This week’s guest blogger is my mother Kathleen Walker who passed away in December 2016. One of the things she left for me was a school exercise book containing a short memoir in 22 pages covering her childhood and her life in the army up to 1945. There were also some pictures of her and her army friends in the various photo albums she passed on to me. As as bloggers do, I thought that the pictures and a selection from the text would make a good blog post. I have corrected a few grammatical errors here and there and added a few explanations (in brackets.) but all the words which are not in italics are hers.
I was 18 when war broke out, I remember the Sunday morning when we were all sitting around the radio and we heard Mr. Chamberlain. I was seeing a boy who was at Chester College and he talked about leaving and joining up, he didn’t go right away but he did eventually, I often wondered what happened to him.
We didn’t have a great deal of bomb activity in Chester but one day on the way to work the pavements were thick with glass, all the show windows were out, it seems a land mine had landed somewhere near and the blast had caused the damage.
I used to teach Sunday School at Christleton and our teacher Miss. Catherine Day told my friend Ruth Gagan and I about Red Cross classes, so we both went and did first aid and later Home Nursing, just in case we needed it. Mr. Heath, the policeman told me about a job in Civil Defence, it was in the Regent Centre manning the telephones. There were eight of us and we worked shifts. All the other people who worked there were volunteers, by day they were people who worked in Council offices and the younger people were called messengers (on bikes). They were more my age I was the youngster in the office.
When I was 21 I joined the ATS. I had been itching to go, my brother Charlie joined up at the beginning. He was a driver so he was in the RASC. I did my initial training in Lancaster and after six weeks learning all about the Army I did my signal training where else but Corps School, the Firs, Chester. Some of the girls I met here were my friends for the rest of my army life. After our training we were posted to Woolton on the outskirts of Liverpool. We were stationed at 33rd Brigade, Carsacres Camp. We were to take over from the men in the ops room. The men were being posted to North Africa.
We lived in huts twelve to a hut and we split up into three reliefs and did shifts 2-5, 5-10, 10-8, we all worked together, lived together and spent our off duty together so it was essential for us to get on well with one another as we did.
In the ops room we signal girls manned all the communications and plotted the planes form Preston, while the RA girls plotted from the radar. We also had people in from the Fire Service the SNO (Senior Naval Offices) and the industrial Alarm people (they were on 24hr duty and worked shifts like us. They were there to inform the factories about the raids). They were civilians all retired gentlemen, one was a retired Chief Constable and one a retired factory manager. The SNO man didn’t come as often but (Uncle Bob) the fire officer used to do his stint and he was a good friend. We used to leave out coats outside the ops room and so did the other people. Uncle Bob used to say to me “have a look in my coat pocket when you go out” there would be a bag of chocolates Cadburys Misshapes, enough for a couple each for all the hut.
[Mum second from the left]
We were only there about a month when the men were posted, the Coporal in charge stayed on for a few days and he had heard from the lads, they were in Ireland and one of them Les Powles asked the Corporal to ask me to write to him, everyone wanted someone to keep in touch. I hadn’t been out with him but we had always been friendly and he lived in Liverpool, so I suppose I would be a link. We kept in touch for the next three years, all through his time in North Africa and Italy. Strange isn’t it? Pen pals for all that time and I never saw him again, he wrote to say he had met someone in Italy and that’s when I stopped writing.
I got my first stripe after the lads left and was put in charge of the relief and three weeks after I got my Corporal’s stripes. It was while I was in the army my Dad had an accident and broke his femur, it was a very sad time for me as my Dad was very dear to me, he had been Father and Mother to me most of my life and I could only see him on my 24hr pass, once I and Jean Blower (another Chester girl) came over on our late pass, we had to be back at camp at 2359, we met on the Market Square and caught the last bus to Birkenhead and the last ferry to Liverpool. We missed the last tram to Woolton and caught one to the now famous “Penny Lane”. This was halfway to camp and we had to walk the rest, it was winter and the frost was on the ground and I remember the noise our shoes made on the hard road. We made it to camp a bit late but we sneaked in and no one was any the wiser.
My Dad was tough and recovered and was able to ride his bike and tend his allotment. It’s from him I get my will power, which I will need a little later.
Has there been a time in your life when you found your niche in life? I found mine in the army, I loved the life, the discipline the comradeship, everything. I know it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it was mine. I made some very good friends, two still remain.
We had some Signal outposts around Liverpool and I was sent to one, in charge of the signal group, we were attached to 70 Brigade and I remember the RA officer was not very happy because he was not in charge of us. It was a good camp we were stationed at Croxteth Hall (the home of Lord and Lady Derby, they still had most of the hall, we had an annexe).
