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Caring on the Home Front - Volunteer memories from World War Two

Stories » Voluntary Aid Detachments » Joan Holgate

Joan Holgate

Family ties bind


Joan Holgate’s father tried to protect her from the war. When she joined the Red Cross and was posted to Staffordshire, they had to say goodbye. Transferred to Portsmouth, she moved farther away from home. But family ties bind, and in tragedy Joan and her father found solace in each other.

How did you become involved?


” My father thought that at all costs he had to keep us at home, where he could protect us if the worst came to the worst. I had promised my father that I would not enlist in the women’s branches of the armed forces. However, I fully intended to join the British Red Cross as a nursing member.
To do this I had to be able to pay for the uniform necessary to become a mobile VAD. The uniform was expensive, the navy blue costume had to be tailor made and 14 white aprons, seven blue linen dresses and white starched caps as well as other items had to be purchased.

Soon afterwards I joined the Red Cross and was posted to the RAF [auxiliary] hospital at Longdon Hall. Initially I was disappointed. I had asked for a posting to a Royal Naval Hospital. The sea had always fascinated me; I wanted to be in it – or on it.”

What was your first job?


” Longdon Hall was situated far from the sea in the beautiful Staffordshire countryside. In 1940 it was the residence of a Mr. Burnett who had turned it over to the British Red Cross to be used as a hospital by the RAF.
As many as 15 nationalities were admitted for treatment: Australians, American flyers with the RAF, Poles, free French, Belgians, and Dutch. The Canadian Red Cross sent us food parcels consisting of large tins of butter, jam, marmalade, dried eggs, corned beef, tea and coffee. So we were able to treat our patients to a varied cuisine. Our airmen were young and fit and recovered from their injuries.”

Was it difficult for you to have free time and other luxuries?


” The nursing staff were closely supervised. No patient was allowed to date a nurse without first asking the Commandant for permission. Usually this was refused.
Longdon Hall had a Victorian walled kitchen garden, complete with two ancient gardeners to dig for victory. They managed to produce fresh vegetables, tomatoes, peaches, even strawberries and asparagus: wonderful luxuries in wartime. There were free-range eggs and cream, skimmed from the pans in the cool dairy. We never heard an air raid siren and the only enemy planes we did hear were the German bombers passing high above on their way to bomb Liverpool or Sheffield.”

What happened next?

joan05“Time passed and I was delighted to receive a letter and a travel warrant advising me that I had been posted to the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar, Gosport, Portsmouth. My father raised no objection, having come to the conclusion that I would manage to get into danger in spite of all his efforts to keep me safe!
Later he had the unenviable task of coming to inform me that my fighter pilot husband had been killed in Belgium, just three weeks before our son was born. In my husband he had found the son he had always wanted, only to lose him just before peace was declared.”


The Joint War Organisation had nearly 250 auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes with 13,384 beds. The government made a grant towards their upkeep, whilst the Joint War Organisation ran them. Find out more about auxillary hospitals and convalescent homes.


Many ex-patients of auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes wrote to say thank you. Here is one example from a soldier wounded at Dunkirk:
“You could point me out and say with truth, ‘We cured that man.’ More true, indeed, than I can say, though I am less concerned with bodily recovery than with the return of mental stability.”


Mobile VADs had to go wherever they were sent, abroad or at home. They would be notified by a County Controller through a ‘Notice to Join’ and had to make sure arrangements were in place at home to allow them to leave with little notice. They had to be given travel warrants giving the restrictions on people moving around the country during the war, both for security reasons and fuel shortages. Because of the time put into training them, mobile VADs were expected to serve for at least three years.