Wednesday 11 October 2017

Australia's 'Ambulance Girls' of the London Blitz by Deborah Burrows

I decided that my fourth novel would be set in London, and would deal with the experiences of an Australian girl who drove an ambulance throughout the Blitz.
One thing I always do when preparing for a new novel is to trawl though the digitised newspapers on Trove, the National Library of Australia site. It contains digitised versions of most Australian newspapers from 1830 to 2009 and, as usual, it proved to be a goldmine of information I could use in my writing.  
“WA Girl is ARP Heroine” declared the Perth Daily News on 14 May 1941. Perth girl Stella O’Keefe had become the first Australian A.R.P. [Air Raid Precautions] worker in Britain to be presented to the Queen for outstanding bravery in the London Blitz. 
In November 1940 Stella had climbed to the top of a bombed block of flats to rescue a brigadier, his wife and child. The building’s stairways, corridors, and walls had collapsed and the family was trapped on the ninth floor. It was in the middle of the blackout. Nothing daunted, Stella  “coerced” a man with a torch into assisting her and they made the climb in pitch darkness. From the sixth floor upwards they were forced to crawl. At the top she shouted, “Is there anyone there?” and the brigadier (with typical British understatement) answered, “We are all right but slightly hemmed in with masonry.”

Actually they were in the only portion of the top storey that remained, and were surrounded by the fallen roof and walls. Stella and her coerced male helped them to descend, assisting them “across yawning gaps” to safety.
Stella was quoted as saying:
“Other girls at my station have done stickier jobs than this rescue. I am the only driver who so far has not crashed an ambulance into a bomb crater while going to hospital with wounded in the darkened streets. Many times bombs have been so close that I saw the explosion and disintegration of buildings, but the pressure of the job is so intense that there is no time for fear.”
["WA Girl Is ARP Heroine" The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1950) 14 May 1941: 24 (HOME EDITION). Web. 11 Oct 2017 <>.]
I decided that my heroine, Lily Brennan, like Stella O’Keefe, would be a wisp of a girl with a core of steel, who had no time for fear. 

 “Attractive Victorian mannequin” Norma Hosken had left Australia in the late 1930s to work as a model in London. When war broke out in September 1939 she was in America on her way home. She returned to England immediately and drove an ambulance in London during the worst air raids of the Blitz. Eventually she was promoted to the deputy station officer at Berkeley Square, one of four big posts in the London area.

Norma was interviewed by the Australian Woman’s Weekly on her return to Australia in May 1942, and gave a thrilling account of her experiences.
She said: “Men and women worked on an equal footing. ... The only distinction was in pay. Women received £2/7/6 a week, men £3 odd. There were people of all types. The station officer was a former Cook’s tour man, and there wasn’t much he didn’t know about the topography of London. When things were slack, before the blitz, he used to enliven our lectures with all sorts of historical asides about the streets and buildings. There were Oxford and Cambridge graduates, a man who used to run one of the smartest hairdressing saloons in London, peeresses, and working girls.” 
Norma also described the dangers of simply living in London at that time.
“I was walking in Piccadilly, just passing near the Ritz. Bombs were falling and began to sound uncomfortably close. I was thinking it would be a good thing to go home, when something made me fall on my face. I was just in time. A bomb exploded 15 yards away. Only about 10 yards from me people had been standing waiting for a bus. They didn’t drop on their faces.  They were all killed.”
But Norma was nothing if not resilient.
“For all the horrors,” she informed the reporter, “nothing has been exaggerated about the courage of the people of London, nor of their sense of humour. I look back on it all as a grand experience. In fact, I think I had more laughs in those weeks of the blitz than ever before.”
["Came home to help beat the Japs" The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982) 16 May 1942: 14. Web. 11 Oct 2017 <>.]
I decided that Lily Brennan, like Norma Hosken, would get on with all sorts of people and keep a sense of humour despite the horrors to which she was exposed.
The famous Australian soprano Joan Hammond (later Dame Joan) was also an ambulance driver in London. She was the first Australian artist to entertain British troops in the war. 
 [photograph from Wikipedia - fair use]

She said: “When war was declared I joined the women’s Air Force unit, but found when I was called up that it meant four years of flying. This meant it would be necessary to give up my singing. So I compromised and became an ambulance driver, which allows me to sing in my spare time. … I am now replacing opera with old English songs, which the troops appreciate.”
["Sydney Girl Sings For Troops" The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1950) 15 September 1939: 6 (CITY FINAL). Web. 11 Oct 2017 <>.] 
I decided that Lily Brennan would love music.

