappy military tap-dance. We borrowed the officers' swagger sticks and wore proper theatrical gold dresses, short and twirly, with little black velvet capes. We rehearsed like mad and on the night it went down very well. Encore!
I would just like to recall here, a curious thing that happened while I was at Hereford. One night I awoke in the barrack-room – everyone asleep, moonlight flooding in where blackouts had been removed; it was quiet until somewhere quite close, a dog started howling. It went on for quite some time and gave me the shivers – remembering the old saying that if you heard a dog howling at night, it meant somewhere there'd been a death. It was a while before I fell asleep again.
About two days later, I received a letter from home, informing me that my young aunt Freda had died, after being ill with T.B. for some time – then I remembered! For several nights I lay awake and worried about this ( not having told anyone) and then, one night, still wakeful and disturbed, a thought came to me which gave me great comfort, and I quickly fell asleep. It didn't bother me again after that but, do you know? Many's the time I tried to remember what that thought was, and couldn't. Anyway there were no dogs on the Camp and, on enquiry, no one else seemed to have heard it.
At last came our first leave – we had made friends and now had to disperse, never to see them again (Except, in my case, nearly 40 years later, at a WI County 'do' in Dorset, I recognised 'Moreen' who danced on our final evening in Hereford – I still have her Polyfoto with 'remember the Military' written on the back!)
After almost four months, my first leave passed in a dream. Lovely to see my family again and I think they were pleased to see me. My three younger sisters were very rude (as younger sisters often are) and, after taking one look at me in uniform, as one, they shrieked 'what are you wearing underneath?' Up goes my skirt and at the sight of me in 'granny's old-fashioned bloomers, they fell about in hysterics – no dainty petti and little lacy bits of nonsense – there was a war on!
It was a brief time of lovely food (d0n't know how Mum managed it with all the queuing and rationing), seeing friends, some no longer around, having been called up, dancing and flicks with Dorothy, a friend since schooldays and with whom I regularly corresponded all through the war.
Leave over all too soon, and I had to report for duty 'somewhere in London' for my next posting. Having arrived, found they were dealing with an epidemic of some sort and I was promptly ferried back to the station on my own and put on a train for Liverpool, of all places, to join a Holding Company. With my nose pressed against the mucky train window, kneeling on my kit-bag, tears running down my face, I went further and further from the West Country. A black moment for me (for Heaven's sake, pull yourself together Carter!) –so I did!
I didn't see much of Liverpool and didn't like what I did see. Only the great department store, Littlewoods (Lewis's?) that had been neatly sliced by a bomb and all the floors ended in a tarpaulin instead of a wall, but it was business as usual.
I was stationed on the outskirts of the City, a place called Blundelsands, in a large residential house with nothing much to do except collect driftwood from the beach for the Mess fire. I only had one duty to do and that was to drive two Officers to Lime Street Station one night. They knew the way! A thick Mersey fog came down and coming back was another matter! I was quite lost in the miles of Liverpool back streets in the blackout, not to mention the fog! I could hear the tugs on the Mersey and it got thicker and thicker. Then I was flagged down by two angels in khaki, lovely blokes who accepted a lift and pointed me in the direction of the billet. Even before I got there, I heard a handbell clanging – it was our A.T.S sergeant calling Carter home!
Hurrah for cocoa! Two nights later, it was my turn to make cocoa for the platoon, but my name was mud when it was discovered I'd put salt instead of sugar! They very soon got rid of me after that and I was posted to Blackburn to drive a very disagreeable M.O.! He had some kind of weird idea that a female's place was in the home – what luxury – and was accustomed to being driven by male soldiers. When we three drivers were posted to him, the men he'd had were sent straight to a holding depot. (That was the only time I felt that we were actually releasing a fighting solder for duty overseas.)
This was the only occasion when I landed in civvy billets and I was very much spoiled. I spent my first Christmas ever away from home with the Roberts, Mr., Mrs, and Bobby their son who was at college in Manchester. The neighbours knitted me gloves and balaclavas and I had radiant heat for my chilblains. They couldn't have been kinder. I didn't like the North of England, with its sooty grass and dismal little towns. Preston, Nelson and others. I never saw the streets dry, so I applied for a posting further south and eventually found myself posted to Wolverhampton in 912 M.T. Company.
