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Sisters in Arms by Nicola Tyrer

The author Nicola Tyrer has written a book entitled Sisters in Arms which details the part played by women in the Second World War. Here Freda's daughter Kathryn talks about the book and also reminiscences of her Uncle Thomas.

Nicola has written a book about the part played by women in the Second World War and in particular the role of nurses.

In the course of her research Nicola came across this web site and she contacted me. As a result of this mum is now featured in the book which is very interesting and well worth reading.

My uncle Thomas died recently at the age of 99. He was mum's oldest brother and he was always interested in her war years. He was also a local preacher within the Methodist Church. When the family were going through his things they came across this passage he had written about mum. It was obviously also to be used as a sort of homily by the notes on the last page! Here is a transcript of that information.

In the year 1941 two nursing sisters joined the army. One a Methodist from a village in Yorkshire and the other  a Baptist from Wallessey in Cheshire.

They were called for duty at Shaftsbury Military Hospital. A few weeks went by and, along with other sisters, they found they were to be sent abroad. Of course they wanted their parents to know where they were going so some of them, who knew their letters would be censured ,when the time drew near for their departure arranged a code. This was it, if they found out they were going to India they were to mention casually in a letter something about Ida or to Egypt the code was Elsie or West Africa the names were Wilf and Alice.

In due course the sisters set out from Liverpool to West Africa. The convoy travelled far out into the Atlantic to escape the U Boats. On the voyage one of the ships was getting behind so a message was sent from one of the destroyers which said "Please read the first four words in the last verse of the book of Solomon". The words are these 'Make haste my beloved.'

Eventually the boat containing the sisters arrived at Freetown. They were taken to the military hospital which stands on a hill just outside the town. This was to be their home for the next 22 months.
The two young ladies soon found out where the Methodist Church was and on their first free Sunday they went to worship. On arriving there the Sunday School was still in progress and what do you think the boys and girls were singing? 'Jesus loves me this I know'

Just fancy, these black boys and girls singing the same hymns that you sing in your Sunday School.
After a few months in Freetown these two sisters got a name for themselves for being regular attendees at the Methodist Church and for joining in the activities. After a while the Bishop of Freetown and his wife invited them to tea one Sunday after which they went to church.

They also taught some of the boys who were attached to the hospital how to read and they also lent them Bibles.

You will know that people in foreign countries carry all kinds of things on their heads, Well, it was very amusing watching the boys and girls trying to do this, as they usually practice first with oranges. One night the inmates of the hospital were awakened by a scream. It was found when the lights were put on that thousands and thousands of ants were on the move. They had come into one of the wards through the window in a solid block and were going across the ward and out of another window at the other side.
Of course the soldiers in the beds near the windows had to be moved and have fresh bandages on as the ants had got into their beds and bandages. In fact the whole ward was cleared and fumigated.

A lady missionary who lived at the mission house100 miles from Freetown came to Freetown on holiday and, during this period, the two sisters got to know her. She invited them to stay with her. So when these two had a holiday they went to the mission house. Of course the train that took them was not built for speed like our Flying Scotsman.

The 100 mile journey took them 12 hours. It was a single track except at the station when occasionally another train would pass in the opposite direction. The first class carriages had wooden seats and in the third class you had to sit on your case or on the floor. 

Some of the soldiers who were travelling occasionally got down on the track and picked oranges, melons and other fruits from the trees and then caught the train up.

These sisters arrived at the mission house late at night and, during the next day, went round enjoying themselves and making friends with the black boys and girls at the mission school. They taught them some English games. They also taught some of the women how to bandage and sew.

During this holiday the missionary and the sisters went to the next village where there had been a big fire. This village consisted of 78 huts and over 50 of them had burnt down. It started when a woman was preparing dinner and set the dry grass on fire and soon it was out of hand.

These two sisters were the first white women to come to this village and the black children were afraid of them at first but soon gained confidence when they found they were friendly. In a very short time these children were very proud even to hold one finger of these sisters who soon had a crowd of boys and girls around them.

The chief of this village married a girl who had been taught at the mission school. Eventually these two sisters arrived at Freetown after having the experience of making tea with water from the engine of the train!! - and settled to work once more.

Then they were relieved of their duties and sailed for England much to the regret of the Methodists in Freetown and also the minister of the church the Rev Kennedy. On arrival in England these young ladies had leave and during this leave both of them wrote to the War Office asking if they could work together for the duration of the war. This request was granted. They were sent to Catterick camp when their leave was up and spent a few weeks there, They were then sent to an unknown destination in England.

During the next months they were being prepared for the invasion. They had to learn how to put up marquees and other things they may have to do in an emergency.

These sisters were in the first boatload of nurses to land on the continent after D Day. They had to help put up emergency hospitals in fields and attend the wounded there as the soldiers did sleep in slit trenches.
One day, as one of them was attending to a soldier, an officer came into the building and watched Freda. After she had finished bandaging the soldier up the officer shook her hand -it was general Montgomery.

They followed Monty's armies through the countries of France and Belgium and into Germany. Often hospitals for the wounded were in queer places such as a Roman Catholic Church, but once the Germans were surprised by the rapid advance of the British army they left one of their hospitals just as it stood and all ready for use. These sisters were at the crossing of the Rhine which must have been terrible.

During the journey thro Belgium the people could not do enough for the nurses giving them fruit and flowers. All the time  this was going on one of these sisters had her Methodist hymn book with her and when the opportunity came on a Sunday either a service or a sing song was arranged with Freda playing the piano.

At the end of the war these sisters, along with others, were sent to a concentration camp. The inmates were like living skeletons, many were too weak to stand up. The sisters were each given a ward with about 300 patients and with German girls to help. One of them had a ward almost full of typhoid cases, all foreigners and only about three who could speak English. With the help of a few German girls it was as much as they could do to give them something to eat and drink. Many died through the treatment they had received from the Germans.

These sisters were full of pity for these people and worked almost night and day for them until the officers in charge of the camp stopped them.

These officers knew if these ladies did not get proper meals and a certain amount of sleep they would soon be like the inmates. The officers had a bet on which of the English sisters would break down first
Not one of them did but often the German girls broke down under the strain and refused to work. A book was written about this camp by the officers and in it there is a paragraph about these German girls who broke down and refused to work. In it, it tells of the best way of curing these girls and one that never failed - they were taken to the typhoid ward which was in the charge of Freda, the young sister brought up in a Yorkshire village. They were told to notice how she went about her work. It was a never failing cure.

No woman serving in the war with the army was allowed to go out on her own but only with an escort to protect her. Not far from this camp was a soldiers' camp and an officer who these sisters knew in Freetown was stationed there. He invited these two out in his jeep one afternoon. As they were riding along the steering of the jeep went and it crashed into a tree. All three of them were injured. They were flown back to hospitals in this country and in time they were cured - and so ended a fine partnership which had lasted throughout the war.

At the present time one of the sisters is in charge of a hospital in Canada (Win Lacy) and the other is married and living in this district (West Riding of Yorkshire)

At the end of the account Uncle Thomas has written the following words:

So boys and girls wherever you go follow the example set by these young women. In  whatever circumstances they were in they tried to uphold the Christian way of life. We may often think it is difficult to do this but when you think of the great difficulties they overcame it makes us wish to follow their example.