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.
We’re saddened to hear that the forces sweetheart, Dame Vera Lynn has passed away this morning aged 103. Dame Vera was one of our country’s most loved entertainers of the era and indeed since and I’m sure will be missed by many. I’ll always treasure the copy of my book that Dame Vera signed for me and even more so now. Our thoughts go to all her family and friends at this time. In the words of one of her most well known songs, “We’ll meet again”.
Eighty years ago today, Mr. Gilbert Carr, Mr Wallace Phillips and five others signed the article of association. In doing so, the American Ambulance got its license from the board of trade, issued on the 14th June 1940. From then until October 1945 they, all the directors and the drivers and officers of the American Ambulance worked tirelessly, doing their bit for the War effort.
Due to the current COVID-19 situation we can’t really do much to celebrate the 80th anniversary of their formation. If you look down below this post you’ll see a special offer for our book with an 80th anniversary bookmark. Please do have a look and support all the work we’re doing!
For this anniversary I thought I’d post this newspaper article which describes how the American Ambulance came into being:
STORY BEHIND THE BLUE – GREY U.S. AMBULANCES
Stationed in every regional area of Great Britain, the large blue – grey cars of the American Ambulance, Great Britain, bearing in a circle the crossed flags of Britain and the U.S.A., have now become a familiar sight. The service is another of America’s gestures to Britain in the hour of need. Financed and maintained by American donations, it is operated under the direction of the Ministry of Health. Behind the foundation of the American Ambulance, Great Britain , with its total strength of 260 motorised ambulances, surgical units and mobile first-aid posts, there lies an interesting story.
In the spring of 1940, the American Society in London met to decide on the nature of the celebration due to be held by American Residents on the Fourth of July, American Independence Day. For 42 years, American residents here have marked their day with a banquet and ball. This time however, a man of medium stature, herculean shoulders, and hair en brosse, got up at the meeting. He had a suggestion to make.
To his mind anything in the nature of a celebration at this period would be out of place for although the Fourth of July was a day set aside by Americans to commemorate Independence Day, it also unfortunately marked a war between America and Britain. The thing to do, he thought was for the Americans who had enjoyed the hospitality of Great Britain to make a worth while gesture of assistance to their foster-country.
The American who made this suggestion was Mr. Gilbert H. Carr, twice Chairman of the American Society in London and at present honorary secretary. From his suggestion grew the American Ambulance, Great Britain with its 260 motorised ambulances, surgical units and mobile first aid posts, for the hurried transportation of complete surgical units to areas where they are most required, and four stretcher ambulances for the transportation of war victims.
Now listen to what the Minister of Health had to say when the American Ambulance, Great Britain was turned over to him: “It is only a few weeks since I was informed that American residents in this country wished to present a number of ambulances for the services of civilian casualties through whatever ordeal lay ahead of the people of Britain. Needless to say, I accepted the suggestion with alacrity. But I did not think then that the offer which was made with great modesty would materialise so swiftly into such a magnificent gift as it has become.
Mr. Gilbert H. Carr is now acting Director General of the American Ambulance, Great Britain but this is only one of this American friend of Britain’s activities. He is honorary secretary of the American Committee for Air Raid Relief, and honorary secretary of the Advisory Committee of the British War Relief Society of America.
Mr. Carr has been helping Britain for years. At the age of 14 he ran away to join the British Army in the Boer War. In 1917 he hurried to the recruiting office when America entered the war and was one of the first officers of the United States Army Expeditionary Force to land in this country. The Great War over, Gilbert Carr came back as a businessman. Although competing for the first time with his British business cousins, he was so well liked by them that he was twice made chairman of the Incorporated Sales Management Association of Great Britain, and is at present President of the London Branch.
Due to the Coronavirus we haven’t been able to plan any proper commemorations for the 80th Anniversary of the American Ambulance, we intend to do something slightly more fitting for the 75th Anniversary of stand down in October but for now, for the 80th Anniversary of their formation we have commissioned some commemorative bookmarks. These will be available on their own or for a limited time you are able to get a special offer. Between the 14th of June and 29th July (when they had their formation parade) you are able to get a copy of our book and a special bookmark for only £5 with free postage.
80th Anniversary Special Offer
Book and Commemorative Bookmark for only £5 with Free UK Postage!
Please enquire for postage outside of the UK.
This day 80 years ago, the Dunkirk evacuation came to an end. While the Battle of France was, in Winston Churchill’s words, a “colossal military disaster”, the evacuation was a relative success with over 338,000 Allied troops evacuated off the beaches and back to this country.
At this time, the American Ambulance didn’t actually exist. Although plans were underway for the start of operations, the Board of Trade didn’t issue them their license until 10 days after the end of Dunkirk on the 14th June 1940. The American Ambulance were fully up and running by Mid July however I know little of what happened in June. I believe that they already had acquired some vehicles and were starting to operate within a few weeks of their incorporation so it is likely that they had some impact on the redistribution of casualties around the country after Dunkirk.