One article I read described a young Australian woman who managed to avoid the Blitz, but still  have some adventures in her ambulance. Twenty-four-year-old Jean Higgins had left Australia in January 1939 for a holiday tour of Europe, and went to London when war broke out. She returned to Sydney in May 1940 after three months as an A.RP. ambulance driver in “London’s toughest district”. 
She said: “When war broke out I was in London. I enlisted in the Rotherhythe A.R.P. station as an ambulance driver. We were just across the river from the Chinese quarter. Mike Bradley— he used to lead one of the local basher gangs— often used to eat a meal with us. Our ambulances were three-ton furniture waggons— huge pantechnicons. Imagine what it was like for girls to drive them! I ran mine into a tram one day, and the tram came off second best.” 
She reported that her station was wired to A.R.P. headquarters. “When German planes were sighted heading for England a yellow light flashed in our station. Then the girls had to climb into their mackintosh anti-gas suits, grab their gas masks, and drive away from the station. The first time the yellow light went on, I was so excited I drove my waggon half a mile with the brake on. But no bombs ever fell, and I carried only two patients in London —an A.R.P. man with gastric ulcers, and an A.R.P. girl with a broken finger A.R.P. women included duchesses with £20,000 a year, but every woman was paid the same— £2 a week. All the men, from district superintendents to the lowest ranks, were paid a standard of £3 a week.” 
["SYDNEY GIRL WITH A.R.P." Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW : 1911 - 1954) 2 May 1940: 7. Web. 11 Oct 2017 <>.]
I decided that Lily Brennan, like Jean Higgins, would have been on the trip of a lifetime in Europe when war broke out, then return to London to join the Ambulance Service. And that she would hate the fact that women did the same work but were paid less than men.
 [own copy of magazine]
 Another Australian ambulance driver who was interviewed was Marjorie Plunkett. She arrived in England in 1939 and enlisted with the Paddington section of the London County Council Women’s Auxiliary Ambulance Corps, in response to their plea for 6000 women drivers. 
She said: “The ambulance gear we had to wear! The driving test entailed driving with full gas kit on. That meant gasproof oiled silk overall suit, huge double-breasted jacket, trousers which tied under the arms, elbow-length gloves of the same oiled silk — terribly thick, with no finger space — heavy gum boots, the minimum size being six and my size three. I couldn’t even feel the controls at first. Then there was a helmet which fitted like a knight’s visor, covering neck and shoulders, and then a gas mask covering the entire face, and a heavy tin hat on the head. But we got used to it. “When the first air raid warning sounded, half an hour after the war news broke, we were all over the 64 square miles of the metropolis, learning our hospitals. Try learning 2750 linear miles of streets some time! 
["Adventurous Overseas Trip Of Australian Girl" The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 - 1954) 9 June 1940: 12 (WOMEN'S SECTION). Web. 11 Oct 2017 <>.]
I decided that, like Marjorie Plunkett, Lily would have to cope with discomfort, but overcome it to get on with the job. is an amazing resource for any writer of historical fiction set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I really don't know that I could write my novels without it. 
Ambulance Girls is published by Ebury Press. The next novel in the Ambulance Girls trilogy, Ambulance Girls Under Fire, will be out early next year.


Susan Price said...

Fascinating - thank you for sharing your research. I had no idea that so many Australian women served in London during the blitz.

Interesting that so many of them comment - resignedly? Indignantly? - on the difference in pay between men and women. I wonder how it was justified at the time? Or was it not felt to need justification?

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting. It's a curious paradox, isn't it, that it was such a terrible time - but also such an exciting one.