I drive the A.T.S. officer in charge while there, a Junior Commander, Miss Rogerson; ours was a mixed Transport Company and, although we had our own quarters, we worked and ate with the men.
There was a particularly lovely man who, when he was the Guard Commander (complete with dagger and revolver), would come clumping up our stairs at 5.45 a.m. with a jug of lovely hot, sweet tea. 'Wakey! – Wakey!' This was more than welcome because a mug of water placed on the floor by our beds would often freeze overnight in cold weather. Tea was greatly appreciated.
My Junior Commander had one habit that niggled me. She would always take her dog on her lap when I had to drive her – a horrid German sausage dog, 'Winkie' wrapped in a red, white and blue shawl. \it would snuffle on my tunic sleeve, no matter what, and should have been interned. On the mantelpiece in Company Office were a row of little bottles – 'Winkie's cough mixture', 'Winkie's stamina pills', etc., etc. I took a very dim view!
The Blue House
From here, I was posted to a small Military Hospital in Albrighton, about eight miles from Wolverhampton, called 'The Blue House'.
We were a small, contained unit, consisting of the M.O. (Officer in Charge), three V.A.D. nurses, three drivers, R.A.M.C.- Sergeant and ward orderlies, office N.C.O. and orderlies, and a cook, with various minions as kitchen staff. We all lived together in the 'Blue House'-it was called a C.R.S., a Camp Reception Station – small Military Hospital to cope with soldiers who were sick on leave and those in the various units within a certain radius. We were only a couple of miles from Cosford, a huge R.A.F. Station, and where I had to go to fill up with petrol: a funny little A.T. in a sea of blue – I was made much of!
One night, one of their gliders landed accidentally in the cabbage field next to the C.R.S., and we carried out tea for the two airmen standing guard all night and, in return, we were given permission to take advantage of their Garrison Cinema, which was lovely.
We seemed to have had a varied collection of pets at the Blue House- a local farmer gave us a lamb and it would follow us upstairs and down and leap about in the garden, but unfortunately it didn't thrive on our condensed milk and that was the end of that! Metty, our Senior V.A.D .nurse, had a cat called 'Tippet' and we had a communal dog called 'Whiskey',
We three drivers shared a bedroom, the three V.A.D's shared another, and we six had a communal bathroom. The men were in another part of the house and the ground floor was taken up with wards, Company Office, kitchen and our Mess, which was just for the A.T.S. and V.A.D.s- anyone else by invitation only. I had one day on the staff car, next day on ambulance duty and the third day we tidied our Mess and generally loafed about.
I was still not tall enough to drive the ambulance without all four stretcher-pillows, two to sit on and two to push me forward. We covered a considerable area, up into Shropshire; the county was full of soldiers, on leave, on courses and stationed on Ack-Ack ( Anti-Aircraft Gun site), searchlight sites, and our job was to keep them all fit and inoculated. I got very used to this and if the sick parade was large, I would have to dab the men's arms with chloroform while the M.O. came behind with the needle. I had to be ready to side-step neatly, as some of the hunkiest men would keep over a the first whiff of ether and were 'done' on the floor.
From the Blue House two of us took a trip into Birmingham one day, being off duty, just to look around – no coupons and no money. Believe or not we hadn't got very far when I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder and was pulled up by two hefty A.T.S. Provosts (Military Police). One of them stared at me hard and told me she didn't like my hair, whereupon, very quick, I said I didn't think much of hers either – and out came the little black book – OK – name and number – punishment, one week confined to Barracks.
Well, what she was complaining about was that my hair was touching my collar and it's supposed to be two inches above the collar – but I have a very short neck and my hair had been growing for at least 18 months – what can you expect when it had to be wound round a snappy brown shoelace in the prevailing A.T.S. fashion? (Anyway, she had two ridiculous little sausages above her ears, which looked hideous!) I was good and mad; we went back and gave the M.O. the chitty for my punishment, but he was very sympathetic and carried us off to the cinema at Casford for a jolly evening – so much for being confined to barracks! Had I been in a unit where there was a lot of 'spit and polish', it would, of course, have been much harder for me. So, hurrah for the little units!