For this weeks Dunkirk related post I thought I’d share one of the items I first put on this blog. This is a Dutch helmet that was given to a member of the American Ambulance by a soldier. They transported this soldier and he was one of many who were evacuated from Dunkirk.
On the helmet the solider engraved
“ A Amoureús Dutch Troops”
This is a lovely helmet with a great story linking it not only to Dunkirk but the early days of the American Ambulance.
About two weeks ago I had a message through the site from a lady called Helene who’s mother, Elise, served in the American Ambulance in Glasgow. Helene very kindly shared what her mother had kept and also wrote a piece about her mother for me. Below is what Helene wrote, under that I’ll include some more of Elise’s photos and what they show.
My mother, Elise Russell-Fergusson (nee Mainwaring), was a driver with the AAGB during WW2, based in Glasgow. I’m uncertain when she joined or when she left, but her reminiscences, shared or overheard throughout my childhood, were testament to the important and lasting impact on her of that experience. Born in Brixton in 1907, she had worked during the 1920s and early 1930s as a successful photographic model, including being the first ‘Kodak girl’ – the life sized cardboard cut-out figure that stood outside chemist shops across the UK, advertising Kodak products. But on marrying my father and moving to Scotland in 1932, she gave up work for domestic responsibility. Although she adored the rural setting where we lived beside Loch Lomond, I think she sometimes missed the bustle and challenge of city life.
That might be partly why she so relished being a member of the Glasgow AAGB. When she talked about the shared billet at 69 Oakfield Avenue and the Otago Street garage where the ambulances were kept, her sense of community, of shared purpose and of fun was palpable. Compared to her previous environment of fashion and frivolity, the AAGB valued her practical capacities, her determination, sense of responsibility and courage. As for many women, wartime brought her a chance to develop and perhaps reclaim and enjoy her independence. Joan Goddard was in charge of the group and mum’s memorabilia includes mention of Joan as well as two very droll poems penned by a Kay Pickford. The AAGB women serviced and maintained their own ambulances. There were several oily stories. Much to her embarrassment, mum was summoned one afternoon from under her vehicle, filthy from changing the oil, to drive a rather good looking visiting officer to an important appointment. Sandra, a short, fiery Canadian with the wickedest laugh you ever heard, who became a life-long friend of my mother and whom I called ‘Auntie Sandra’, would retell the story of rushing onto the parade ground to salute a dignitary and ‘going arse over tit’ in a pool of oil at his feet. Yes, their language was ripe at times, and the laughter fulsome. Sandra would come from Sussex to stay for a few days and they would sit together, smoking and laughing. I should have listened more attentively. I never heard of the exhaustion, the distress and the pain of working with so many injured servicemen and women which must have been as much part of their lives as funny anecdotes and the intermittent boredom of waiting to be called out. I never heard Mum speak of specific callouts although, often, she was allocated the run to London to collect wounded patients bound for Scotland. Mostly, I heard these reminiscences during the 1950s when, bundled with a pillow in the back seat, she drove me down the A1 to visit my grandparents. She never spoke of the patients themselves but would regularly point out the myriad side roads leading to wartime hospitals and convalescent homes which she had visited, hernostalgic memories still fresh. She had mixed feelings about those AAGB journeys, driving cautiously south through the blackout looking forward to seeing her parents yet fearing what she might find. Was she in London during the Blitz? Or called to Clydebank during the Blitz? I don’t know. Researching a library archive relating to an aunt recently, I admitted my shame to the librarian that I had never thought to ask pertinent questions when the aunt or her siblings were alive. That’s how it goes, the librarian replied, so many people kick themselves for not taking an interest earlier. While I might be forgiven for not pursuing such questions as a child, why didn’t I talk with mum about the AAGB when I was in my 30s, 40s, 50s? However scant our memories, it seems important that we share them when we can. The young registrar, when I was registering my mother’s death in 2004, asked me what had been her occupation. I hesitated. Since the war, mum had never ‘worked’, not paid work, anyway. The registrar didn’t hurry me. Then my daughter piped up, ‘Nan was a model, wasn’t she,mum? And she drove an ambulance during the war.’ ‘Shall I put that down?’ asked the registrar. ‘Yes please’. ‘And what about her mother?’ asked the registrar, ‘so often, people don’t record women’s occupations yet it’s important.’ And so we pondered my grandmother’s life as well. Afterwards, despite it having been such a sad occasion, I felt a little cheered. It seems that modern registrars are ensuring that women’s contributions to life, to community, to society, are being recorded more thoughtfully than before.
Below are a few other bits Helene sent over to me.
A poem written by one of the drivers, Kay Pickford.