My room, which I shared with my Lance Corporal, was at the top of the house, it was originally the servants quarters. I was there for three months and then returned to the 33 Brigade where I had a new relief of girls. I must mention that at one time our office was Miss Beryl Nield, she came from Upton and was the twin of Sir Basil Nield a judge of the rolls and later MP for Chester. She was a very fair although strict officer.
We didn’t see a great deal of activity as most of the bombing seemed to be over but Liverpool had had its share and some of the streets just not there anymore and there were ruins everywhere.
We used to have exercises to keep us in trim, our ops room controlled all the gun sites around the area as far away as the Wirral. We had a teleprinter which was in direct contact to Preston (where we the signals received our news of aircraft in our space). I had a friend in Preston and we sometime exchanged messages over the TP (not allowed of course).
When we were on nights it was my job to wake the girls who were on duty in the cookhouse. Imagine this; pitch black, no lights in the camp and me walking the length of the camp (with a jug of tea). I always work them with a cuppa and I had to make sure I didn’t waken anyone else in the hut.
One thing you learn in the army, never get on the wrong side of the cooks. The food I suppose was alright as far as it went, but when I came out of the army it was a long time before I could even look at a sardine. Guess what? When we had beans on toast for tea it was a treat. The three months I spent with 70 brigade was a different kettle of fish as regards the food, it was excellent, why every camp couldn’t have been the same I will never know.
My friend Joyce lived in West Hartlepool and when she went on leave a few of us used to go to the station to see her off. ATS girls were not allowed to travel at night on their own, if Joyce had to wait until the next day to travel, the journey would not be as good and she would spend the whole day of her leave on the trains. So what we used to do we would all go into the canteen on station and watch where the MPs were and smuggle her on to the train when they were otherwise engaged, it always worked.
I enjoyed my time in the ATS very much. I was due to go on a Sergeants course to Durham so my leave had been put back, however the course was cancelled. While waiting to go, on one of our days off we decided to go to West Kirby where we were told there was a swimming baths, but when we arrived we found it was closed, so not to be outdone we went for a paddle in the sea and I think for me this is when misfortune struck. I will tell you why later.
I went on leave and this is when I was taken ill, my sister-in-law Sarah and I went for a ramble across the fields and coming back I could hardly put one foot in front of the other I felt so weak. That night at home I was in dreadful pain, every muscle in my body ached, I couldn’t sit, lie down or walk about for the pain. In the morning I went to see the doctor (my doctor had been called up and was a prisoner of the Japanese). The doctor I saw didn’t seem to be sure about what I had and said it could be sciatica and to report to the MO when I got back to camp. I was due to go back the next day, my Dad didn’t want me to but I being me was determined to get back and by this time I wasn’t walking very well.
I caught the train to Rock Ferry and changed to the underground. I didn’t sit down because I thought I would never get up again. At the station there is a very steep flight of steps and I shall never forget the porter (a little lady) who helped me, I put my arm round her shoulder and she fitted under my arm she was so small and she got me to the top and then went down for my kit bag. The bus stop was about 80 yards from the station and she asked a chap who was going that way to carry my bag and give me a hand, which he did. At the bus stop I met another ATS girl who had been on leave, she was from my camp Laura Magneson. She rang the camp and the sent a Tilly for us.
I went to bed in my hut, the MO came and I was take to the local medical centre and from there what do you know I went by ambulance back to the Mostyn Hospital in Chester. This hospital was a war time structure and was wooden built in what was called spider. There was one long corridor and all the huts, reception, x-ray, operating theatres and physiotherapy went off either side, all huts. And the wards were the same, one side medical the other side surgical. There were just two female wards and they were at the very end.
There were 12 beds in the ward and I was nearly always the only one confined to bed, so people congregated around my bed and we sewed and knitted (when we could get wool) it was scarce like everything else. As it was a military hospital it was run as such and Doctors and Matrons rounds were very strict, I had a cage on my bed to keep the covers of my leg and we would be sewing etc. up to the last minutes of rounds and had the doctors looked under my cage they would have seen all the makings of whatever was on the go. All the beds were neat all white sheets and counterpanes. The Sisters and Nurses were great some were Red Cross and some St Johns, the sisters were military.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I was put in a room adjacent to the medical ward and in the next few days I saw more doctors than most people see in a lifetime. They made me a half cast plaster leg so that it could rest in it, I had a lumbar puncture and they then seemed satisfied what my illness was, I still didn’t know, and after I was moved into the main ward I asked one of the other patients to have a look at my chart, it said Poliomyelitis, never heard of it, but it turns out that we knew it as infantile paralysis and strangely enough that was what Dorothy Enion (the girl whose family I lived with when I was nine) had the same thing but she had it as a baby. It’s a virus that enters the body and attacks the nervous system, one Sister in physio told me that it all depended at what place on the spinal column it rested as to where and how much you could be paralysed, with me it was my left leg.