I spent the summer of 1943 at the Blue House and loved being in the country. The M.O. had to visit some very isolated Ack Ack sites over the Clee Hills in Shropshire and up into Wales. One of our favourite sites was called the 'Crows' Nest', high up on the Long Mynd where we had to attend a sick parade on a very lonely gun site indeed. The views into Wales were wonderful, but it must have been pretty grim for the gunners during the winter.
Our fledgling thrush
Well, the time came when we had to leave the Blue House and go back to Wolverhampton, although this time the staff all went together. The C.R.S at Ford Houses where we were transferred, had had to close down temporarily for fumigation, as all patients and staff came down with impetigo, including their M>O.
Well the Blue House garden was abalza with flowers, which we picked to beautify our new place (something atavistic here?) Several weeks before, we rescued a half-fledged thrush in the garden and proceeded to do all that Mother Thrush would do, and the little thing thrived. It lived in our A.T.S. bedroom in a box with twig perches and came out into the garden, where we would cut back a little turf with a penknife so that he could pick up his own bugs. He was quite tame and would hop at our feet, up – and downstairs, and sit in a tree for his photograph to be taken. We took turns to collect worms in an old Oxo tin and he knew when he saw it that it was 'Grub up'! We resolved to evacuate him to Ford House with us, and having picked our flowers, we filled the handbasin in the bedroom to the brim to keep them fresh and ten minutes later we were ready; sadly, we found our little bird drowned amongst the flowers. He was buried with great ceremony under the tree where we had found him, and we were on our way. R.I.P.
The Ford House
The Ford House was at the end of the trolleybus terminal in Wolverhampton and gave its name 'Fordhouses' to the district. It was a large house and harden in which was a pool, complete with a resident kingfisher.
One day the M.O., Miss Ellis, brought in a little black puppy she had bought in Wolverhampton. The pup had a red harness with an officer's 'pip' one side and the R.A.S.C. badge on the other. Wherever we drive, the pup came too, stuffed in someone's battledress and, because she was a little black baby, we called her 'Piccanin'.
The Royal Canadian Air Force had taken over Wolverhampton Airport, which was not too far from us, and we got friendly with some if the aircrew. One pilot, Bob, used to come over and bring lots of goodies and we'd sit around in the Mess, eating home on toast for tea; but one day, I received a small parcel from him and was told to open it carefully, which I did – and, surprise, surprise! My very first pair of nylons, sent from Canada in a ½ lb packet of tea! Wonderful!
We did have our starker moments – it wasn't all apple-pie. Alma, a driver friend of mine, on a night run in the ambulance with the M.O. beside her, put the ambulance up a bank where the road narrowed suddenly and the M.O. was thrown out and killed and Alma injured. No signs – no lights – these things happened.
I will just say a word about our ambulances – they were Austin K2, desert type, no synchro-mesh hears, and didn't have doors into the cab, just a strip of canvas on a spring about elbow height. Easy to fall out! There were four stretchers inside, in two tiers, and a communicating door into the cab. I well remember bowling along Watling Street, the old Roman road (A5), on my way to the Military Hospital at Shrewsbury, with wind and snow blowing in all over me. This was one of the few times I wore my unlovely balaclava under my hat. Lucky patient tucked up in blankets in the back!
Just a couple of miles down the road from Fordhouses was a dual carriageway, one half taken up completely by our A.F.V. Company (Army Fighting Vehicles). There were amphibians, Brengun carriers, tanks and armour of all kinds, parked neatly all the way to Stafford. These men, if sick, were our responsibility.
One day I was detailed to go there and pick up a sick man and take him to Wolverhampton General Hospital. He was 8th Army, wrapped in blankets and having a bad attack of recurrent malaria, with a temperature over the top. Once at hospital, there was a delay until a porter could be found to act with me as stretcher-bearer, all the porters being fairly elderly. The poor patient was shivering and teeth chattering while dripping with sweat, and I felt very sympathetic. He was very ugly, poor man.
