About the Author and the Compiler - From Cairo to Perugia | Diary of a Nurse in WW2

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About the Author and the Compiler

Olive Joan Lockyer, always known as Joan, was born in Bristol on 8th April 1916 and died 15th December 2009. Her father, Harold Lockyer, a bank cashier, was the youngest of thirteen children. He died in 1937, aged 54, of septicaemia, before antibiotics were available.

Joan was the second of four children. Her older brother Douglas was a radio operator during the war, travelling in the same convoy to the Mediterranean. He was stationed in Cyprus, where Joan spent Christmas leave in 1941 with him. He is mentioned several times in the diaries.

Hazel, Joan’s younger sister, joined the WRAF. Her younger brother Norman trained as a Spitfire pilot, but he was killed, aged 19, in a car accident in April 1941, just after Joan and Doug left UK. Hazel was injured in the crash, with concussion and a head injury, but she recovered.

Joan had very dark curly hair, hazel eyes, a slim athletic figure and boundless energy. She was educated in Bristol at Redland High School, where she excelled at sports. She played netball, hockey, tennis and swam for the school and would have liked to be a P E teacher, but she became a nurse because her family could not afford to support her financially to train as a teacher.

She was also a keen Girl Guide, loving the activities associated with the Girl Guide movement. The Guide camps would later have helped her to deal with life in tents in the desert. Her father and brothers were also keen sportsmen. Joan came from a very conventional middle class background, and she had not left home before the war.

Most homes at that time would have had radios, and cinemas were popular, but films were made in black and white and television was many years in the future. North Africa and the Middle Eastern countries must have seemed very exotic and different to her, and also to the majority of the troops who would never have been abroad before.

As a girl she attended church regularly, and at 18 she was unofficially engaged to her local curate, John Leadbeater, who was 28, but who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a brain tumour. She trained as a nurse at Bristol Royal Infirmary where she met lifelong friend Nora Barron. Nora nursed abroad in the war but was not in the same unit.

During her early twenties she became friends with Peter Jenkins, who for years wanted to marry her. He was also in Egypt during the war as an army chaplain, and with the Field Ambulance Service. During 1941 and 1942 he still hoped that Joan would marry him and join him as a missionary in China, which he felt was his vocation. Although she clearly loved him, she never agreed to marry him as she had doubts that this was the life she wanted.

In Egypt she met the South African known as Koffie, and their friendship seemed to be quite serious for a while, but she ended it in 1942.

It was during 1943 that her relationship with Jeaf grew, and it becomes obvious that they had fallen in love. The diary entries in 1944 are full of excitement, anticipation and anxiety about the danger Jeaf was facing while stationed on ‘the line’.

They became engaged at Christmas/New Year 1943/44, in Italy, marrying in Perugia in October 1944, and they honeymooned in Rome. Apparently gold was hard to get in Italy in 1944, and her wedding ring was made from gold fillings supplied by ‘Charlie Suet’ Atkinson, their best man and the unit’s Dental Officer.

For much of the first eight months of their marriage they were separated, spending only a few days together occasionally, until their return to the UK in July 1945. Their favourite song from the war years was In The Mood by the Glenn Miller Band and, at her request, this was played at her funeral.

Before they were sent abroad, they were advised not to keep diaries, or written information that might fall into enemy hands. Joan bought the smallest diaries she could find, the first measuring only 2 × 2½ inches (5 × 6.5 cm).

With so little space to write, her entries were concise and often words were omitted, such as “Allan arrived lunchtime – all went over hills in afternoon”. In this book, for ease of reading, adaptations have been made – for example, “Allan arrived at lunchtime – we all went over the hills in the afternoon”. Joan’s diaries are a very personal record of her daily life during exceptional circumstances.

They were written for herself without any idea that they would ever be of interest to anyone else, or that in the future they would be classed as historic documents. She seldom disclosed emotions or feelings, having been brought up in the era of the ‘stiff upper lip’. In difficult circumstances the best course of action and the prevailing ethic was simply to carry on regardless and not to complain. This also suited her positive, energetic, practical personality.

Her diaries are obviously very different from the accounts of military commanders and others whose interests were the details of the battles and campaigns from a more militaristic perspective. There are sometimes days where she has not made an entry, presumably either because she did not feel there was anything interesting to record, or at times because she was too tired.

