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36th Indian British Combined General Hospital in the Desert of Andimeskh WW2
Part 10 of the War Diary of QAIMNS Lieutenant Colonel Hughes where she takes charge of the 36th Combined Hospital in the desert of Persia with operating theatre and heatstroke centre and is involved in a train crash and is awarded the Royal Red Cross
Read part nine on the 18th Indian General Hospital World War Two page.
My unit now had orders to move, and so did I. They were all terribly disappointed that I was not going with them. Orders came through for me to take over a large hospital called the 36th Combined in the desert of Andimeskh. This is the hottest place in the world, the temperature being 130° in the shade, and even the Indians died of heatstroke. The village of Dizful was close by, its people surviving only by living in caves found on the banks of the river. Water left outside your tent by the evening became too hot to wash with, and at night hot winds blowing continually made sleep hopeless. Some of the troops - and so did my little dog Judy - would dig a foot or two below ground to keep cool. To get here I had a journey from Teheran lasing twenty-four hours, coming from snow and bitter cold to the heat. I had to change from sheepskins to white silk on the way.
I travelled in a special coach attached to the ordinary train running from Teheran to Basra. This train was involved in another crash, this time a really good one. When it left the rails it came into head-on collision with one coming from the opposite direction. Most of the people travelling were natives, with just a few British officials. One general was badly injured and had to have his leg amputated. Several of the natives were killed. I was more fortunate, my coach being in the rear. At the time of the accident I was having a drink of coffee from a flask with my little dog Judy sitting beside me. I was thrown against the opposite side of the carriage and must have been knocked out for about half an hour for I found I had a lovely bump on the forehead. What brought me round was hearing the natives screaming. There was a terrible mix up and I could not get out of my carriage. Officials said it would be at least twenty-four hours before they could clear the line, but luckily for me I had plenty of rations. The news soon reached Headquarters, and despatch riders were sent to find out if I was alright, as the Intelligence Corps had notified HQ that I was on the train.
Eventually arriving at my destination in terrific heat, feeling tired and worn out, I was met by officials and a car. They had been very worried. The six miles run to the hospital was over bumpy sandy desert. The hospital itself was rather crudely built of bricks and was originally meant to be a barracks and stables for the Persian cavalry. The cavalry officers' quarters were now the main hospital block for sick British officers and men, also the operating theatre and heatstroke centre. The outer buildings were for the Indian troops. This was the only hospital between Ahwaz and Teheran and was intended for the sick and wounded of those who were building the road to Russia from the ports of Basra and Ashar. This road carried rations and ammunitions by lorries to help the Russians and was kept very busy. The hospital was staffed with British and Indian officers and personnel including the sisters. Many heatstroke casualties and deaths were brought in from the road, so more heatstroke centres were arranged along the route. The humidity was so terrible that even the Indians could not stand it. I slept outside with my mosquito net drawn. It was quite impossible to sleep indoors even with the fans going the whole time. By morning perspiration would leave a wet impression of one's body in the camp bed canvas. Andimeskh was a bad place for malaria and sandflies, these biting and stinging. There were monster spiders that, if they touched your skin, would leave behind a huge blister, these taking some time to heal and often leaving a desert sore.
The river Diz ran close by the hospital, separating us from the village of Diz. This village was all native, very poor and dirty, foul smelling and full of diseases. Most of the children were blind and emaciated, the people almost naked or wearing bits of dirty rags. In the very hot season it would be quite a common sight to see bodies lying about dead or dying. The children used to come with tins around the hospital bins to collect the bits and would be seen eating on the river banks. The caves they lived in were twenty-five to forty feet below the river, and some of the stalls and shops in the village - just poor looking places - sold the sort of things the native wear because no one else ever visited this place. These people were kept poor and were only allowed to keep a small amount of money being hardly enough to live on. If found to be making above a certain sum it was taken off them to help keep up the grand buildings and palaces of officials around Teheran. Hundreds of children seem to have no parents, or the parents would not claim them. Older children would be found looking after the youngsters, even babies a few months old and sleeping in ditches. I was told that occasionally they were rounded up like cattle and taken to the hills and not seen again. It was awful to see women and their babies huddled up together, dying of starvation.
On one side of the hills and plains, which are barren and with deep crevices, was the area where the biggest battle in World War I was fought between the British and the Turk, known as the Battle of Kut and Buskt. The Turks, by crossing the Euphrates and making their way over the hills to Shaiba, took our men by surprise. The cemetery at Sunnyat is still marked off, the British section being left in peace, but the Turkish burial ground was a hunting place for the Arabs looking for clothes and treasure. They knew that the clothes and possessions of the British had been collected by the burial party before they were buried.
