Wright Family Album

Doris' memories on her war years

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But the war was calling us. Although teaching was supposed to be a reserved occupation three of us younger ones, Audrey, Janet the cello teacher, and I gave in our notices and left. Audrey and Janet both joined the war office to do office work and I 'trained' as a V.A.D. i.e. had to pass simple exams in nursing and first aid and do 50 hours work on hospital wards. My 50 hours were done at the Royal Berkshire in Reading as I was living at home in Wokingham. The work ranged from doing long bedpan rounds to helping sister treat a dying cancer patient; from washing walls to washing patients. One of my patients was a boy of about eleven and when I was washing his face I was ribbed by the men in the beds nearby for washing behind his ears! Do men never wash behind their ears?!

In the summer of 1941, after a spell of so-called nursing at Bisham Abbey, I was detailed to join the Navy and started work at the Royal Naval Hospital in Chatham. Imagine my surprise on walking past the walls and through the wrought-iron gates to see a white-flannelled cricket match in progress on a fine stretch of lawn in front of the staff houses. Nursing in such a male dominated environment was an eye-opening experience: entering from a sheltered, middle class background into the melting pot of all sorts and conditions of men. Very educational!

After a few months on the wards I was given a short training in the physio department for the purpose of giving ultraviolet treatment in the naval barracks. There, in the Admiralty gardens, an underground system of offices had been built in order to protect the top-secret coding and such-like work from enemy bombing and it was considered that the personnel needed a programme of ultraviolet treatment to compensate for loss of sunlight. I was billeted out with a petty officer and his wife in nearby Gillingham and went every day past the guards to my underground rooms, one for the men and WRENS to undress and the other containing the large ultraviolet lamp in the middle where I gave them their series of treatments. It was an interesting experience but after six months I was fed up with the loneliness of working entirely on my own and asked to be taken back to the hospital.

After a short time on the wards I was sent, as a guinea pig again, on night duty to an isolated building called Zymotics, which was a male only establishment, the nurses being only male sick bay attendants because the patients all had infectious diseases such as T.B. and syphilis. But there was one night sister who did her rounds there every two hours and she had asked for a VAD to accompany her. And that was all I did!

In October 1942 I was drafted to Seaforth Naval hospital in Liverpool, with our VAD digs in Waterlooville. Liverpool being not far from Parkgate in the Wirral I got in touch with Janet's parents. She was my friend from St Brandon days. I used to stay with them for my short weekends (the long ones spent in Templecombe) and often met Janet's mother in Liverpool to enjoy going with her to chamber concerts and to the theatre on a Monday night when free where two could go for the price of one. She and her husband were dears.

At the end of July a handful of us from Liverpool joined nearly a hundred other V.A.D.s to board S.S.Rangitata for a posting to Durban in S.Africa. We and a handful of Army sisters going to India and a few lady missionaries going to China were the only females, the other two thousand or so being troops from various forces and countries. Our first port of call was the Clyde where our convoy of sixteen ships was assembling. Our ship had another on our left and two to our right with a line of four in front and two lines of four behind. Away on the horizon we could see our watchdogs - the naval destroyers. It was an amazing experience. All the ships kept the same distance apart and would turn together, so zigzagging almost across the Atlantic, avoiding the coastal route. It took us five weeks to reach Cape Town. In the tropics it was so hot in our 6 berth cabins, blacked out at night of course, that our leader asked if those who wanted could sleep on deck. The captain gave his permission on condition that we were guarded by a marine! The hard deck and the clump of his boots made sleeping more difficult but to lie awake and gaze on the tropical starry night with the masts lazily swinging against it was totally enchanting; as was leaning against the railing in the day time watching the flying fish and porpoises and at night the phosphorescence made by the ship cutting through the waters.

The naval hospital in Durban that we were bound for was still in the building stage. It was considered to be needed because it was thought that the Japanese would capture Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and so flood the Indian Ocean with their submarines. We V.A.D.s therefore were sent to live in a hotel in the coastal bush a few miles north of the city. There we stayed for three months, sunbathing, sea bathing, and being entertained by kindly local people. Two wonderful holidays stick in my mind. One was at Christmas staying at my King's friend Joyce's farm with her father and aunt  and later, Joyce herself, near Harrismith in the Orange Free State. They advised me to keep quiet whenever visiting the town, even about coming from Durban, a very pro-British city, let alone Britain, Harrismith being a centre of pro-German Boers. Another fantastic holiday later was going with my friends Sheila and Frances by train to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and staying in the Victoria Falls Hotel. It was in July because that is a month when the Zambezi river is not so full that little can be seen for the spray as the river, 1 miles across, plunges into the narrow ravine below, nor so empty that it becomes a small series of trickles. From there we continued our train journey to the Kruger National Park to see all its wonderful wild animals.

1943 S Africa, at friend Joyce's home farm in Harrismith


Durban RN Hospital - 1. TB ward patients   2. Operating theatre staff, Doris Wright standing, 1st left
1.   2.

Canadian Air Force Boy friend Jack seated in middle - proposal rejected, killed in Far East


In November 1944 I received a letter from my mother telling me about Gordon's death on a railway line so I immediately asked for compassionate leave to go home and be demobbed. That was quickly granted and I arrived back in December to a freezing snowy Liverpool and an unheated six hour train journey sustained by a dry emergency food pack but nothing to drink. Then on to Templecombe.

Doris' memories    Doris' reflections on school and college

Basil's memories

David's memories

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