Joan was called up early in 1941, then embarked in March in a huge convoy of ships for a voyage lasting over six weeks, around Africa and into the Red Sea to Egypt (since the Mediterranean was at that time dangerous to shipping). Her 25th birthday on April 8th took place on board ship. Most of the nurses were young, in their twenties, never before having been abroad or far from home. They found themselves in tents in the Egyptian desert, in extreme heat and very basic conditions in a war zone. Joan did not return home until June 1945, well over four years after leaving.

Life in the forces during WW2

In 1941, when she arrived in Egypt, the Allies were not doing well and Hitler’s forces had the upper hand. No one knew how long the war would last or who would prevail in the end, and for the next two years the fighting in North Africa moved back and forth and the hospitals were at times extremely busy.

Conditions were often very basic, with water rationed sometimes to two pints per day, one to drink and one to wash oneself and one’s clothes with. There were latrines and cold showers. There were also scorpions, beetles, fleas, sand-flies, mosquitoes and rats.

As well as nursing soldiers with battle injuries and shell-shock, there were many other diseases and infections, including malaria, typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria, sand-fly fever, heatstroke, smallpox, tetanus gangrene, and even bubonic plague.

In autumn 1941, Joan became ill with malaria, typhoid and dysentery, and was on the Dangerously Ill List (DIL) for some time – her family were informed that she might not survive – but eventually she recovered and was given leave to spend Christmas and New Year 1941 in Cyprus with her brother Doug.

When they were not working, medical and army personnel were kept busy and occupied with plenty of activities, sports and social events. There were many dances, parties, sports, team games, picnics and so on. Nurses were always in demand as there were no other women in the forces there, and they were hugely outnumbered by the men.

Romances often blossomed and several nurses married while they were serving abroad. However, it was then usual practice to post couples to different units for practical reasons – there were no married quarters, nurses usually billeted together several to a room or tent, and doctors and male personnel were housed separately. Husbands and wives working in the same unit in often stressful situations would have strained newly-wed couples’ relationships, and if a nurse became pregnant she would have to be sent home by ship, as army hospitals could not care for pregnant women.

This meant they would lose an experienced nurse who would have to be replaced by a new recruit, with cost and travelling time to consider as well. Personnel were usually taken from the Mediterranean to the UK by boat, as air travel was not practical or possible for the majority of troops at that time. Post between the forces abroad and their families at home was also taken by ship, taking weeks or months to arrive, if at all.

Adventures and difficulties

Given two weeks’ leave in autumn 1942, Joan and her friend Jimmy Potter (real name Joan Potter), hitched a lift with some Americans in a plane to the Persian Gulf, visiting Baghdad, Dubai, Bahrain and Sharjah. In one village the natives had never seen white women before.

Joan frequently mentions having trouble with her feet; when she was training as a nurse, she usually wore flat, soft shoes which seemed comfortable at the time, but did not give enough support to her feet when she was spending many hours a day walking and standing. As a result, Joan developed bunions, crooked toes and fallen arches, so her feet were often painful. However, she loved walking, and went for a walk every day until her nineties. While in Italy she went for many very long walks in the beautiful mountainous countryside when she was off duty.

Joan also often records what she ate when off duty. The food supplied in the hospital mess (canteen) would have been very basic and monotonous, with meals such as stew made from ‘bully beef’ or tinned meat, hard biscuits, little fruit apart from dates, and very little variety in the menu.

Nurses were always hungry as their work was physically demanding, with long hours, so they relished the opportunity to eat at hotels and restaurants where a more varied menu was available and they could satisfy their healthy appetites. These establishments would have been able to access food produced in the fertile regions near the Nile, which from ancient times had been farmed and cultivated with many different crops.

About the compiler, Rosie Tobin

Rosie Tobin was born in 1953 in Penzance, the youngest of three children. She went to school at a small primary school in Kelynack, next to Land's End Airport, then West Cornwall School in Penzance, followed by Penzance Girl's Grammar School,  English and art were her favourite subjects, and she would often read all day, sitting in a sycamore tree in the garden.

Her father died in 1972 when she was 18, and a few months later she started training as a nurse in Truro and Penzance hospitals, where she worked in the Casualty Department for several years.

In 1977 Rosie married Jonathan Tobin, whom she had known from schooldays, and they had three children. They now live on an organic farm in West Cornwall, where they keep Welsh Black cattle and are involved in conservation of the West Penwith Moors. In 1978 her mother moved from St Just to St Erth (near Hayle), and her brother, sister and she saw her frequently; she was always a very loving and interested grandmother to her eight grandchildren until her death in 2009, aged 93.

NEXT: The Book's Introduction

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