Could I write to anyone for him? Was there anything he needed from the Naafi? No? After telling him he would soon be O.K. and wishing him well, I had to go. Weeks later, waiting for the M.O. at the A.F.V., a very smart Tank Major came up and thanked me for taking care of him. It was my patient!
Was I mortified?! (Could I get him anything from the Naafi, indeed!) Oh well, he wasn't wearing his crown on his pyjamas, was he? Ugly, yes, but with a lot of charm.
There were murmurs while we were at Fordhouse that the house was haunted, and one night we were petrified after waking up and hearing strange noises outside our bedroom door. No one was prepared to get out and investigate – no fear! When they say, your mouth went dry, well that is it exactly! Can you hear it? What is it? Frantic whispering – and a small, dragging sound! Eventually it stopped and we slept. In the morning we found the reason. The cat, Junky, had done a whoopsy on the landing and the inexplicable sound which had terrified us was Junky trying to do the decent thing and cover it up. On the lino?! Scrape – scrape! – Panic over.
But about a week later we (nurses and drivers) were all having a natter in the M.O.'s room ( she would raw medical points with a fork on the tablecloth), when Junky suddenly leapt up onto Doris's shoulder – back arched and spitting, she started fixedly – at nothing! It was quite some time before she could be diverted. We never knew what se saw.
I had an accident while stationed at Fordhouse. It happened like this. I had been to H.Q. at Tamworth all day for a Workshop Inspection on the M.O.'s utility and it was late before I was able to leave and drivce the 15 miles home with Lesley ( an Honourable), A.T.S. Sergeant, who wanted a lift back to Wolverhampton.
It was dark, the weather was very bad, freezing hard, snowing and with fog, but when we got as far as Gailey pools ( a series of reservoirs), the fog was so thick that we had to wind down the windows in order to see anything. There were no nod-cons like de-icers, so we found fog freezing on the windscreen outside and breath inside! It was the only time I had ice droplets in my hair!
Going very slowly, we were hanging out on either side, when suddenly there was an almighty crash – the windscreen shattered and fell in our laps – both doors buckled. Neither of us had seen anything, but when we climbed out, I found I had driven almost underneath a stranded lorry. If it had been a bit bigger, I would have driven under it and out the other side! This happened right outside the Police Station at Coven Heath; white-faced, we stumbled in and found the place full of Yanks who had crashed as we had, ten minutes before, and the lorry driver who had given up because of the weather conditions. Everyone hooted with laughter. That was when they decided to move it up onto the cycle track. I don't know why it sounded so hilarious, but we all had a great time with the Police staff. We were shaken but unhurt, and after mugs of hot tea and sympathy, went on our way, clutching our respective doors! We were only a hundred yards from Fordhouses, as it happened, but I was very glad Lesley had decided to accompany me back. We were expected to keep driving when even Wolverhampton's trolley-buses were taken off!
We both had to attend the inevitable Court of Enquiry, where we learned our 'Tilly' had a cracked chassis, among other disasters, and was a total write-off. After being excused all duties for a couple of days, the matter was closed.
Bright spots and dark ones
In March 1944 I was given a special long weekend leave to come home in order to be a bridesmaid at Dorothy's (my best friend's) wedding. How lovely to get into something pretty and feminine for a change! It was a real war-time wedding with Dorothy lovely in blue and me wearing blush-pink. John and Harry, the groom and best man respectively, both pilots in the Fleet Air Arm, wore their naval uniforms – a very happy interlude for all of us. Prior to this special leave, all leave was cancelled for everyone. It was obvious something big was going on. For night after night we could hear the tanks rumbling past on their way south and in the morning the 'cats eyes' would be lying all over the road.
Our A.F.V.s disappeared overnight and the railways were thronged with troops, all moving south towards the Channel ports. There were no air-raids at this time. Everything seemed to go rather quiet after this and we all hoped it was Mr Churchill's 'beginning of the end'. Something (as the saying goes) was up! D-Day started on June 6th 1944 – we invaded the Continent! – Wonderful!
