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Pearls from the Pend No.15

Pearls from the Pend No. 15

Written by:   Duncan McAra
Published:     1 May 2020
Created:         1 May 2020

Crosses of Compassion

Duncan McAra

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), on 8 May  2020, St John Scotland’s Glasgow Area Committee had intended to hold a fund-raising VE Day Tea Party & Fair – until the Fourth Horseman appeared from the east and  compelled global lockdown and self-isolation.

Premonitions of impending conflict prompted requests, as early as 1935, to St John to provide first aid training and anti-gas attack instruction to the public. The Order of St John and one of its foundations, St John Ambulance Brigade, knew from experience during the First World War that cooperation with the British Red Cross Society was essential in wartime. Funds of  £20 million following a public appeal would have to be replicated a second time around.

The Appeal was issued on 9 September 1939 over the signatures of HRH The Duke of Gloucester, Grand Prior of the Order of St John and Chairman of the Council of the British Red Cross Society; Sir Arthur Stanley, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the BRCS; and the Earl of Scarbrough, Sub-Prior of the Order. It was made explicit that the whole of the relief to be provided under the joint insignias would be for the sick and wounded of the Armed Forces, prisoners of war interned in enemy and neutral countries, and civilians injured or sick as the result of enemy action.

The Committee could not have anticipated in 1939 that by the end of the War the Appeal would have raised £50 million, and that its total income would be £64 million. St John also fundraised for causes such as the Indian Soldiers Fund which raised money to support the 1.3 million troops from the Indian sub-continent.

The British Red Cross Society is one of the national Red Cross Societies which comprise the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva. Though recognised by Government as auxiliary to the Army Medical Services, such as Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, it is not under Government direction, and retains its independence.

A summary of the Joint War Organisation’s work was compiled meticulously week by week by Mr P. G. Cambray and Miss G. G. B. Briggs and formed the basis of their War Organisation: Official History, 1939 - 1947 – all 723 pages – published in 1949. The Librarian has acquired and donated a copy to the Library to sit alongside The Red Cross and the White by Hilary St George Saunders, published in the same year.

In October 1939 the Joint War Organisation reminded the War Office that if it was required to operate overseas, it would be necessary to appoint Commissioners to the various theatres of war. Within weeks, the HQ of the Commission were housed at the Grand Hotel in Dieppe with HQ stores depot at a nearby hangar by the docks belonging to Dieppe Chamber of Commerce. It is somewhat startling to learn from Cambray & Briggs that the first relative to visit an injured serviceman went over to France, to a hospital in Brest, on 16 December 1939.

Following the German invasion of the Low Countries in May 1940 and the German entry into Paris the following month, the scene was set for frenetic movement of Red Cross stores, equipment, personnel and transport to the coast; by late June 1940 the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and the Red Cross Commission was complete. As a consequence of Dunkirk, no occasion presented itself for a British Red Cross ambulance service with the Armies in the Field in North-West Europe until September 1944.

Two Red Cross medics during the Blitz
(Courtesy of British Red Cross Society)


The British Red Cross Society and the St John Ambulance Nursing Corps pooled resources and, drawing on First World War experience, re-established Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) with members trained in first aid, nursing, cookery, hygiene and sanitation.  Over 6000 served abroad with the armed forces, working in military hospitals.

The work of the Joint War Organisation relied upon volunteers to provide various services, ranging from the assembly and distribution of hosiery and bed linen to tracing missing or dead service men and women to answer a distraught family’s many questions.

The pages of First Aid, a monthly magazine begun in 1895 for members of St John Ambulance Brigade, British Red Cross Society and St Andrew’s Ambulance Association, demonstrate the bravery and tireless efforts made by volunteers to provide succour at home during the Blitz, the ‘Baedeker Raids’  and the later attacks from V-1 flying bombs.

At the request of the Government, which provided grants, the Joint War Organisation operated nearly 250 auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes, many of which, such as Kildonan Castle in Ayrshire, were private homes.

During the Second World War, the Joint War Organisation sent standard food parcels, invalid food parcels, medical supplies and recreational material (books, playing cards, musical instruments) to POWs worldwide. Over 20 million standard food parcels were packed on special ships to Lisbon or Marseilles for subsequent rail transport to Geneva for distribution to POW camps by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Typical contents of such a parcel included: ¼ lb packet of tea; tin of cocoa powder; bar of milk or plain chocolate; tinned pudding; tin of meat roll; tin of processed cheese; tin of condensed milk; tin of dried eggs; tin of sardines or herring; tin of preserve; tin of margarine; tin of sugar; tin of vegetables; tin of biscuits; bar of soap; tin of 50 cigarettes or tobacco.

In November 1943, the Red Cross received permission –   a supreme irony – from the Nazi authorities to send Red Cross parcels containing food, clothing and pharmaceutical items to inmates of concentration camps.

On 15 April 1945, as part of Operation Archway, Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated by Lt John Randall and troopers of 1 SAS, working ahead of the 11th Armoured Division. They were confronted by recalcitrant male and female SS guards and between 50,000 – 60,000 emaciated survivors and 13,000 unburied corpses.

Medical teams from St John and the Red Cross, together with 96 medical student volunteers from London teaching hospitals, under the supervision of A. P. Meiklejohn, a lecturer in nutrition at the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Janet Vaughan, were sent to counteract severe malnutrition by the use of feeding tubes to help survivors build up their strength.

Disease was rife and the camp was burnt the following month to prevent the spread of typhus and ticks.  Bergen-Belsen was the death place of Anne Frank and her elder sister Margot, who both died of typhus a month or two before the liberation of the camp.

The Scottish-born Doris Zinkeisen volunteered as a VAD nurse in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. At the end of the war she was commissioned as an Official War Artist to record the work by the British Red Cross and Order of St John, and she was one of the first to capture the tragedy and horror of the concentration camps. Her painting Human Laundry depicts survivors being washed and deloused before their transfer to a makeshift hospital.

Doris Zinkeisen, Human Laundry, Belsen: April 1945
(Courtesy of Imperial War Museums)


There is one final aspect of wartime St John which needs to be given prominence. Members of St John based in the Channel Islands lived and worked under particularly stressful conditions of the German Occupation from 30 June 1940 to 9 May 1945.

Not only were medicines and fuel heavily restricted, the islanders had to deal with food impoverishment and the dangers of minefields. A personal account of the work of St John during the Occupation can be found in Gary Blanchford’s Guernsey’s Occupation Ambulance Service (2013).

As a contribution to its Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare series, Cambridge University Press in 2017 published Captives of War: British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War by Clare Makepeace.

At www.caringonthehomefront.org.uk can be found a fascinating collection of firsthand accounts relating to the work of the Joint War Organisation in Great Britain.

For further information about the artist sisters, Doris and Anna Zinkeisen, and their links with Kilcreggan and Helensburgh, the Librarian is grateful to Confrère Donald Fullarton for providing the following web link: www.helensburgh-heritage.co.uk/index.php/heritage/the-arts/1137-sisters-found-art-fame



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