The Flying Nightingales
As Published in Hampshire the County Magazine, January 2006, Vol. 46 No. 3
by Jake Simpkin 
When I first heard the story of Corporal Lydia Alford it brought to mind Winston Churchill’s famous remark of 65 years ago.  He said of WW2, that it was not a war of princes or chieftains, but of peoples and causes; a war fought by unknown heroes.  For me, she typified the unknown heroes that Churchill was referring to. Corporal Lydia Alford
Lydia dressed for action
Image: Courtesy
of Heather West
Lydia Alford was the first of three women known as ‘the Flying Nightingales’ to land in a battle zone after D-Day.  She was a nursing orderly in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (W.A.A.F), and flew on the first RAF transport plane to evacuate the wounded from the Normandy battlefields.
On 12 June 1944, 6 days after D-day, Lydia was among a pool of nursing orderlies summoned to HQ, and given a talk by Sir Harold Whittingham, Director General of the RAF Medical Services.
He chose three of them, Corporal Lydia Alford, Myra Roberts, and LACW Edna Birkbeck, and told them, “You had better be ready to fly tomorrow morning”.  Lydia admitted that she had not much idea what to expect when they should arrive on the other side.
RAF Air Ambulance Unit flew under 46 Group Transport Command based at three airfields; Down Ampney (near Cirencester) , Broadwell (near Burford), and Blakehill Farm (near Cricklade).
The task of the Squadrons was the towing of gliders, the delivery of freight to reinforce the para drops, and on the return journey to bring back the wounded.
The following morning the three girls were given an aircrew breakfast, the normal briefing, and issued with Mae West life jackets and parachutes.  This prompted one airman to comment, “Hey fellas, they’re going in before us”.  At 5 a.m. in slight rain, the slim, blue clad figures, carrying their first-aid panniers boarded their respective RAF Dakotas.  Senior RAF officers were there to offer hand shakes and ‘Bon voyage’.
The outward bound flights carried supplies to the troops and therefore could not carry the Red Cross insignia.  The homeward flights, with casualties aboard, were classified as air ambulances.
Flying over the Normandy coast, far below the aftermath of the D-Day landings could be seen strewn across the beach; abandoned landing craft, broken tanks, creators and scattered equipment.
Several months later Lydia’s recollections of that first landing were reported in The Sunday Chronicle:  “Chiefly I remember the dust which was everywhere, coming up in great clouds.  While the freight was being unloaded I tried to make the wounded men as comfortable as possible in all that dust.  I had water to give them and panniers of tea.  There was a little stray dog which came up from somewhere or other and started to play with the wounded- it cheered them up no end.
After the supplies were discharged, Lydia’s aircraft was immediately loaded with wounded, and took off again. Unfortunately, the weather closed in and the other two W.A.A.Fs had to wait for it to clear. While they were waiting somebody drove them around in a jeep.  Soldiers cheered the girls, and one cockney sergeant exclaimed, “Blimey! Women!
Meanwhile, Lydia was high above the English Channel tending the nine wounded men in her charge. They were mostly stretcher cases. One man required oxygen; a few hours earlier he had been shot in the chest and back by a Nazi sniper.
First back, Lydia was overwhelmed by dozens of press correspondents. They immediately nicknamed the W.A.A.F. nursing orderlies “Flying Nightingales”, a name that would stick for the rest of the war.  For her family reading the headline it was the first they learnt of Lydia’s role.
 Lydia tends a wounded soldier
Image: Courtesy
of Heather West
Lydia Alford was born on the 4 July 1916 and grew up in the family home at Vine Cottage, Burnetts Lane, Horton Heath. She was the fourth child in a family of 6.  Lydia was educated at Fair Oak School.   After a period in domestic service she trained to become a nurse at the South Hants Hospital, Southampton, before joining-up as a W.A.A.F. nursing orderly.
Shortly afterwards she responded to a call in the Daily Routine Orders asking for volunteers from suitably qualified medical personnel to train for air ambulance nursing duties.
Within weeks of applying Lydia was sent on an intensive ambulance training course at Hendon, where she received special training.
The Flying Nightingales are
much appreciated
Image: Courtesy
of Heather West
This included instruction in the use of oxygen, injections, learning how to deal with certain types of injuries such as broken bones, missing limb cases, head injuries, burns and colostomies; and to learn the effects of air travel and altitude.
Upon completion of the course, Lydia was posted to RAF Blakehill Farm, near Cricklade. 
Her training continued with brush-up courses at the nearby RAF hospital at Wroughton. Sandwiched in between was dinghy drill in the swimming pool at Bath; and several hours flying experience often in night flying glider exercises. 
These were terrifying since they were carried out with the aircraft cargo door removed, and when the glider was released the whole plane would judder.
During those tense days of waiting the girls were put through a tough routine of physical training, and in their spare time they set about helping to build roads on the newly built airfield.
With the path finder mission of 13 June judged a success the way was open for the mass evacuation of wounded soldiers from France by the air ambulance unit. Operations began proper on 18 June 1944, when 11 Dakotas landed on an airstrip at Beny sur Mer in Normandy.  They loaded with 183 casualties who were brought back to Down Ampney, to be followed by 90 three days later.  By the end of June, 1092 stretcher cases and 467 sitting wounded had been evacuated by Nos. 233, 271 and 48 Squadrons and their ‘Flying Nightingales’.
The WAAF nursing orderlies came equipped with large flasks of comforting ‘char’, and warm socks for cold feet.  The lads were thrilled at being treated by a girl nurse.  When the returning aircraft flew over the British coast, the wounded men never failed to raise-up a cheer.
Before the War it was generally considered that women were incapable of doing tough jobs, but the WAAF nursing orderlies soon proved their worth both in the eyes of the aircrew, and soldiers they tended.  Lydia flew numerous missions including the casualty evacuation of the battle of Arnhem.  Sometimes there were overnight stops, which were not looked forward to. There were no facilities for women on the primitive airstrips, which were still subject to enemy shelling, and the fear of sniper fire was ever present.
The ‘Flying Nightingales’ had to cope with treating soldiers suffering from a horrifying array of injuries, ranging from field amputations, extensive burns, colostomy wounds, and severe facial injuries. When they arrived back at Down Ampney stretchers were placed on waist high concrete blocks ready for examination by the Medical Officer.  Burn cases went to Odstock, Salisbury, head injuries to St. Dunstan’s at Radcliffe, spinal injuries and skin grafting to Stoke Mandeville.
Anne Mettam, a WW2 nursing orderly, writing  in Through Eyes of Blue (2002) pointed out that, ‘the Flying Nightingales have little mention in history, incredible as it may seem, considering that over 100,000 casualties were transported by air safely back to the UK’.   Every year at Down Ampney a memorial service is held in All Saints Church in September.  The hymn Come Down O Love Divine, to the tune Down Ampney by Vaughan Williams, is traditionally sung.
Lydia Alford’s niece, Heather West living in West End, said that after the war her aunt returned to nursing at the South Hants Hospital, but increasingly suffered from health problems probably as a result of her war-time experiences, and spent many years in care. Lydia Alford died in 1993 and is buried in Pembers Churchyard, Fair Oak.
Eunice Wilson, an authority on the ‘Flying Nightingales’ commented that Lydia gave her ‘life and time’ to saving others.  Lydia’s nephew, Stuart Wallace living in Shirley, said that his aunt was the first British Woman to be sent into a war-zone.  She was without doubt one of the unsung heroes of WW2.
Read By 5927 Visitors Back To Listing