Rarely do I know the exact times of the activities of the American Ambulance but today I do know at least one. 75 years ago, at 10:30 am Mr. Gilbert Carr, Director General of the American Ambulance meets with the Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan to discuss he program and finalise plans for the American Ambulance Stand Down parade due to take place in two days time.
By now, drivers up and down the county will be perfecting their uniforms and some of the vehicles in preparation for their Royal Inspection.
Following on from yesterday’s post, today we look at this letter from the 19th October 1945. In this letter, Director General Gilbert Carr invites the Minister of Health to a cocktail party at a top London hotel after the stand down parade on the 24th October.
Those who saw my previous post will understand how life has got in the way a bit recently and I haven’t posted as much as I would have liked to. However for the next two weeks I’ll be delving into the archives and posting letters, documents and photos exactly 75 years after they were created.
First however I’d like to re cap what has happened since the 1st of October in 1945:
1/10/1945 – The Ministry of Health receive a letter from Major Penn at Buckingham Palace advising the Minister of Health that The Queen could inspect the American Ambulance stand down parade on the afternoon of the 24th of October or the morning of the 25th.
3/10/1945 – After returning from leave, the Minister of Health confirms with the Palace that the 24th of October would be most convenient, suggests a time of 3PM and advises Major Penn that he will send a suggested program to The Queen shortly.
10/10/1945 – The Minister of Health writes to Mr. Gilbert Carr to suggest meeting on the 22nd October to go over plans for the 24th.
Now we’re back on track!
18th October 1945, 75 years ago today – Mr. Summers at the Ministry of Health writes to the Scottish Office asking if the Secretary of State for Scotland would like to add anything to a letter that Aneurin Bevan is sending to Mr. Gilbert Carr giving thanks for the work of the American Ambulance.
Today I thought I’d share a picture, one that now will always hold a special place in my heart. I recently purchased this and a few other photos online. When I received them I scanned them in and started looking through them. On the 2nd of September I sent this photo to my dad, he always loved seeing photos and finding out what I’d discovered about the American Ambulance so it felt only right to send it to him, the next morning on the 3rd of September he replied to my message about it. Sadly, that night he died suddenly, this photo was the last thing we ever spoke about. I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without his encouragement and support, he helped me so much with this project and I will truly never forget all the things he did for me. I only hope that as time passes this can continue to grow and we can keep sharing and discovering the story of the American Ambulance and making him proud.
So, onto the photo. This photograph was taken in July 1940 and shows Ambulance Number One being presented to the American Ambulance by the then American Ambassador Mr Joseph P Kennedy on behalf of Mrs Kennedy who had donated it. Stood beside Mr Kennedy is Mr Wallace Phillips, one of the founders and director general of the organisation.
Stood in front of them are three drivers of the Mechanised Transport Corps. It’s interesting to note all the differences in their uniform, in fact none of them match. The two ladies on the left are likely early recruited to the MTC from 1939, the lady in the middle wears a hat that differed from the standard pattern and is similar to those worn by other female organisations. The lady on the right wears a shoulder title “M.T.T.C” the Mechanised Transport Training Corps, this is what the MTC were originally called before it was shortened. She also interestingly wears crossed flags of a different organisation, it’s likely that they denote she was part of a unit of the MTC who were destined to go to Belgium however were diverted to staff the American Ambulance when it was formed.
This fortnight I thought I’d share another great photo. This photo shows the American Ambulance’s second birthday parade in Hyde Park, London in June 1942. It shows a lineup of first aid posts with their drivers in front of them. Amongst the those in attendance were the directors of the American Ambulance as well as the Minister of Health and American Ambassador.
I’m grateful for Jon Mills for sending me this photo a while ago.
Throughout the war, the number of stations that the American Ambulance used fluctuated quite a bit and different sources give different numbers. I think this is partly because of the fact that the American Ambulance operated from “Sub Stations” as well as their main ones. When I first started this project and indeed wrote my book on the organisation I was under the impression there were 17 Stations. However from a recently uncovered monthly report on mileage to the Ministry of Health from 1945, it shows that in January of 1945 there were in fact 30. These were split into two groups ones run by the Mechanised Transport Corps and those run by the American Ambulance themselves.
Mechanised Transport Corps run stations
M.T.C. HQ (London)
American Ambulance Great Britain run stations
A.A.G.B. HQ (London)
The distinction between normal Stations and Sub Stations is still unclear although this could likely be assumed from the number of vehicles that were at each one. Below is a map showing all the stations, the ones in blue were operated by the American Ambulance and the ones in green by the M.T.C.
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.