I was allowed home again for a seven days' leave in August 1944. I remember the date well, because I was with Dorothy on the day she received the telegram –'the Admiralty regrets to announce . . . . . .'– neither of us could believe it and Dorothy was devastated. John had been killed on active service at Scapa Flow in the North of Scotland. They had been married just five months. We would hear of friends being shot down, taken prisoner, missing, presumed killed, but suddenly the war seemed very close to us. I was not much use, as my leave was soon over and I had to go back again to Wolverhampton.
My memory of this time is of odd things that took place and created small bright spots in what had become a rather war-weary world. Like when the girls rushed to find me to say that Yeovil was on the wireless. In this programme they would pick a different town each week and bring the sounds and voices of notable people to listeners. I stood and listened to the bells of St. John's. the parish church where Dorothy had been married earlier that year. I heard the fire-engine bells clanging – with 'Tinker Robbins' Yeovil's well-known fire chief, riding the engine, wearing his bright brass helmet. He was a well-known Yeovil figure. – Oh dear, there goes that homesickness again!
Pat, now a Flt. Lt in bombers, a friend from pre-war days, came to see me one weekend to brighten my darkness. Bribed the M.O. with a bottle of apricot brandy to let him have a bed in the hospital ward. Then took me to hear Joe Loss and his band at the Wolverhampton Hippodrome. (In the odd – da-da-do-do-da-da!) He was always great fun to be with and a laugh a minute.
Although we'd listen to Forces Favourites, Music while you work and ITMA on the wireless, the 6 o'clock News became a 'must' at this time – hearing how the invasion of Europe was progressing. We all felt we had a vested interest.
Our duties became very slack and once again we were closed down and moved lock, stock and barrel to Moseley Hall, only a few miles away. Another C.R.S. – a large mansion in its own grounds with a lake and a woodland full of snowdrops and bluebells in their season. The lake froze over in the winter of 1945 and Piccanin gave us some bad moments by scampering out on the ice where we dared not follow. On cold mornings we would find her and the cat ( Junky) lying in the warm ashes of the Mess fire, both disgusting objects! Piccanin would regularly round up the farmers' cows into one corner of the field – never a dull moment!
Miss Ellis, our M.O. at Fordhouse, was posted down to a large camp at Southampton and, before she left, gave me Piccanin for my own. I had never had a dog before and I was delighted. Our new M.O. was Captain Miller, who had been with us at the Blue House and one morning when I was a bit late, I found him waiting for me in the 'tilly'. I apologised and he said, airily, 'I saw your agent waiting outside your temporary abode,' – which reduced us to giggles and we got on like a house on fire. I knew nothing about dogs and remember asking the M.O. when the pup was going to cock her leg up like a read dog – he laughed his head off, to my surprise, and said 'Joy, she will always sit down like a lady!' – Whoops!
Our cook, Johnny, was from Oxford, a baker by trade, and very occasionally we would wheedle round him to make us one of his 'chequer-board' cakes. This was a glorious confection of brown, pink and yellow squares, much beloved by all of us. One day I was detailed to take the ambulance and drive Johnny to Wolverhampton station to go on leave, with his bicycle and all his kit in the back. When we got there, we were met by three Military Police, who hauled Johnny out, took him into custody and marched him off! (That was the last time I ever saw him.) One Redcap came back to the C.R.S. with me in the ambulance to explain to the M.O. why they had purloined his cook. We were livid! It was much later that we heard Johnny's kit had been searched and Army rations found. The stealing of food in the Army was a very serious offence, and the last we heard of the affair was that he had to do a spell in the 'glass-house' (prison). Goodbye delicious 'chequer-board cake'! It struck me afterwards that the M.P.s were waiting for Johnny at the station, so someone must have shopped him. I never knew who.
I was driving through the narrow lanes, coming back to the C.R.S. one day, when I came upon an old woman carrying a large, shiny brass jug full of water. So I stopped and offered her a lift (strictly against the rules, as we were not supposed to carry civilians). Her jug was so heavy it was a struggle for me to lift it over the back. She was a gypsy, with white hair, rosy cheeks and wearing a spotless blue-and-white overall; we chatted, and about half-a-mile ahead, drawn up on a patch of grass at the junction of three lanes, was a most beautiful gypsy caravan. She told me her husband would have to paint it again in the Spring and, after giving her back her water jug, I went on my way. Well, it so happened I had a quick turn around, as the M.O. had to go out on a call almost immediately-good I thought – I can show him the gypsy caravan, but when I reached the spot, the little grassy triangle was empty. They had gone. No one else had seen them, only me and, to this day, I'm not certain if I dreamed it although, in my mind, I can see her still, in her blue-and-white pinny, with her shiny, brass water jug.
