A NURSE dubbed Sister Spitfire when she served in the Second World War has been speaking about her experiences for the first time.
Margaret Ellis, 93, needed every ounce of her spirit to cope with the carnage of Northern France 70 years ago.
But amid the horror of a military field hospital a few miles south of Dieppe, she also found love because she met and later married her husband, Geoffrey.
The bittersweet memories are still vivid for Mrs Ellis, now a resident of the Gwern Alyn Care Home, part of the Pendine Park care organisation in Wrexham.
She is proud of the medals she was awarded for her unstinting and brave service and proud of being nicknamed Sister Spitfire by a group of German prisoners she looked after.
A native of Wrexham, Mrs Ellis, known as Peggy to her friends, had a difficult start in life.
She was brought up in an orphanage in Caego after her mother died when she was just five.
Mrs Ellis lived there until she was 17 when she followed her dream to become a nurse.
She said: “It was always my ambition to be a nurse because I wanted to be like my Nain who was a midwife in Pentre Broughton.
“When I was 17 I went to Bury General Hospital, it was the finest training school in the North of England.”
After three years of training, she was appointed as a young sister in a women’s surgical ward.
But this was 1939 and the storm clouds of war were gathering – nurses were desperately needed to tend to soldiers injured during fighting in France.
Mrs Ellis recalled: “I was at Bury General for three years and one day I was called from the women’s surgical ward, where I was in charge, to see the matron and superintendent.
“The matron asked me if I would volunteer to join the army and I said, if she thought I was capable, I would go.
“That was 10 o’clock in the morning. At noon I was at Manchester’s Piccadilly Station getting on the train.
“I joined up with Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps and we went to Northern France the year the war started.
“I was based in a field hospital with 1,200 beds and on night duty I had six tents with 20 beds in each. That took some coping with.
“We tended to the men and gave them the best care we could provide. We saw some terrible things.”
But there was romance amid the horror because Mrs Ellis met the man who later became her husband.
Geoffrey Ellis came to the field hospital as a patient, having suffered an injury during the fighting – and was an ardent, determined suitor.
She said: “I couldn’t understand, when I went into these different tents, I always saw this man.
“I got a bit uptight one day and asked him what on earth are you following me for? We got on better after that and he started to ask if I would marry him. He turned out eventually to be my husband.”
But the conditions were extremely tough, not least the nurses providing treatment as best they could in primitive surroundings.
She said: “It was a nightmare. We were in fields and had no meals – all we had was the fresh eggs laid by chickens in the field. We would eat the raw eggs.”
Not only that, the Germans had a formidable fighting machine and they were pushing the British Army back, eventually forcing them to evacuate this part of Northern France.
Mrs Ellis added: “As the Germans advanced, the 51st Highland Division fought a rearguard action.
“Without them we would never have got away because the Germans were quite near to us. We would have been in trouble.”
After being evacuated back to Britain, Mrs Ellis worked at a military hospital on the outskirts of London where German prisoners of war were also patients.
She said: “We didn’t treat them as prisoners. We accepted them as patients, as human beings. I’m not very big and I was very young but I was quite strict and they called me Sister Spitfire.
“When I left to get married they wrote me a lovely letter thanking me and wishing me the best.”
After the war, Mrs Ellis and her late husband, Geoffrey, returned to Wrexham and lived in Gwersyllt where they raised two sons and a daughter.
Mrs Ellis worked in the War Memorial and Wrexham Maelor Hospitals until her retirement more than 30 years ago – but the experiences of the Second World War are never far away from her mind.
“I have clear memories. I often think about it,” she said.
For Cindy Clutton, the manager of Gwern Alyn, it is a privilege to be given the opportunity to look after a “latter-day Florence Nightingale”.
She said: “Mrs Ellis was, and remains, a remarkable lady to whom we all owe a great debt.
“The indomitable spirit is still in evidence and it’s not difficult to imagine why she became known as Sister Spitfire. At Pendine Park, we employ many nurses and having a real-life heroine in our midst is a great inspiration to us all.”