Leslie (born 1914, died 1985) came from an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family and was the daughter of a baronet. She was a first cousin once removed of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In August 1940 she saw in a London newspaper an advertisement for women drivers ready to go to Africa. “A shiver of excitement went up my spine and as sometimes happened I knew by instinct that I would go.”

She enlisted as an ambulance driver and fully trained mechanic with the Mechanised Transport Corps, a voluntary organisation, in 1940 aged 26. Leslie maintained that she was driven by a desire to help the war effort, though the book’s new introduction by Penny Perrick reveals a need to flee a tangled personal life, something not disclosed in the original book, and with no further details from Perrick.

Leslie employs a matter-of-fact, oh-well-that’s-life approach to her memoir. Sometimes her experiences read like a caper, a sort of “jolly hockey sticks” affair. While training in London she says “It was a good kind of a war for a bit, interesting and gay. It had not yet become a drab old story.”

Eventually sent to the Middle East, her war had its share of socialising and sightseeing, but she was also extraordinarily resilient to the maddening discomfort of Egypt with its heat, sand and flies. Here and then in Europe she spent much time mucking it in mud and freezing cold, with rats, fleas, poor food such as tinned beans on tin plates, and sleeping on stretchers and in ambulances.

The very basic living conditions are not dwelled on as Leslie looks on with a bemused eye and seems to take everything in her stride. The discomfort of long journeys and sleeping and eating where possible seem to be light matters to her.

Of course, there is much blood and horror, and Leslie does not flinch. The war throws up a cast of eccentrics, incompetents and sheer clowns, amid the fighting boys and heroes.

When she saw a party of Moroccans digging deep trenches, she smugly thought they were going to be latrines. But she was disillusioned when two jeeps came down the road laden with corpses. She should have learnt by now that the French Army does not bother about latrines, she recounts. These were graves.

Another time, a soldier told her how he had marched a couple of German POWs to a frantic French peasant woman who had seen her sick boy dragged out to be shot a few days before. The woman asked for a revolver and the soldier gave it to her. The Germans were too tired even to lift their hands. Whatever they saw in her face they were beyond caring and she also was expressionless as she shot them, in cold blood, as her boy had been.

Also, parachute troops had found several women snipers tied in trees. Their bodies were bound so firmly they did not fall, even after they were dead, and the soldiers said they had cropped hair and were indistinguishable from men.

Once, a shell fell plumb on a small house. “We waited for the dust to subside and out of the debris ran a man shouting angrily, ‘Where the hell is that plumber?’ So we advanced cautiously and asked what the plumber had to do with it. ‘Blast the fellow,’ cried the good man, ‘he has been working here for a week … I’ve paid him the Lord knows what to put my drains in and this morning I go to the lavatory, pull the plug and the whole blooming house falls down’,“

Leslie’s war was both harrowing and a hoot, as she looks on the absurd in sardonic style. Posted to Naples to look after the injured following costly assaults by the Allies at Monte Cassino, she observes: "As the hundreds of pitifully wounded men passed by, I felt it was like trying to run a canteen in Dante's Inferno with the Marx Brothers as assistants."

Leslie witnessed the deaths of children hit by shrapnel, including a brother and sister aged seven and four who had been fatally injured by a mortar round. She helped tend soldiers – both French and German – facing amputations after stepping on mines.

One of the most shocking episodes was a mission to bring a group of starving, TB-infected, deformed French POWs back to their homeland from the concentration camp at Nordhausen in Germany, where prisoners were forced to make V2 rockets and suffered horrendous experimentation.

“It was midnight when we got them to hospital, carried them upstairs and tucked up their poor husks of bodies in bed. They were fainting with fatigue and soaked with sweat but the journey was worth it, for they died going home.”

The ambulancieres, as the French called them, were never far from danger and were often ahead of the Allied tanks. On one trip to pick up an injured artilleryman, Leslie’s ambulance bonnet was riddled with bullets. On another occasion, in a village near the Vosges mountains, the French forces came under sustained bombardment.

Leslie dashed to a baker’s house – the only building with a cellar – and dived for safety. More than 20 elderly locals and a huddle of children were already there. They survived the night but days later, after Leslie and her team had moved on, the house took a direct hit and everyone was killed.

The deaths that hit hardest were colleagues Lucette and Odette Lecoq. Just days before the German surrender, the young sisters, who were driving two seriously injured Germans to hospital, were ambushed and shot dead by the SS.

Their bodies were discovered dumped in a barn. Lucette was still warm. Leslie, who had partnered Lucette before her sister joined the unit, was part of the ambulancieres’ vigil the night before they were buried with full military honours.

As Leslie's ambulance corps advanced towards Berlin, "We crossed a great line of fortifications without realising it was the Siegfried Line – the very one where we had, unfortunately, not hung our washing five years before ... " Leslie marched into Berlin with the Allied Forces and took part in the Victory in Europe parade in the destroyed city.

She wrote letters home on Adolf Hitler’s notepaper, headed with an eagle and swastika, from Hitler’s office in the Reich Chancellery.

She was awarded the Croix de guerre (War Cross), given to those who distinguish themselves with acts of heroism against the enemy, by General Charles de Gaulle, and finally ended up lunching with Churchill ahead of the Potsdam Conference, where he discussed with US President Harry Truman and Russian premier Joseph Stalin how Germany should be administered.

In these pre-political correctness times, Leslie is a bit racist towards others, such as Slavs and Moroccans. Another quibble with this otherwise very readable book, at one stage she writes: “ ‘Greveuse est la guerre, et dure a l’endurer; Quand ailleurs est L’été, en Galle est hiver,’ wrote a medieval poet, and I understood full well what he meant.” Unfortunately, we don’t understand – not fully, anyway – because the book offers no translation of this and quite a few other French and German remarks. There are also some unexplained acronyms. It is a shame that in this new edition of a book first published nearly 70 years ago, no annotation has been added.

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