‘blood wagon’: meaning and origin

The colloquial British- and Irish-English expression blood wagon denotes an ambulance (i.e., a vehicle designed to carry sick or injured people). Originally, in the slang of the Royal Air Force (i.e., the air force of the United Kingdom), this expression specifically denoted a specially equipped airplane for carrying sick or injured people.

The expression blood wagon occurs, for example, in Choosing the best policy to suit your holiday needs, by Nicola Warrington, published in The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, West Midlands, England) of Saturday 31st January 1998:

According to insurer Preferential, the cost of treatment in private clinics in ski resorts is rising by five per cent a year. Switzerland and the USA lead the way, with the cost of a four-day stay in a private clinic costing up to £5,000 and £7,000 respectively.
On top of that help on the slopes can cost a fortune with a £50 charge for every minute the helicopter is in the air and a £100 charge for a ‘blood wagon’.

The earliest occurrences of blood wagon that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Report on the Health of the Royal Air Force for the Year 1920 (London: Published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office, November 1921), “issued for the information of all concerned, by Command of the Air Council”:

Chapter III.—The Health of the Royal Air Force Overseas.
Section III.—“Z” Expedition.

The “Z” force left England for Somaliland in the autumn of 1919 and was finally disbanded at Suez in April 1920. […]
The expedition is of medical interest in that—
An aerial ambulance was used for the first time in desert warfare. The machine was a modified De H. 9 and carried one stretcher and attendant. It [sic] value is well shown by the following extracts from private correspondence from Somaliland:—
“The old ‘blood waggon,’ as everyone calls the aerial ambulance, has proved a complete success. Certainly for desert warfare and the transport of sick or wounded, where hitherto only camels or pony litters have been available, the aeroplane stands out all on its own even for the most serious cases. I must say I was inclined to be sceptical at first, and in my estimates for the transport of ‘Z’ casualties did not count upon the aeroplane at all as it was only in the experimental stage.”
“This campaign has, however, demonstrated the efficiency of the aeroplane as an ambulance.”
“As luck would have it, our first case was X. When the hot pursuit of the mullah commenced, after we had bombed him out of his fort and hiding place at Jedali, X., although suffering from a septic toe, insisted on joining the hunt. It was a very hot chase, the Camel Corps doing 90 miles in 36 hours. X. developed general septicæmia, with lymphangitis and adenitis, and had to be carried in a litter into our advanced aerodrome at El Afweina, where he arrived in a state of collapse, with a temperature of 104° F. The old ‘blood waggon’ happened to be standing by, and X. was immediately transferred to our ‘Z’ Advanced Hospital at Eil Dur Elan, where he arrived within an hour of his arrival at El Afweina—distance El Afweina to Eil Dur Elan, 75 miles,—that is, 3½ days track by camel. X. was collapsed on arrival at Eil Dur Elan; and after a short interval for rest and recovery from shock, &c., Y. opened the foot, and the whole leg was submerged in a hot stupe. At any rate, X.’s temperature was got down, and the local septic focus relieved; and after a few days rest he was again put into the aerial ambulance and transferred to Berbera—100 miles an hour—accompanied by Z. in the observer’s seat. X. was of course a stretcher case. Two days later he was operated on—an X-ray photograph and previous clinical examination having confirmed the necrosis of middle phalanx—and the offending toe amputated, since when the patient has steadily improved and will soon be about again.”
“Thus the aerial ambulance has shown that, especially in operations over country where other transport is so tedious and trying, the aeroplane is a veritable godsend for sick and wounded.”

Two British periodicals mentioned the expression blood wagon in articles about the Report on the Health of the Royal Air Force for the Year 1920:
The Western Times (Exeter, Devon, England) of Saturday 24th December 1921;
Flight: The Aircraft Engineer and Airships (London, England) of Thursday 19th January 1922 (Flight was the official organ of the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom).

2-: From “Happy Landings”: The true story (save for the main character’s name) of an episode that came into an aviator’s memory on an Armistice Day, an unsigned story published in The Graphic (London, England) of Saturday 14th November 1931:

We had thirty red-hot seconds and the enemy closed in behind us, but after one short burst from Seeley’s gun it stopped, and I looked round for the reason.
He was on the floor of his cockpit, the muzzles of his guns pointing to High Heaven, telling the tale as plainly to the enemy as it did to me. The lad was down. It was my lucky day and somehow I got back, dropped a red Very light 1 for the ambulance as I sideslipped in over the trees, and taxied tail-up to meet the “blood-waggon.”

1 From the name of the U.S. naval officer Edward W. Very (1847-1910), the noun Very light denotes a coloured pyrotechnic flare projected from a special pistol.

