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D Day Normandy Landings
Details of the army and navy nurses who cared for casualties of the D Day Normandy Landings
The D Day Normandy Landings took place on the 6 June 1944 and was codenamed Operation Overlord. A subsidiary was Operation Neptune. Members of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and many of the Navy nurses of the QARNNS were there at the frontline to care for Allied casualties and injured Prisoners of War. Rather than repeat information that is already on the website we have added links below to pages with these details which will be of particular help for those seeking information for the forthcoming 70th Anniversary of D Day in 2014.
Two known members of the QAs who were at the D Day landings include Lt Col Maureen Gara RRC and Miss Gill Basant MBE whose memories can be read in Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949. More details can be read on the Haslar Royal Naval Hospital page.
Others cared for the injured and ill troops prior to D-Day at the No 1 Combined Training Centre Castle Inveraray, Scotland. This included Sister Jean Ross, pictured above, who served from 1943 to 1945. She was a trained nurse (Dundee) and orthopaedic nurse (Stanmore, Middlx).
These photos are from the collection of Becky R.Hilda Sharpe who served in Normandy in the days after D-day. She went to France Belgium, Holland and then Germany. She was also at the liberation of Belsen Concentration Camp. She served with the 101 British General Hospital, 81 BGH and 30 BGH.
After World War Two she married Lieutenant Colonel Grainger Wilson Reid Royal Army Medical Corps.
Becky R Hilda Sharpe with Keirl Green Anne and Matron Normandy QAIMNS WWII.
Ship crew with QAIMNS crossing over Bayeux 1944 with 101 British General Hospital.
Sisters Lines at Bayeux in 1944 with 101 BGH.
Waiting for food at Bayeux 1944 101 BGH.
Theatre Tent 101 British General Hospital Bayeux Normandy.
Tent Accommodation for nurses.
British Graves Beny Bocage Normandy 1944.
101 British General Hospital Bayeux November 1944.
30 BGH with Brian Brock, Tracey Harrold and Joan Goodchild, Normandy, France 1944.
81 British General Hospital, Oostrum, Holland - R H Sharpe is on the far right.
Hospital Unit Vehicles Crossing The Rhine 4 april 1945 Germany.
Announcement of Victory to Germans being told Luneberg Germany May 1945.
Shillong India May 1946 Sister R Hilda Sharpe QAIMNS.
See more from the collection on the Love Stories, BMH Kaduna and Colchester Military Hospital pages.
Further information about the first medical unit to land via Mulberry Harbour after D Day can be read on the Africa Second World War page.
Other QAIMNS nurses who served in Casualty Clearing Stations and Field Hospitals at Normandy are written about on QA World War Two Nursing and on WWII QA Sister Constance Nash page which includes several wonderful photos including a group photograph at Bayeux and some QAs driving a requisitioned German jeep! There is also the detailed and fascinating diary of Lieutenant Rigby further below.
Patients from D-Day and German POWs were sent back to Great Britain to be nursed at military hospitals such as Netley Hospital.
A Very Private Diary: A Nurse in Wartime are the war diaries of QAIMNS(R) Sister Mary Morris who cared for Dunkirk survivors at the Kent Sussex Hospital and then enlisted into the QAs which saw her land in Normandy with the 101 General Hospital British Liberation Army. Matron Sally Wade and this group of QAs landed on the 19 June 1944 after a rough crossing on HMS Duke of Lancaster. Mary's fascinating diary, kept diligently and at great risk despite censorship, goes into much detail which includes their pre-deployment training at Hatfield with the 101 GH BLA for this Second Front, buying their uniforms at Austin Reed in London and the comical first time they tried to use a canvas bath. Her diaries continue with their advance through to Brussels with the 108 BGH and then in post war Germany with the 25 BGH in Munster and the 94 BGH in Hamburg.
The June 1947 edition of Soldier Magazine has a photo of QA Nursing Sisters Morrison and Bjorkman erecting tents on D-plus-seven. There is also a picture of QAs on a truck just after landing in Normandy to set up the first base hospital (with thanks to Terry Hissey).
If you would like to contribute any info, photographs or share memories of the D Day Normandy Landings and QAIMNS nurses then please contact me.
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What if the loss of a child was not every parent's worst nightmare?
Hamish and Alison wake to some awful news from the police banging at their door, but what if their trauma was only just beginning?
Read how these former army nurses copes with their grief through to a terrifying ending.
Buried in Grief is my new novel, available in Paperback or Kindle and other devices.
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Pamela Bright served in a Casualty Clearing Station in the Normandy beach-head and wrote about her experiences in her 1953 book Life In Our Hands. She featured in the May 1955 edition of Soldier Magazine which described her time there and through the Netherlands and into Germany. It captures the humour of the British Army towards the QAs during the advance in contrast to the reassurance they gave when the same men came in wounded. One humorous story describes how an infantry officer came to the CSS to look for his wounded soldiers and was overcome by the sights and smells. He was helped to lie down on a stretcher by an orderly and fainted. He woke up back in England! Pamela also wrote about nursing Nazi patients and traitor William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw). With thanks to Terry Hissey.
Lt Patsy Rigby P/294277 was one of the first QA's to follow the British troops into Normandy and pushed through France and into Germany working in Field Hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations. Her son, Brian Edmunds, has kindly provided her war diary, which he found after her passing in 1987:
THE FATEFUL YEAR
By Patsy Rigby
If you cherish thoughts of looking glamorous in a uniform, from a woman's point of view – don't join the Forces in Wartime.
Our unit had been chosen to be the first mobile hospital to cross just after D-Day, and so we were to rough it. As one poor lass lamented after she had seen herself in male battledress: “I always wanted to go to Paris, it's been my life's ambition, but just think if I get there now, and looking like this.”
After my initial letter requesting to join the Q.A.I.M.N.S/R, I went for an interview, had my medical and was then told that although I had been accepted and would be gazetted in due course, in the meantime nursing staff were desperately needed at an emergency hospital at Arsley, so there I went, in my normal hospital uniform with two others in the same position, and there
I worked hard and happily for several months until we were called to our outfitting base at Hatfield House. Here we were given countless injections, service gas masks and almost daily lectures and instructions. We were taught by a lively little Sergeant how to salute and whom to salute and other army procedure. Since the Q.A.s were now not only Nursing Sisters, but given rank due to their experience, we were to become lowly Lieutenants.
We were sent to London in batches to be measured for our uniforms, grey and scarlet. Two skirts, straight, tunic, peaked cap, gloves and tie, and for ward use, three grey cotton dresses, belted, two short capes with scarlet borders and white veils. With these of course went grey stockings and black shoes. There was also a very heavy but smart greatcoat with scarlet-trimmed collar. I went to Harrods for my uniform and was certainly very well satisfied. The account compared with what it would be today was absurdly small – thirty six pounds, eleven shillings and one penny. Back again at Hatfield House we were issued with a bedding roll and straps, two grey blankets and a small flat pillow. One canvas bucket and one canvas bath and small basin – the legs (wooden) folding, doubling for both basin and bath. One canvas cot with folding legs. We were then told to procure one kitbag, one stove and one lamp, together with one carry-all and some device for hanging things from the tent pole. How very glad I was later that I had disregarded the standard items recommended. Instead of a carry-all I had a small soft-topped suitcase. When I opened the case there was everything to hand, whereas those with carry-alls had to grovel into the depths to find what they needed. While many of the others were lumbered with a very heavy smoky recommended stove, I lit up my valor and the clear blue flame gave out a splendid heat. While their candles blew out in a draught, my small lamp gave a good steady light from its reflector.
Hatfield House itself was a lovely place, still with some of their fine old portraits hanging on the staircase walls and large airy rooms to use as wards, but the Sisters' Mess and above all the toilets and bathrooms were a disgrace. The bathrooms, dark and tiny and very cold were underground on the other side of the road from the Mess. There was hardly room to stand up in your cubicle to undress and of course only the prescribed five inches of hot water could be used, but after all it was only a transient stop, we were all very soon sent to our final units. Four of us were posted to the 81 General Hospital, a 200-bed hospital to operate under canvas. This was at present collecting in a commandeered country home for several weary, cold and hungry months we whiled away the boring days. I was lucky to be sent off twice to nurse in other hospitals, once to the “Head Injuries” in Oxford where, among other things, I learnt that the G.I. orderlies who swept the wards were more highly paid than we were, in spite of spending most of their time leaning on their brooms and gossiping with the patients.
But I also watched many of the head injuries operations and well remember the excellent anesthetist who would allow no talking, in fact no noise at all once he was preparing his patient, emphasizing that the sense of hearing is the last of all to leave the patient as he slips under the anesthetic.
In the ward they were a happy crowd, apart from the poor bemused French Canadian, who having lost the use of speech through his head injury, he was being taught to speak again, but in English.
I was lucky enough to have an Aunt in Oxford, so she very kindly boarded me and fed me very well. I had one amusing experience and the first time I had rank pulled on me. This was in the Mess, as I had had my uniform for several months the very new look had worn off. One of the messing Sisters had been quite friendly with me till one day she happened to ask how long I had been gazetted. When she realized it was only a matter of months she dropped me like a hot brick.
Now we were all called back to the house in Gillsborough where I found we were preparing to go on a “scheme”, a try-out to familiarize ourselves with operating under canvas. I was to work in the Officers ward with M, an old campaigner, who had served in Malta, and been torpedoed among other things. She was a Scotswoman and a splendid organizer and we got on very well together. Here we also had our orderlies allotted so as to get to know each other. We also tried out our own 2-bed tents, set up our camp beds comfortably and tried out our lamps and stoves, our canvas wash basins and chairs.
The girl I shared with lived in a dream world of her own and was no help as all in fetching water from the big kitchen Soya stoves or keeping the tent habitable.
That first afternoon on our damp site, my friend Hazel and I wandered off in our free time and eventually found a small farm where a woman sold us half a dozen eggs. We returned in triumph to cook them for our supper and I discovered that I loved scrounging and was good at it.
I would like to record here my very grateful thanks to the old retired Army gentleman who offered baths in rotation to all the Sisters of our unit. It must have cost him a great deal in firing his constant hot water, and it was one of the gestures that I have always felt were very inadequately repaid, for I suppose one day we folded our tents and silently stole away without a backward glance. But, he was one of the people in my life to whom I have always felt very grateful. A hot bath in those days was something to remember.
Once back from our scheme, things began to accelerate. Our tin trunks were brought out and painted with our Unit Flash, the same being stenciled on our bedding rolls and kitbags. Then everything was stacked away again and we were issued with our battledress – men's battledress, so stiff with anti-gas chlorine that they almost stood up on their own. With these went khaki shirts, ties and shoulder pips, ankle boots and dreadful leather gaiters. A large case arrived for us to choose our berets and to my shame, not one fitted my large head. A very large size had to be sent for specially. Tin hats fortunately were always large it seems, these came with netting covers into which one could stick bits of fern or twigs for camouflage.
Excitement rose and of course rumours flew. We were going to Burma, Gibraltar, into Europe, to the south coast of England. Nobody knew. There was a feeling of urgency in the air. Some of us were sent off to give lectures – perish the thought. I was sent to the village hall to instruct half a dozen orderlies in bandaging – this to my horror, as I was always poor at it myself. It was cold in the hall and we were all terribly nervous until I had to show them how to bandage a foot. I looked at their clod-hopper boots; I sighed and took off my own shoe instead. Of course I had a hole in the toe of my stocking, but this broke the ice and by the time we all came back after dinner, we were able to scamper through the rules and methods which they had to know to tackle their exams for up-grading themselves.
Food was poor all the time we were there. Rations were the normal civilian, but cooks were supposed to produce four meals out of these; we were always very hungry and the fact that, for months we had to wear our grey and scarlet, most unsuitable for outside winter wear in the country, so we were generally cold as well.
I think it was in this final day when we had tried on our battledress and were really becoming excited, that B. dropped her bombshell. She would not be coming with us – she and our C.S.M. had had a secret wedding some months previously and she was now pregnant. No wonder she was always dreaming when I shared a tent with her on the “scheme”.
In the middle of May, fully equipped, we clattered stiffly into our trucks and were off. How beautiful the English countryside was, we drank it all in avidly for dear knows where we were going. We drove for hours, the countryside changed, it became sandy with outcrops of pine trees, then we turned into a long drive, flanked by handsome iron gates and before us was a large imposing house with a sailing ship embossed above the doors. This fine house belonged to a wealthy Dutchman, who had offered it, together with its beautiful grounds, as a convalescent home for the wounded. For this it would have been perfect with its well-kept lawns and rose beds, its extensive woods and glades and three lakes. Instead our unimaginative Government had commandeered it as a Commando training centre. Before we arrived, engineers had been billeted there, burhing mines, constructing bridges and erecting assault courses. The fine house was all but ruined. The pillars of the downstairs rooms, although swathed in slats of cardboard, were dented and pierced and the floors beyond repair after the passage of thousands of Army boots. All the toilets were blocked and the hot water system out of action.
Hazel and I once again looked out for ourselves and installed our beds and kitbags in a small room with its own adjacent bathroom. To our disgust this was then commandeered over our heads by the C.O. and we had to move to the colder side of the house. There was a very fine swimming pool in the basement and those of the Unit, who owned or could procure for themselves swimming togs, had a splendid time. The big library had very wisely been locked up and was out of bounds. We now found we had been put on extra combat rations and after our very meager rations of the last few months, the cooks now did us proud and we reveled in good meals.
Hazel and I shared as we shared everything until she was posted away from the Unit at Amiens and our friendship was ended. This is always a dread in Army life, and apart from specially trained personnel or those being moved to better themselves on new courses, seems to me an unnecessary aggravation. As is the very unsettling period when a big boss visits the Unit and everybody knows the outcome will be further moves for somebody. At these times our dread was of a posting to Burma, to the “forgotten Army”, to the heat and insect-infested life. I wonder why the Services think it necessary to keep their personnel in this state of apprehension.
But apart from this background of uncertainty, this interval in my short Army career was idyllic. The grounds of the house were lovely, from the large square goldfish ponds in front of the house, set among formal flower beds, to the three large lakes, ornamented by swans further off in the grounds.
The ground was sandy with young pines growing up small hillocks, leading to almost light moorland with silver birches and ferns intersected everywhere by tracks, typical fox cover, as indeed it proved to be as I saw many a fox slipping away along these trails. I even came face to face with one.
The weather was dry and warm and two of us Sisters decided to sleep out among the pines one night. We made ourselves pine needle and brush beds in the afternoon and that evening slipped out with our grey Army blankets and spent a very good night. Next morning, however, found me in an embarrassing situation. My friend was not on duty that day and being very comfy she refused to come in with me, so I had perforce to go on my own and get in by the only door already open under the leering eye of one of the Company Cooks who took it for granted I had spent the night on the tiles.
We were more or less unrestricted as to where we went or the hours we kept, the whole Unit was on field rations so that the food was good and varied and indeed life was good.
Hazel and I went exploring, at first to the formidable walls and dykes of the “hazards course” lately used by the Commandos who had preceded us, then to saunter along the glades among the acres of pine trees. At last we were in serviceable clothes for the environment, since our battledress stood up to anything. The sun shone and the cuckoos called incessantly and always there was the spice of uncertainty as to what tomorrow would hold.
B was in lodgings in the village and came up to see us sometimes, now a stranger and no longer part of our life. Her place was taken by an older woman, whose name I cannot now even remember since she left us again at Aramanches, being quite unable to stand the gunfire.
All delightful things are only sent to divert us and, alas, all end one day and so we were told to pack up again, get into our transport and be away to another unknown destination, which proved to be Oxford.
Brasenose College it proved to be too, that male stronghold for countless years. With its fantastic ding hall, banner-hung walls and high carved ceiling, embossed with crests, one could hardly eat for gazing on these past glories. We shared this Mess with a Dental Corps (male), but the food was no better in consequence!
Hazel and I shared a large room with bay windows and deep window recesses. It overlooked the High Street and was occupied by a stuffed alligator. This we stood up on its hind legs between our two beds and found it exactly the right height to hold our mugs in its paws, to greet the orderly with our morning cup of tea.
I had this Aunt living in Oxford and was glad of the diversion of going round to visit; also she could keep in touch with my mother once I had left and was not permitted to use the mail! I was taken, too, to meet an Irish cousin and his new young wife. He was a Colonel, but unfortunately I arrived first at the rendezvous and so was able to remove my hat while indoors and was thus saved the tiresome saluting business.
JUNE 6TH D-DAY.
We were all summoned to the Matron's office and told the Allies had landed in Normandy and parachuted behind Le Havre. Suppressed excitement keeps us at bursting point, and it's paradoxical to see everyone here going along just as usual. We are put on three hour passes and at 6pm the C-in-C's message of pride and expectation is read out to us.