The officers and men, when free from duty, would form a party and go hunting for gazelle. The venison we cooked, and it was a change from the everlasting mutton and bully beef. The roads on the plains were very rough and we were more or less, cut off from civilisation. I used to send my nursing staff in turns to Teheran every six to eight weeks for one week's stay so as to keep them fit, otherwise they could not have stood the heat.
This hospital had been run in a small way since 1941 without nursing sisters. It was originally a Casualty Clearing Station for the troops making the road to Russia, but many casualties occurred and fevers broke out, so it was turned into the 36th I.B. Combined General Hospital and properly staffed. I asked the military authorities at HQ in Baghdad if it was possible to have a YWCA in Teheran now that there were so many sisters stationed in the area and others being sent up the line for health reasons. They contacted the chief of this organisation, and a large house was found in a good residential area just outside the town, and equipped. Two charming Australian ladies acted as hostesses and they made everyone so happy and comfortable. It was hard work getting the place fixed up, so we all gave a helping hand. I happened to be in Teheran at the time it was opened, so went to stay there and help. They were so afraid the place would not be ready, anyhow the three of us sat up all of one night sewing cushions and curtains. It proved a wonderful place because one felt so safe. This is a copy of a letter sent to me:-
YWCA Services Club Baghdad 7/8/43.
My dear Miss Hughes.
Loving congratulations on your decoration. I only heard last night, and was delighted for you about it, as from the first minute I arrived in Teheran I heard what a grand person you were. We loved having you to stay with us, and I doubt if my cushions would have been finished for the opening if you had not helped.
During this time I was at Andimeskh. There was a surgeon attached to the 36th who in peace-time had been a medical missionary in India. The Dizful children worried him so much that he asked for permission to have a small ward allotted to him so that he could help some of the bad cases seen lying about. The OC, a British Colonel and a real Pukka Sahib, gave permission. He started on a number lying about too ill to do anything and with very distended tummies. So, performing laparotomy - releasing the fluid - found fifty percent of the cases with stones in the kidney and bladder, who, after treatment, made wonderful recoveries. When ready for discharge the problem arose of keeping them healthy. So a mud hut was taken over in the village and two decent women found to help keep it clean and look after the children for a few days. This place was also used as a clinic. The natives thought it wonderful and soon we were overflowed with requests, but it was impossible to deal with them all. The blind children had their eyes attended to. It was amazing how they cleared up and quite a number were able to see after the lids had been loosened and irrigated. A banker promised to help them and keep the clinic going, but I am afraid that as soon as our backs are turned he was going to forget about them.
The hospital was kept very busy with typhoid, typhus, malaria, dysentery and heatstroke cases and with many surgical cases from truck accidents and explosions. After having had three years of continuous work, with no proper leave, I was beginning to feel very tired and the heat was getting me down. Then one night I really felt ill and sent for a medical officer who had me rushed straight away into cold storage (heatstroke centre) and kept me there for four days. I was then sent up to Teheran on the Red Cross train. What a fuss they made! Everyone was so kind to me and marvelled at the way I was able to carry on working so hard, but I loved it all and felt it was our duty to the boys. During this time I received a very big and unexpected surprise. I had been recommended for the 1st Class Royal Red Cross for distinguished services in the field. This is the highest award given to the nursing profession and is equal to the DSO. I received a very large mail from different regiments and battalions and also from high-ranking officials from far and near, even from Italy, India, the Middle East and the United Kingdom, and one Colonel sent me a special piece of ribbon from India.
During my holiday in Teheran I visited some of the beauty spots on the outskirts. I was then by good friends, having a car complete with driver placed at my disposal. At a place called Shermerand was a wonderful natural swimming pool with fresh water flowing in continuously from the surrounding mountains. This really belonged to the Shah and his officials, but they gave me permission to use it. I often took a picnic tea alongside the pool; it was so cool, fresh and peaceful, surrounded by various kinds of fruit trees. The water from the pool drains itself into a stream that runs down one side of the main streets of the town, and in the early mornings and late evenings natives would be seen washing themselves and the women doing their laundry, this being the only water available to them. They would also use it for drinking purposes. Qum is a wonderful place and noted for its mosques, the domes of which can be seen gleaming like gold for miles around, and to the religious races it is looked upon as a sort of Mecca. The Durband mountains are used for winter sports, being always covered with snow.
Lt Col Hughes journal continues on the 28th Combined General Hospital Mosul and Kirkuk World War Two page.
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