Norma Hanson wanted to help out and go places. As a young naval VAD, she boarded a train bound for Plymouth. From there she transferred on to Portsmouth, Liverpool, and then overseas. Throughout Norma nursed patients, made friends, met her husband, and found adventure far from home.
How did you become involved?
” Everybody wanted to do something. People were Air Raid Wardens or at first aid posts. And teenagers joined things like the Red Cross. I’d always thought I would like to be a nurse. So I thought, ‘oh well, we’ll join the Red Cross, my friend and I. They’re wanting people, let’s join’. So we did.”
What was your first job?
” We had to go first of all to Plymouth in the summer. It was a very hot day. My mother and a friend of hers went on the train to Manchester to get the train that took us to Plymouth direct. They had to push us onto the train to be able to shut the door! All the trains were so crowded.
Plymouth was a naval base and there was a naval hospital there. Everyone who was working there was navy. We had lots of fun. Of course, Plymouth was being bombed. It was a badly bombed place. You’d have to get up in the night and go into the cellars.”
Did you get any time off?
” We just used to have one day off a week and a weekend every month we had off. And if you were on night duty, you worked from eight o’clock at night until eight o’clock next morning. That went on every night for 28 nights; you didn’t have any time off until you’d completed the 28 nights. So you were just working all the time. There was sadness as well. But it’s like every hospital. You feel sad and you talk about it with your friends. You have to sort of put it behind you.
What happened next?
” The news came to the camp, to the Sergeant Commander. ‘Oh, you’re to go to Liverpool.’ Oh right, so I had to pack up my things. You were issued with a tropical uniform so you knew you were going somewhere warm. They didn’t tell you where you were going and you weren’t supposed to tell anyone in your quarters. But they knew you were going.
I had a bunk, there were six of us. They were all VADs.
It took us six weeks to get to Sydney, because you couldn’t get through the Mediterranean. V-J Day I was in Sydney and thought,
‘Well, the war’s over now, at least we won’t get torpedoed going home!’ “
VADs wore either a British Red Cross or St. John Ambulance uniform depending on which organisation they belonged to. For their indoor uniform they had to buy three dresses, 12 aprons, three belts, six collars, three pairs of cuffs, four caps, two pairs of black shoes, and six pairs of stockings, for which they received an allowance. Find out more about uniform.
As a port, Plymouth was a target for the Luftwaffe, or German Air Force. Up to 200,000 people worked directly or indirectly for the Royal Navy, making it a target for heavy bombing. Over 50,000 houses were damaged. Find out more about the bombing of UK cities.
Members of St. John Ambulance and the British Red Cross often had entertainments organised for them. These ranged from dances and concert parties, which were often fundraising events, to duties in cinemas, which cadets often attended. As well as being fun, the dances held by VADs also helped restore the strength of injured Service men.