Many a time last winter the men and women who had volunteered for the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service must have asked themselves, as they turned up at their stations day after day or night after night: "Isn't all this rather a waste of time?"
I went out the other evening to one of those stations, in Greenwich, S.E., and pent the whole night there.
Phoney war? Waste of time? Indeed!
We were sitting, eight women and six men, in a sandbagged shelter erected in the playground of an L.C.C. school. Drawn up outside the shelter were seven ambulances, two Green Line coaches and six cars – the station's entire transport fleet.
Since the very first day of the blitz the town has sustained the savage blows of the Luftwaffe, and its A.R.P. workers have been tested as sternly as any in the land.
Before September 1940 many of them had never seen a bomb; twenty-five days and nights of intensive bombing have given them the confidence of veterans.
They have passed through the fire – literally so. I met two young men who one night drove an ambulance through a wall of flame to the scene of a bombing.
"Funny thing was", said one of them, "we never thought of the petrol. All I was worrying about was my trousers. I was afraid they would catch fire. But we got through unhurt."
"After that our only bad moment was when we picked up the casualty we'd been sent to fetch. The stretcher was so hot we could hardly hold it."
The strength of this ambulance unit is 68 – 43 women and 25 men. They work in 12-hour shifts, and they are paid usual A.R.P. rates – £3 3s. 3d. for men and £2 3s. for women. The women include typists, factory workers, housewives and spinsters.
By day the unit occupies the infants' department of a school, the main school building being taken by the A.F.S. At night as soon as the siren sounds, the men and women on duty take up their quarters in the shelter.
And there they sit and wait for the calls that come to them from the district A.R.P. control:
"One ambulance and one car (for sitting cases) wanted immediately at ----"
The drivers, men and women alike, go out in rotation, the car drivers alone, the ambulance drivers accompanied by an assistant – out under the splinters and the bombs, to pick up the casualties, take them to the nearest hospital and then return to the station.
If the telephone line that connects the district A.R.P. control with the ambulance shelter should break down, the messages are brought by dispatch rider.
All the ambulances and the cars already bear the scars of battle – dents and holes made by falling debris or falling splinters. I fancy the unit secretly proud of them.
As a sideline to their ambulance work, two of the women members of the unit look after an "animals' detention post".
Every morning, after the "All Clear", they go round the bombed houses and pick up the pets that have been left homeless. The post itself – located in a garage – was bombed one night, and another garage had to be requisitioned. Now the flat above the second garage has been burned out by an incendiary.
No, it's anything but a phoney war out Greenwich way.
Story by William Forrest, Exclusive to The War Illustrated.