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Information, history and photographs of the ambulance trains used during World War I and II by the British Forces:
Ambulance trains were first used during the First World War in France and Belgium to transport wounded or sick soldiers to hospital. They were also used during the Second World War which included in England and Scotland to transfer the wounded to the many temporary and permanent UK Military Hospitals for further recuperation and treatment. Most of these military hospitals were located in rural locations so that servicemen would not suffer unduly from air raids by the German Luftwaffe. The main line train companies actively helped the Army, Navy and RAF with supply and conversion of the ambulance trains and during WWII this was sanctioned by the Railway Executive Committee.
The war diaries of QA Sisters who served aboard hospital trains and ambulance trains can be read in Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War.
Walking or rather precarious movement between carriages was strictly forbidden in motion, but many QAs took the risks of jumping between the outside footboards so that they could attend to patients in other carriages. There were no interconnecting carriages and In the Company of Nurses: The History of the British Army Nursing Service in the Great War cites the war diary of Sister Phillips that confirms that this rule was often breached out of necessity especially during the common 60 hour journeys. The same book, by Professor Yvonne McEwen, cites that by the end of 1915 Ambulance Trains increased from twelve to twenty three.
Grey and Scarlet : letters from the war areas by army sisters on active service has extracts of the war diaries of Nursing Sisters who served aboard hospital trains during the Second World War. This includes hospital trains used during the evacuation from France in 1940.
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves cites that the French Government charged a £200 fee for use of the rails for each journey they made from railhead to base. This was despite the locomotives and carriages having been imported from England.
The book Sub Cruce Candida: A Celebration of One Hundred Years of Army Nursing has more photographs of ambulance trains used by the military.
Ambulance trains were also called first aid trains, hospital trains, casualty evacuation trains or travelling hospitals. They were specifically designed so that nurses of the Red Cross and the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and army medical officer doctors and orderlies of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) could continue the care of evacuated soldiers. As can be seen in the photo above the interior of the ambulance train would be fitted with beds down each side to maximise the number of wounded that could be transported.
The book It's a Long Way to Tipperary: British and Irish Nurses in the Great War by Yvonne McEwen has extracts from the war diaries of QA's who served aboard hospital trains some of which had been published anonymously by the Nursing Times during the Great War. An example of such an extract:
They were bleeding faster than we could cope and the agony of getting them off the stretchers on to the top bunks is a thing to forget.
Some of the ambulance trains were also fitted out with an operating theatre. To ensure better hygiene and the ability to scrub down these theatres would be completely tiled. Emergency operations would be performed despite the movement of the train, the cramped conditions and poor lighting.
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By the Second World War there was about 30 ambulance trains in operation. Each carriage was painted with a red cross on white background on the roof and side so that enemy planes would identify them as hospital trains and not troop or supply trains. This prevented them being a legitimate target under the Geneva convention.
A typical ambulance train would have 14 carriages. The first carriage would hold the brake carriage and boiler, depending on the number of stretcher cases there would usually be six carriages made into bedded wards, one carriage for patients who could sit on seats and one carriage that was a combined operating theatre, pharmacy and medical store. Two carriages would be fitted into a cookhouse and dining room whilst two more carriages would serve as accommodation for the medical and nursing staff. The last carriage was the brake end and general store.
This ambulance train from the Second World War is from the collection of an RAMC medic (he is in the second row fifth from the right) who was a railway guard in civilian life. It is thought that he served in France toward the end of WWII and may have been involved in the evacuation of concentration camps. His family know that he was in Belgium at some point but do not know what his role was on the train. We note the 6304 below the Red Cross. If you can help with any other information please contact me.
The staff carriages were usually converted from the first class carriages and compartments to ensure the comfort of the nursing and medical staff who would be stationed permanently to the ambulance train.
Work was arduous and many of the casualties came straight from the battlefield such as the Battles of Ypres in the First World War. QAs were kept busy preserving the lives of badly wounded soldiers until they could be evacuated to military hospitals.
The book The Roses of No Man's Land by Lyn MacDonald has diary extracts and accounts of QA Sisters who worked in the hospital trains that took casualties from The Front of World War One. This includes unloading stretcher cases at Boulogne, Le Touquet, Rouen and Le Havre where journeys from Belgium could have taken up to three days. The evacuation of casualties from Regimental Aid Post, to Field Dressing Station through to Casualty Clearing Station before being evacuated by ambulance train and then to Britain is described in more detail in The Roses of No Man's Land.