3-: From the review of A Rabbit in the Air: Notes from a diary kept while learning to handle an aeroplane (London: Chatto & Windus, 1932), by the British author David Garnett (1892-1981)—review published in The Scotsman (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Monday 18th April 1932:

Technical narrative here is never tiring, and whether one is interested in aeroplanes or not, the author succeeds in holding one’s attention with his arresting descriptions and cheerful anecdotes. The ambulance and fire engine (known in flying circles as “blood waggons”) had been turned out in anticipation of a crash. A machine with a broken undercarriage was expected to do itself damage on landing. As soon as it was all over (the crash was not a bad one), a charming lady appeared and expressed her sympathy with the “poor firemen” called out “all for nothing.” “I thought I had never heard prettier sympathy for the poor lion without a Christian,” remarks Mr Garnett.

4-: From The Blood Wagon, a short story by Val Guest, published in The Belper News (Belper, Derbyshire, England) of Friday 11th October 1935:

“A” Squadron had a new ambulance. That was how the Blood Waggon arrived. That was how “A” Squadron at Arras in 1918 entered into what must surely be one of the most amazing eras in the history of the Great War.

5-: From Playboy of the Air (London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1937), the autobiography of the Scottish aviator James Allan Mollison (1905-1959):

I was only yards away and I was close behind the futile hurry of fire engines and the blood wagon, as the ambulance is dubbed.

6-: From the account of an incident which took place at the Royal Air Force Station of Biggin Hill, in the outskirts of London, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Tuesday 7th February 1939:

[Flying-Officer Bowler] was circling down ready for the crash, when, by a million to one chance, the ’plane hit an air-pocket, bounced and the undercarriage was released.
He made a perfect three-point landing.
Later Flying-Officer Bowler told me of the time he spent waiting for the crash he felt must come. “It was the longest half-hour I have ever spent,” he said, “yet every minute passed too quickly as the petrol ran out.”
Another member of the squadron told me: “We all expected the crash; the ‘blood-wagon’ (ambulance) was waiting.”

7-: From the Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Monday 3rd August 1942:

Some Expressions Interpreted

[…] Here are some words in current use:—
“His kite was full of flak and we thought he’d have to use his brollie, but he made a bellyflop and off he went in the blood waggon.”
Translated into everyday terms those remarks would read something like this:—
“His aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, and we thought he would have to use his parachute; but he made a crash landing and was drvien [sic] off in the ambulance.”

8-: From Service Slang: A First Selection (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1943), by John Leslie Hunt and Alan George Pringle.

9-: From a letter to a colleague by one Sergeant Thomas Patch, who was serving with a field ambulance in the Middle East Forces, published in the Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald (Bath, Avon, England) of Saturday 24th April 1943:

My section consisted of 16 men, including drivers and officer, with one three-ton lorry and three “blood wagons” (ambulances).

10-: From the review of Fleet Air Arm. Prepared for the Admiralty by the Ministry of Information. With illustrations (London: Published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1943)—review published in The Londonderry Sentinel (Derry, County Derry, Northern Ireland) of Saturday 6th November 1943:

As on most naval air stations, Wrens also undertake much of the maintenance of the guns, and there is a small station nearby, used as an emergency landing-ground, which is entirely staffed by Wrens of the Fleet Air Arm under a Wren officer, with a V.A.D. 2 […] The only man in this Amazonian communiy [sic] is the elderly driver of the crash tender (or “blood waggon”), which is too heavy for the girls to start. He lives ashore.

2 V.A.D.: a nurse serving in the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

11-: From a British United Press correspondence from the Italian front, published in the Manchester Evening News (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 1st January 1944:

Rode on Tail of Spitfire at 600 Feet

THIS is the true, unvarnished story of a man who flew on the tail of a Spitfire and escaped unharmed. He is Leading Aircraftman Stanley Dickerson, of Downing Drive, Grenford [sic], Middlesex, and this is his own story as told at an aerodrome just behind the Eighth Army front.
“I was riding on the tail of the Spitfire as the pilot taxied it round to the runway to keep the machine from nosing over.
“The pilot must have forgotten about me when he got to the runway because he opened the throttle and off we went. I banged on the fuselage as we took off, but, of course, he couldn’t hear me.
“But he must have known something was wrong because the tail was heavy. Then the ‘Number 2’ in the formation caught sight of me sitting back there, flew over, waggled his wings and pointed backwards. My pilot suddenly found out what had happened.”
I asked Dickerson how he managed to hold on. “I didn’t have to” was the amazing reply. “The slip-stream from the propellor pushed me against the fin, so I just sat there.
“We were about 600 feet when the pilot circled round very gently and came down on the runway in a beautiful three-point landing. I didn’t even feel a bump when we landed. The ‘blood-wagon’ ambulance was there, and they wanted to give me a drink of water, but I didn’t need that.”
I put the obvious question to Dickerson, “Weren’t you scared?”
And this was his completely honest reply: “No, not a bit, but I was worried about the pilot. You see, he had to go up on a show over the line, and I thought he might be upset by taking me up on the tail, so directly the plane stopped I jumped off and ran up to him and gave him the ‘thumps up’ sign and shouted ‘Okay, sir. Everything’s fine. Go on, get upstairs’.”—B.U.P.

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