The Flying Nightingales

The following information has been kindly provided by Kara Neave, a much respected source regarding these remarkable women of WW2, their first flight leaving from RAF Blakehill on the 13th June 1944   We have both supported each other in our relevant research and we welcomed both Kara and her husband Paul to a tour of RAF Blakehill and the sick quarters site for the first time in 2017.

Kara's Story

As a member of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Re-enactors, the official re-enactment group to the flight, I was struggling to decide what to display and represent at events. It was the story of Lydia Alford that first drew my attention to this group of little known women and inspired me to write the book, "A Nightingale Flew."

 

An ex Sgt in the Royal Air Force, I spent 14 years serving my country, in various places, however I (thankfully) never came into contact with the conditions these women endured. As a re-enactor I try to educate members of the public and fellow re-enactors who may not have heard for these women or what they did. Since setting up the Facebook page and writing the 1st edition I have found three Nightingales alive today, Lilian West, Edith Joyce and Marge Wilson, and had the pleasure of talking to two of them and the family of another.

These amazing women inspire me to continue my research and write the 2nd edition which I hope will be out by Dec 2017.

A Nightingale Flew is available as an e-book or paperback on Amazon. All proceeds from sales of the 1st edition are donated to RAFA.

You can order your copy by clicking the book cover here;

A Nightingale Flew

“If any good can be said to come of war, then the Second World War must go on record as assisting and accelerating one of the greatest blessings that the 20th Century has conferred on Man – the huge advances in medical knowledge and surgical techniques. War, by producing so many and such appalling casualties, and by creating such widespread conditions in which disease can flourish, confronted the medical profession with an enormous challenge – and the doctors of the world rose to the challenge of the last war magnificently”. - Brian J Ford.

In the days and weeks after D Day the powers that be realised very quickly that the medical provisions in Normandy were not able to keep up with the masses of injured men arriving on their doorsteps. Something needed to be done, these men needed care, some of which they could only receive in the UK. Medical advances had been swift during WW1 and were gathering pace again. Blood transfusions, skin grafts and mass produced penicillin, just a few of the things we take for granted today, could not be performed in the middle of a French field with little to no supplies. It was decided these men required evacuating, and despite being something of an experiment, on 13th June 1944 three Dakotas took off from RAF Blakehill Farm in Wiltshire, escorted by a squadron of Spitfires. They landed in Normandy at the airstrip at Bazenville near Bayeux, a fairly new airstrip. Once the supplies had been unloaded from the aircraft 14 casualties and some sitting wounded were loaded on. On each aircraft was a WAAF Nurse and they tended to the needs of these men on the return flight. They became the first women to fly into an active war zone on active service by the British Government. They paved the way for further medical evacuations and became an overnight sensation with the media who gave them the nickname The Flying Nightingales.    

 

Below - Myra Roberts, Lydia Alford and Edna Birkbeck in battledress, Mae West Lifejackets and parachute harnesses. The Red Cross armband is worn for press purposes.

Full scale evacuation operations began on 18th June 1944 when 11 Dakotas were sent to Normandy. They landed at Beny-Sur-Mer and were loaded with 183 men. They were followed by a further 90 three days later. By the end of June, 1092 stretcher cases and 467 walking wounded had been evacuated from Normandy. These women offered lifesaving treatment, keeping the men alive so they could receive the operations and procedures they needed to keep them that way. As aircrew they received an extra 8 pence a day flying pay, and on the days they flew they were allowed an orange, two packets of chewing gum and a barley sugar, all luxuries. The first three women to go were Cpl Lydia Alford, LAC(W) Myra Roberts and LAC(W) Edna Birkbeck from RAF Blakehill Farm, followed later by many others. In total over 500 women would volunteer for the role evacuating over 100,000 injured men from Normandy. With little more than bandages, morphine and cups of tea they kept these men alive.

Full scale evacuation operations began on 18th June 1944 when 11 Dakotas were sent to Normandy. They landed at Beny-Sur-Mer and were loaded with 183 men. They were followed by a further 90 three days later. By the end of June, 1092 stretcher cases and 467 walking wounded had been evacuated from Normandy. These women offered lifesaving treatment, keeping the men alive so they could receive the operations and procedures they needed to keep them that way. As aircrew they received an extra 8 pence a day flying pay, and on the days they flew they were allowed an orange, two packets of chewing gum and a barley sugar, all luxuries. The first three women to go were Cpl Lydia Alford, LAC(W) Myra Roberts and LAC(W) Edna Birkbeck from RAF Blakehill Farm, followed later by many others. In total over 500 women would volunteer for the role evacuating over 100,000 injured men from Normandy. With little more than bandages, morphine and cups of tea they kept these men alive.

Cpl Lydia Alford recalls her training;

“Within weeks of applying, I was sent on an intensive air ambulance training course at RAF Hendon. This included instruction in the use of oxygen, injections, learning how to deal with certain type of injuries such as broken bones, burns and colostomies, and how to cope with the effects of air travel and altitude. When I had completed the course I was posted to RAF Blakehill Farm, near Cricklade. The training continued with a ‘brush up’ course at the RAF hospital at Wroughton, dinghy drill in the swimming pool at Bath and several hours of flying experience often on glider exercises.

 

These were pretty terrifying, as they were carried out with the cargo door removed, and when the glider was released the whole plane juddered. During the tense days of waiting we were put through a tough time routine of physical training and helped with building roads on the newly built airfield”.