Mac (one of the drivers) and I, after being away on duty all morning, got back into Wolverhampton late and, having missed lunch, we parked the ambulance in Queen's Square and tried our luck in a restaurant. It was 2.30, late for lunch and the meal was not the best, but we were ravenous. When we asked for the bill, however, we were told that a gentleman at a nearby table had paid it, and when we went to thank him, he told us he appreciated what a good job we girls were doing! Well! We thought that was very nice, and stuck out our chests and walked out several inches taller than when we walked in!
People were often very kind to us. While shopping with Eileen, one of our V.A.D. nurses, for material for a housecoat (for her bottom-drawer), I wandered around the shop and spotted some very pretty pink, silky material. So lovely, starved as I was for colour - any colour. Just the thing for a petticoat. Alas, no coupons! Anyway, what would I want with a delicious little pink petti? Under my khaki skirt and over my khaki bloomers? But the lovely man behind the counter asked me how much I needed, and it was mine, with a wink! When the girls made it up, I actually sat for several nights and 'shell-edged' it round the hem. (No lace, there was a war on!)
On another occasion we went to Bridgnorth looking for a café to have some tea, when the name above a shop caught our eye – ERNEST H. PEE! We were convulsed! Poor man! Fancy having a name like that, without having it for all to see over his shop! Thank heavens it was not a teashop – that would have been too much! We did find a teashop, however, and went in; the elderly waitress asked us in a whisper if we would like a boiled egg? Wow! Would we! When she said we could have two –each –we nearly fell off our chairs! Two boiled eggs with soldiers! This was a red-letter day and we talked about it for ages. (You know, eggs – those things that come out of chickens!?) Do you remember that time in Bridgnorth . . . . . . ? Giggle, giggle, yum, yummy!
There were occasions when we used to talk nostalgically about food – just for the drool, really – none of us were gluttons. Doris, who came from Hull, would lovingly describe Yorkshire dishes, and Mac, who came from Dundee, would rave about hot bannocks and oatcakes. I used to tell them about clotted cream, so thick you could spread it with a knife (thin brown bread and butter, raspberry jam, and a big dob of cream on top!) At this time clotted cream was only made in West Country dairies and was sent by post to the rest of England. None of my mates had ever tasted it.
Then someone would say, wistfully, 'Do you remember the taste of oranges?' These were only for babies under five and were brought to this country at great risk by the Merchant Navy. When the sugar bowl in our Mess was empty and the cook said we'd had our ration, a moan would go round – another sugar-boat gone down. We used to have bright-coloured Madeir cake, called 'Yellow peril' and frequent rice for sweet, called 'Burma Road' – I hated it.
Not being a smoker, I used to swap my cigarette ration for another chocolate ration – no, I wasn't a glutton – I used to send little parcels of chocolate to my two younger sisters, both of whom were at College in London. We could get all the well known and loved chocolate bars in the Naafi ( a 2oz block for 2d), but I understand it was difficult for civilians, who had to queue for chocolate, as it was rationed like everything else. All Service personnel had a ciggy ration and a chocolate ration – our perks!
Besides Piccanin, we had another dog, briefly at Moseley Hall. Audrey, one of the nurses, whose parents lived in Wolverhampton (her father was the Mayor), had the family dog for a short visit while they were away. It was sod's law that at this time we were notified of an impending visit to our hospital by a medical bigwig. The A.D.M.S., no less! (Assistant Director of Medical Services.) It was well known that the great man loathed dogs so, after several days spitting and polishing, Audrey and I trudged off for a mile or so and tied both dogs to a tree – and left them! The entire hospital shone – to walk across the polished ward floors, you took your life in your hands – the ambulance stood outside, ready for anything, and looking like the Ritz and with all the stretcher pillows in their proper places. The A.D.M.S. spent most of the day with us, lunching, ambling round and inspecting us and, as soon as his staff car disappeared down the drive, Audrey and I rushed off to rescue our abandoned ones – great cuddles and rejoicing all round. They had been so good and were promised extra rations.
