Aspects: Picking Up the Pieces; Ros Dodd Meets the Author Who Has Thrown Light on a Forgotten Female Army of War Volunteers

Article excerpt

Angela Raby's aunt, May Greenup, often used to talk about her wartime service in Blitz-hit London. Only in recent years, however, did her niece sit up and take notice.

"When you're younger, you think, 'what's she going on about'?" says Angela, a retired art teacher from West Heath in Birmingham. "But as I got older my aunt - who was born in Water Orton and lived in the Midlands for 75 years - talked more about her war days and she started to give me odds and ends until, eventually, I had 1,000 photographs, all without names of the people pictured and all muddled up.

"My aunt was an artist and she also had about 1,000 watercolour paintings. She said, 'these will all go on the tip, so would you like them'?"

Many of the paintings and sketches were of Weymouth Mews, the Auxiliary Ambulance Service's Station 39, situated in the heart of London, where May was appointed officer in charge in 1942.

By the time May died in 1998, at the age of 95, Angela was "hooked" on her aunt's wartime memories.

"I felt as if I'd lived through it all in my mind," she recalls. "I went down to Weymouth Mews and discovered it was just as it had been during the war. Parts had been knocked down but rebuilt in the same style."

Over several years, Angela - also an artist like her aunt - meticulously pieced together the work and personalities of the Auxiliary Ambulance Service.

She carried out extensive research and spoke to many of her aunt's former colleagues at Station 39.

The result is a fascinating book, The Forgotten Service, detailing the vital - and hitherto unchronicled - work carried out by the mostly female volunteers.

Wearing twin-sets and pearls until issued with uniforms in 1942, they scoured the bombed-out streets of London in battered vans and trucks, which had been converted into ambulances, to pick up the dead and injured.

Not only did they sometimes put their lives at risk, the job was gruesome and traumatic. The Auxiliaries - of which there were about 10,000 - would often find themselves plucking severed limbs from the rubble and giving emergency medical help to the seriously injured. On one occasion, they walked into a London gentlemen's club where, on government advice, the sash windows had been left slightly open to allow any blast through.

"They were met by the sight of several men sitting in their armchairs, their whiskies at their sides, with their heads blown off," explains 65-year-old Angela.

When her aunt told Angela the story, she did so as if it was a joke.

"She was a sensitive person, but the only way in which she and the other Auxiliaries were able to cope with what they did was to cut off from it completely and laugh about it."

Retrieved limbs would be delivered to refrigerators in Billingsgate Fish Market, "so they could be pieced together", while bodies were taken to the many mortuaries all over the capital.

"The walking wounded might be taken to first aid posts," says Angela. "The Auxiliaries were given medical training, but it was very basic.

"They were taught to deal quickly with desperate emergencies. For instance, if someone's guts were falling out, the Auxiliaries would just put their tin helmets over their stomach to keep the dirt out, and then rush the patients to hospital."

Despite the grisly and courageous work undertaken by the Auxiliary Ambulance Service, the volunteers were awarded few honours and were not entitled to pensions or post-war gratuities. …