Veteran Stories:
Valerie Joan Iris Simmons (née Langner)

Air Force

  • Poem, "RAF Church Parade in the Desert Egypt - 1944, A Personal Reminiscence", written by Valerie Simmons.

    Valerie Simmons
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"And when it came time to take off the dress I was wearing, which was a bit torn, it stood up on its own. It was so stiff with blood, it actually stood up."


Well, I started the war in England. I am a Brit. I’m a naturalized Canadian. I have been a Canadian citizen for many years now. I was in London at the time the war started. I joined the Red Cross. We were expecting the Blitz and, of course, we eventually got it. And I served in the Red Cross from 1939 to 1941; and then, after the Blitz, things got rather quiet, so I joined the WAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Well, at the beginning of the war, we were still training and we had the Phoney War. That’s the time I got those Red Cross medals because I took nine exams in order to get those. And I was attached to a first aid post. Nothing happened for absolutely ages, and then the Blitz started and we were kept very busy with casualties. And then after the Blitz was over, is when I joined the WAAF. I was myself bombed. I was in quite a famous incident, in fact. It was my birthday present for March 1941. The Café de Paris, which was a well-known English nightclub, was bombed; and I was in it and I was one of the lucky ones. I got a badly cut head and my partner got a bit off his nose. He had to have plastic surgery after the war. But we both came through and we were really very lucky indeed, especially as we were on the dance floor and the bomb fell among the dancers. So there’s not too much to tell you about that. We walked to the hospital after the incident, when we were dug out, and waited our turn to be stitched up while they looked after the more serious casualties, the stretcher people. And I remember the Nazi planes still flying across the sky and the pencil shaft of light from the searchlights trying to pick them up. It was quite exciting in a way, but we were so exhilarated to be alive at all that we weren’t frightened of anything. I can remember going home after I was bombed and not realizing how badly I had bled. And when it came time to take off the dress I was wearing, which was a bit torn, it stood up on its own. It was so stiff with blood, it actually stood up. You couldn’t have folded it. You know the way head wounds bleed. I must have bled like a pig and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t like the khaki uniform worn by the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service], the army reserve and I didn’t want to be a WREN [Women’s Royal Naval Service]. I served for a while in England. I got a commission and I was an instructor for quite a while because I like speaking in public and I find it very easy to teach people. So I was at the NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] school for a couple of years. And then they asked for volunteers for the Middle East, women volunteers. El Alamein was over and I think they thought it was safe to send us out there. And I volunteered and was lucky enough to be chosen. They asked me, among other things I remember, the reason why I was especially keen on the Middle East. And I said because I was Jewish and because the Middle East was the background to my ancestors and because I had a real interest in history, especially history of Antiquities. Just generally the Middle East was a place that fascinated me and I wanted to visit. Oh, I was so lucky. I went on a troop ship. It was a RMS Mauretania, a luxury liner converted to a troop ship. And we slept in a cabin originally intended for two people, eight women officers. The bunks were double bunks, so they were arranged all around the walls and eight of us couldn’t stand on the floor and get dressed and undressed at the same time. There wasn’t room. We had to have a roster. One day, the four top bunks would get dressed first; the second day, the bottom bunks would get dressed first and so it was, we ran it like that. We had to wear our lifejackets all the time. We were not in convoy because the Mauretania was a fast ship and they said she could outstrip any submarine. In fact, we never met any. We had absolutely no incidents of any kind. It was a most peaceful voyage. I was a WAAF administrative officer, looking after air women, in other words: their welfare; their happiness; their health. One of the things I remember most and I hated doing was inspections. You know, inspection to make sure their bedding was tidy, kit inspections, making sure their clothing was alright, drill, of course, listening to any of the problems they had that they would tell to us. And they did have some, of course. And, generally, trying to be a parent to many people who were older than I was in actual fact. It was fun. I enjoyed it. It doesn’t sound very much; it kept me busy all the time. I had a compassionate posting back to England because my brother had died as a result of the war. And my parents needed me, of course. I was therefore discharged at the end of the war in England and went back to civilian life. I think having been able to serve my country, having been very lucky to get right through more or less unscathed except for the one head wound, and just that I wanted to be doing something like everybody else.
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