‘We were calm. No-one wanted to see a weeping nurse’

Mary Verrier and (right) Judy Stokes.'' ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (131867-745)
Mary Verrier and (right) Judy Stokes.'' ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (131867-745)

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Mary Verrier takes in the lovely view of a calm, peaceful Solent from her seaside flat and recalls a very different picture.

Just over 70 years ago, the scene framed by her living room window would have been filled with troop ships and landing craft rather than yachts.

Instead of families and students strolling on Southsea Common, there would have been a sea of uniformed men preparing for battle.

And in a mobile hospital unit close to where the D-Day Museum now stands, a young Mary and her colleagues would have been getting ready to help those lads heading for war,

Now a grandmother with an enviable view from her Southsea living room, Mary was a Red Cross VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse on D-Day, seeing off the troops and waiting with tension but composure for casualties to return.

The 91-year-old remembers the day the Allied forces left for the invasion of Normandy as one of ‘calm, disciplined’ activity.

‘They went off very quietly, there was this feeling among everyone that “this is it, it’s now or never”, says Mary.

Although she does recall a soldier giving her friends a kiss as he went past. ‘The sister said “put my nurse down at once soldier”,’ she laughs.

As a VAD, Mary was stationed at a first aid post at St Mary’s. She was moved to the seafront for the June 6, 1944 invasion.

‘Before D-Day we were confined to the hospital so we knew something was up. We knew the boys were off and of course we were scared.

‘But you couldn’t show that, you had to have a calm exterior. No-one wanted to see a weeping nurse.’

As one young man left Southsea for an uncertain future, he put a beautiful rosary in Mary’s hand.

‘I said ‘‘you can’t give me that’’, but he was gone. I never knew what happened to him.’

When casualties returned the seafront marquee became a triage station with workers allocating injured men to the area’s hospitals.

Of course it was upsetting work, but the nurses could never let their feelings show.

‘It was quiet efficiency, as lives were hanging in the balance. They were injured, muddy, wet, tired and frightened and you somehow had to give them the courage to carry on.’

Almost seven decades later and Mary is left with some powerful memories – and a continuing commitment to the Red Cross.

The grandmother and her pal Judy Stokes have recently received medals for 70 years of voluntary service with the organisation.

After the war Mary married, had children and became a qualified NHS nurse, progressing to matron.

But she still found time to volunteer for the Red Cross.

Much of her work involved first aid training and it was during a course in the 1960s that she met fellow volunteer Judy (see panel for her story).

Mary was leading the course, and Judy came in as an examiner and ‘casualty’.

As well as being first aiders, the volunteers played the parts of patients for workplace training courses and even during exercises for the emergency services.

‘We took it very seriously. RADA had nothing on us,’ laughs Judy, who recalls being tied to a ladder and lowered from a building.

Mary remembers one particularly talented Red Cross actress.

‘She could hold her breath for an unconscionable period of time. She terrified more first aid trainees than anyone else.’

Later Mary was on the team setting up a museum in Winchester under Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Balfour, Hampshire director for 45 years.

The museum, now closed, housed an archive from all over the world and Mary helped gather documents.

It gave her a further appreciation for the organisation’s work.

‘I felt very humble, it made me realise that my own contribution has been very small.

‘But at the same time I felt very proud.’

Judy Stokes’ most remarkable job as a Red Cross VAD nurse was working for plastic surgery pioneer Sir Harold Gillies in Basingstoke.

At Rooksdown House during the Second World War, he performed life-changing operations on patients who had suffered disfiguring facial injuries.

Judy’s work included washing, blanket baths and changing beds, pyjamas and dressings.

Now 88 and living in Titchfield, she is very proud to have been on the team.

She says: ‘We were so young and ignorant that we had no idea we were taking part in history.

‘Working for him was a real privilege. I appreciate it more now I’m older but at the time I thought nothing of it.’

The nurses were encouraged to socialise with patients.

This was to help them with self-confidence and Judy and her colleagues would often give up free time to accompany the men to dances and the pictures.

Recently honoured for 70 years’ Red Cross Service, Judy began work for the organisation during the war at a convalesence hospital in Liphook. The men she worked with were on the road to recovery but sometimes required a friendly ear.

‘They’d lost friends who had been killed standing beside them. So sometimes you did a little bit of comforting. ‘

Judy’s Red Cross work has included first aid training and first aid at events, working with school pupils on their Duke of Edinburgh Awards and looking after museum costumes.

British Red Cross staff and volunteers recently celebrated the opening of a new crisis centre in Commercial Road, Portsmouth.

The charity moved to the premises this year. It is the main base for services operating across Hampshire, Surrey and the Isle of Wight.

Staff were previously based in Winchester and All Saints Church, Portsmouth.

A drop-in centre for refugees and asylum seekers continues to operate at All Saints.

The work of the Red Cross includes short-term care for adults recovering from illness, first aid training, first aid services at public events, emergency support for people facing crises like fire and flood and refugee services.

For information, call 0845 054 7222 or visit redcross.org.uk.