Travel in France during the war and in the immediate aftermath was not a straightforward task, and when I knew my protagonist was going to undertake a journey across the tattered country, I brainstormed the most likely mode of transportation he could use to hasten his journey. The answer came to me almost immediately: an ambulance.
I studied a number of ambulances in the early days of my research. The Dodge WC54 was one I came across quite often in reading, but it was the main ambulance used by the US Army from 1942 to 1945. I wanted a vehicle that was in the European theatre well before the American involvement in the war, an ambulance that Charlotte—a member of the Ambulance Field Service of the American Hospital of Paris, which operated under the banner of the Red Cross during the war—would have had access to in the early days of the war.
In my research, I came across the Austin K2/Y ambulance, a British ambulance that could carry ten people (but was rumored once to have carried 27 wounded in the North African campaign), was affectionately called “Katy,” and had a tendency to be cantankerous between certain gears. Katy, or Kathryn as Charlotte calls her, was perfect for what I had in mind.
Even so, I am hands on with my research, and I would have preferred to drive Katy myself to really get a feel for the vehicle and to add richer detail to my descriptions. Unfortunately, only around fifty K2/Ys remain in the world, and when I contacted the Military Vehicle Preservation Association here in the States, they knew of none here in America. I found one for sale in the UK, and believe me, I was tempted. But the shipping and insurance would probably have been exorbitant, so I resisted buying myself an ambulance.
Instead, I had the extreme luck of finding a copy of a Driver’s Handbook for the vehicle published by Austin Motors in 1942. It was for sale at a farm surplus store in rural UK, and the thin, delicate book is something I now consider a treasured possession. It informed my research wonderfully, and every time I slide it from its cellophane cover and carefully turn the fine pages, I wonder at the story behind this handbook. I can still see smudged fingerprints along the edges of the page, and I wonder what woman or man once poured over this manual, which front’s horrors she or he faced, and whether they made it home.