Following is an authentic copy of this message:
“ The following message from the Supreme Commander will be read to troops by an officer after embarkation, if prior to 0001 hrs + 1, and only when no postponement of the operation is likely; alternatively, when briefing prior to embarkation after 0001 hrs +D + 1.
“You are soon to be engaged in a great undertaking – the invasion of Europe. Our purpose is to bring about, in company with our Allies, and our comrades on other fronts, the total defeat of Germany. Only by such a complete victory can we free ourselves and our homelands from the fear and threat of Nazi tyranny.”
“A further element of our mission is the liberation of those people of Western Europe now suffering under German oppression.
Before embarking on this operation, I have a personal message for you as to your own individual responsibility, in relation to the inhabitants of our Allied countries.
As a representative of your country, you will be welcomed with deep gratitude by the liberated peoples, who for years have longed for this deliverance. It is of the utmost importance that this feeling of friendliness and goodwill be in no way impaired by careless or indifferent behaviour on your part. By a courteous and considerable demeanour, you can on the other hand do much to strengthen that feeling.
The inhabitants of Nazi-occupied Europe have suffered great privations, and you will find that many of them lack even the barest necessities. You, on the other hand, have been, and will continue to be, provided adequate food, clothing and other necessities. You must not deplete the already meager local stocks of food and other supplies by indiscriminate buying, thereby fostering the “Black Market” which can only increase the hardship of the inhabitants.
The rights of individuals as to their persons and property must be scrupulously respected as though in your own country. You must remember always that these people are our friends and Allies.
I urge each of you to bear constantly in mind that by your actions not only you as an individual, but your country as well, will be judged. By establishing a relationship with the liberated peoples, based on mutual understanding and respect, we shall enlist their wholehearted assistance in the defeat of our own common enemy. Thus we shall lay the foundations for a lasting peace, without which our great effort will have been in vain”?
A few days later I asked if I might have this message, but it was denied me. I had the strong feeling that Matron had never thought of it before as being something exceptional, but now she decided to hang onto it herself. (Later, after many years, the message was published and I was able to get a copy).
At 9pm we joined the other groups at St. Hugh's to hear the King's message and to be told that 4,000 craft are steaming across the Channel – and that weather is poor. Everybody wonders and speculates. Traffic now escalates, the roads are jammed with Army vehicles of every description and there are crowds everywhere. Hazel and I watch from our big windows looking down on the High Street. The weather is dreadful with grey skies and perpetual rain. Food in the Mess is awful, no butter or tinned milk, no coffee, nor any vegetables even. The 45 Dental Officers are very unwelcome – meals take ages to get through and everyone is fidgety and on edge.
My mother comes up from London to spend the weekend with my aunt, so I spend a lot of time over there, dashing back every three hours to report. How the days drag.
On Sunday there was a Church Parade and ironically enough I am not to go as I have no khaki – a year later in Germany only those with grey and scarlet walking-out dress are allowed to go to another parade – a review on the Kiel Canal!
A week later Hazel and I went to the Amateur Dramatics in the evening as we often did. We were in uniform of course all the time. She had a khaki skirt, brown stockings etc. and battledress blouse, but as I had none, I wore battledress trousers. We got into all the entertainments cheaper anyway by being in uniform. We saw Shaw's “St. Joan” that night, which was very well produced. Arriving back in our billets about 10.30pm we found pandemonium. We are to move on tomorrow, what a thrill - valises to be packed and ready by 5am. The waiting has been long and tedious. I find I've never been so glad to be moving on.
Breakfast for the last time in the beautiful dining hall. We are ready in full battle rig to be off by 8.15am. Tin hats with netting covers, gas masks, berets handy, boots, gaiters (leather), arm brassards – Red Cross. We go in our trucks to the station and into special carriages, to Winchester and Eastleigh. What vast organization, moving all those thousands to their correct destinations. From there we get into our open trucks again (3 tonners). Everybody staring at us. As was to become my habit, I positioned myself near the tailboard so that I could see everything all round. Many of the Sisters I noticed just sat and chatted and never looked at a thing, so I didn't feel guilty at always pinching the end seat. We were one of a long convoy interspersed with Dispatch Riders. One of these lads had a bad accident, he collided head-on with oncoming traffic and the Sisters from our second truck gave him first aid, but it was a depressing beginning. We traveled all day and at last entered guarded gates into a wooded area, where an American transit camp was situated. I think it must have been in the New Forest. We checked in, disembarked and were taken further into the woods, down small tracks where we were allotted tents, 4 or 6 of us to a tent on palisades with our own blankets. Presently we were called to a meal in a long mess tent, here we queued with our enamel mugs and mess tins past the American cooks and were ladled out our food. Very good food it was too, such as we hadn't seen for years, but their idea was to put the meat and sweet all together in the one mess tin. I know it all goes the same way in the end, but most of us didn't fancy it and took the peaches and cream in our mugs and returned for the coffee later. White bread and butter too.
Later they treated us to a film show in the evening – of course we were strictly segregated from their troops, but chatted to them as they strolled outside after the show. It was very hot I remember and everyone was very intrigued by the sight of us. They invited us to a boxing match that was to be put on later, but no, it was to be early to bed for us.
After breakfast next day we were all called to Matron's administration tent and given the new red, white and blue paper money and a handful of small change. This put the final seal on our destination (how could we have imagined otherwise?), as it was French money. We were also given sea-sick tablets and the final friendly efficiency – a heavy paper vomit bag!
Off again in our own transport at 8.15am. All along the route people waved and when there was a traffic hold-up they gave us little presents. As we passed through the Security Zones there was only a smattering of inhabitants left. A few women chattering on the pavement as they shopped; they hardly looked up, they had become so used to convoys, until suddenly someone pointed and the word flew- ‘ Our girls are in the convoy'. These women ran to the pavement and waved and cheered us while the tears ran down their faces. We loved them for their concern and felt strangely excited ourselves and somehow responsible to them.
It is a long, long journey; we stopped twice for tea and sandwiches by the side of the road - handed out by Officers who have it all laid on promptly – we never stop long. Presently we reach the outskirts of a shabby city; we never know where we are, hoardings everywhere hide what devastation lies beyond. Still people stop and wave and point us out to others in the road. We wear our Red Cross arm-bands so they all know who we are. Many of them burst into tears. Perhaps we look very young; perhaps it's something to do with their image of us caring for their loved ones over there already. The trucks unload us in a huge darkened shed swarming with troops and equipment. Our small Unit huddles together, overcrowded by this male world. In the gloom it is some time before we realize that one side of this vast shed is really the side of a huge ship drawn close to the quayside. We embark and are sent below and crowded six to a two-berth cabin. I am out of luck here and my portion is the floor, but we are all sleeping in our clothes anyhow. Our first meal aboard is another delight – in the dining saloon the tables are laid with spotless tablecloths and gleaming silver and glass – what luxury! This food I have no recollection of, it was the gleaming tables that captivated me and to be served by stewards.
We were chased off to bed after this, down to our over-warm cabins where, with the help of two seasick tablets, I slept very well in spite of the quiet intensity of the swarming fleet all around us.
We sailed quietly off at 4.30am, one of a huge convoy with a great many aboard. Strange, I never thought of the possibility of a torpedoing, my mind was leaping forward with anticipation of reaching the other side.
Still very warm weather. It seems a very long crossing. As we stand on the top deck there are boats as far as the eye can see - a sight too immense really to take in. I try to think to myself, “This is part of the most vast armada in history, look and remember everything”, but I am really too battered by impressions to realise what I am a part of. Instead, Hazel and I laugh and chat with two young apprentice lads who are painting the life-boat. They have red paint and paint our names on our enamel mugs. They lark about and jump across the gap from the ship's side into the boat. The same is happening on the deck below and without warning there goes up the cry, “Man Overboard”. A young boy has fallen between the ship and life-boat. The sea is grey and a little rough. A slim corvette, our escort, hurries up out of line and the rumours fly – she is searching for the lad, she has picked him up, no he is never found; no-one can spare the time for one foolhardy boy. We never heard the true outcome – only the intercom buzzes and a sharp authoritative voice warns apprentices in future to wear life jackets constantly. We turn away from the rail, deflated and somehow feeling guilty. Boat drill now follows in full kit as well as Mae West life jackets. The slow hours pass and we wonder what will be in store for us over there and how we will personally handle it.
Towards evening, while the coastline is still only a low smudge in the distance, several landing craft come alongside. Some are merely rusty-sided lease-lend hollow hunks and we stare down at their emptiness in disbelieving gloom - would we really disembark into things like that to be shuttled ashore? The sea had turned roughish and the convoy had stopped, the smaller boats pitching about uneasily. We stand watching and waiting, fully laden, while the Powers That Be changed their minds again and again. Eventually at 7.30pm scrambling nets are thrown over the side of our “Castle” liner, and then a very small craft hauled alongside. We gaze down in consternation, at the net half under the water and at the small craft surging up and down so far below, but there was no help for it, over we must go and don't for God's sake be such a fool as to miss a footing. Heavily we fumbled our way down – stiff new boots, stiff gaiters, banging gas mask and slipping tin hat, but thankfully we were grabbed into the heaving boat below, where we jammed the sides and waited for our full compliment. What happened to the other troops on board the liner I have no idea, I never looked back. Whether it was the excitement or the two seasick tablets, I don't know, but I was not even squeamish – terrible sailor that I am!
Quickly we headed towards a distant shoreline, the shallow water and beaches strewn with hulks, debris and broken tanks. Spars of tank traps reared out of the oily water. We landed straight onto a shingly beach (still of course encumbered with Mae West's, tin hats, gas mask and all the rest of our attractive gear). The few troops who greeted us were cheery, but disgusted we had brought no newspapers with us. We were assembled again in a field and food was passed round. I was sent to collect the Mae West's, now finished with, and needed back at the boat for other parties. Someone pointed out a ruined tower from where a German sniper had wreaked havoc before he was eventually shot himself. So at last, into our trucks again and we moved off between white tapes (denoting tracks cleared of mines), into the gathering darkness. Distant and continuous gunfire and bombardment throbbed the air, punctuated by flashes, while beautiful tracer bullets arched across the sky. It had been a long day indeed and we nodded in our seats. At one time our two trucks stopped; the leading driver had lost his way and was in a panic, declaring he was driving into enemy-held territory. He turned round as best he could, feeling his way in the blackout with hooded lights, yelled at the following driver to do the same and we scuttled back to the last crossroads to study the signs again. At 1.30am we at last arrived at the field allocated to our Unit where familiar faces greeted us and hot drinks – those marvelous self-heating tins of soup and cocoa – were handed round. H.E. was there, very pleased to see me, on the scrounge for cigarettes as usual. In darkness we scrambled into tents – five in a two-man tent – and on stretchers rolled in our blankets, dead beat, but thankful to have arrived.
Onto the wards at 8am, in our battle-dress, but minus our stiff boots and gaiters at last. Now we could see the layout of the hospital more or less. We were spread along a flat field with rising ground behind and a small coppice. Ambulances and other vehicles came through a check-point at the entrance to the field and were directed first to clearing and admission tent. Here casualties were expertly sorted out as to the severity of their injuries - whatever their nationality. Medical cases went to the medical tents, but casualties were sorted for immediate surgery, or for Officers or Head Injuries Wards. The long double line of brown tents stretched back towards our mess tent and sleeping tents, and further towards the rising ground were the “cook houses'. Everything, the Theatres and Church included, were under canvas. Our latrines were across a ditch and through a hedge, and consisted just of canvas screens round the usual “thunder boxes”. Unpleasant in wet weather.
I was sent to the Officers Ward with M again (who was later to be sent to India). We had two large marquee-type tents and one small 2-bed tent which was reserved for General Montgomery should he ever become a casualty. Behind these large tents were additional lean-tos. One served as a sluice room and the other for receiving meals from the Company cookhouse and distributing them, as the primus stoves were there for heating up drinks etc, so this corner was also our sterilizing “room” with a small autoclave.
All the tents had heavy canvas “floors”, with a spare strip of canvas we portioned off an office by the door for our own use. Here we kept all the patients' documents and wrote up charts and evacuation data. M always had a very well run ward. All the ward beds could be folded and stacked when necessary, every single piece of equipment we carried with us on our very frequent moves. Part of our function as a 200-bed hospital was to leap-frog forward the Casualty Clearing Stations, taking over from them while they, being smaller and more concentrated, moved on again.
Our orderlies, who had been coping on their own since D-Day, were very relieved to see us; it had been a trying responsibility for them. When we arrived there were very few beds up, they just hadn't had the time, but the floor was cluttered with stretchers. Two more pairs of hands soon made all the difference and mattresses and bedding were unrolled and patients not being evacuated at once could have the comfort of a bed. Men were evacuated to the U.K. by boat daily and of course more were admitted at any time. I could soon laugh at my first reaction to admittance straight from theatre. “Why weren't we warned?” I asked, almost indignantly, but of course there was no phone. When the theatre had finished with a case the Pioneers brought the stretcher straight to its assigned ward, together with a very hastily scribbled note in the patient's case envelope. This might simply state “G.S.W. (gun shot wound) of R. Elbow” together with a quick diagram of the fractured joint and its repair. The whole thing would be in heavy plaster – often with the fractured joint diagrammed again on the cast and the man was ready for evacuation the following day. Any casualties who could hopefully return to duty, fairly soon and any of the S.I. or D.I. (seriously ill or dangerously ill) we would hang on to. It was a very efficient system.
M and I started off that first morning with the admission book to make a fast round of our Officers and the few Other Ranks in our second tent. I was glad to find I could cope with one or two more comfortably than she did. One young Captain had been shot in the face and he was just coming round from his anesthetic with his wet and slobbery mouth bandages he looked a real mess, M passed him quickly by, but as I had done plastic surgery before I could see that he would eventually mend well. I told him so at once, helped him sit up and have a drink and brought out the office mirror as he wanted to see the damage at once. All this allayed his fears and he was soon as chirpy as possible.
Strangely enough, this, my first patient in Normandy, was I think the only one I ever saw later. He must have been on leave at the same time as I was many months later. My mother and I were in Hyde Park looking at a wrecked German plane on view there and I recognized this same Captain with a pretty girl on his arm. His facial injuries had healed well. I did not make myself known.
We spent the whole day organizing the ward. M was extremely good at this and soon simplified the orderlies work enormously. We discovered that for some reason, some odd quirk of human nature no doubt, however we arranged something at first that arrangement was always adhered to forever after. I think one does this in civilian life too. M got hold of some material and we made curtains for each locker. It was amazing how such small touches cheered the men and pleased them very much. Our second (overflow) tent which was filled with Other Ranks, mostly medical cases, would soon be re-absorbed into their units. They were mostly flare-ups of malaria etc. These we treated exactly the same as the Officers in respect of small comforts.
We did have rather unpleasant incidents – one from our ward that wasn't so important. We had a Prisoner Of War doctor, and when he was on his evacuation stretcher one of the Pioneers tried to get his jack-boots away from him. I objected because it seemed wrong to me to take property from a man unable to defend his personal effects. When I went out to the ambulance to settle a load aboard, this P.O.W. told me his boots had been taken again. Although I got them back, I realized that sooner or later they would be stolen, especially as this man wasn't a very pleasant character, and that's human nature, not to feel guilty if you don't like the individual.
The second incident was far more serious and amazed as well as angered us.
Several Medical Students were sent out from U.K. to help us. I never saw any, but Hazel – who was on the Head Injuries Ward – knew all about them. Apparently there were several cases of thieving from unconscious patients' belongings – money, watches, good cigarettes, lighters, etc. Not only was it a despicable thing to do, but it put suspicions on our Sisters and Orderlies.
Thankfully, many of the missing articles were found in the student's luggage and they were all sent home.
That first day was crammed with evacuations and admissions. We kept them warm, repacked dressings where necessary, gave injections and noted these on the medical cards which went with each patient. We fed them when time allowed, and sent them off again. We worked all day with only a quick snack grabbed from our “cook tent” at the back, until 9.30pm, when we staggered off duty, tired and hot. Our own tent had been put up meantime (although in the months to come we had to put them up ourselves). Hazel and I shared, and had dumped our kit at the very end of the line to indicate where we intended to ‘camp'. As far away from authority as possible, that was our motto! We hung our candles and lamps (with reflectors) from the centre pole and got out our small stoves – for heating water for warmth. Each of us had a canvas folding bucket, chair and bath, and our camp beds for sleeping. There was very little water – one bucket a day for all purposes.
Some time here I acquired two valuable additions to my possessions. One day I noticed that the blankets on some of the stretchers were not our regulation Army ones. On asking the stretcher bearers, they told me the dark green ones were U.S. Navy and the bright brown ones were U.S. Army – they also said that as long as they had their correct quota of blankets, it made no difference to them if I wanted to swap mine. Both these blankets were very good quality and much softer than our Army issue, so I was delighted. These blankets were evidently very durable for I still have the Navy one in use over forty years later and bits of the Army one as pets' blankets.
