Deborah Burrows talks about the courage of ordinary women during World War II.
If there is one thing that can reduce me to a weepy mess, it is reading about bravery. I stand in awe of the sort of courage that enables an ordinary person to accept grave risks in order to help another human being. Not surprisingly, I wept a lot when I was researching Ambulance Girls. It’s become fashionable to downplay the idea of the “Blitz spirit”, but I have read many diaries and histories and I have spoken to those who lived through it and it is crystal clear to me that such a spirit did exist in London and the other British towns and cities that faced relentless Nazi bombardment more than seventy years ago.
I wanted to set a novel in the London Blitz. The idea for Ambulance Girls came from a 1941 newspaper article headed: “WA Girl is ARP Heroine”. It was about a young woman called Stella O’Keefe who was the first Australian A.R.P. [Air Raid Precautions] worker in Britain to be presented to the Queen for outstanding bravery in the London Blitz. What made Stella’s story especially interesting to me was that she had been born in a tiny mining town called Kookynie, which is around 120 miles from Kalgoorlie, the town where my mother was born. In that part of Western Australia that means they were practically neighbours.
In November 1940, Stella — who was known to her colleagues in the London Auxiliary Ambulance Station where she worked as “The Mighty Atom” because “she stops at nothing” — was mainly responsible for the rescue of a Royal Armoured Corps brigadier, his wife and child from the top of a bombed block of flats.
It seemed hopeless to attempt a rescue in the blackout. The family’s flat was on the ninth floor, it wasn’t known if they were even alive, and the building’s stairways, corridors, and walls had collapsed. Yet nothing would prevent Stella (described as “petite, with a fleck of auburn in her brown hair, and with eyes of the deepest Irish-blue”) from making the attempt. Although at any moment the ruined building was likely to collapse, she managed to “coerce” an unwilling man into accompanying her. The hazardous climb was made in pitch darkness and from the sixth floor upwards they were forced to crawl. When they reached the top Stella shouted, “Is there anyone there?” and the brigadier (with typical British understatement) answered, “We are all right but slightly hemmed in with masonry.” Actually they were in the only portion of the top storey that remained, and were surrounded by the fallen roof and walls. Stella and her companion helped them to descend, assisting them “across yawning gaps” to safety.
In the article, Stella was quoted as saying, “Other girls at my station have done stickier jobs than this rescue. I am the only driver who so far has not crashed an ambulance into a bomb crater while going to hospital with wounded in the darkened streets. Many times bombs have been so close that I saw the explosion and disintegration of buildings, but the pressure of the job is so intense that there is no time for fear.”
No time for fear! A picture of Lily Brennan, the main character of Ambulance Girls, formed in my mind: a wisp of a girl with a core of steel. An Australian teacher who had been working as a governess in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Nazi invasion, and so knew first hand the evils of Nazism. An ambulance girl who was self-deprecatingly brave and intensely loyal to her friends. A woman who would fight fascism in any way that she could.
I read all I could about the London Blitz. I studied the diaries and memoirs and I talked to people who had lived through those months. I gained an understanding of the duties of female ambulance drivers and the dangers they experienced during the bombardments. I visited the site of the Bloomsbury Auxiliary Ambulance Station, in the basement of a large block of flats opposite Russell Square. And as I researched the “ambulance girls” of the Blitz, the picture of Lily, and of her life, grew clearer in my mind.
An ambulance staff comprised one driver, one attendant. Men and women worked on an equal footing and the only distinction was in pay. (Women received two thirds of the salary of the men.) There were volunteers of all types, occupations and backgrounds in the ambulance stations: “electricians, artists, and musicians, house painters, actors, typists, hostesses, and housewives”. Also, “Oxford and Cambridge graduates, a man who used to run one of the smartest hairdressing saloons in London, peeresses, and working girls.” These people worked, slept and relaxed in the confined quarters, spent long hours in each other’s company and faced danger together.
Many of the ambulances used in the Blitz were ordinary cars on which a large box body had been fitted to hold four stretchers. Inside were a first-aid kit, some basins, and masses of blankets. Blankets were often more important than anything else, I read, because a blast would strip off the victims’ clothes and if the injured weren’t kept warm they could die of no other cause than shock.
I walked around Bloomsbury and other areas of London with a bomb map, working out where the bombs had fallen and what buildings had been destroyed. I tried to “see” the landscape of London at war, and to picture the bombed and devastated city that Churchill described as being “so vast and strong that she is like a prehistoric monster into whose armoured hide showers of arrows can be shot in vain.”
I visited RAF Duxford and the Imperial War Museum. I drank at pubs where the heroes of the Battle of Britain had downed a pint before taking off to battle with the Luftwaffe, because I knew that Lily was going to meet a fighter pilot who was in his own way as much an outsider as was my Australian Lily.
Of course not everyone in the Blitz was a hero. Some were not committed to the war, and wanted to treat with Hitler. Sadly, there was virulent anti-Semitism. Some people exploited the bombings for their own gain, and looted shops and houses. None of this was widespread, but I was determined to include the worst as well as the best in my novel.
During the eight months of the Blitz, 23,949 tons of high explosive bombs were dropped in 85 major raids. From 7 September 1941 there were 57 nights of consecutive raids on London. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged (a third of the city) and more than 40,000 civilians were killed, almost half of them in London. And yet, when the Blitz finally ended on 16 May 1941, Adolf Hitler had not achieved his aim. He had not broken British spirits, he had not brought Winston Churchill to the negotiating table and he had failed to dent British war production.
What is “Blitz spirit”? It seems to me that it is relying upon your neighbour and knowing that they will be there for you in the worst of times. It is courage and it is endurance. It is British resilience at its best. It is facing the unimaginable and doing so stoically and with good-humour. As another Australian ambulance girl, who drove in London throughout the Blitz, said in 1942: “For all the horrors, nothing has been exaggerated about the courage of the people of London, nor of their sense of humour. I look back on it all as a grand experience. In fact, I think I had more laughs in those weeks of the blitz than ever before.”
As death and destruction fall from the skies day after day in the London Blitz, Australian ambulance driver, Lily Brennan, confronts the horror with bravery, intelligence, common sense and humour. Although she must rely upon her colleagues to carry out her dangerous duties, Lily begins to suspect that someone at her Ambulance Station may be giving assistance to the enemy by disclosing secret information. Her Jewish ambulance attendant and best friend, David Levy, then suddenly disappears in suspicious circumstances. Aided, and sometimes hindered, by David’s school friend, a mysterious and attractive RAF pilot, Lily has to draw on all of her resources to find David but also negotiate the dangers that come from falling in love in a country far from home and in a time of war.
Deborah Burrows was raised in Perth, Western Australia, by a wonderful mother who was widowed by the shadow of World War II and who loved to tell stories. As a child she always had a book in her hand, even when watching too many classic movies on TV. She has several degrees in history including a post-graduate degree from Oxford University and practises law in her spare time. She currently lives in Perth, though makes frequent visits to the UK.