Anne Wisla escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 and found shelter in London. She became fluent in English and a dedicated St. John cadet. A refugee knew better than anyone what England was fighting for. With the cadets, Anne learnt ARP and anti-gas, willing victory for her new country
How did you become involved?
“When I came over here I went to live in a hostel; that was March 1939. The 31st of August we were evacuated.
There were three of us and we weren’t going to be separated. Our poor foster mum, confronted with three kids who couldn’t speak the language.
We had an English-German dictionary, and it was shoved in the middle of the table. Eventually my foster mum said, after a couple, or two or three months, she said, ‘Right, you know enough English now. While I’m around, you speak English.’
I wanted to go into the [UK] armed services. I couldn’t get into the armed forces because of my nationality at that time. And when the little newspaper cuts appeared and some of the girls at school said, ‘Look, they want to form a cadet division for St. John,’ I was the first one there, yes please.”
How were you trained?
“In ARP we learnt all about the gases. We had to learn all the possible gases and the anti-personnel bombs and things like that, which of course you don’t learn now.
I had to do Morse Code, and semaphore. I was never very good at either of them, but it was a badge subject. And there again, we were very fortunate. RAF Hendon had a signalling unit attached to them, and having once been with them for that aeroplane accident aid, they knew us.
As cadets we used to be patients at the various first aid posts, and de-gassing stations; they had special stations where—if there had been a gas attack or anything like that—they cleaned everybody up and made them free of gas and contamination.”
Any special memories?
“They had these decontamination stations all over the place. We used to go and wear bathing costumes just for the practice: you took your outer clothes off and put them in bags and went through showers and things, and got dried, and you put other clothes on the other side. The people who had to do the decontamination could get exercise and practice on how to do these things, and so as cadets we acted as their patients.
The corrosives—mustard [gas] and luicide[ph]—were known from the First World War. Of course thank God none of them were used.
I was probably more against [the Germans] than anybody else, because I knew what was going on over there. We were at war with an enemy, we were determined he wasn’t going to get the better of us, so you took it in your stride and a little bit of defiance. A cadet during wartime, you had a common purpose with your adults and with everybody else.”
St. John Cadet badge subjects grew during the Second World War. In 1938 Air Raid Precaution appeared on the list. For this subject, cadets studied an array of gases the enemy might use, phosgene and mustard gas for example and memorised the effects of each. Charts helped them to study. Other wartime badges included interpretership and aeroplane accident aid. For this last subject, cadets were tested on their ability to identify aircraft from the ground and practiced evacuating a crew trapped aboard a crashed plane.
Many men, women and children who fled invaded Europe for the United Kingdom joined the British Red Cross and St. John Ambulance. For children and youth relocated to a new country, membership in St. John cadets meant new friends and mentors. Like Anne Wisla, they often had to learn English first. Some new members put their mother tongues to use, helping with the cadets’ interpretership badge. Others offered translating services to help European soldiers hospitalised or imprisoned in Great Britain.
Casualty simulation helped Joint War Organisation volunteers practice for actual emergencies. Cadets frequently served as practice casualties, pretending to be the victims of burns, fractures and even gas inhalation. Anne Wisla helped Joint War Organisation adult volunteers prepare for gas attacks. Gas contamination units were designed to reverse the consequences of exposure and the Joint War Organisation agreed to run practice decontamination sessions. Such practice required trained and willing volunteers, some to act as victims and Cadets often filled these roles.