My other possession was a pair of boots, acquired in this way: They were on the floor beside a young Canadian's bed in the ward. I think they were a little small for him, they had leather uppers and long canvas legs, reaching up to the knee rather like a riding boot. “If you get hold of a pair of British Army boots in my size” said he, “then you can have my boots in exchange”. So off I went to the QM Stores where, not only were there new spares, but also boots discarded by stretcher-borne wounded men, so that there was a good selection and of course I got my long Canadian boots!
Nothing to do with boots or blankets, but a small incident which amused me highly. As I have described, our ward tents faced each other, leaving a wide ambulance track in between. One morning there was the sound of a small plane very low and flying very fast. It was too low among the tents for the ack-ack to dare to aim at it, but they were all blazing away to make a frightening noise. All the patients of course were avid with curiosity as to what was going on and so was I! So I went to the door of the tent to look out and report back. “Better come inside” said M, “you might get hit”. Fair enough, but what protection was a stretch of canvas when you come to think of it – and we both laughed.
In the Sisters' Mess we had two splendid orderlies, Baker and Pemberthy and at whatever hour you appeared, hungry and tired, they could always produce something hot, they were always watching out. There was no bread those first weeks, just large biscuits, jam, butter, porridge, sausages and bacon – all tinned. H.E. was our Sisters' personal cook and managed many varied meals, all originating from the “compo” rations. (Rations for so many for 24 hours). We still had our individual 24 hour emergency tins of food which we had humped along with us – these contained, as far as I can remember, reinforced chocolate, boiled sweets, 3-in-1 tea pack (dry), pemmican and a delicious compressed porridge and sugar block, and cigarettes. I swapped my cigarette allowance for this as many people didn't like it.
The nights were very noisy with gunfire and shrapnel, the ground heaved from heavy explosions, but how safe one felt in bed with one's head under the blankets! An illusion of course, well demonstrated for us when two Sisters from a C.C.S. were injured, one being evacuated with an amputated finger and penetrating wound of the chest.
The weather has now changed and become cold and blustery. We were not quite so busy and were given our very first off-duty 1 ½ hours. On this day, too, air evacuations began. The R.A.F. had made themselves a small landing strip somewhere up on the higher ground just behind us. This of course also necessitated the presence of ack-ack guns and drew fire from the enemy. All this made the nights even less pleasant. Two of our Sisters left us here; one was the elderly Sister whose name I never knew. I have no idea who picked her for this type of work as she became nearly hysterical with fright after the first few noisy nights. Possible she had never been through the London Blitz as most of us had, as our baptism by fire. The other was a very charming and efficient Theatre Sister, a married girl, who now found herself pregnant.
Generally chest wounds were not allowed to be evacuated by air, but one man I remember was passed for air travel on condition we could get off the strapping right around his chest, but of course he was one of the most hairy men I have ever encountered. He was so keen for a quick evacuation that I set to, and a very agonizing job it proved for both of us. Should I rip fast, or snip carefully after lifting an edge of strapping? Even swabbing with surgical spirit failed to part the stuff from his hair. In the end, by employing a little of each method, I had him free – and away he went.
That evening we were off duty at last by 8pm. distant gunfire continuous and as always louder at night. I kept a very small diary and when I wasn't too tired to write it up, found it kept a good check on my days.
We admitted several bad cases, one of them a huge Scotsman, 6ft 3in, with a broken back and paralysed from the waist down. He had been in a jeep accident and had been thrown out against a wall. He kept on asking for fruit, of which we had none at all.
This day I was lucky enough to get some off-duty and to get the chance of a lift in to Bayeux in the laundry truck. Hazel had arranged it as she was friendly with the driver and she came too. We found the road crowded with every type of vehicle. Div. signs in bright colours at all turnings or cross roads. The town itself had cobbled streets and a lovely Cathedral where William the Conqueror prayed for success before leaving to invade England. We went to several shops where I tried out my very inadequate French, hoping to buy fruit. The dairies were real dairies – small tiled shops generally with a marble counter, very clean and cool. There was plenty of butter, cheese and cream. We met the driver and had an ersatz coffee in a small dark café and then headed for a market garden we had been directed to, where I bought 2kilos of cherries for 40 francs, for the Scotsman.
Today the Scotsman was taken to the Theatre for a plaster cast so that he could be evacuated. He did manage a few cherries after coming round – but I feared he was much worse after all the handling. Presently he became paralysed from the neck down and although we tried artificial respiration and oxygen, he died soon after 10pm.
I had my first death in the ward the day before – a man with a very bad head injury came to us straight from Theatre. He was quite yellow (although this could have been due to malaria treatment). His respirations were very loud and stentorious and seemed to fill the whole tent. He never regained consciousness and when he died the relief from his gasping breathe was great. I began washing the body preparatory to laying him out, but our head orderly came up with a grey blanket and very tactfully showed me how to roll the body tightly in a supine position with arms crossed, the blanket held in place with large safety pins. The body was then covered with a large Union Jack ready for the Pioneers to take it away,
We now had a great many head injuries due to a new weapon the enemy was using – the bazooka of ill fame. These cases overflowed from the usual Head Injuries Ward and we had to borrow a Sister from another tented hospital in the vicinity, the 75th Gen. Hospital. This hospital had just arrived and set itself up in a field adjacent to us. For some reason I cannot remember, the Sister was quite useless, so we politely returned her.
This day we had a visit from General Montgomery. We Sisters were lined up in front of our Officers' tent and were introduced. I'm sure we didn't wear our berets (as of course we didn't wear them on duty), for I certainly don't remember having to salute! He arrived in a jeep, escorted by a second jeep fairly bristling with “Red Caps” (Military Police), five of them, all fully armed and with eyes everywhere. “Monty” looked exactly like his pictures, gave each of us a firm handshake and a piercing scrutiny from his grey-blue eyes. He did not inspect the little tent perhaps destined for his occupation!
Instead, we were later to admit a civilian woman casualty into this same tent. Civilian casualties were heavy from strafing on the roads, poor homeless refugees packed together as they struggled on from one bombed-out village to the next, carrying their bundles and babies. All that this woman possessed, apart from her clothes, was a scribbled note to say that her husband had gone on to the next town. She had an injury and when she came to us from Theatre she appeared to be speechless. M and I had great difficulty in making her understand our poor French. Every time we tried to encourage her to use a bed pan she struggled to get out of bed, so we stood stupidly by repeating “La toilet, Madam” and yet refusing to allow her out of bed. Poor woman, being an ordinary peasant, she would never have seen such a contraption!
Very heavy thundery weather with rain by evening. I was off duty at 5pm and did some washing. This chore was affected by heating some water over the primus stove in a very small pan and adding it to cold water in the canvas bucket. The clothes we hung to dry on the guy ropes. We did have small flat irons which could be heated over the stove and we could iron a few oddments on top of a suitcase. As all water was at a premium, we didn't do much washing!
“Madam” was improving, and one day she sat up in bed holding her bandaged head and crying “Oh la la”. I reported this in my day report as it was cheering to know she really could speak after all, but it sounded rather absurd in the report and gave us all a good laugh. A few days later I was detailed to accompany her in the field ambulance to Bayeux Civilian Clearing Station. As we went along I had time to prepare my introduction in French and I actually trotted it out to the Nun who received us in a vast bare hall crowded with civilians, injured or homeless or just visiting. However, I was floored instantly by her flood of inquiries in answer, and collapsed into silence. In this big hall the injured men and women were lying in rows on stretchers. Without any false modesty, there and then the Nun stripped Madam naked of our pyjamas, shoved her into a voluminous nightgown, bundled up our blankets and I was on my way back.
July 3rd. The weather broke with pelting rain.
A large number of Canadians have arrived and dug themselves into fox-holes in the woods and fields behind us. The nights have become very noisy indeed, with some bombs and very loud ack-ack. We now have a battery on the hill just behind us, only a few hundred yards away. Tracer lines criss-cross the sky, looking bright and beautiful. The ground shakes and the air batters – yet one feel so safe once one dives into bed. The only time I can really say I felt alarmed was when I used to slip into the tent I shared with Hazel and the tent flaps began battering loudly with the concussion. You see, most us had already nursed in big hospitals in cities constantly bombed and the noise and vibrations were nothing new to us.
Our camp beds are now down about 2 feet into the ground – some pretty hard digging for our poor Pioneers to achieve this. It brings us down to sleeping practically at ground level which, to our way of thinking, is possibly more dangerous. However, jump into bed, pull up the blankets and ‘safe' and snug, you are asleep at once.
During the day there was a majestic sight – fleets of hundreds of planes passing over to bomb Caen. Being so near to the coast we saw them arriving, going in to bomb – turning round and going back over the sea, a continuous droning, with many planes hit. When a plane is hit it disintegrates so slowly. A wing, or some unrecognizable part, will sail quietly out and drift so seemingly slowly down. Even a bursting plane, when seen from a distance, is destruction in slow motion in the air, only appearing to gain horrifying momentum as it neared the ground. Parachutes drifted out like white mushrooms. Our Pioneers (our only armed members) were almost un-controllable with excitement. For some reason they assumed all parachutes bore enemy airmen and were avid for action against them!
Outskirts of Caen taken, though we never guessed the final capture would take so long.
Today I heard my cousin, Arthur St.George, had been killed on June 16th. I grieved for his mother in Ireland.
We weren't very busy now. The battle had moved on, and someone else had leap-frogged over us. We went for a walk through the rough orchard behind us, where there is a donkey tied out to feed. It had got the rope tangled round its tree so I was leading it round the opposite way to free it when a young man appeared from nowhere, very possessively. However, when he saw my intention he let well alone at once. There was also a draft mare and foal among the trees there, both their rumps and sides clipped by shrapnel splinters. We watched them when a raid began and saw them run to shelter under the trees where they waited patiently, making themselves as small as possible, poor things. Out of the gate at the far end and along a track through cornfields, there was a radar station. As we went along, men would pop out of ditches or shelters to stare and marvel at a “white woman”. I felt horribly conspicuous and loutish in battledress – most inadequate even to be called a woman! All the roads and lanes were so thick with white powdery dust, it lay along the hedgerows like snow, through which roses bloomed mistily here and there.
Caen taken at last. I was off duty from 10am till 1pm and we went for our first real bath. Several of us went in a small truck and it was, as usual, very dusty. Our driver lost his way trying to find the Beach Group so that we went all along the sea front, seeing great destruction. Boats were thrown up on the beach and twisted iron girders rose to the sky everywhere. We also passed an airplane repair works. Eventually we found the Beach Group's quarters, a good large house. The Group Commander told us he had picked this out on the map and marked it as their future quarters even before D-Day. When they got to the house they found the old couple who owned it dead in bed. Whether they had had enough and could stand no more when the invasion came, or whether they had tolerated or possibly even helped the occupying forces and were now afraid of retribution, who can say. I believe they had a son in England.
For our baths, hot water was boiled up in Soya cookers in the grounds and carried up in buckets by the men of the Beach Group who wouldn't even accept cigarettes in exchange for their hard work. We took turns going upstairs to bath, two at a time, in the meantime being entertained by the Beach Group personnel. The C.O. I remember, read us “The Specialist” in dialect – the first time and the best rendering I have ever heard. One of the young men took me over the old house and from the attic I noticed a small white toy dog which came right through the following twelve months with me, riding at the top of my kitbag, with his head poking out!
I had half a day off – it was very hot again. I borrowed a khaki skirt and stockings and H and I went into Bayeux. We went into the Cathedral which, alas, I cannot remember at all now, except for the fact that there was a very good reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestries along the wall. The originals had been worked by the women of the City and depicted William the Conqueror's departure to invade England. To get into Bayeux we ‘hitch-hiked' (though such jargon had not been thought of then). We just waited till a passing truck picked us up, and the same to return – no trouble.
In the evening it was still very heavy and hot. We stood under the trees beyond our camp and watched the Canadians going up to the front line in a very long convoy. It was distressing, for they seemed terribly young and inexperienced and looked horribly forlorn and tense. History was to prove that they were too inexperienced and there was dreadful slaughter.
All the Canadians have moved out, leaving a dreadful mess of tins, bits of ground sheet and paper behind in their foxholes. Some of these were very well made and roomy with branch roofs etc. Some were mere slits. There were “dog fights” in the evening. I saw one plane down and the parachute drifting out; another jettisoned two petrol tanks, one in our field and the other landed on the guard tent of the 84 Gen. Hospital behind us, killing the occupant. A very noisy night indeed, bombs and flak and the usual rushing noises and concussions.
Some time before this an Irish Sister was sent home as couldn't stand up to it and prayed all the time.
Dame Katherine (Matron In Chief) arrived on a visit to our next-door neighbours (the 84G.H.). Her advent leads to transfers and is looked on with dread.
We now have a larger tent for other ranks to house medical cases, mostly malaria recurrence. Nearly all are quickly evacuated. I had been sent a large bundle of ‘comics' – Korky the Cat, Donald Duck, etc and bore them in triumph to the Officers Ward, where I offered them round. A rather shocked superior silence greeted this gesture, but as soon as I threatened to take them straight to the men next door, eager hands were waving and soon every Officer was happily giggling away. Once they had done the rounds, of course, our Other Ranks had their turn.
My mother also sent me a loaf of white bread, rather mouldy on the outside, but much appreciated after so long on Army biscuits.
About this time we received another young Lieutenant, paralysed from the waist down. He is very cheerful and has no apprehension at all since his own mother suffered the same disablement after a riding accident and eventually recovered. Alas we are not as optimistic. I have often thought about him since and wondered if his mother's accident happened so that she could gain the experience to help him later. Stranger things have happened.
Round about this time, our ward gave hospitality to a group of shipwrecked Americans. None had been injured but they assure us they will all qualify for the Purple Heart Award. They were outfitted in the weirdest assortment of clothes you could possibly imagine, which gave our Officers many a laugh. A cheery lot who didn't stay long.
We have had a Colonel with a G.S.W. of hand. This man became fed up with waiting around and with the threat of being evacuated, and discharged himself to go and rejoin his Unit, driving his own jeep. We privately thought well of him – though medically we were conditioned to think he had ‘sinned' badly in deciding his own future instead of conforming to correct procedure and, as I say, probably being tamely evacuated to the U.K. and possibly never catching up with his Unit again.
We came out of our tents one morning to find leaflets (dropped by night planes) scattered over our area. I still have many examples of these, some green, some orange. Both sides were represented (I wonder how both participants chose the same night). The propaganda was equally poor. The idea was for a fighting man to approach the enemy waving his pamphlet and to be instantly welcomed as a comrade. (I wouldn't have risked it, however desperate I was!).
Other enemy printed matter I collected as we went about was a booklet and sketches of the Russian Front and several song sheets. Wandering one day we came upon a gun emplacement overlooking a road. There had been a direct hit on the crews' living quarters, strongly entrenched though they were. Among the rubble and mass of scattered papers was a smashed upright piano and from here I collected several German song sheets. Later, at Falais, I was to find some more; some sentimental, some patriotic to the enth degree.
Another morning when we got up, the trees and countryside was festooned with bright glittering bunches of silver fibres. This we heard was a device to be-fuddle radar when raiding planes were going over – well maybe, but it was startling and a matter of delighted wonder for those of us on the ground.
Among the dust and debris of War, we walked through, the small hamlet on the other side of the long orchard. I spoke to an old couple living in an untouched rose-covered cottage (everything thickly coated with dust from passing convoys of course). They had two young grandchildren living with them and appeared quite contented to have survived at least. The farms were of poor quality, in one tumbled down orchard, near the farm buildings were an enormous lean and vicious-looking razor-backed boar. No cattle or riding horses here, though we came across several fine specimens of the latter later on. These had been German Officers' mounts and our Officers were now using them for recreation.
An invitation came for several of us to go to an R.A.F. show some miles off. We were given transport and arrived in a field where drinks were provided from a large marquee tent. Our hosts came out to meet us and I think I was lucky in being selected by a quiet Officer, probably in his early 40s, a little older than the general run of crazy young men. We walked over to a large barn – a beautiful old red brick structure which had probably been the pride of many generations of farmers. They put on a good show with community singing with accordion accompaniment. Then there was a comic and his stooge. This man had the biggest mouth I have ever seen and used it to marvelous effect, but without saying a word. He was followed by a contortionist, a man with a beautifully tattooed snake winding right up one arm. By twisting and contorting himself he brought this snake into play as if it were alive. Altogether it was a lively and happy evening and we were home by 11.30pm. Some of the Sisters returned very much late by private transport, but all were up to go to duty next day.
