Women's 800m hurdles race, London Olympic Games 1948

At the 1948 Olympic Games the world was still reeling from the Second World War. The Games had been cancelled in 1940 and 1944. Rations were still in place. But at short notice London agreed to host the Olympics.

Let’s hear from some of the Red Cross nurses who were on hand to give the athletes first aid.

Temperatures soared as more than 4,100 athletes from around the world flocked to our capital city.

Mrs Robbie from Glasgow worked as a Red Cross nurse in the medical hut for the Olympic stadium. She must have treated all kinds of injuries but it was disappointment that seemed to cause her patients the most pain.

Mens' hurdles heat, London Olympic Games 1948

Mens’ hurdles heat

Mrs Robbie wrote: “The competitors were usually brought in to the hut by their own doctors or team mates, very much the worse of nervous tension apart from their body wounds.

“The fact that they thought they had let their country down hurt more than their torn ligaments or pulled muscles and abrasions.”

The medical hut had three beds for women and three for men.

Red Cross teams worked hard to keep the hut both hygienic and homely for the injured athletes.

Olympic village London 1948

Olympic village, Surrey

“Each morning Mrs Harris […] from Kent and myself remade all the beds, dusted the wards and put fresh flowers on the lockers,” wrote Mrs Robbie.

Wounds were sprayed with penicillin and “after each patient had been seen to we washed and sterilised the syringes and put them back in their place for future use.”

The first patient of the Games was not actually an athlete but a Boy Scout. He fainted in the hot sun at the opening ceremony.

Boy Scout fainting at the Olympic opening ceremony 1948

Marathon runners are put to bed

Once the Games began the injuries were more severe.

“During the marathon race we had two ambulances with two doctors following the runners and as the race went on some of the competitors had to fall out.

“Many were brought to the medical hut suffering from exhaustion and two had to be given oxygen and put to bed.”

Mens' 400m final London Olympic Games 1948

Mens’ 400m final

While Mrs Robbie was in the thick of the action, other Red Cross teams were helping out at the athletes’ accommodation. They were put up at the rather luxurious at St Helen’s girls’ school in Northwood, north London. Here they could train in the school’s grounds, swimming pool and tennis courts.

Red Cross teams were on duty at the school 24 hours a day to attend to athletes from six European countries.

Nurse Mrs Robertson wrote mournfully: “The school was situated in beautiful surroundings but there was little treatment to do beyond attending to sore throats.”

The sick bay had a small surgery and five beds, “none of which were used during our week’s duty there.”

British women's Olympic swimming team cool their feet in the water, 1948

British women’s Olympic swimming team

Gold medals for patients

It wasn’t all bad, though.

“We spent our free day at the Games, which were most interesting and exciting, especially as we saw our ‘patients’, this giving the races a more personal touch.

“At least seven gold medals came to St Helen’s, which thrilled all of us working there,” wrote Nurse Robertson.

Several of these went to sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands, who was staying at the school. She clearly wasn’t troubled by a sore throat as she won all four of her races and broke an Olympic record.

Women's 200m semi finals at the London Olympic Games 1948

Women’s 200m semi finals

Good losers

Team GB 1948 did not manage such a fantastic medal haul as our 2016 champions. But we still put on a good show.

As Mrs Robbie wrote: “If Great Britain were not good winners they were good losers and if every section of our hospitality was as good as the medical side all I can say is that we are still a great nation, second to none.”

Opening of the London Olympics in 1948 including Olympic torch in the foreground

Volunteers today

The Red Cross said in 1948 these Olympics volunteers had “a duty to be envied by all”. Luckily our volunteers get similar opportunities today with everything from volunteering at the Commonwealth Games to giving first aid at the Euros 2016 in France this summer.

All images from the National Media Museum