Operation Dynamo was the military codename for the evacuation of British and Allied troops from the battle of Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo took place from the 26 May to the 4 June 1940. The name was given as Operation Dynamo because the planning was done in the Dynamo Room of Dover Castle where the planner, British Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay briefed the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. During Operation Dynamo the ambulance trains and their staff worked round the clock to transfer wounded soldiers, airmen and seamen to military care facilities and hospitals.
During the German advance into France at the beginning of WWII ambulance trains were used to evacuate the wounded and to surgeons performed life saving operations during the journeys whilst the QAs tended to the wounded and injured administering pain relief and changing dressings. They too became casualties of war. In his book Front-line Nurse: British Nurses in World War II Eric Taylor cites that of the 14 hospital trains that were in use in France 9 were lost through bombing or capture.
War diary extracts of QAs who nursed casualties during the evacuation of Dunkirk appear in Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 in which Nursing Sisters describe the evacuation of patients from Dunkirk aboard hospital trains which were regularly bombed during their journey through Rouen, the Southern Brittany coast and their destination of St Nazaire. An extract reads:
The nurses were coping, but near to hysterical. Lorna asked a friend sitting on the top bunk to pass something down to her; as the girl leaned over a bullet struck the panel where seconds before she had been resting her head. We were still laughing, too frightened, too terrified to cry.
In Britain civilian nurses worked aboard hospital trains during the evacuation of patients from cities that were bombed by the German Luftwaffe.
Red Cross Ambulance Train No 32
The photos of the Red Cross Ambulance Train below and at the top of this page are from the collection of Mary Vida Essberger, (nee Smith) who was a trained Red Cross nurse in 1939 and served on and trained on Red Cross Ambulance Train No 32, which was based in London, possibly South London and was due to be despatched to France but never went. Sister Smith was struck down with pneumonia and had to resign from the Red Cross and later worked as a PA to Sir William Rootes for most of the war, in central London.
Her son still has more pictures of her and the rest of the nurses and civilians and doctors that made up the Train's detachment. The sister on the train was Sister Wallace, who had nursed King Edward VIII when he was ill and when he was Prince of Wales. If you can help with more information about Red Cross Ambulance Train No 32, its crew and staff and its role during World War Two then please contact me.
The following reply has kindly been received from Tony Cane of the World War Two Railway Study Group whose website is
Ambulance train 32 was one of 34 Casualty Evacuation Trains (CET) that were converted from existing coaches. The requirements for these were made in 1938 but they were not actually built until mid 1939. Each had originally two brake coaches, as shown in the picture on your site and 10 ward cars. The brake coaches were converted to provide accommodation for staff, and storage of medical equipment, and then stored for later use. The ward cars were standard luggage vans, and after being fitted with brackets for rapid conversion to part of an ambulance train, were put back into normal service. Later a restaurant car replaced one of the ward cars.
The authorities assumed that any bombing of our cites would produce such large numbers of casualties that the local facilities would be overwhelmed. This thankfully did prove to be an overestimate of capabilities of aerial bombing, but they were still put to good use in other rolls. They were used to clear the hospitals in threatened areas, moving patients out of the cities to more rural areas. Those moved to the South Coast had to be moved again when France fell.
Train 32 was one of four built by the Southern Railway. There are pictures of its sister train No 33 in two articles published in the railway press soon after they were built. These also have drawings of how the conversion was made and a list of equipment supplied. For example I can tell you that this included 20 teaspoons!
There is also a good general history of the CET trains in the book Hospital Ships and Ambulance Trains by John Plumridge which also has pictures of train No 33. Train 32 was stored initially near Streatham Common. The only other information I have specifically about train No32 is that it moved 163 patients from Brighton to Macclesfield in September 1940.
The war journal of Joyce's War - The Second World War Journal of a Queen Alexandra Nurse includes chapters about her time on ambulance trains in India.
Ambulance trains were used during the Korean War in 1953 when wounded POWs were repatriated as part of Operation Little Switch. QAs nursed aboard these ambulance trains and more can be read on our Korean War and the QARANC page.
Ambulance trains were still used as late as the 1950s by the QARANC and RAMC. On the BMH Iserlohn page there is memories of a QA who took part in an ambulance train exercise called Battle Royal in Germany.
Win a copy of the new edition of Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France...Posted by Qaranc History on Saturday, 9 September 2017
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