We came upon many strange things during our wandering in off-duty periods. Once, going a bit further afield than previously, we came down the side of a copse pocked with many small slit trenches and as we walked round the side of the hill, the plain stretched before us, it was one vast area swarming with thousands of P.O.W.S, rather inadequately held in hastily thrown up wire enclosures and lightly guarded. We stared in amazement from our hidden position, we had never seen so many thousands of men penned together and had no idea so many prisoners had been captured. Did they all submit docilely to capture I wonder, or were there many escapes?
Another day as we walked towards the cornfields, we heard the approach of tanks and presently several of these ungainly monsters churned their way towards us through the dust, evidently coming from the beach areas – but these were tanks with a difference – each had a thick metal bar protruding well in front (in the nature of a car's bumper bar) except that these had short lengths of heavy chain wrapped round them. When in action these bars rotated and the chains flailed the ground in front of the tanks and were to be used to clear tracks and roads of mines and personnel booby traps. Which also reminds me, once we were coming through a pine wood, and there on a broken-off branch at convenient height was a small mirror and a shaving brush! Was someone called to alert in mid-shave – or had it been left there as a booby trap? We didn't investigate, but left it alone.
A very comical sight which delighted us was occasioned once when we had wandered up a hill near the ack-ack battery. Some of the RAF men had assembled one of those bicycles which could be dropped by parachute. They were tiny, though doubtless very strong. This time a very chubby man was trying it out. The combination of this very small bike and this very rotund chap was altogether ludicrous as he struggled along the well-worn track through the fields.
There was one German gun emplacement built of very thick concrete on the side of a hill facing seawards where we often wandered. It was dark and smelly inside but had a certain fascination and the short grass of the hillside was fresh and sunny; as I say, we had often been there, wandering at will. However, one day to our surprise we could see a Dispatch Rider riding round and round the area and the small copse nearby. We then saw a large new notice, “Mines” and that there was a path bordered by white tapes leading directly to the emplacement. Oh well, you never knew did you! It was from here that once during very thundery weather some time after we arrived, we looked out over the distant bay where one could see the big silver barrage balloons floating majestically above boats and stores and ack-ack guns. Towards evening we watched the lightening of an electrical storm strike those huge balloons which erupted in flames. They writhed and belched, then crumpled and fell out of sight. Once hit by lightening it would presumably be very dangerous to cut the cable and let them loose. A great many were destroyed in this way.
I was lucky enough to be invited by a Beach Group with a few other Sisters to go and see the Mulberry, that incredible floating dock which had been towed across the Channel from England and which did sterling service until practically destroyed by a very bad storm. It was from the Mulberry that hundreds of our wounded men embarked for hospitals at home. A very thin track wobbled over moored barges leading from the beach to this huge structure. I had asked our Ambulance Driver about this journey and some confessed to feeling very apprehensive and even squeamish when driving over this moving causeway, but it was safe enough. Fortunately we did not have to go this way; we were taken by motorboat and climbed up an iron ladder to the decking of the pier. Many ships were moored to the far side, discharging or embarking a great variety of things – among them was a shipload from Canada, disembarking Canadian troops and Army Nurses. These were in full kit (as we had been) complete with gas masks and tin hats. We felt very superior, as old hands, in battledress and berets!
We were taken back to the Officers' Mess for a meal and then hurried away as the evenings' artificial fog was due to be let loose on the area and presumably roads were then difficult to navigate. I would very much like to have heard more about this device, but I suspect it was hush-hush.
We have orders to pack up, as we are to move forward this Saturday on Monday. Nobody (except I suppose our superiors) knows where we will be going. Many tents are down already, but we still have our men and four Officers left.
Although in the months to come we were to pack up and move on many times, this was our very first experience of it and our orderlies were the greatest help, having done the initial unpacking before we arrived. The procedure was as follows:
Each mattress was rolled tightly round two pillows and shoved into a sacking holder. The linen and blankets were neatly folded separately and put in their holders. Beds, as they were vacated, were folded and stacked. The kitchen gear went into one wooden container, the sluice room gear in one, and the office papers, labels and documents all together in another. The orderlies would travel with their ward equipment and we would all unpack at our new destination. Lastly the Pioneers would dismantle the tents and canvas flooring. It was all very efficiently managed, although pretty hard work.
We still had three patients left, but it was our last day on the ward and all we had to do was the very final packing.
I had the whole afternoon free and went for a long walk. We went past a really devastated area which reminded me of pictures of the First World War; it was a sort of bowl in a hillside which had been unmercifully bombed. The trees had been stripped bare to naked skeletons and the ground churned and grassless. There was a small graveyard there, just wooden crosses with names and pay books and several “Star of David” emblems. We went up a long hill and reached an old Norman farm building, the stone stables and cattle sheds surrounding a large cobbled yard which you entered through an archway gate, with cattle prize ribbons pinned to the walls. There were some British troops billeted there, I bought myself a mug of milk, but it was poor quality. I remember there were rabbit hutches round the yard too.
We came back to camp over the hill another way and passed a smashed light plane lying in light woodlands with ammunition spilled round it everywhere. Below on the road was an overturned truck.
Breakfast at 8am, but as there was nothing at all to do we could have stayed in bed longer. However, Miss Pike (Head Matron) was due to arrive, so we had to turn out in ties and berets as well as our usual battledress etc. She never turned up which we all considered very bad manners, but she probably had other commitments, or authority had slipped up over information.
A Staff Car appeared while we were waiting about, much to my astonishment, I was sent for, to the Mess tent. There was a visitor there who turned out to be Lt-Col Lidwell (Arthur St.George's C.O.). A very nice man. I can only assume that he heard via my aunt that I was in the area; it is amazing how these connections are made. He saw our C.O. and arranged for his Staff Car to pick me up the following day and to take me to see my cousin's grave. Several visitors of one kind or another then turned up all afternoon. News must have got about that we were pushing on.
The driver with the Staff Car arrived at 7.30am next morning, but for some reason, I cannot remember, we could not leave until 9am. There is a lot of waiting about in the Army! Hazel came with me. We drove through a village like something from the 1914-18 War, smashed to rubble. Burnt out tanks and lorries in the ditches, warning notices displayed by the road “Don't raise dust”, as there had been heavy shelling of transport there. Eventually we reached a small farm with an orchard at the back. By the hedge-side were three graves in a row along a ditch (just earth thrown in a mound on top). Small Army crosses with a name, number and rank. I picked a fern for his Mother (which I eventually sent her) and fixed a sprig of pressed Kilrush shamrock behind the cross, with a penciled note saying it was from his home and that his cousin had put it there.
We came back via No.3 C.C.S. (Casualty Clearing Station) and 79 General Hospital. We looked in to see one of our former members (Mrs. G) who is flying home after having had a miscarriage. This hospital was part huts and part tented and was treated as a Base. One of the ENSA women entertainers was there having psychiatric treatment.
A Sunday church service today for those who wished to attend. I stayed in bed. It sounded rather a feeble attempt and everyone was having arguments afterwards.
In the afternoon we had a cricket match – Sisters versus Others. The men had to bat left-handed. I don't remember the outcome, but it was good fun.
Thinking of Mrs. G, who had been our very excellent Theatre Sister, makes me realize how lucky we were to have such splendid Theatre Staff – quite apart from our Surgeons. Both the Sisters and Orderlies must have carried a very heavy work load. I remember Massey (not her real name) so often being late for meals, but always good tempered and friendly. How did she keep sane, always seeing dreadful injuries, never seeing the result of their work, though they did sometimes inquire how a certain case was faring? They certainly had my highest respect.
Still nothing to do. We went out for a long walk in the evening till a sea mist came up. Round by the new RAF camp on the hill behind us and back by.
H. has befriended an old terrier, very thin and suffering from distemper. He feeds it and lets it sleep in a corner of the tent at night. We hope that when we leave, it will transfer itself to the nearby tented Hospital. I have befriended a carrier pigeon, exhausted and lost. It is now rested, but still lost.
When we leave H. will bury the surplus tins of Army biscuits as we have no friends among the locals. They are sure to come poking about when our camp moves and will discover them.
I also have something to bury, my faithful old comfortable brown shoes. They have really disintegrated at last and I've had them tied on with string round the uppers and soles for some time. Finally they are past it.
We moved at last and to the Falais Salient. We were told to be ready by 9am with all tents rolled and equipment loaded – but it was finally 6pm before we moved. I went up to the hillside to have a last look at the sea and the Channel.
I made sure I sat at the tail-board of the truck so as to see everything when we finally moved. It was a three hours' ride and we arrived in drizzling rain. We were in the orchard of the Auberguy Chateau. Falais had seen some bitter fighting and the villages on the road were devastated. There were no cattle at all to be seen in the fields. Up the long drive with its iron gates, was the big chateau, a lovely looking building. The Officers were billeted there.
Our tents were dumped out onto the long wet orchard grass and we pitched them ourselves, getting soaking wet but cheerful. Hazel and I sharing again and getting ourselves in a good position at the end of the line, away from authority. Beside us was a very dark, thick, pinewood – emanating real fear – a wood with a palpable aura of dread.
We had hardly got the tents up before our first patient was brought in, a woman in labour. Two of our Sisters with midwifery certificates attended her all night and she was safely delivered of her baby.
We worked hard all next day, doing everything ourselves barring pitching the big ward tents. The two of us alone put up all our ward beds, unrolled the mattresses, made up the beds and assembled the lockers we had prepared previously. Then we put out all the sluice room and kitchen utensils in their respective tents. We realized we were now too far back, however, as the battle has forged ahead and we haven't leap frogged far enough.
Later we were able to explore our surroundings a little as it had stopped raining. The orchard was lovely and there was a good walled garden below the Chateau, with tomatoes, some cordon fruit trees and vegetables. The farm buildings are out of bounds because they contain a dirty old Calvados cider press oozing stinking fruit mush. Some of the men had already been at it, with dire results! The wood – even in daylight- has a terrified feeling. Many of the trees are splintered and debarked. Small tracks lead everywhere and small recesses have been cleared in many places where the German Army horses were hidden. The field beyond has a few graves and there are many bits and pieces of torn uniforms, and in the thicker undergrowth, were things we didn't investigate as some of them looked as if they could be more than just discarded uniforms.
It is now very hot after the rain. We have one Officer Patient. The order is for no off-duty, but as there is nothing to do, both we and the orderlies go off quietly for a few hours alternately. In the evening Hazel and I went into the small village and this one had escaped ruin. It was very pretty with small English-type cottages and little stone-walled gardens. The people were very friendly. One woman had a septic foot which we treated for her. Hazel knew no French at all, so we had the greatest fun with these friendly people, sitting in their little kitchen swapping English for French names for nose, eyes, mouth, table and chair etc.
The local people began to filter home; the inhabitants of the farm came home today, big Percheron horses pulling farm carts loaded with all their household chattels, feather beds, geese and furniture. They drove into the farmyard and we never saw any of them again. It was still very hot weather so two of us had a walk to the village in the afternoon. An old couple gave us roses, just meeting us in the road. We thought again, what a pretty village it was, with cottages divided from the road by pretty gardens surrounded by little stone walls, just the right height for leaning on to have a chat over. This we did with a group of women, one of whom spoke very good English. We had visions of taking French lessons from her if we were here long. Further along the small back road was a lovely little Norman Church with a beautiful wooden door. Inside it was very dark indeed and so small that there would only be room for a congregation of 80 or so I would guess. As it was empty I went right up to the alter rails and was startled to become aware of a dim figure kneeling on the church step. On looking closer I was amazed to find it was a Crusader Knight carved in stone; I had never previously seen any but recumbent figures. I would like to go back to that ancient Church again one day, to absorb the tranquility of generations of prayer. Today Hazel, my tent mate and very good companion since we joined the 81st, has left. She has been posted. We hope to keep in touch, but know very well we won't.
Today again has been busy with admissions and evacuations. It is damp and our clothes never seem to dry out. I was off duty at 5pm and later, with H, went across several fields and onto a second class road. We were always careful by now, when going through gaps in hedgerows that there were no signs of personnel mines. On the roads there would be notices for oncoming troops, saying “Verges cleared of Mines”. We made our way to a small empty chateau (more a country house), the windows were broken and the floors bare. There were bomb craters in the nearby fields, but some cattle grazing about. German troops had evidently been here for some time as there were Army huts in the grounds, long and low. I picked up some song books out of the mud, mostly sentimental songs dealing with the War. I still have them, mud-spattered as they are. Here, too, I found the little sketch book, prints of sketches done by a soldier in occupied Russia.
In the woods behind the Chateau were a great many small wrecked cars (the first Volkswagen we had ever seen). They had been stripped (either by the local population or by our troops) of every moveable part. There was a lot of ammunition lying about and a long metal torpedo-shaped thing with fins. We puzzled over this for a long time, but I believe it must have been a “doodle-bug”. There were a few graves here too, generally with the helmet and identity disc, notifying the name and nationality.
We came back by a farm where a very unfriendly woman sold me some butter for an exorbitant price. Still, I was delighted.
Our unit gave a dinner for Miss Pike and the Brigadier (who wisely didn't turn up). We all had to attend, except for those on night duty of course. It was a real fiasco as far as meals go. The goose had not been hung and was undercooked and cold) H. had been sent on a course and I have no idea who had done the cooking). All we could think of, was, who will be posted after this visit – after all, that's what Miss Pike comes for!
It rained all day and we have packed up ready to move on. Where to I wonder? I was able to get up to the little church for a last look and to absorb some of the unchanging strength in this changing age. We are all to sleep in the big evacuation tent tonight as ours have been struck. We carried over our gear in the evening, only to find the tent full of patients on stretchers. However, we all squeezed into one half, cramped in rows on the floor for a very poor night.
We left today, all of us woken at 4am with the moon shining, but we didn't leave until 6.15am. I got my usual perch by the tail-board of our truck. I don't mind getting filthy with dust or mud so long as I can see everything. It was a very long convoy with 55 vehicles in all. At the first stop we were given tins of soup or Ovaltine, the self-heating invention which heat up through a central wick once this is lit, even by a cigarette butt. We drove through Falais, completely devastated, but the population en route waved excitedly. During halts, the men could get out and relieve themselves by their trucks, but there was never any cover for us. The roads were endlessly straight and lined with tall poplars. Several of us were most uncomfortable, but I quite desperate and eventually had to creep back into the body of the truck and shielded by the others, I used a welcome tin which we tipped over the side. Relief was marvellous, but I never forgave the Matron for her lack of fore-thought or solicitude for the staff under her care.
In the ditches by the roadside were the bodies of horses, covered with lime. The poor strong heavy horses of the region, who had faithfully hauled their owner's entire family, together with household possessions in the desperate bid to find shelter and safety.
I felt no hostility towards those men, even if they were “the enemy”; they had been caught up in the same circumstances of war as us. I was surprised to hear some of the Sisters muttering revengeful superlatives, as I was surprised months later to hear one of our girls asking if she could give Lord Haw Haw his injections with a blunt needle!
Passing too, going back, were truck loads of German P.O.W.s, an armed guard beside the driver and one armed guard in the back with the prisoners. Not an enviable position! I saw the tin passing freely to the tail board to be emptied. They had my sympathy. All the villages along our route were wrecked, the sagging roofs criss-cross slated naked against the sky.
We crossed the Seine on an improved bridge (was it a Bailey bridge?); as the big bridge over the river had been blown. We reached Amiens about 9pm, to a huge hospital surrounded by a wall and with a large guarded gateway. Within the grounds, on the left of the driveway, was a red brick church, full of refugees. We were all put to sleep together for that night, in a large duty room, on High German hospital beds with clean straw palliases.
Now we were told we would only be here four days, so we were not to unpack in the wards. Today is Monday, we had arrived yesterday and the Germans had left hurriedly on the previous Thursday. There was still dried and rotting fruit on the tables. All the basins and toiler bowls had been smashed, to make life hard for us, the occupying forces. There was a big framed photo of Hitler on the wall (which I would have coveted as a souvenir), but the glass had been well splintered, without a doubt, by our men. Poking around I found myself a tiny room just large enough for two of us to squeeze in, so I shifted my own and B's gear. It was opposite the washrooms and a back door leading onto a dark grassy plot surrounded by high trees.
We have been allotted a long light room for the Officers' Ward with a small Sister's office at one end and two side rooms at the other. There is a large stone-flagged room we will use a kitchen and a big bathroom, containing two enormous wooden-sided bath tubs. These have no taps; instead there are handles for which one has to have a key. This place was originally a mental hospital. In the ward the beds are very high and so tightly crowded together there is no room at all between most of them. Quite impossible to do any nursing.
In the kitchen we discover a large NAAFI tea urn (captured from the B.E.F. days without doubt and now returning to us).
