JUNE 6 was the anniversary of the day in 1944 which is etched in the nation’s memory, D-Day.

On that day the Normandy landings (codenamed Operation Neptune) began. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The operation was the start of the liberation of German-occupied western Europe from Nazi control, and contributed enormously to the Allied victory in the war.

On that day Nurse Joyce Dandridge from Wooburn was waiting anxiously in a train in a railway siding somewhere on the south coast. It was no ordinary train, having been converted to an ambulance train. This is Joyce’s story, which she recorded in her diary.

Joyce’s nursing career begins

Joyce, whose maiden name was Whiteman, was a native of Wooburn. Early in 1940 she married Frederick Ronald Dandridge, known to Joyce as Danny.

He was drafted into the RAF and posted abroad, and Joyce joined the Civil Nursing Reserve, becoming a nurse at Slough Emergency Hospital. She remembers that this was located in “a lovely old house situated at the Langley end of Slough called Upton Towers. It was a Convalescent Home for wounded soldiers, and all the young soldiers in their Royal Blue suits and red ties made a very picturesque sight as they passed the days walking the lovely lawns and rose gardens or sat beneath the enormous Mulberry tree.”

One afternoon in early 1944, Joyce and two other nurses were summoned to the matron’s office. Matron Hatch told them that she had been asked to supply three nurses who would be transferred to work in “another place under the orders of British Army”.

They were told to keep this secret, pack a small suitcase with enough clothing for two weeks, and be ready to leave at any time. The matron said that she had chosen these three girls because they were “capable workers and in any emergency would know how to behave”.

The girls returned to their normal duties, the weeks passed and they began to wonder if they would ever have need of their little suitcases. On May 26th 1944 Joyce had the day off and after visiting her sister, who had just given birth to her second baby, she went to see her parents.

There she was told that a policeman had been asking for her, and she must immediately return to the hospital. After collecting her suitcase she went to the yard in front of the matron’s office and was hustled into the back of an army ambulance to join six other nurses who were already seated.

After a relatively short journey, Joyce writes: “We got out to find ourselves on the side of a quiet road with no houses, then we were led through an opening in the hedge and down the bank was a path in the deep cutting, below was a stationary train. We followed the Army officer and found ourselves in a Pullman Carriage being welcomed by an Army Nursing Sister to Hospital Train 314, where we were to reside for an unspecified time!”

The girls were introduced to the other members of the crew and from that day were referred to as ‘The crew of 314’. Joyce remembers that the doctor in charge was an old man, Dr Hutchinson, “who looked very much like Mr Churchill”!

The ‘crew’ were then told that the invasion of Europe was imminent and their duties were explained to them.

The train had 11 ex-goods coaches. Each coach had space for 24 stretchers, with one small table, one small window, and on each side of the coach were double doors for loading and unloading.

There was access from one coach to another, each was marked with a letter A to K representing a ward, and there was one nurse and an orderly for each ward. In the centre of the train was a carriage which included a kitchen and lounge/dining room. There was one ordinary corridor carriage with compartments which housed the sister’s office, another one for the doctor, and a compartment full of emergency stores.

At the extreme end of the train was a carriage filled with extra clothes, blankets etc. The nursing staff slept on stretchers, arranged in bunks of three.

Joyce remembers that “the weather at that time was gloriously sunny and warm and for days we just enjoyed the good NAAFI food, which was not rationed. We had to sweep and keep the train clean, and wash our own clothes, which were spread out over bushes to dry. One day a loud droning sound could be heard. We went outside and looked to the sky and saw a large formation of bomber aircraft making the sky black and blotting out the sunshine, passing overhead in a continuous pattern. We thought to ourselves this must be the invasion and is why we are here.”

“That evening at 10.00 pm we slowly pulled away from our siding bound for another destination. We were instructed by the Sister to assemble near the kitchen and were confronted with a mountain of loaves of bread, large tins of margarine and jam, all supplied by the NAAFI.

“We then made hundreds of jam sandwiches which were going to be the feast to greet our first arrival of casualties. After changing into clean uniforms we were ready to receive casualties at around midnight. We waited, fortified by cups of delicious, creamy cocoa. The jam sandwiches began curling at the corners and as dawn broke we could see that we were in a railway siding, with another train on another track some 50 yards away.”

A new destination

Joyce continues: “After a while an Army vehicle drove alongside and four officers boarded the train. They told us that Army ambulances would soon be arriving. They also informed us where we were – in a siding near Gosport in Hampshire near to the coast, and the casualties would be arriving from Red Cross ships. We were then each given a printed yellow card to send to our next-of-kin, with just the information that we were safe and well, but with no indication of our whereabouts.

“By this time information was coming over the radio that our troops had been landed by ships and by parachute on the Normandy coast. That morning was June 6th 1944, and has left a very clear picture in my mind.

There was now a lot of activity out in the railway yard and the sound of marching feet. Along came a great many German soldiers in orderly groups of about 20 paces between them, accompanied by three of our soldiers. These were the first prisoners of war to arrive and were marching towards the other train.

“They weren’t the high-stepping jack-booted soldiers I had expected, but tired and dejected young men and some quite elderly men. They stared at us and we stared at them. They were dressed in drab grey-green uniforms, the material looked thin, limp and crumpled. I never felt any fear of them, there was too much fear shown in their faces, and perhaps horror at what had taken place before they were captured.”

Wounded soldiers begin to arrive

“But now Army ambulances started to arrive in convoys. We nurses were posted to our wards. The big double doors in the carriages opened to receive the casualties. At the same time came local people, looking tearful and distraught, trying to catch a glimpse of the boys on the stretchers. Was it a son of theirs, or perhaps someone they knew? Or had they come just to be there, say a prayer and give comfort to some other mother’s son.

The ambulances kept arriving all through the morning until each stretcher area was occupied. Each man had a card around his neck to advise doctors of his condition. Many of the boys were not wounded and the card simply stated ‘exhaustion’. They would make some feeble efforts to be cheeky with us nurses.

“Before the train was allowed to move off to take the patients to hospital an officer had to check if each man on board had a fire-arm in his possession (for wounded men to carry fire-arms was contrary to international law).

“And so our first cargo of young men, all these lovely boys, shot and dazed and tired, snatched back from the first onslaught of that historic invasion of Europe, were to be transported to hospital.

“Our destination was a hospital near Ascot. During the journey the Doctors did a tour of each ward and penicillin injections were given were necessary. This was quite a new form of treatment and very expensive. The injections were quite painful to the patients, so only the Medical Students were allowed to inject.

“From the arrival of the casualties at Gosport to their departure from Ascot Station to hospital, it was getting dark. By the time a fresh supply of blankets and stretchers had been loaded onto the train it was evening. The train soon moved off again to return to Gosport. That was when the hard work started for us nurses.

“It can be imagined that the wards were rather sweaty, smelly and dirty after the men had left. So we got to work with brooms, buckets and mops, and bottles of Lysol, a very strange disinfectant. On the return journey we then had to sleep on the new stretchers and I didn’t like the awful smell of the disinfectant whilst trying to get to sleep.’’

Joyce continued to work, and keep her diary, as a nurse on Train 314 for seven months until December 1944. She then returned to her job at Slough Emergency Hospital. Her husband Danny returned home after the war, having served as ground crew in the RAF in Italy and the Middle East.

I am grateful to Joyce’s sister-in-law Mrs Alfreda Dandridge for bringing her diary to my attention, and to Joyce’s daughter Mrs Jane Devlin for her permission to publish these extracts and commentary from the diary, and the accompanying photographs.