This is Lydia Alford, a corporal and nursing orderly in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force – the WAAF. She and two colleagues were the first women to fly into the Normandy battle zone after the D Day landings to help evacuate the wounded. They were among hundreds of thousands of women who came forward between 1939 and 1945 to help fight the war – working in factories, driving ambulances, ferrying aircraft and working in the services as radar operators, air traffic controllers, medics, mechanics, cypher analysts and so much more. Unfortunately their invaluable contribution is now largely overlooked.
Lydia Alford’s experience of the frontline started on the 12th June 1944, 6 days after D Day, when she and other WAAF nursing orderlies were given an update on the progress of the invasion by Sir Harold Whittingham, Director General of the RAF Medical Services. After the briefling he asked three of the women – Lydia Alford, Myra Roberts and Edna Birkbeck to remain behind. He told them that they had better get themselves packed because the following day they were flying into France from Blakehill Farm near Swindon to join the first medical evacuation flights coming out. At 5.00am the following morning, after an aircrew breakfast and briefing, they were issued with parachutes and Mae West life jackets and bundled into Dakota DC3 transport planes. One airman said “Hey fellas, they’re going in before we are!” Although the Dakotas carried the familiar D Day identification stripes they had no distinctive Red Cross markings because on the outward leg they were carrying 4 tons of supplies and ammunition rather than wounded soldiers. It was only on the return journey that the plane was classified as an air ambulance.
From the air the three nurses had their first view of the Normandy beaches, churned up with shell craters and littered with scattered equipment, abandoned landing craft and destroyed tanks. Lydia later recalled their first landing on what had been until recently enemy soil…
“Chiefly I remember the dust which was everywhere, coming up in great clouds. While the supplies were being unloaded I tried to make the wounded men as comfortable as possible in all that dust. I had water to give them and panniers of tea. There was a little stray dog which came up from somewhere or other and started to play with the wounded – it cheered them up no end.”
After unloading each plane was reloaded with 14 stretcher cases and 6 walking wounded. The injuries confronting the young nurses were appalling – missing limbs, faces blown off or burnt away and the startling results of operations improvised in the field, amputations, colostomies and facial repairs. As Edna Birkbeck later explained, “You couldn’t let it get to you.”
When Lydia, Myra and Edna finally landed back at Blakehill Farm they were welcomed home by 42 press correspondents representing many British, Canadian and American newspapers. The reporters immediately dubbed the women “Flying Nightingales”, a name that was to remain with the WAAF air ambulance nurses for the rest of the War.
The successful evacuation of wounded on 12th June was the start of a larger operation that began on the 18th June 1944 when 11 Dakotas landed on an airstrip at Beny sur Mer in Normandy. They were loaded with 183 casualties who were brought back to Down Ampney in Gloucestershire. Three days later 90 more casualties were evacuated by air. By the end of June, 1092 stretcher cases and 467 sitting wounded had been evacuated by the ‘Flying Nightingales’.
During the Liberation the Nightingales work took them further and further into Europe – France, Holland (Lydia Alford even made it into Arnhem with the battle raging around her), Belgium, Germany and Denmark. Even after the Germans surrendered their work continued with the repatriation of British P.O.Ws
“They always wanted tea, those that could drink,” Edna Birkbeck recalled. “We’d carry an industrial-sized urn. And they’d always want to know when we were over the coast. I’d tell them that and say: `It won’t be long before you’re home’. And they’d cheer.”
The cheering has grown muted now as memories fade and the number of surviving Flying Nightingales diminished with time. It wasn’t until 2008 when the last seven surviving nurses were presented with lifetime achievement awards by the Duchess of Cornwall. A small recognition of their enormous courage and determination
A short BBC film made in 2009 about the ‘Flying Nightingales’
— from Martyn Day