There is also a locked instrument cupboard out on the verandah. I am with M and all our good old crowd again and am very happy. It is imperative to unpack all our ward stuff and to get rid of the crowded German beds as patients and pouring into every ward. So we chuck out all the German beds regardless, and mountains of straw-filled “biscuit” mattresses. These are scrupulously clean and it upsets us very much to see them being burnt outside, when they could have been handed on to the poor refugees, packed like sardines in the church and sleeping on the floor.
We set to and unpack everything and put up our own beds and make them up and they are filled the moment they are ready, with casualties direct from the field, no intervening C.C.S. or F.D.S. (Field Dressing Station). One poor man had been found by peasants in a ditch and had been fed and cared for in secret for days. He has a bad leg wound.
It is here I realize how precious are the “Dolly bags”, in which the entire personal possessions of each man are stowed. I think the ambulance men must have allocated them for they were often swinging from the stretcher handles. They were small enough for the man to hang onto himself, and if this is the case he guards it possessively. It contains all his worldly treasures.
We snatch a snack on the ward and work frantically until 11pm without rest, getting wounded men into beds (where possible), dressing or packing wounds, giving injections and feeding.
Upstairs in the ward directly above us a dead German soldier has been found stuffed into a cupboard, a horrifying discovery for someone.
About 11pm we go off duty and queue outside to get a hot meal from the cook-house. From the darkness a voice calls me aside, it is the Brigadier's driver who has seen H and gives me the depressing message that he thinks he will be posted on to somewhere else.
The 35 C.C.S. has joined us to help out and we are also allotted two German P.O.W.s per ward to help the orderlies. These men arrive every morning in trucks, guarded by the French, who are anything but merciful masters and I suppose you can't blame them after the occupation. Their food in their camp is soup only. We have a small elderly soldier, minus teeth, and a very disgruntled blond youngster. I set them to sweeping and washing floors. I am O.C. Prisoner of War, as I can speak German. Later, after breakfast, we call them into the kitchen and give them a plate of the excellent porridge and bacon left over from the patients' meal. Most of our patients are too ill to eat and to return food to the kitchen would only mean it getting dumped. We are a bit thoughtful as we watch our two P.O.W.s remove their caps and sit down neatly at the table with their meal; I think our men would be far more casual. The old chap tells me was on the Russian front and had his teeth knocked out by a rifle butt. He was then transferred to the “quite zone”, the coastal defenses of Normandy, now he finds himself a prisoner of the French. The younger P.O.W. hardly ever said a word, no doubt his pride was hurt, and here he is, scrubbing floors instead of being one of the conquering heroes of der Fuhrer, who had promised them complete domination. While in the ward nobody bossed them about or sneered at them. The patients were far too ill to give them a second glance, and we and the orderlies were far too busy, it was enough that somebody was doing the sweeping and scrubbing chores and leaving us a little more time to do all the other many jobs. The old soldier could appreciate this and told me they always told their French guards that they “must work in this particular ward, where they were needed”. He knew the value of the good breakfasts we gave them and no doubt of the civility as well.
In the single room at the end of the ward we had an older officer with an amputated leg. He was rather a peppery individual who hated being disturbed or even talked to, yet for some reason we nicknamed him “The Galloping Major”. Poor old chap, I expect he had his own personal worries, for with an amputation at his age, his future could look grim indeed.
Then, up by our little office we have a lad of only 19, in a very bad state. He was also an amputee. He had been brought in after lying for several days in a ditch, with that damned leg hanging only by a few sinews and slowly decomposing on him. He was one of the really courageous ones, even though he was so ill. He had named his stump “Fido”, he was so glad to be rid of the rest of his leg at last. I realized again how very ill he was when he asked me to prop up my Readers Digest in the little office window which looked out onto his bed, so that he had something to look at, though he was too weak to read it himself. He asked me to write to his mother, to his dictation and he would sign it. Here I found myself in a dilemma, not knowing whether his mother knew of his amputation. Between us (and mostly by my suggestion I'm afraid), we concocted a letter intimating that the damaged leg might have to be sacrificed. How little I knew then; now I know I should definitely have told her everything honestly and naturally. This very young boy worried me a great deal; he was so very ill and so frantically cheerful. At least he is genuinely glad to be rid of that leg, that mangled mess that he could not get away from in that lonely ditch.
When we eventually got off duty I found I had been turned out of my tiny room by the Assistant Matron who appropriated it for herself. There is some talk of the 25th Gen. Hospital coming to take over from us.
We are still terribly busy and getting very tired. I took one of the patients to have a bath. He is a reporter and has looted himself a surgeon's case of instruments. He is determined to get them back to the U.K. to sell, in spite of my insistence that such precision instruments might prove vitally necessary to some qualified man here in the months of hard struggle that lie ahead of us.
Capt. Montgomery came into the ward with the key to that instrument cupboard on the verandah. He was collecting whatever was needful to replenish the Unit's losses. He gave me a pair of forceps and a small pair of surgical scissors, a German make, a pattern that could be separated at the blades for perfect sterilisation.
We worked until 8.30pm again tonight with no off duty, and scratch meals in the ward kitchen. At least I was cheered by the fact that H has rejoined the Unit after all. We also got a replacement for my friend Hazel, she is a Scots girl.
Only five patients left now, not yet evacuated, for which we are thankful as we are all very tired. The 19 year old lad has gone to the theatre again for further dressing under anesthetic and a fresh plaster.
I had my first bath today. This I managed in the ward bathroom with M keeping watch, as there were no locks on the doors. The water was medium hot, so I had a good soak. There are some bathrooms allotted for our use, but in a most peculiar building a long tramp away through some gardens; it is dark and noisome there and as the water was only luke warm, one could get no more than a quick stand-up scrub.
We began packing up today. It is a heavy job to roll the mattresses tightly round their two pillows and force them into their bags, then fold and bag all the linen and blankets. The beds were still up and the orderlies would collapse them later tomorrow.
On to the ward at 8am, to find the night orderlies depressed and resentful and our few remaining patients furious, apparently a party of young R.A.F. boys fresh out from home had paid a visit to the Officers' Mess in the evening and the “big-hearted” C.O, had told them to make themselves at home in the Officers Ward. They had helped themselves to the entire ration for the patients as well as eating all the bread and jam. (Fortunately I had the sugar with me for safe keeping). They had unpacked a mattress each and even taken themselves clean sheets and pyjamas. The patients, remembering how hard we had worked at the packing the day before, had protested, but these young fit and rested youths had taken no notice and had made themselves comfortable. Most of them had got up before we arrived on duty (and made themselves scarce), but some were still in bed. These cleared out smartly without a word of apology, leaving their beds just as they got out of them. Another morning of repeated hard work, added to by furious resentment.
Two of us who were off for three hours in the afternoon, went into the town of Amiens and bought some Coty cosmetics very cheaply. Off duty finally about 8pm and had a cold bath (unavoidably).
Today we handed over to the 25th General Hospital officially, although as no-one came to our ward to nurse our men until mid-day, we couldn't finish our ward packing as this would have entailed packing the ward equipment and the beds and bedding the patients were lying on.
At last we were off duty at 1pm, but found that for some unknown reason, the whole of the Unit C.B. (Confined to Barracks), so I wandered about the grounds and sat on the wall surrounding the hospital and looked out over flat plain of Amiens, a dull view!
At last we packed up the ward equipment all morning, also our own things, bedding rolls, our one hard case and our trunks. The advance party with nearly all the men went off to Brussels. We were all C.B. still, so I went and lay in the sun in a bit of orchard, but presently the rumour circulated that we probably won't move until Friday (this is Wednesday), also that we may be under canvas again. Today I had a letter that had taken eight days to reach me from home.
We are allowed into Amiens again. In the afternoon H and I went off over the wide flat fields opposite the main gates. Some of the land had been ploughed and there, in the glistening turned soil, I found a large silver table fork. What a strange find! Had it been buried or stolen perhaps, or was somebody fleeing with their possessions hastily tied up in a bundle and it had fallen out? I will never know. We walked on and on; once in a down land area I found mushrooms, an old peasant in a black shawl was fossicking about and more to exchange a friendly word than to try out my French, I asked if these were real champignons and filled my beret full. Later, rounding a scraggly copse we met a khaki-clad figure, cap less and with no identifying tabs, very likely a deserter as he was neither friendly nor curious, nor was he particularly evasive.
This afternoon lengthened and we wandered on until suddenly I realized my watch had stopped, so we made very hasty steps back to camp. We were in by 9pm and while we cooked our mushrooms we were told that we move out tomorrow.
Up at 5am next morning, but it was 8.15am again before we finally left on our way to Brussels. This time we stopped every three hours, but distrustfully I refused all drinks, even the self-heating soups, just in case there was a repeat of last time with no relief stops. The country stretched flat, and tree-lined cobbled roads led straight ahead for mile upon mile. One of our ‘comfort stops' provided a comic respite. A good 300 yards off the long road where the convoy was drawn up, was a small country cemetery surrounded by a low stone wall. While the men relieved themselves by their vehicles, we females beat a happy retreat towards the privacy of the low wall and the few thin trees. Then on again and now we were in Belgium, in Brussels itself, among tall noble buildings and unbelievably there were masses of flowers in formal beds, great splashes of marvellous colour, leading to and surrounding the huge central memorial. The roads here were wide and nearly deserted and we leant out of our truck to watch the brightness of the flowers for as long as we could.
But now we entered the strangest eight hours probably ever experienced in a life time, for as we filtered into the smaller streets of Brussels, we merged into a vast unbelievable convoy. Fourteen miles long it stretched, bumper to bumper, with every conceivable vehicle edging and poking, creeping and jostling for an opening. Staff cars, jeeps, armoured vehicles of every description, dispatch riders and traffic-control Military
Police commandeered cars and captured camouflaged buses and trucks. Sometimes our drivers, professing assumed ignorance, would declare that we, as medical personnel, should have priority and they would make up a few fast miles on the practically empty left-hand side of the road, only to be chased back into line again by a furious M.P. in his traffic-controlled jeep.
Many of the small shops we passed contained huge black grapes and after hunting around for our small store of cash, two of us hung out the back of our truck and prevailed on a “sheep dog” dispatch rider to buy us what he could. Presently we saw him returning laden, only to our disgust we watched him hand our purchases into the delighted hands of the Sister in the following vehicle. Poor man, he suddenly realized his mistake and made a rueful face as he dashed past us to further duties; but he didn't have to worry, for as soon as our convoy forced its way through the narrow streets, the shopkeepers themselves were rushing onto the pavements, shouting with joy and giving us all they had. The pavements were lined with hysterical people throwing us apples and grapes, as also did the troops in the convoy when they realized with amazement and delight that there were women in their midst. We displayed our Red Cross brassards to full advantage, being ruefully aware that, like the French, the Belgians might otherwise take us for camp followers! The whole population went wild with delight and the streets were really charged with emotion. We waved and grinned till our faces ached and ached. For years the half starved and terrorized population had struggled and fought increasingly against their oppressors, now at last they could see with their own eyes the great might of their allies, the overwhelming mass of vehicles moving on to victory.
The grinning, cheering exuberant khaki-clad men wearing wreaths and flowers in their caps had taken over from the grim faced suspicious humourless masses in grey, which had policed them mercilessly for so many years.
The long convoy crawled on, stopped and moved on again, stopped by a narrow pavement and a basement window. The men and women crowded there had something very special to say, something to plead for. They all spoke rapidly and urgently and we couldn't understand at first. Then a man inside the house was helped to the small ground level window to look up at us; emaciated, dressed in a crumpled brown suit, his face grey white, and his hair dusty and lifeless. His eyes stared at us, unfathomable, hopeless, looking beyond the gabbling neighbours on the street, beyond our youthful ignorance, for he had known the ultimate of loneliness in agony and despair. But he had not betrayed, this man was their special hero and we dug frantically into pockets and kitbags for the last cigarette, the last piece of chocolate, so puny an offering to lay before courage. Even as we hunted among ourselves, the truck moved on and we had to throw our small tokens into waiting hands.
As the sun was sinking, we began to pass under a succession of bridges. Up ahead of us in the convoy was a line of DUKWs, amphibious vehicles like broad boats on wheels. Their crews were mostly up on the ‘decks', waving and shouting jokes to one another. Presently they began to sing, a wave of melody that travelled back to us through the clear evening air, lovely “Underneath the Arches”. Shall I ever forget it? Dusty and tired we all were, but that song swelled from hundreds of throats, traveling right down that motley convoy till it was lost behind us in the distance.
Eight long hours, though barely 60 miles from Brussels, and now in the night with dimmed lights we felt our way forward till at 1.15am we finally located our 81st sign and the field where our forward party had pitched the hospital tents. Cold and stiff, we drank our hot soup gratefully and were allocated a stretcher and two blankets each. There was a light frost and we spent a cold night, what was left of it. Three of our Sisters were put on night duty for only twenty patients.
This time our Unit was situated in a flat field sheltered on one side by a young pine plantation, beyond which lay a straggling village. Over to the north rose low hills from whence came the thumping of shell fire.
The following day was Sunday, visiting day with a vengeance. The local population put on their Sunday best and in a body came to view uninhibitedly and to stare in through the ward tent opening, and comment with true Latin emotion at the “pauvre blesse”. Mothers dabbed their eyes while children drew in their breath with horror at the sight of intravenous drips, and fathers marveled solicitously. Those of our patients in a fit state to care were embarrassed and we ourselves were not quite sure whether to foster the “entente cordiale” and smile as we hurried past, or to ignore the pressing crowd and hope fervently that the powers that be would see fit to put a stop to the peep show. Diplomatically this is evidently what they eventually did.
Before the pressure of work mounted again, we were given some off duty, and being allotted 2pm to 4pm one afternoon, we took some chocolate and a few cigarettes and disappeared into the country beyond in search of swaps. Here it was serene and peaceful with the big old trees already turning yellow and red. It had been a very dry summer and we wandered through a dried up lake to a small tree grown island where we could lie in the sun and relax. Later we wandered down grass grown rides through the woods till we reached a farm house with sprawling out-buildings where we swapped a small bar of chocolate and 10 cigarettes for 6 eggs. The farm houses are purely functional in this area; nothing at all is done to beautify them, no garden or even grass near the house, the inhospitable door of which opens straight into the mud of the farm yard. On the way back we admired a bay stallion out to grass, almost a Percheron in his staunch proportions.
In spite of the ‘news leaf' posted with orders, how little those of us so near the action, really knew about the general situation. On that Sunday, September 17th, while we set up our tents and admitted a relatively light number of wounded, the great parachute drop began about Nijmegen, led by General Urquhart and consisting of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, 1st, 3rd and 11th Parachute Battalions, and the 2nd and 8th Staffords, the 1st British Airborne Division. They fought bitterly, till forced to retreat finally on Monday 26th, with the loss of over 13,000 British and over 3,400 of the enemy killed and wounded.
We ourselves were now very busy. One of our wounded was an American Colonel who had been unlucky enough to “thumb a ride” in a plane from the U.K. (where he was stationed), and was shot down. He came over to see the fighting and landed in the thick of things. He was an extremely nice type, quiet and efficient, who never grumbled or demanded attention. Alas, however, the ward was soon crammed with a very different type of Yank, who spat on the floor, grumbled without ceasing and called loudly for “a shot nurse” (morphine injection), and kept the orderlies constantly on the run. The Colonel was ashamed and apologized for them. We were thankful when they were eventually evacuated. The following day we worked furiously, making up beds and admitting wounded. I was now working with a Scots Sister who was rather slow and very unimaginative. I was called to the tent entrance by stretcher bearers who had a man with his leg in a Thomas's splint. This fits from the foot right up into the groin. His leg was propped high on a roll of blankets. Something in the adjustment of his splint was wrong and he suffered a panic of agony if the leg was lowered to the horizontal. I held his leg up while he settled on the floor till a bed could be emptied for him to be put into. Then I went back to my own interrupted tasks. I was busy with my back turned when I spun round in horror to hear his frantic screams of pain. He had been transferred to a bed, but the Scots Sister was firmly placing his leg flat. “Hold it up for pity sake” screamed the tormented man, “But I shouldn't need to be” replied the Sister, in a flat voice of reason. To hell with seniority, I dived under her arm and raised the leg to end the man's agony. Later the splint was correctly adjusted and all was well.