Now, Audrey had a very good, trained singing voice, and taught me to sing some bits in Italian. I didn't have any sort of voice, but was not inhibited and, one day when we were tidying up our Mess together, it being a nice, sunny morning, we leaned on our brooms and warbled 'Santa Lucia' for all the world to hear. When we finished, there was a great round of applause – 'Molto', 'Brava', 'Bene'. We had been so carried away that we had forgotten the male ward was full of Italian P.O.W.s (Prisoners of War). They gave us some singing after that, so perhaps we cheered them up!
In May, 1945, we celebrated V.E. Day (Victory in Europe Day) – first by drinking the medicinal brandy and then pushing off to Birmingham to see the lights, to join the crowds, singing and dancing the Palais Glide with complete strangers – doing the Conga in the Bull Ring but, most of all, enjoying all the church bells and the lights! Every light in the City must have been switched on, and after years of total blackout, it was wonderful – the noise was wonderful – the people were wonderful – I was wonderful – and wouldn't have missed it for the world!
Of course, we eventually came down to earth – there was still a war going on in the Far East against the Japanese. However, in August, the Japs gave up and the war was deally over at last.
Gradually the staff at the C.R.S. were demobbed and short-term replacements sent to us. Then in early 1946, it was my turn. Piccanin and I were going to 'Civvy Street'. First, however, there was a great rigmarole to go through. Piccanin and I pushed off to Leamington Spa where, for nearly three weeks, we kicked our heels in an elegant, shabby Georgian house. I remember we had huge breakfasts at a 'Transport Caff (bacon, egg and sausage between two thick slices of bread)- Yummy!
Then, at last, I was on my way to my demob centre at Guildford in Surrey. A tedious journey with Piccanin, changing trains several times, and the first thing I did when I arrived was to find the cookhouse and hand her over to the cook for food and water. The demob process took all day and was not without interest.
I had sewn many badges and divisional signs to the khaki lining of my leather jerkin (not all of them scalps, I hasten to add) – most were given to me, but they were colourful in a world of everlasting khaki! Finding my way through the camp, I was stopped by a Major, who pointed to his own –div-sign and asked if I had that one – I hadn't, so he got his sergeant to cut it off his battledress with a penknife and gave it to me. It was a mailed fist. I have it still.
Some of our uniform had to be handed back and some we were permitted to buy, but a nasty female N.C.O. in the Q.M. stores took a liking to my jerkin and refused to let me buy it, so I made her wait while I unpicked all my badges. Yes, I was furious. After four years I had become attached to it – like a second skin. I stitched all the badges to my khaki scarf, which the M.O. had given me, and still have it.
The form-filling and procedures took almost all day but, eventually, Piccanin and I were loaded on a truck and driven off to Woking Station – me with my Army gratuity tucked away. £38.00 precisely! I hadn't seen so much money in years! I shall never forget that station! Little Piccanin had been so good all day, but with 15 minutes to wait for our train, it was just too much! She sat down on the platform at my feet to 'spend a penny' – O.K., so I looked into the middle distance and, after a decent interval, glanced down and the tide was still flowing out. The station was crammed with lads in khaki (grins and nudges) and I could feel my face going red – but when I looked again she was still 'at it' and there was a stream like the Thames all down Woking Station. Roars of laughter from the mass of khaki – they were enjoying themselves and, quite clearly, so was Piccanin! The train came in – I got aboard, and my Army career finished, just like that! My 'duration' was over!
Piccanin accompanied me during courtship and marriage, to the birth of my first baby in 1951. When my husband started building a house in the country, she travelled backwards and forwards with him but, sadly, died just before we moved in. She is buried here in the garden, the first of many dogs to be laid there.
Please note, the Private Carter memoirs are for your enjoyment and study but may not be reproduced in any publication without the permission of the author who retains the copyright. Joy Gear can be contacted through the museum e mail.