I knew in my heart of hearts that this would change my life, I was devastated but didn’t dare show it. My Dad used to come to see me every week and I had to keep a brave face on it. I know now that I am a survivor and the will power I talked about earlier would see me through.
A road ran past our ward as we were at the end and we used to see people going past and one was a high ranking German Officer under guard but taking exercise, he had the black jack boots and very long overcoat and was always accompanied by an officer with a couple of guards at a distance. That was the only German soldier I ever saw.
I used to have physio every day heat and massage. We had concerts in the evening and I used to go in sort of wheeled bed not a chair, we had a concert at least once a week and that helped pass the time. After I had been in hospital a few weeks a friend of mine Joyce England arrived she had I think it was kidney trouble, so nice to see a friendly face. Lots of people came to see me as Chester was my home town and my friend Joyce Wood (as she was then) came almost every week and the way she travelled, once on the back someone’s motorbike and once in a police car with a prisoner in the back, she was a real trouper.
[Mum seems to have had several friends called Joyce, I must have been a popular name then. I think the woman is one of them, photographed behind the family home]
Mostyn Hospital was only a reception hospital and three months was the limit for anyone, I arrived in late August and in early December I was moved to Winwick, the army had the annexe of Winwick Asylum, we just had one women ward and once mess. When I entered the ward I couldn’t believe it, I had come from a pristine ward white everywhere. What did I see counterpanes of red and blue and things very haphazard, I soon found it was very friendly and not at all like the place I had just left, very easy going. I was to spend the next five months here.
In our ward we had military personnel on one side and civilian on the other, a consultant (Mr Kerr) had some of his patients moved from Liverpool because of the raids, they were all people suffering with brain tumours, some were small children and it was very upsetting. One little boy about six years old used to sit on my bed and chat, I had knitted a soldier for one of my nephews and this little boy wanted one. All the time I was knitting it he used to say to people who came to talk to me “Don’t bother Kathleen she’s knitting me a solider” when I finished it he slept with it every night.
[I remember a knitted figure of a woman in an ATS uniform which must have dated from this period which sat in a cabinet in the living room. I believe Mum eventually gave it to the daughter of one of her friends called Joyce.]
[Not necessarily the same Joyce]
This hospital was far more easy going than Mastyn, the staff were ordinary nurses and sisters no military. I used to have physio every day with exercises and one day three months after I had been taken ill my knee lifted slightly on its own and that was when I started to get the use back in my leg, it was very gradual and I didn’t ever expect to get the full use. The grounds around this hospital were lovely, the mental patients used to walk around and some of them were quite normal. One used to come into the ward to see if we wanted any shopping, his name was Johnny and he was allowed out in fact he used to so say to us, he had something we didn’t (it was a certificate to say he was sane). He could have gone home but he didn’t have a home to go to and no family. After seeing some of the people there it made you very thankful for everything even if you had troubles of your own.
I was friendly with everyone but I had two special friends both my age. Beryl was ATS and she came from Winwick, can’t remember what she was in for but she wasn’t confined to bed. The other one was Marion she was a land army girl and whilst working on a farm a cow kicked her between her shoulder blades and later it caused a tumour and she was paralysed from the chest down, Mr Kerr operated and removed it and she recovered completely, in fact a few months later I went to her wedding.
That year 1945 the spring was lovely, we used to sit outside in the sun, I was making a pegged rug (a wool one) it all helped to pass the time. I had plenty of visitors my Dad came once a week and my sister-in-law Mary used to come and bring my youngest nephew, he thought that was where I lived. Quite a few of the girls from camp came to see me and those that didn’t sent me letters and at Christmas I had lots of gifts from the girls.
My uncle George passed away while I was in hospital (he was the uncle I lived with after my mother died) and we had always been pals. My Auntie Em and Cousin Martha came to see me and tell me all about it. My Uncle George came through two wars unscathed he was in the Grenadier Guards and was in the Boer War and the 1914-18 war.
I progressed quite well and I came out of the hospital in May 1945 and was also discharged from the army.
The narrative ends abruptly there. I don’t know if she planned to write more about her post war life. She might have intended simply to get the facts straight about her life in the war for me and my family. Either way I’m very happy to have the memoir and share some of it now.
I’ve left out a section about Mum’s childhood. When I read the whole thing I am conscious of how Mum had a number of difficulties in her young life which she had to overcome and how her life could have been very different if not for circumstances. I had a happy childhood on the whole in which I was unaware of the hardships my Mum and Dad had overcome to give me that life. Thank you to both of them.
Thanks also to my son Matthew for copying the handwritten narrative into Word.