By Friday we were desperately busy, admitting Airborne Paratroopers and were called back on duty at 7.30pm to help the night staff till well after 9pm; the ambulance rolled in while stretchers filled our tent annexe and we sorted out the best able to travel of our bed patients and evacuated them to make room. Once we even believed we had finally coped and that even the men still on stretchers could pass a reasonably comfortable night there after having had a meal and attention, when, going quickly over the medical cards, I found a slight, uncomplaining man, a Pole, with a recently amputated leg. Hastily I threaded my way between the organized clutter and coming to the bedside of a dozing patient, explained the situation. Typically he struggled up at once and vacated his comfortable bed to the far more seriously injured newcomer. Alas, to my grief, this man's rest in comfort was lamentably short before word came again to evacuate, and that poor exhausted lad was lifted onto a stretcher again to begin further travels. The following day it rained dismally, while the stretcher bearers struggled in and out of wards, bringing us casualties and taking others for evacuation. Again, more Yanks and again we struggled to satisfy their needs throughout the whole day, all of our team of orderlies and Sisters working hard till 10pm. Once during the night a voice hailed me by name. It was one of our young medics from my training hospital. There he was, down on the floor, on a stretcher with an evacuation label pinned on his tunic. Hail and farewell!
Over 300 gliders passed overhead, seemingly endless chains of them. It rained and was very cold. I remember that I had some off duty today and crouched in my tent over my splendid little valor stove cooking myself mushrooms, tomatoes and one egg. In the evening a rum ration was issued, I passed mine on, I don't like rum!
The next day, 25th, a great many fighters passed over and the air rumbled continuously to a distant bombardment. All but three of our patients have been evacuated. A few more come and go for the next week. Some of them give us parachute silk, both white and camouflaged (greenish with brown and yellowish blotches). I was also given a very vivid yellow “dickie”. This is worn by a paratrooper to put under his battledress tunic, if wounded the man can undo his tunic and the bright yellow shows up as a good marker for rescue.
With off duty being granted again, some of us went into the town of Diest, a clog-making town with some shop windows a crowded jumble of wooden clogs. Unwittingly we made a very bad blunder here. To one side of the small square was a chemist's shop and I remembered seeing a girl with a bucket scrubbing the wall by one of the windows. As we had not then been warned about collaboration, this incident rang no bell in my brain. We went into the shop to buy cosmetics (if any) though I don't believe we were lucky. Later we were told that many of the shopkeepers of Diest had collaborated with the enemy and when the enemy was ousted, the incensed citizens daubed big swastikas on the front walls of these shops and houses, many women, too, were very roughly handled and were paraded in the streets with shaved heads.
Not admitting any more, so we began packing again, ready to leap-frog somewhere else.
T.A.B. injections all round. A bleak cold day today. This afternoon I went to sleep off the effects of the injection, but then on till 8pm.
Some time during this week in one off duty period I went again through the park-like woods and was there when a great armada of planes passed on their way home. There were bombers and fighters in great numbers, but the flight pattern was the strangest I had ever seen. Bombers flew laboriously, let us say north-west, while fighters flew in patterns crossing due north, some even north-east, all evidently at allotted heights and none in formation. It presented a most confused pattern of warp and weave, but apart from the fact that they were headed for home, I never heard or guessed anything further about them.
Finished packing of ward equipment as the last men have gone. Went for a long walk and swapped chocolate for two eggs.
I believe it was some time now that we heard there was an Officers' shop (mobile) situated several miles away , and two or three of us were given permission to go if we could wangle transport. Somehow we got there. Big caravan-type Q.M. stores had parked in a field and pitched a marquee tent. It was pretty crowded with Officers of every rank and regiment in the near vicinity. We hoped for stockings, shoes, possibly shirts and possibly most urgent, felt pips for our battle-dress blouses as we had it upon orders that we must now wear these on our shirts and not only on our battle-dress, so we had been wearing not very satisfactory substitutes embroidered on strips of khaki with darning wool. Alas, we were told in no uncertain terms that women were not catered for, in fact were not acknowledged as being in that sector at all, and worse, the toffee-nosed civilian serving behind the counter refused even to serve me with pips (presumably because, according to him, I shouldn't have been there). I looked desperately round and tackled the first man I saw, a portly Colonel, handed him my money and begged him to do me the favour of buying my pips for me. He complied, but rather as if the favour was beneath him.
I still felt ill from the T.A.B. injection,
Today we all went on an outing into Brussels. It was very cold indeed but we left at 8am in 3-ton trucks, nearly all the Unit, men and Sisters and Officers. The streets were wide and clean. The two of us disappeared from the others at once and went window shopping and sight-seeing. The shops seem to have fantastic wares, lace, wood-work souvenirs and toys. Prices are high. We went into the Bone Marche, quite unaware that we had to have ration cards for confectionery but the inhabitants were so very good to us and pressed their cards on us and wouldn't take refusal. We had ices and meringues and other sugary delicacies. One woman even invited us to her home to stay for two to three days and would have shown us round the city. We wandered down that little street where the old folk were still standing at their doorways making lace in the old traditional way. We wandered to the Grande Place to see again the wonderfully decorated Guildhalls. At lunch time we had to separate to report to our respective eating places. Into a hotel which was now an Officers Mess where, on spotless tables, we were served by waiters, with meat and vege, from tins! The evening return home was very cold indeed, but this time there was no segregation of the sexes!
A very windy day with tents flapping and banging. Breakfast was at 8.30am and we spent all morning repacking the ward staff. In the afternoon I went into the small township of Diest with the Scots girl I now share a tent with. We bought a few items here and there. There was a film show in the main Reception Tent in the evening, ‘Madame Curie”, but I felt ill and feverish still.
Several of the others are now feeling feverish and ill, so it's a good thing we aren't busy. I hear the police are constantly rounding up civilians for sheltering Germans in Brussels. Sometimes our local inhabitants give us rather the impression that we are disliked; maybe they are just sick of all foreigners on their soil.
Still no work, so two of us decided to go into Leuven for the day. Went down to the main road where the M.P. on point duty flagged down a vehicle for us. To my bitter disappointment we couldn't get a bath there, which had been my main reason for going. I think their hot water had given out; also the baths were closed for the populace to change their currency. It was so disappointing for me, though C didn't mind a bit; she wanted to go to a hairdresser. Anyway we went there in the end to pass the time and each had a home perm costing 100fr. My French wasn't too good and the hairdresser's German wasn't too good, but it suddenly dawned on me he was asking us to change some notes for him at the bank. There had been a sudden currency change-over instigated by the Government, with the sole purpose of catching profiteers on the Black Market. A businessman's profit could be assessed in this way if he tried to exchange old currency for new. Anyway, this hairdresser was asking us to exchange some cash at the bank and we agreed. There was a long queue at the counter but as we also needed to change our own currency to shop, we waited patiently. We were only three places from the counter when the teller closed his window and declared business was finished. We came away in disgust, but were brought up sharp at the main door by the sight of our hairdresser. It is the only time in my life I have seen a man literally green with fright. We had been in the bank so long he had evidently thought we had “flitted” off with his bank notes. As I handed him back his envelope intact, I wondered just how much it had contained, by his obvious terror, it must have been a small fortune or else he thought we had exposed him. As we hadn't been able to change our own money, we were unable to shop around, so again went to the point duty M.P. who selected us a homeward-bound truck to deposit us again in Diest.
At last we moved on. We left Diest with regrets and moved up into Holland. The houses are clean and pretty, the country open and sandy, with silver birches dotted about. The women clean and wash the pavement and cobblestones before their own houses, but the people were unfriendly. The area lies on the border with Germany and in the past, of course, there was intermarrying, so they are mostly pro German. G. (one of the Sisters), is billeted in a house where the woman is pregnant and as soon as she has had her child, the husband is to be arrested for pro German activities. Orange flags fly from most of the windows. We are billeted above a café in rooms for two, our first time in buildings and it promises to be noisy. As I have been put on night duty again, it is absurd that I have been roomed with B., who is on days and has nowhere else to go when off duty, but back to our room and wake me up.
The hospital is on a White Friars Monastery, a big building in good grounds with streams spanned by small bridges. The White Friars continue to live there, though evidently not so many of them, as our men and Officers are roomed in the Friar's cells upstairs. We are messing in a house about half a mile up a long tree-lined road. By some obscure arrangement, the people in the house are cooking for us and this proves a terrible arrangement, as we find out to our cost. They also must have cheated our mess out of money and rations untold.
The Friars themselves are a small Teaching Order and go out into the world to learn their trades, mining, engineering etc. They have agreed to give lectures to our Unit which should be very interesting, but of course I will miss out, being on night duty alas. Every evening they line up and go in procession into their chapel, chanting; it is very nostalgic to hear them and to see the dim figures passing two by two.
At first we have no patients, so I go out to explore the country in the daytime. It is cold and windy; the county stretches flat and sandy with tracts of heather; in the distance the guns reverberate.
We learn that we shall have a new Matron (Miss J). M. has met her before and says she is charming. When I query the exact meaning of this, she says it is the honest natural charm, so we are relieved. I shall also be extremely glad to see Miss C. leave, as she lacked imagination and I think was suspicious of all her Sisters.
Tonight I was put on night duty on the very big ward which evidently used to be a class-room. I had had no sleep as they only made up their minds at 4pm. There are two other Sisters on nights, neither of whom I would have chosen under any circumstances, but I have Corporal Evans as my head orderly and two other good lads. Charlie, H's friend in Theatre, bless him, brings me coffee through from Theatre some time in the night. The ward is supposed to open at 12 midnight, but so far only five patients. I sit at the teacher's raised desk to write up all the numerous notes and my report in the morning. We go along for the night meal to a tiny book-lined cubby-hole. The other two Sisters sit along the passage in “Admissions” and don't come near me, however busy we are, they prefer to have a peaceful night. Half-way between these wards is a long room with a few admission beds and generally the duty M.O. has a sleep there when things are quiet.
Came on duty after a very poor scratch meal at the Mess, not even their main meal heated up. Watery soup and stew, no sweet. Admissions were rolling in straight from Theatre till after midnight, stretchers on the floor, 54 men in all and a great many leg amputations. The first thing is to do a thorough round, looking at dressings and repacking where necessary and giving post-op. drugs according to their cards. No nursing at all as such. Orderlies included, we were all very exhausted by morning and weren't off duty till 8.30am.
The following night was the same round continued, with the added trial of two new admissions, one an American who complained continually. Not much sleep for me in the day and a very poor meal for the night staff to go back to work on, hastily hashed up and warmed up left over from the day staff's supper at 6pm. I believe they had forgotten all about us, by the size of the helpings.
No one had been evacuated, but the men on drips settled better and didn't complain so persistently. The nights are cold and very windy now. I went to bed as soon after breakfast as I could, walk both ways along that long tree-lined road. I slept for about five hours and then went out to wander the surrounding country.
Again a very busy night with admissions from Theatre up till 5am., although the actual hospital admissions had finished at midnight. A lot of amputations who are always on the D.I. (dangerously Ill) lists, whether they arrive already amputated from the C.C.S. or are done in our own Theatre. I notice a strange smell about these men, just a faint shadow of a smell like acetylene, unpleasant and worrying; generally from the amputees, sometimes also from the men who have been badly shocked. I asked Major Chisholm about it. He admitted, he too, had smelt it, but couldn't explain it. Many of the Theatre cases are on penicillin drips; one lad was so collapsed we couldn't get into a vein at all. Cpl. Evans finally managed in an ankle after we were both nearly exhausted. He is a tower of strength. We have a young lad in with G.S.W. of stomach, on “Nothing by Mouth”, drips and suction. Evans has to ‘special' him as he flings himself about and talks incessantly. Another young lad brought in with a severe head wound. Right hand and penis shot away. What prospect of a normal life lies ahead for him? He raved and struggled to get out of bed, so continuously, I got the Duty M.O. to prescribe Paraldehyde, though he hummed and hawed, but I just couldn't spare another orderly specialling all night. It is exhausting for them too, and they have to work so hard, especially when morning comes. We were lent an extra orderly; a little fat slow chap who I didn't think would be much help at all. However, he somehow got all the men washed and fed and was so patient and sympathetic, the men loved him. I will gladly call on his help again.
Terrific amount of paper work to do, 43 patients and all have to have their cards filled with treatment recommended and given, injections etc. Then the night report, beginning with any deaths, the Dangerously Ill and Seriously Ill reported on, so that their condition is understood thoroughly and the Matron can write to their relatives understandingly. Then any men who aren't for some reason doing too well. The number of admissions and evacuated and the number still to be evacuated. I was still at it at 8.45am. The other two Sisters have a slack time as they seem to do nothing at all after the last admissions at midnight. Why they don't come down to lend a hand I have no idea, they prefer to sleep or sit about.
Major Chisholm came through to me one night and asked would I go into the Reception Hall and give a German Officer an injection of morphine. This I did, and found the man already on his stretcher ready for evacuation in the morning. I have no idea why the M.O. came through to ask me instead of asking one of the Sisters there. Could they have refused to treat a P.O.W. or appeared just vindictive? Anyway, I gave the man his help, spoke with him a little, made him comfortable and went back to my work. All of us are in this War, whatever side we uphold, the injured are all in pain and troubled in this uncertain turmoil.
Doing my round, I stopped by the bed of a young lad who, having had Pentothal for the opening of a septic hand, was only half in the present and half in his home world. I put my hand on his to quieten him and was drown into his own longing as he spoke to his girl at home and their dream for being together in the future in love and peace. Strangely moved, I stood beside him till he drifted into a deeper sleep. I never spoke of it next morning; he would not have known anyway that he spoke aloud.
We now have two German P.O.W.s in, both gunshot wounds of the abdomen, on “Nothing by Mouth”, drips and suction. One is an oldish man, strained and antagonistic, the other a chubby-faced lad of 16! At first they are very frightened and believe they are being starved for some ulterior purpose. I get one of the Monks to talk with them and talk to them myself in my rather rusty German. I get Red Cross cards and help them write home. “Wolfgang”, the lad, would do well if the older man was not whispering propaganda to him.
The lad Evans has been specialing is not going to live. He is much quieter now, but is sinking slowly, a beautiful strong boy. He died on his 21st birthday and the whole ward seems distressed. When the Pioneers come with their stretcher and the flag to cover him with, we are all silent and the two P.O.W.s realize his wound was the same as theirs, his treatment the same as theirs. After that they have confidence in us and are soon ready for evacuation further down the line.
One busy night I am disturbed when writing up the men's cards, one of the early amputees is curiously restless. I go over to him but he is only half awake and says he's quite comfortable thank you. He is a big hefty sergeant who lost his leg about six days ago. Again, I hear him fiddling, shifting, uneasy, but again he says there is nothing wrong. An uneasy feeling nags at me and I send for the duty M.O. who, unfortunately, is none other than the Radiologist tonight. He comes in conscientiously, but has no clues at all and suggests Aspirin. I am still unhappy and report my worried hunch to the day staff. The following night when we come on duty, the report on the Sergeant is bad. He has Uraemea. That accounted for the constant restlessness which he was probably unaware of himself even.
The wounded come and go. When there has been an action and the men reach us at night, they are often very anxious for their mates whom they know to have been wounded also, among all our other hurrying; we do try to send messages through the orderlies to find news for them. Sometimes they are in Theatre, sometimes if our ward is very full; they are left in stretchers in Reception, to be evacuated straight out again in the morning. If the lads are only lightly wounded, they help each other and us, taking round mugs of tea or washing bowls in the morning. Once I was surprised to see a young German with a G.S.W. of hand, helping his bedfellows cheerfully. Contrary to a great many of the younger P.O.W.s who looked sullen and resentful, he had a frank pleasant face and was obviously accepted gratefully by our lads as he helped them one-handed.
Unhappily, to show the reverse side of the coin, I unearthed a disagreeable incident one supper time. Our midnight meal was taken in shifts naturally, and more or less when we could manage it, and I had gone down the passage to the pokey little book-lined room where the Reception Hall Sisters passed a lot of their time. Their orderly had left my meal out and I sat down, grateful for the rest and momentary freedom from worry. Something, some books out of line perhaps, drew me to look behind them, and there was a neat little cache of coffee, sugar and tea (all patients' rations) and all stashed away by the orderly for sale on the black market no doubt. I pulled the books out, exposing the hoard and told the Sister concerned, she had better keep a sharp watch in future. It was her orderly and her ward, but though I doubted she would report the matter, at least the fact that his fiddling had been uncovered, might deter that man temporarily, and conditions might not be so ideal for him later anyway.
It is absurd putting two Sisters in the same room when one is on night duty. However considerate my room mate is, I am constantly woken when she comes in and generally after being woken twice, I find it impossible to get to sleep again; consequently I go on duty still tired with “gritty” eyelids and strained feeling generally. Once or twice, after a quick night meal, I have been able to go to the small ward where the duty M.O. sleeps. The dear old orderly on duty there, screens me a bed and promises to wake me in an hour. What utter bliss to lie in the dark and sleep, at the time your body tells you is the time to be sleeping. Alas, how quickly this time flies and how dejected you feel when the apologetic hand is laid on your shoulder; It's time to put on your battle jacket, do up your tie and hurry back to duty.
