Recently I’ve had quite a few emails from people who had relatives serving in the American Ambulance, this has been fascinating and helps tell the story of what they did. A few weeks ago I had an email from a lady called Jill who’s mother Hilary had served in the American Ambulance in Bristol. I’m grateful to Jill and her brother David for sharing what they remember of her mother’s time with the American Ambulance. I’ve posted below what Jill sent me and have also added Hilary to our “Roll of Honour” page!
Hilary Burges was my mother. She was born in 1911 in London but lived most of her life in Bristol where her father, having been in the RAMC during WW1, was a GP. She enjoyed driving and therefore at the beginning of WW2 volunteered to become an ambulance driver in the civil defence. For a period in the war she was ill and afterwards, having become unhappy in her civil defence job, she was able to join the American Ambulance.
Recruits went through a driving course to correct habits of civilian driving — my mother was of an age that she had got her driving licence without having to pass a test. “Ratchet, Miss Burges!” the instructor would shout when she put on the handbrake without pressing the button to disengage the pawl. They also learnt tips for emergency fixes, such as temporarily stopping minor radiator leaks by adding mustard powder to the coolant water — it worked okay for the low pressure cooling systems of that time.
Signposts were removed during the war, supposedly to confuse enemy agents who parachuted in, so navigation required good map reading skills plus personal knowledge of the routes. Distances travelled could be quite large considering the state of the roads long before motorways or even dual carriageways. It was just possible to drive from Bristol to London and back in a day, although that was unpopular due to getting the sun in one’s eyes both ways.
From what she said, most of her work in the AA was ferrying wounded or convalescent military personnel of various nationalities to and from hospitals or convalescent homes or returning them to their bases. The ambulances were equipped with military-issue blankets which sometimes came with or went with the casualty. The drivers always tried to hold onto the American army blankets which were much superior to the scratchy British ones. At the end of the war when they were discharged they were able to keep the blankets they had in their ambulances. That is why, as a child, I often slept under an American army blanket. While hardly pretty (a brown colour) they were of very good quality and, in fact, better quality than most of the other blankets we had. One of them lasted for years and I “inherited” it after my mother died in 1982.
My mother described her uniform as being similar to that of an officer in the ATS without the insignia. This she found useful when occasionally dealing with awkward patients or, on one occasion,an overly amorous one who wanted to sit beside her rather than travel in the back of the ambulance – in the end he went meekly to the back.
Her patients had been fighting in various war theatres. She never forgot one who had been in North Africa for a number of years and could not get over how green England was. A valley near Bath particularly delighted him and he kept repeating “it’s so green!”
When they arrived at an American base, after discharging their patients, the first port of call for drivers was always the kitchen to see what they could scrounge in the way of food. The US cooks were usually very generous to their British allies. On one occasion however my mother was initially disappointed when the cook seemed rather offhand and merely offered a sandwich. My mother politely said, yes please, and waited for something like the British war time sandwich to appear. But when it came, to her delight, it was filled with a large piece of prime steak – more than a whole week’s meat ration. It did not last long.
Unlike her work in the civil defence, when she had sometimes attended places with bombing casualties, her work in the AA was generally routine and undramatic. But on one occasion when driving some convalescent patients she was passing near an air base when she noticed an RAF bomber in trouble. It was clearly aiming to land at the base but did not make it and crashed in a field just by which she was driving. It caught fire. Leaving her ambulance at a safe distance – she did not know if any bombs were still on board – she ran over to see if she could help followed by one of her more mobile convalescent patients. The wind was blowing in such a way that the flames were being driven towards the front of the plane. She managed to climb in at the back and made her way forward to see if she could help rescue anyone. Sadly it was clear that those still on board (I think two but am not certain) were beyond help so she retreated. As she climbed out the rescue unit from the air base arrived and she was roundly told off for having had the temerity to try to rescue anyone.
Stratton hospital was a frequent place visited so that she got to know many of the staff well. On one occasion not long after D-Day she found the place in turmoil. An army general had arrived as a patient and was upsetting everyone with his demands for priority treatment since he considered himself indispensable to the war effort. He was most displeased with the hospital and kept insisting that he needed a special plane to take him back to France. In the end he was transferred to another hospital to the relief of the staff. My mother wrote this up in a poem (which I have somewhere and will try to find).
One Sunday morning towards the end of the war she was cleaning her ambulance on the garage forecourt. Dressed for the job, with old trousers and top that did not meet properly and her hair tied up in an old scarf, she was far from looking her best. A man rode up on a motor bike. First impressions were not good – he too looked very scruffy with oil on him and she was not impressed that his first question was to ask where he could get petrol – did he not know that petrol stations were rarely open on a Sunday? But they started talking and realised that they had briefly met before. In fact my mother had been at school with his former wife – who had type 1 diabetes and had sadly died of it in 1944. She had even been at their engagement party but had not paid much attention to the then future bridegroom. They agreed to see each other again, fell in love – and in June 1945 they were married. A war time wedding – after VE but before VJ day – and very low key. No bridal finery but my mother was able to buy a new dress thanks to her mother giving her some clothing coupons. My father had not been able to join the forces having smashed up a knee in a car accident before the war so he was a lieutenant in the Home Guard.
The marriage lasted for 22 years until my father died of cancer at the age of 61 in 1967. They had two children – I was born in 1947 and my brother in 1950.
My mother had one particular friend who I think was from the AA – Prue Hosegood – with whom she kept in touch and we saw from time to time. Prue did not marry; she lived with her mother and a large but friendly Alsatian called, like our father, Rex. She was one of our favourite grown-ups when we were children and occasionally babysat us.
Like all her generation my mother played down the work she did in the war. When asked, she sometimes replied. “Oh, I was just in a rather comic corps called the American Ambulance”. But underneath she was proud of belonging to it and pleased that she had served in that way. She kept her AA battledress top with its crossed flags on the sleeve for many years and both my brother and I remember her wearing it – albeit usually for rough jobs like chopping wood – when we were young.