As LAC(W) Myra Roberts recalls that not all the Dakota pilots were pleased they had a woman on board;

“The pilot of the Dakota in which I did my training flights was Scottish, Warrant Officer Jock McCannell. After the first few trips I had the feeling he didn’t want me there and eventually I asked why. He said it was nothing personal, that he’d come from a fishing family and fishermen would never put out to sea with a woman aboard as it was bad luck. During that first week in June us women were grounded, while all the planes took part in the landings. Jock’s was one of the few that didn’t return and I thought of the women in the boat”.

LAC(W) Edna Birkbeck recalls flights and patients;

“Some of the wounded were very badly injured but you couldn’t let it get to you. Despite the severity of their injuries, and, on one occasion, having to crash land after engine failure, none of my patients ever died on any of my flights. They always wanted tea, those that could drink. We’d carry an industrial sized urn and they’d always want to know when we were over the coast. I’d tell them and say it won’t be long before you’re home, and they’d cheer."

The Second World War forced the medical world to advance in medicine far more quickly than previous years. Advances in the treatment of infection had occurred pre-war but research pioneers pushed forward to find solutions to very pressing problems. While penicillin had been discovered pre-war by Sir Alexander Fleming, it wasn’t until WW2 that companies started to develop a way of making the medicine on an industrial scale. Credit for this goes to Howard Florey and Ernst Chain. For this research and achievement, Florey, Chain, and Fleming shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1945. By the end of the war, several strains of the drug were developed. Also the 1945 version of penicillin was 20 times more potent that the 1939 version. Penicillin was used en masse after D-Day on wounded men and it was found to be especially effective against gangrene. Despite the many advances one problem that barely changed was the time it took for a wounded man to reach operating theatre.

In the British Army, the average time it took was 14 hours. Such a period of time would allow a wound to fester. With the use of penicillin, the chance of getting an infection was vastly reduced and survival chances greatly increased.

 

Along with increasing the chances of survival for those wounded, the other major development was the treatment of those who had received severe wounds. The work of Archibald McIndoe and his team at the Burns Unit at Queen Victoria’s Hospital, East Grinstead, has been well documented; however the work of the Russian Filatov who is credited with pioneering the work on skin grafts is not so well known. The Russians also worked on ‘biogenic agents’ that encouraged healing and the re-growth of damaged tissue.

 

The war also saw the growth of the blood transfusion service, which was relatively primitive at the start of the war. They became a ‘well-oiled’ machine, storing blood and distributing it to where it was needed.

Work on tetanus had started in World War One, however it was developed and refined during WW2. By immunising soldiers, the risk of tetanus dramatically fell. Of the 17,000 men wounded at Dunkirk none got tetanus due to being immunised beforehand. All of the medical advances in World War Two went on to benefit society after the war had ended, with many of the procedures still being used today.

As Nursing Orderlies the Nightingales would have seen some horrific injuries, including limbs missing and severe burns. They were instructed on how to deal with these and it is believed, due to the dedication of these women, that not one man died whilst in their care. However they do have two casualties of their own: Nursing Orderlies Margaret Walsh and Margaret Campbell were posted missing, presumed killed, whilst on nursing duties.

 

LAC(W) Campbell is buried in the Canadian War Cemetery in Calais. The aircraft she was flying in strayed too close to the German garrison still holding Dunkirk and was subsequently shot down. There were no medical casualties on board but all four crew members were killed.

LAC(W) Walsh was travelling aboard a Dakota bound for Brussels and Nivelles. It was seen to crash into the sea 9 miles east-north-east of Calais although the reason was unknown. Despite a thorough search of the area no trace of the aircraft was found. Margaret and the rest of her crew mates are remembered on the memorial at Runnymede.

Kit that was specifically made for women was not easy to come by, however some kit was issued. They were given 2 skirts, 1 Battledress jacket and trousers, cap or hat, beret for flying, 2 pairs of shoes, stockings and a suspender belt, a tie, 3 shirts, and 3 navy blue kickers although they never wore these, calling them “passion killers” and only took them out for inspections. In some cases kit was not issued so most of the women acquired male kit and adapted it.

Battledress

Otherwise known as ‘Hairy Mary’ due to its course fabric, battledress consisted of a short jacket and trousers. Patches were sewn onto the arms to denote rank and medical caduceus were worn on the collar. A standard WAAF hat was issued but rarely worn whilst in the aircraft as it got in the way of tending to the men. Blue shirt and tie were usually worn underneath the jacket however for warmth a jumper could be worn. A Red Cross armband was issued but was not worn unless they believed they would be captured.

 

Mae West

 

Life jackets were issued just before a flight and were usually packed away after take-off. They were given the nickname Mae West after the actress of the period because of her ample ‘buoyant’ frame. Above, Lydia Alford wearing her Mae West Lifejacket.

 

Parachute harness and pack

 A parachute and harness was issued to each woman before the flight however these were locked away upon departure. As the only medical orderly on the flight, should the aircraft crash their orders were to remain with the aircraft, and should they survive, tend the injured until help arrived. They were strictly forbidden to bail out.

Flying Boots

           

Most of the time flying boots were not issued so private purchases had to be made, or whatever could be ‘acquired’. Boots were lined with sheepskin inside for warmth. Most common types were 36 pattern and 41 pattern.

Pictured with Vince, Kara and her husband Paul 

at Blakehill in 2017, peeling back the layers of turf to

expose a glider tie down point next to the site of the southern

perry track