I slept well today, for 6 hours, as my room-mate mercifully kept away. Up and out for a walk around 4 and saw two carts of refugees being billeted in the area.
The local girls, who are employed to scrub the long corridors and to clean the various offices, were in a panic today. A German scout car had raced up the road straight through the village. Naturally those who were working for us were terrified in case the German star was in the ascendance again and the fortunes of war swinging round full circle. We, in the assurance of our might, pooh-poohed the idea, but can we really be so sure?
Last night we were down to 16 patients, but all very ill and I note that I never sat down once, until 5am – whereas the Sisters in the Reception area, have their supper in a leisurely manner, and then go to sleep in turn until evacuations begin.
This time I did ask for help and Marshman came through, a good nurse. I wanted to wash a spinal injury that hadn't had his back attended to for hours, perhaps days. We moved him very carefully between us, and only when we had to, and at last he was treated and really comfortable. I left the screens around his bed because I wasn't happy about him (I think he was a patient on the Dangerously Ill list). When I was making my final quick check before the day staff came on duty, I found him dead. He had died just quietly as we had left him.
One of the orderlies had to go up to the Monks' dormitory cells and wake the Officer on duty to certify the time of death.
We have a P.O.W. with a G.S.W. of abdomen, a man in his 50s by the look of him, and the most difficult type to manage. He is a post operative of quite long standing, having been moved into our ward, as other wards gradually emptied. He has already tried several times to pull out his drainage tubes and to take his own life. He is aggressive and rude, very suspicious of everyone and needs constant watching.
We are now packing up our own ward to move on, and anxious to evacuate our patients or pass them on to our relieving Unit. At one time there was even talk of my having to stay behind with this patient, as he still too ill to move and no other medical help has arrived to take over from us. However, on November 12th, we all move again and I am off night duty, and free, and awake again after a good night's sleep.
There has been a set-back somewhere in the fighting. We moved back into Belgium into a town called Hasselt. As it is late evening when we arrive, we have difficulty finding our war around. The hospital has been set up in a school, of all inconvenient places. Some of the wards and the Theatre are on the ground floor, but several of the big wards are up a steep narrow stairway with a bend in it, a dreadful place for the Pioneers to manoevre their loaded stretchers.
The Mess is in a rather dark classroom across an open yard and down an uncovered pathway. We are constantly soaked running down to meals. The same applies to our sleeping quarters. We are based in the annexe of the local maternity hospital across the road. The floors and passages are stone-flagged and very cold, but we get out our camp beds and bring out our small stoves and heat up some water to wash. Outside our windows is an overgrown area of grass with small stunted bushes and dripping clothes lines, hung at present with old sacks. After we have explored and found nothing of interest, we make ourselves the inevitable cocoa and go to bed.
The new Matron has taken over. M. knows her from past Station and says she has great charm. To our consternation, however, she says we are to go into our grey and scarlet dresses. As the weather has turned very cold and of course we have no cardigans or cloaks, this is ludicrous. The dresses are cotton with short sleeves. Our veils are to be washed and starched in a laundry in town, and we have to provide the soap individually. Our chief shortage is stockings. The girls who have khaki, of course had to have khaki stockings, as well as providing themselves with grey ones for this eventuality. We can't send home for them as we have no clothing coupons; we are stymied!
The men in the Unit are worse off for billets than we are; they have to sleep on stone floors just rolled in their blankets till the R.S.M. can manage something better for them.
48 hours' leave was now well established; M had been gone two days and B now sets off for Brussels, which left our ward very short-handed on a take-in day and with the C.O.'s round too. Again I marveled at the old soldier dodges and deft handling of all situations. C.O.'s inspection included the cleanliness of all utensils. It was not done for the C.O. himself to handle a pile of plates (‘tin, patients for the use of'). He would point with his cane to the neat pile on the shelf and demand to see three picked out at random. Confidently Cpl. Evans would select (seemingly at random) three gleaming plates, scoured to perfection and pass on to the next items. With glee he would inform me later how he would have four or five marked plates memorised and ready to slip out of the stock. It saved face, tempers and of course a great deal of scouring of every single plate!
First snow. It is cold in our quarters with the stone floors.
I went on 48 hours' leave to Brussels. Six of us including the Matron in a 3-ton truck. A very cold journey. We were deposited at the Officers Club, which is a lovely building with big spacious rooms. It overlooks the formal gardens below the raised motorway. Lunch was quite good this time. Later we checked in at the Y.W.C.A. and were given single rooms on the top floor. What was left of the afternoon was frustrating; we visited the gift shop and the Officers' Shop without being able to buy anything, nor were we able to get tickets for anything that evening, so by late evening as I found the others unadventurous, I went into the town alone; the streets and shops must have been lit, for I remember an animated crowd on the pavements, window shopping. I got into conversation with a Corporal, also on leave, and also at a loose end, and we ended up in a café over drinks, putting the world to rights. Back to the Y.W.C.A. and a cold bath and bed.
Cold and wet consequently miserable, as only a strange town can be when you haven't much money.
Two of us went off trying to find the 8th General Hospital (where Hazel now was). We traveled miles by tram and on foot, but without any luck. At 6pm we had supper and all went off to the local opera house to hear “La Tosca”. To our embarrassment we found the performance was already well under way and we were not allowed in until the first act had finished. The confusion was caused by the fact that, although our previously bought tickets stated one time for the opera to begin, the local papers had advertised the performance as having been put forward one hour. Of course we had never seen the papers. We crept to our scattered seats in semi-darkness over the feet and sensibilities of the outraged audience, unable to explain or excuse our tardiness.
For some reason, while we were in Hasselt, we had daily help from a Belgian nurse. A shy young woman who helped out in any way she could. Very often she arrived rather late, and I'm afraid most of us were rather irritated by it. In spite of this I'm so glad now that I always saw to it she got her cups of coffee, for it was very cold and snowy outside. This was the first time we had ever tasted instant coffee and it was supposed to be issued for Canadian or American patients only. (We saw to it we always had some of these on the ward slip as you can guess!). One day this little nurse told me of the difficulty she had almost every day getting to her work. She lived out of town somewhere and had several changes on the trams, and as I have said, the canals and bridges were guarded and she was constantly being stopped and her pass checked. Not only frustrating, but humiliating in one's own country. She was being courted by a British Corporal and they hoped to marry after the War.
It was by these same Belgian canals that we saw our first V2 rockets. Our C.S.M. had been home on leave to the U.K. and had heard of these horrors and seen the devastation they could cause. Now we saw this object ourselves, a sudden streak of smoke mounting into the sky at a tremendous pace, really awe-inspiring. I don't think it made any sound and yet I do associate those canals with magnifying sound, so perhaps there was a roar.
Another thing that happened either at Hasselt, or perhaps earlier, was the advent of a Red Cross comforts representative. A very pleasant and out-going young woman with her stores of comfort for the men. She brought writing paper and pens, soap and toothbrushes and rubber air rings, even red shoulder capes for those always having to sit up in bed. She was more than welcome as these were small things that the Army did not provide and that added so immensely to the patients' well-being.
By December 18th casualties were coming in fast and how terribly inconvenient those stairs were. Up half a flight, then a tiny landing and an almost right angle turn for a further flight, the panting stretcher bearers maneuvering their heavy loads somehow, and then standing patiently waiting in the corridor while we checked each casualty's label to see which room he should be sent into. The end room of the corridor was the “Eye Ward”, of which more later. The big classrooms we tried to keep for “dirty surgery”, septic conditions, and the others were G.S.W., S.W., appendix etc. For a while we had a very young P.O.W. there, a chubby faced 16 year old. I remember coming in once to find the ‘up patients' chaffing him as they all stood round the inevitable stove drinking sweet cocoa. He alone had the courage to uphold prowess of the German Army and evidently been insisting on their final victory against the open scoffing of our men. “Don't tease him”, I said, “he is no more than a baby”, then I was ashamed, as baby is well understood in every language and then the strange feeling came to me, how sure we were in our ultimate victory, and how sure he was. Just supposing he were to prove right? It had never entered my head before, the notion of defeat was preposterous, but it was equally unthinkable of him too. There must always be a victor and a vanquished, and just supposing….. what a very strange thought.
Another incident happened at this time. A young couple, Belgians, came in to entertain the men, singing songs accompanied by their guitar. The songs they sung they had learnt by listening to the forbidden broadcasts from Britain. How utterly ignorant we were of the mortal danger they had been in every time they listened. How did they practice? How often had they listened to memorise the words and tunes? We listened to them and applauded rather half-heartedly I think, and it has only been in the ensuing years after reading so many books on the courage of the resistance fighters, that I have realized their supreme courage and something of the triumph they must have felt, that at last they could sing the songs they so dangerously learned, to the wounded of the nation that had come to their aid and how ignorantly indifferent we were in return. I would so like to applaud their courage now, now that I understand.
If I remember right, it was about this time that a Corporal was admitted, along with an Airedale messenger dog, which also had a casualty label, having been slightly injured by shrapnel in one paw. His Sergeant Master had been killed, but he now knew very well that the Corporal was his charge and he never left his bedside. At first our C.O. tried to refuse the dog's presence in the ward, but as he had a legitimate casualty card, we eventually persuaded the C.O. to let the dog and master stay together as they had already been passed through the C.C.S. and were to be evacuated next morning anyway. Without a murmur the dog came down into the courtyard with me for his night's run and of course his food was no problem at all. I suppose the poor thing had to go into quarantine when they eventually reached the U.K., but at least we managed to keep man and dog together until then. I wonder what eventually became of him and others like him, for we ourselves met yet another Airedale attached to troops when we reached the Kiel Canal.
By now the buzz bombs were becoming very frequent sky travellers and the sirens keeping us alert day and night. We were so busy that again there were stretchers between the beds and I was generally on duty still, long after the night staff had come on; filling in evacuation labels and the case cards in their brown water-proof envelopes which were attached to each patient while in transit. We had a Q.M. in then I remember who had a case of whiskey under his bed. I often blessed that man for he really kept me going, surreptitiously putting a medicine glass of whiskey on the desk beside me as I wrote and checked and tabulated into the dark hours.
One day I was called to the ward corridor and found a young Nun asking permission for her charges to come in and give the men little mementoes they had made themselves. She was a young Irish Nun with eyes as blue as the sea and one of the most lovely faces I have ever seen. Is it the Nun's habit which accentuates the fresh loveliness or their inner happiness and devotion? She had been in Belgium many years she told me, but of course her voice was still softly brogued. As the children went round with their little gifts, I took her over to talk to our “Paddy”, though he, poor lad, was almost tongue-tied with embarrassment.
“Sister, that new chap in our ward seems to be in terrible pain, he's almost throwing himself out of bed with it”, an alarmed up-patient greeted me as I came out of the sterilising room. There he was, bed clothes on the floor, rolling about and groaning alarmingly while the men stood around helplessly looking scared. Instantly some instinct warned me, those moans and cries were phony! I dealt with him very smartly, quietly and thoroughly, and miraculously he climbed back into bed, pulled his blankets up to his ears and lay as still as a mouse. Thank goodness for a nurse's instinct! Not so the man who had returned from abdominal surgery in the morning and was now sitting up in bed chatting with his mates. As I did my rounds checking dressings, he said quite calmly, “Sister, I feel kind of wet”. On checking, I could tell at once that the over-wet blood stains soaking in his dressing, was not the usual after-op. leakage, which just needed re-packing to settle it down. I dispatched an orderly for the surgeon with the message that this patient was hemorrhaging and so was justifiably amazed when the orderly returned and told me the surgeon said just to re-pack and all would be well. I thought, “Well I'm far too old a dog not to know the difference between a leak and a hemorrhage”, so down the orderly went again and routed the surgeon out of his “club session” and he had to admit, yes, the man would have to go to the theatre again.
We were often so busy in this ward that I would still be filling in the medical “tags” to go with the men for evacuation early in the morning and it would be 9pm.
Being Xmas Day, this was a very busy one for us. The biggest ward was decorated with streamers etc. to the best of our abilities, and a long table laid down the centre. All patients from all the other wards who could were to eat here. The cooks arranged a really sumptuous meal and in the middle the Press arrived to take flashlight and movie pictures. We had to pose, handing a large plate of Xmas fare to a bed patient; they, having already eaten, saw this second helping being snatched away the moment the cameras moved on. Later the men of the Press and us had a hurried scratch meal in the mess before hurrying back to get the mobile patients downstairs to a concert, followed by a big tea.
At 6pm we ourselves got away to change and enjoy our own Xmas meal, accompanied by champagne. It was truly a busy day, for at 9pm we were entertained in the Sergeants' Mess. Alas, the rest of the evening was very flat, for though I managed to disappear and meet H at 10pm, he was in a morose mood and we parted sullenly at 11pm. Pity, for it was, I think, the only time in my life I have ever felt I wanted to dance and could perhaps have broken a life-long prejudice.
This day began badly since our cooks overslept and we went breakfast-less onto a busy ward. All the orderlies were given the afternoon off and three Field Ambulance men came on to help, this was the day when the abdominal operation man hemorrhaged and it took me an hour to locate and finally to convince the surgeon that we had a hemorrhaging case on our hands. It was 8.30 before I got off duty and went straight to bed.
Heavy frost with the roads like glass and fog covering the town. Major Chisholm came round and took down all dressings and though I worked as fast as possible, I was unable to get them all re-done by the time the C.O. came to do his round. At last we have time off again so went to the cinema, “You Can't Take it with You”, which was good, though I have no idea of the plot now. Bed again at 11pm.
New Year's Eve.
Snow on the ground and I was very glad of my huge boots with 2 pairs of socks inside, even if they were heavy. We walked out into the country and sought what shelter we could from the cold up against a haystack. Midnight and the searchlights were probing the sky. Swinging, groping and suddenly latching onto their prey. There, a long way above over the frozen countryside, detached from reality, caught in the terrible menace of light, one lone plane droned on, too heavy to evade, too slow to climb into the safety of darkness. They had him! Should we have rejoiced that a raider was plunging to earth, that perhaps so many more would live because an enemy was destroyed? We stood watching in stricken silence, as the searchlights followed hungrily, his seemingly slow dive down to destruction. Stricken, that at the exact moment of a new year's beginning; one man was going to his death before our eyes.
New Year's Day.
A fine and frosty day, though we had a very busy morning, I was lucky to be off in the afternoon to go trudging over the snowy countryside. Children were out skiing on the frozen flooded fields. We crossed the rail bridge over the canal, past the stamping muffled guards. I don't think we had realized before, that all approaches to the town, rail, road and water, were constantly guarded, though we had seen the big “pill boxes” on the canal bank facing the bridges. We were able to walk back along the canal bank, but it had been cleared of all vegetation and was bleak and unending. The evening finished with another film show, “Moontide”, so again it was after 11.30pm before bed.
Once again casualties stream in and we have stretchers packed on the floor with hardly room to get between them to see to the men or repack their dressings. I was sent down to take over temporarily in the very farthest ward which has the eye cases. So very busy that by the evening I am agonized by the thought of how I have neglected the less seriously injured. That poor man who begged me so many times to bathe his smarting eyes, or at least bring him lotion to wash them out himself, and how many times I tried to do just this, only to be caught with a more vital task. And will I ever forget Sgt. Grey? Both eyes bandaged, both hands lying straight out in front of him on the sheet encased in dirty, smelly, suppuration-soaked bandages. A grenade had exploded in front of him two or three days ago and though his eyes had been operated on, no one had told him what his condition was, the ophthalmic surgeon never thinking to explain what his future would be. No one had re-dressed his hands. He sat rigid in his shocked darkness and pain and I could see at once that he was also in for pneumonia. I set about cleaning and dressing his infected hands at once, and in suppressed fury fairly demanded that the surgeon explain at once to his patient what his progress might be. To this day I remember his casual answer: “Oh I thought he knew, yes he'll be alright, his sight isn't seriously damaged”. What untold relief, why did he have to subject that injured man to the further torture of not knowing, just for his sheer thoughtlessness. The following day I was able to have this Sergeant moved up into our big ward where I could really look after him thoroughly. His pneumonia was treated and I could soak and dress his neglected hand and his legs, too, which I found peppered with metal and grit, each puncture inflamed and septic. His chest wounds of a like nature I had to leave till later as they weren't quite so bad and we were once again inundated with casualties and were run off our feet, in spite of a big evacuation of 20 odd men in the morning. Outside, the snow has turned to slush and it is colder than ever. We long for our battle-dress again; cotton uniforms are absurd under these conditions. I, too, am scared of developing pneumonia, having had it badly three years previously, because now I have a dull aching chest and feel very unwell. As we all do, I dose myself, filching sulphurathiazole tablets and taking them every four hours. I am due for leave next month so with luck I can hang on till then. Fortunately we aren't so busy now. Two little Nuns come up to see the patients, Irish girls again. They bring us apples and we send them away with chocolate and copies of the Daily Mirror. What will Nuns make of a daily paper like that I wonder? Although I have been secretive about my chest pains, I simply cannot hide the next infection, for it is in an eye. The whole area is inflamed and puffy and I can hardly see out of it. The Matron will not have me on duty but when I sent for treatment to the ophthalmic clinic, they send her the surprising report that they think it is self-aggravated (if not actually self inflicted). Don't they think I want to go on leave in a few days? I am only finally vindicated by the fact that the Matron herself developed exactly the same eye infection later.