A photo with a newspaper clipping that shows the Duchess of Gloucester inspecting members of Glasgow Station, here the drivers are stood in front of “First Aid Posts”.
There’s another photo is an inspection showing mainly “Ford CLARA” ambulances with a two “Ford R.O.I.T” ambulances in the far end of the photo. I can’t make out anymore registration numbers however can tell that the nearest ambulance in this photo, GGP 414, was donated to Grantham Hospital at the end of operations.
A letter, attached to Captain Joan Goddard at the Oakfield Avenue billet, commending the work of two drivers of Glasgow Station.
Finally we have a two year service certificate, also to Captain Joan Goddard, this design differs slightly from the ones that were issued from around 1943. Helen isn’t sure why her mother had Joan’s certificate, maybe she gave it to Elise to keep safe with her collection of AAGB paperwork.
When I first wrote this post four months ago we were certainly living in different times, today was of course due to be a huge celebration. With the bank holiday moved, the whole country was set for a great celebration however sadly, for now, that must be put on hold.
For VE Day I thought I’d post a copy of a letter sent by the American Ambulance shortly after the 8th of May. From January 1945 financial responsibility for the American Ambulance had been taken on by the Ministry of Health after the British War Relief Society of America finally stopped funding the organisation at the end of 1944. When financial responsibility was taken on by the Exchequer it was decided that the organisation would be funded for three months following the end of hostilities. The below letter was sent by the American Ambulance to Mr Ainsworth at the Ministry of Health with the intention of setting a firm stand down date, it was decided that they would stand down on the 15th October 1945. This date was extended to the 31st of October as the Queen had limited availability to inspect a stand down parade at Buckingham Palace.
I hope that whatever you manage to do or wherever you are you can have a good VE Day commemoration. I thought I’d leave you with a poem, written for the original celebrations that were due to be having to commemorate the anniversary!
A TRIBUTE TO THE MILLIONS
Let us remember those who so selflessly gave their lives at home and abroad, whose
sacrifice enables us to enjoy the
peace and freedom we have today.
Let us remember those who came home wounded, physically and mentally, and the friends and family who cared for them.
Let us remember those who returned to restore their relationships and rebuild their working lives after years of dreadful conflict and turmoil.
Let us remember the families that lost husbands, sons and sweethearts.
Let us remember the servicemen, merchant seamen, miners, brave civilians and others from Commonwealth and Allied countries – who fought, suffered and died during
four years of war.
Let us remember those in reserved occupation and the brave people who
kept us safe on the home front – the doctors and nurses who cared for the wounded, the women and men who toiled in the fields, those who worked in the factories, who all played such a vital role
in the war effort at home.
During this time of lockdown due to the coronavirus, I’m sure many are finding themselves shut at home with not a lot to do. Well I thought that this fortnight I’d do a post of a couple of good articles and books that you could read if you’re stuck at a loose end!
1. – Model Collector April Edition
I put this first as it’s only around for a limited time. If you’re in the UK and pop out to shop for your essentials why not pick up a copy of “Model Collector” magazine, there’s a great article in there about an organisation called the American Field Service. The AFS were instrumental in helping provide the vehicles of the AAGB in the early days and the logistical side of setting up and running the organisation. The article mentions the AAGB and the author of it , Graham, has also written a complete article about the AAGB which hopefully will be published soon.
2. – Women In The Second World War
For those interested in the subject, this book published by Shire Publications in 2018 and written by Neil Storey and Molly Housego, gives a really good overview of women and their roles in the Second World War. There are 64 pages of fascinating photos, posters and web researched text, the AAGB even gets a brief mention on page 12!
3. – Helmets on the Home Front
This recently published book by Adrian and George Blake, is probably the best written and most comprehensive guide on the subject that we’ve ever seen! It’s a huge book that covers everything from types of helmets and different makers as well as many different markings found on them. There’s a brief section about the AAGB in there and their use of the famous steel helmets. These books are of a limited print run and are priced at £65 but are more than worth it, a fantastic book that is a must have for any collector of helmets or just someone interested in the Home Front!
In the current climate, where all that we’re faced with is doom and gloom, I thought this week I’d post a photo up that will hopefully bring out some smiles. This is America the duck, the station mascot of (we think) Lambeth station. This Photo was taken on Stanstead Road, London in 1940. We’ve re coloured the photo to give it a bit more character!
We were lucky to find this beauty for sale a few months ago, listed incorrectly. This is an extremely rare Mechanised Transport Corps jacket. It’s very small indeed but has a nice set of buttons on it, I have seen photos of a member of the AAGB seconded from the MTC wearing one of these with an AAGB arm badge on. I’ve not been able to find another example of one of these anywhere so it’s a nice piece to have, this goes well with the MTC skirt that we got six months ago from someone who served in the AAGB.