TO a girl who had never been further than Keighley, Joan Chandler’s first posting as a young nurse might as well have been the Moon.

Aged 17, Joan was sent to Singapore, to work at the British Military Hospital. It was 1959 and she had completed two years SEN training at St John’s Hospital in Keighley.

Singapore was a long way from Ingrow Mill, which was where Joan would have been had her father had his way.

“I was expected to go from school to the mill, like my older sister and brothers had,” says Joan. “When I was at school I want to be a nun or a nurse. I was accepted into a convent in Whitby but my father wouldn’t let me go.

“I reluctantly agreed to work at the mill for a year. After that I put my foot down and said I was going to be a nurse. In those days you obeyed your father, but I was determined. It was many years later that I realised he was proud of me.”

Born in 1943, Joan grew up in Haworth and left school at 15. “Nursing was a calling; I just wanted to care for people,” she says. “Working in the mill was smelly, dirty and noisy. I did horrible jobs in nursing too, but it was what I wanted to do.”

Joan joined the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps and was sent to Singapore to treat soldiers in the Malayan Emergency (1948-60). Malaya was a British colony, occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War. It later returned to British rule but in 1948 a Malayan Communist revolt led to a guerrilla conflict, eventually won by British and Commonwealth forces. British soldiers sent to fight included young men on National Service.

Joan worked in what was known as the Alexandra Hospital, the principal hospital in the Far East for British troops. She arrived in Singapore towards the end of the Malayan Emergency, when there were still many casualties. “Men were brought in with horrific injuries, many had lost limbs,” recalls Joan. “We had an ‘ice cold room’, treating injured limbs with ice so they didn’t fester.”

In Singapore, Joan encountered the cruel legacy of Japanese prison camps. “The RAF base at Changi had been a prisoner-of-war camp. It was 1959 but we could still see the suffering in men who’d been captured. Some had TB and ulcerated legs, some had lost legs,” says Joan. “There was a British man, a dressmaker who stitched everything beautifully by hand. His arms were very long - he had been tortured on a stretch rack by the Japanese. I was born in the war and didn’t know anything of what these prisoners had been through, it was an eye-opener.”

Life in Singapore was a world away from Haworth where Joan grew up, one of seven siblings. “I’d never been overseas, suddenly there was all this noise, heat, humidity. I saw chiffchaffs and snakes scuttling in the barracks,” she says. “I joined the Army because I was a girl from a Pennine village and wanted to travel. I was introduced to new food. I learned to make a Malayan curry, which I still love.

“I got chance to go to India, to look at hospitals there. I remember being on a road where, a decade earlier, people were separated after Partition. I had a powerful feeling of how it must have been.”

While in Singapore Joan met her husband, Albert, a rifleman with the Ox and Bucks (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry). “He proposed under a banyan tree on a balmy summer evening,” smiles Joan. “One day he met me at the hospital, looking dashing in his white uniform. It was like that film An Officer and a Gentleman - heads turned as he walked down the ward. He was all mine.”

The couple married in Keighley in 1966. “He came over from Berlin, where he was serving, and he fell in love with Yorkshire,” says Joan. “He got to Haworth at midnight, on the eve of our wedding, with nowhere to stay so the police let him spend the night in the cells! I didn’t even know if he’d made it in time.”

Joan and Albert had three sons, Colin, Adrian and Matthew. Adrian went on to join the Army, serving in the same regiment as his father.

Joan’s overseas nursing career was cut short when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis aged just 19. “I’d been on a beach, swimming, having a whale of a time, then days later I could only move my neck," she recalls. "I was sent home, I had to leave my fiance behind in Singapore. We’d planned to build a life over there. I loved the Far East. “

Joan suffered occasional MS flare-ups but continued nursing, stationed in military hospitals in London and Hampshire. “In those days wards were run by matrons, military style. We were on duty at 7am, for a 12-hour shift. Our patients included colonels and brigadiers, who expected certain standards,” says Joan.

Like many women who served in military nursing corps, Joan feels her work was undervalued. “The men got all the praise, but as nurses we were on the front line, treating men and saving lives. I didn’t get any recognition for being a QA. It’s time they accepted that women played a vital role,” she says. “There's more recognition for women now, but my generation feels a bit forgotten.”

It was standing up to her father that paved the way for Joan’s siblings to have their own military careers. Two of her brothers joined the Army and her younger sister went into the RAF. “We were a family of millworkers. If I hadn’t put my foot down at 15, I’d have spent my life pattern weaving at Ingrow Mill,” she says.

Joan’s husband, Albert died shortly after retiring from the Army. Now 76, Joan lives in Keighley and is keen to hear from other women who were military nurses. “I have all these fantastic memories but no-one to tell them to," she says.

She hopes to attend a reminiscence get-together for ex-servicemen and women in Keighley organised by Age UK's Military Memories project.

* Anyone interested in talking to Joan can contact Emma Clayton on (01274) 705261 or