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.
The British War Relief Society was an umbrella organisation that provided humanitarian aid to Great Britain from subscribers in the United States. Their work focussed on providing non military items such as food, clothing and medical supplies that were to be used on our home front. The BWRS also almost entirely funded the AAGB up until the 31st December 1945 when financial responsibility for the organisation was taken on by The Exchequer due to the BWRS pulling out (the politics behind that move will be explained further one day in a very big post as it’s fairly complicated!!). Between July 1st 1940 and June 30th 1944 the BWRS donated £468,737 15s 2d to the AAGB. That’s about £26 million in today’s money! To raise founds for the AAGB and all the other causes they funded they relied on donations, special events and merchandise. One such example of this is this beautiful Cartier badge, we can’t find many details about this particular badge but are sure it was one of their more premium badges!
Around a year ago now I was contacted by someone who was looking into the story behind a lady who served in the AAGB. Sadly I couldn’t provide any service records however I was sent these two lovely photos. One Shows Bette in her MTC uniform with AAGB arm badge clearly on display, the other shows her sitting on the bonnet of a “Ford Clara” Ambulance – GGP421 Amb.75, while I’m not sure exactly where she served I now believe it to be either Swansea or Cardiff as the Ambulance she is sitting on was donated to a north wales hospital after the war.
By the end of the war, the AAGB were headquartered at 44 Lower Belgrave Street, SW1 however for most of it, their headquarters was 9 Grosvenor Gardens, SW1. We’d long wondered what the links to these buildings were but now we’ve found one, as to why they were headquartered at 9 Grosvenor Gardens.
In 1907 a Scottish entrepreneur, unable to get financial backing in the UK took the idea for a portable fire extinguisher to the US and, in 1909 set up the Pyrene Company of Delaware. In 1914 an American businessman Mr Wallace B Phillips, set up a British offshoot based in Great Queen Street, London. In 1918 the office of Pyrene, an ever expanding company moved and they set up in 9 Grosvenor Gardens, London. While their manufacturing was based elsewhere it seems for a long period they had their main office there.
I often credit Mr Gilbert H Carr to setting up the AAGB but there was another key player in its formation, someone who was also a member of The American Society in London – Mr Wallace B Phillips. Mr Phillips played a key part in setting up the AAGB and running it in the early years so it makes logical sense that they used his offices.
They moved to 44 Lower Belgrave Street in March 1945, the reason for that still remains a mystery for now however it was fascinating to find this link to their first headquarters.
Bellow are some photos of a Pyrene Extinguisher, the building in question, a Pyrene advert and an AAGB ID card with the address on!
Once again that’s another year gone and what a year it’s been, unfortunately around this time a year ago we lost a great friend, Ray, but his enthusiasm and belief in what we were doing has lived on. We’ve gained quite a few more original items and photographs and learned so much more about the AAGB. 2020 is set to be a big year of change for us, there are lots of things in the pipeline which include; possible magazine articles, an all new and improved website, some money for advertising to keep promoting the history of the AAGB and we’re putting the finishing touches to a package we can use at talks to history groups and schools etc. I hope you will join us on this journey, it seems crazy where this project has come from the start in 2016. I’d like to thank all of you who have helped us so far and hope you’ll stick with us into the future. Just a reminder of the items we have in our shop, or the ability to donate via PayPal.me/aagb1945 what we do and are going to do isn’t free however that doesn’t mean we’ll stop, we’ll always carry on but if you want to support us that would be great! Also if you have anything at all related to the AAGB, MTC or FANY that you’d like to re home or share then please drop us a message to discuss. Have a great Christmas and I look forward to 2020.