On February 6th I flew home on leave. This was my first flight ever and set the precedent of the few I have since been compelled to endure. After violent stomach pains and sweating, one is sick (without relief), and left completely drained of all energy. We reached an airfield in damp mist and stood miserably under a wing of the plane in an uncertain group. The pilot and co-pilot climbed out of the cockpit and vanished into the gloom. Black-out and not a soul in sight. Compelled by the sheer will to survive by seeking light and warmth, I picked up my kitbag and muttering something about going to seek help, I began staggering towards the dim smudge of buildings to our left. To my astonishment, I realized that the whole plane compliment was following me, sheep-like, and even more so that we had reached the Customs Shed. From the airfield somehow or other we were transferred to the Gower Street transit camp, a very efficiently run transit hostel for Servicewomen, where we were given a hot meal and furnished with leave passes and coupons etc. How weird to be in London again, to be a normal human being again, but not to be normal, to be stared at in an unfamiliar uniform (most Q.A.'s were by now in khaki). To have been away so long that nothing seemed familiar. To have crowded years into the span of eight months and to be so changed and yet so essentially unchanged. I took a taxi home and rummaged in all my pockets to find what foreign coins I still possessed for the driver's small son. Home again to my mother's welcome and a superb hot bath. I knew my mother feared air travel so had kept the fact from her that we would probably travel this way, but she had guessed and didn't really mind so long as it brought me home faster. How marvellous to sleep in sheets again!
Leave was only ten days, but crowded. How impossible to talk about your own life with those at home, and how strange that it should be so. I went to a play and the ballet and met three of my dearest friends. Judy, whose husband is a P.O.W. in Singapore and she herself only just escaped together with her mother and baby son. We began again exactly where we had left off as one can do with one's real friends, and we were happy together.
On the 15th I was back in uniform and back to Gower Street, only to learn there were no flights owing to fog. This is a depressing time, with the knowledge one has to go all through the goodbyes at home again. However, nothing for it, and at least I have a nearby home to wait in.
The 16th and 17th gave me the same answers and the same problems, though this day we were told to wait until 10.30am for our answer. On the 18th we were taken to the airfield and got on the plane. We even began top chew gum in preparation. Again there was no flight. Daily we turn up at Gower Street, wait till 10am and then return home. By now the fear that the Unit might have moved and we will be left behind and disappeared to other hospitals begins to depress us all further. It seems as if we will never get across the Channel again. The weather is awful.
The 20th and sixty of us were told to report at 9.30am, but on reaching the airfield, we were informed the plane could only carry twenty. How did I get on it? I don't remember at all now, only that it was a lovely day and a perfect crossing, even I wasn't ill! We reached Brussels at 2.30pm (how on earth did it take 5 hours?), but it was 10pm before we were back in Hasselt.
Next day B. was sent unexpectedly on leave and I have L. as a room-mate. How the little things irritate. She smokes continually and worse still, has a clock with a tick louder than a grandfather clock, and is most un-cooperative when I insist on putting it in a bedroom slipper wrapped in a scarf!
Madame in the café was glad to see us together again and had made us a cake. 48-hour leaves have been stopped and she knows we will be leaving soon. Before we go, we bought her what small gifts we could for sharing a little of home life and comfort with us. Chocolate, dried fruit and cigarettes.
Chocolate was a wonderful standby. Once, when my small traveling mirror was broken, I took it into a little shop run by a very old man who refused all payment. The best I could do, and probably a much appreciated best, was to give him my chocolate ration instead.
We left Hasselt mid morning and rattled over the cobbled streets to Eindhoven for haversack rations in the NAAFI. The country is bare and flat and poverty is everywhere. In the town, ragged children were following the coal carts.
We are setting up hospital again in a big square monastery, and so far are given separate rooms to ourselves. Small cold rooms with stone floors. There is no heating or water. The buildings form a square round a yard where a few poultry scratch and the monks keep one or two rabbits in hutches against the walls.
Next day we were allocated our “wards”. I am in acute surgical with C, Scots, and senior to me, and one who ‘rides it'. I've never had this before and find it extremely hard to work with her, being treated rather like a probationer, not told the treatments often and certainly not discussed with as has always happened before. I am to be ‘junior' and kept that way.
The ward is small and square and generally holds six to eight acute cases. The kitchen is outside in the square with part of a tent set up for the shelter. We have lost a lot of blankets on the way somewhere. In the afternoon I went for a walk with P-S, along a very straight long road. There are still some farm animals in the fields, but the houses are very badly smashed. Two jeeps came up behind us and the Officers invited us for drinks in their tent mess down a lane. It's very difficult to sit safely in a jeep as they have nothing in the way of a door and at the rate they always drive and swerve about, you have to hang on for dear life! This area, being right by the German border, the Dutch has inter-married, so are pro-German and unfriendly to us.
The woods behind are full of hand-dug shelters. All the felled or bomb-shattered pine trees have lumps of sod stuck on the stump end, perhaps these showed up from the air. The shelters, dug in sand, are deep and roofed with pine logs. Once at the back of a plantation we met a young bearded man tending several hives of bees; he at least was friendly.
The ward work is irritatingly heavy in that C doesn't leave me to do half the dressings, but gets me to ‘help her', a job that the orderlies should be doing, some of these badly injured men are far too heavy for me to stand holding up while she does the dressings on buttocks, and of course time is wasted.
We have several P.O.W.'s. How very much they differ. There is the schoolmaster, one leg amputated and the other in plaster, but his toes look a very bad colour. We fear gangrene there. He never complains and has a quiet philosophical attitude. I am very sorry for him. What will his future be in post-war Germany? Another, a 22 year old S.S.Officer has a G.S.W. abdomen and was at first very hard to keep immobile as he was not compos mentus. First we employed a P.O.W. Private captured with a medical team, but this man was all for hitting his Officer to keep him in bed! Gradually, as the S.S. boy got better; he tried to become domineering, alternate with being amorous. He also told me his mother and sister was nursing in Germany.
A distressing case we had was an appendisectomy, who was on stomach suction as there were no peristaltic sounds. Daily he grew more frantic with this treatment and even pulled his tubes out one night. I still think he was not treated with enough understanding and could have been saved with periodic rest from the treatment, and more encouragement and generally more understanding nursing, but he died one night. There was also the badly wounded and debilitated young lad who was on intramuscular penicillin every 4 hours. He was to be evacuated, and C, (maybe rightly, but I believed then and still do, wrongly psychologically), insisted on giving him an injection before he was evacuated. He was screaming with terror at yet another jab, he just couldn't stand it and I thought it was unnecessary cruelty to insist as she did, even getting orderlies to hold him down. No, I wasn't a bit happy working with her.
We also had a young local boy of about 14. He had been helping his father clear roads and stepped on a personnel mine, blowing his leg off. It had been amputated above the knee and he simply could not believe this and kept moving his bed clothes to peer under his bed cradle. Poor lad, I expect he could still feel his ‘phantom' foot, yet his eyes convinced him otherwise. Of course his family came to see him often, but I can't say that they were very supportive. All the women were in unrelieved black, both the men and women were very voluble, almost hysterical, and all were in floods of tears.
We had a young ambulance attendant, a Quaker, whose pelvis had been badly crushed between two vehicles. He was fantastically brave as he never could lie in any position without great pain, yet he never complained. His constant dressings must have been agonizing, but the only way we could insist on his taking brandy was as a medicine under doctor's orders.
C must have been off duty one day when a theatre orderly came and told me the surgeon wanted to operate and insert more drainage tubes in this man's pelvis. He was going to do this in the ward and everything needed would be brought from the Theatre. All went well, the corrugated rubber drainage tube was inserted and then the surgeon decided to run some saline through. Things can go wrong in the well-regulated procedures and there was no jug of saline on their trolley. I dashed into our dressing room, no sterile jugs and no time to boil anything up. I had to do the only thing possible, I ‘flamed' a jug, a last resort procedure. I poured surgical spirit into a jug and set it alight! I could now pour in saline and carry the covered jug back into the ward for use. I just prayed it was safe; it should have been! I'm afraid a good deal of our work was improvisation in those days.
Crossing of the Rhine. Someone took a photo of the Nursing Staff and as we stood grouped together outside in one of the small courtyards, we watched the endless stream of gliders being towed past in the sky, hundreds and hundreds of them.
We crossed into Germany. We crossed the Rhine on a pontoon bridge (so my diary states, but I have no recollection of this at all!). I do remember the many dead cattle and horses lying bloated in the fields and that in the dusty villages, all the houses had white surrender ‘flags' hanging from the windows. Sheets, white rags, tablecloths, anything would do. Many of the ruined houses were still smoking. Our part of the convoy stopped soon after crossing the Rhine and we went behind some farm buildings to relieve ourselves. I can smile now to remember my disgust at most of the Sisters doing this in full view of a farm worker. They contended they were showing their contempt for German soil. B. and I removed ourselves from the ‘common herd' and found a more private place, never mind showing contempt so theatrically!
We drove for many hours through villages and town and it rained heavily, beating in on those of us sitting at the back of the truck, seeing this one of the Despatch Riders left the convoy and went missing for a short while, to return carrying two huge black umbrellas. I've never seen such large lugubrious ones; they must have belonged to an undertaker at the least. We received them with joy and shielded ourselves effectually.
This time our destination was a large building in good grounds which appeared to have been a Borstal-type of establishment as the attics were stored with stiff serge shorts and dark worsted shirts. For a short space of time we were unofficially allowed to ‘explore' and help ourselves to whatever took our fancy. This was the first time I, and most of the others, had ever had carte blanche to indulge in looting. Without hesitation I admit to this being one of the most exhilarating and fascinating experiences. It was an uninhibited sensation of pure delight. Sometimes in groups and sometimes alone, we ‘cased that joint' thoroughly. From cupboard to drawer we went, taking anything we fancied, not forgetting some of the pictures from the walls, or books from the book-cases. With an eye to conditions at home, I took sheets and hand-embroidered pillow cases and tablecloths, two charming little pictures in good frames, a small wooden ‘ikon' and several illustrated books with lift out prints by old masters.
One of the Sisters showed me a small leather case she had taken from a priest's vestments hanging in a cupboard. In it were small beautiful gold vessels, obviously for carrying the Holy Sacrament to the sick or dying unable to attend church. I looked at her and thought once again, how strange it was that the ungodly agnostic often will not stoop to desecrate another's religion, while the professed believer sees nothing obnoxious in doing so. Later we sent our parcels home, censoring them ourselves.
We were allotted our wards and I was glad to have shaken off C and to be in general surgery with P-s and A., and also P in charge. We turned a long wide room with high windows at the end into our ward and began admitting busily at once. All the low German beds had to come out, it was fast and heavy work for several hours. There were two big door less rooms opening off one side and steps leading down to two other rooms, which we turned into a sluice room and a kitchen. B. was on night duty here and I often saw her working till after 8.30am next morning on the long line of stretchers with men ready for evacuation that filled the whole floor space between the beds. Once I saw her bend down over one man and then cover his face with his blanket, he had died there on his stretcher on the floor, coming from the Theatre.
As I Have said, P was in charge of this ward and an excellent Charge Sister she made, keeping her finger on the pulse of the ward without fussing any of us. P-S was put in charge of giving all injections and medications. I had been put in charge of the G.S.W. of Stomach patients, while A did all the general nursing duties and could be called on to help with anything. My stomach wound patients were nursed in a sitting-up position, often helped by a knee bolster tied in place to the bedsides. This prevented them from slipping down the bed. We had no air rings at that time. A constant suction of the contents of the stomach was kept going by means of gravity to a big jar under the bed. It was alarming how fast this jar could fill and there was often a frantic scuffle to clip off the flow and replace the jar before it overflowed onto the floor. The tubing would block and have to be replaced an uncomfortable, if not actually painful process for the men, as it was carefully inserted down one nostril. The man could drink if his mouth became very dry, but the fluid was all sucked out again automatically. To counter dehydration of course he also had an intravenous drip, another source of worry to be watched. I'm afraid I used up a great deal of fine rubber tubing and was always sending an orderly down the Path. Lab. for more, till one day the Path. Lab. Sergeant himself came up into the ward to find out where his precious tubing was going and how any Sister could be disposing of so much. When he saw the eight or so men I then had, each on their stomach suction with several feet of rubber tubing, he realized at once that their need really was vital and thereafter always supplied us promptly with no questions asked.
We had one man, Walker, who we called “Johnny”, after the whiskey. When he eventually graduated off his suction, and was getting ready for evacuation, beaming with joy, he told me he had never expected to pull through. His father, having fought in the First World War, had told him long ago, stomach wounds never recovered, but then our surgeons were superb, nursing techniques had improved vastly and we had Penicillin. Another young lad we had in that row of beds had a G.S.W. of liver, just about as bad a wound as could be. Yet he asked me if he could be patched up well enough to join his pal who had been sent to Burma.
Not all my G.S.W. of Stomach patients recovered, alas. Shortly after we opened up our ward, a man was admitted from Theatre and put into one of the very low German beds, as we had not unpacked enough of our own by then. Stomach wounds need very careful nursing and are generally in for ten days at least, a very low bed is an exhausting one to manage a patient in. The staff wanted to move him, but I was very much against it. It's very odd; for you have to keep heaving these patients up the bed and are always moving them to treat their backs etc, but to actually move them bodily seems to be another matter. I sent an orderly down especially to get permission from the surgeon to move this man into another higher bed, and we used four nursing staff to shift him as carefully as possible, all appeared well, but coming on duty the next day, I discovered his bed was empty.
In this ward, too, was a young lad with G.S.W. of pelvis. He had to be nursed on his right side for the bullet had gone right through and come out through his back. When the surgeons made a hurried round, I took down his dressing just enough for them to see the condition of the wounds, and all seemed to be in very good order. I was then told to clean it up and redress. All our sterilization methods were a bit primitive at that time. We would make up swabs and packs of gauze, pack them into tins and sterilize them, but your dressings were generally carried to the bedside on a trolley between two sterilized bowls. Careful as I tried to be, I still dreaded touching this dressing. He really should have been done in the Theatre, but they were far too busy. However, when I had carefully washed off the Theatre dressings, the wounds looked beautifully clean and I could be cheerfully hopeful to the patient. Alas, two days later when I had to do the dressing again, the wound in his back looked infected and as we were then in the process of handing over to a bigger hospital, I never knew how he progressed.
This man had a colostomy as well and he asked, as they always did, how long he must have this, they always hated the idea of evacuating through the abdominal wall. For us, who nursed them, it was always difficult to answer. Their small medical cards (no longer than a pocket book), only gave the barest details, G.S.W. lower abdomen, exit such and such, colostomy performed, splinters of bone removed, descending colon repaired, etc. etc. Then the drugs prescribed, Penicillin T.D.S. (3 times daily), Morphine ¼ S.O.S. (as necessary) etc. What the internal bowel damage was we had no idea. Would the colostomy be permanent, probably not? Should we encourage a man by telling him it was sure to be only temporary? What should we say? There was always a horrible risk of doing a large dressing in the ward, uncovering a gaping wound to the dust and bacteria of the crowded room, men coming and going, stretchers being put down and picked up, blankets being taken from them and folded, it all added to the perpetual faint dust swirling about.
Someone called me from the side alcove. A tall fair man due to go to the Theatre again that morning, he was propped up on his elbow and beseeched me to let him be evacuated. Major Chisholm had had to warn him his badly damaged leg would probably have to come off. He begged to go home, he was sure they would save his leg there. “What could he do in ‘Civvy Street' with only one leg, he had a little daughter at home, and his wife and little girl depended on him”. His anguished eyes pleaded with me. It seemed little comfort to tell him our surgeons were the absolute best here, that on-one at home could possibly be better. Oh for more time to reassure him, but of course I was needed urgently elsewhere.
Another convoy came in, more cases straight from Theatre. Often with their khaki shirts on, their battle blouses and small personal effects rolled up on the stretcher beside them. I remember at first when we came out, wondering momentarily why so many of them arrived trouser- less. I should have known better, having seen shot animals and knowing that the shock of the bullet causes an involuntary evacuation.
A tank crewman was brought in still in his battle blouse. His whole head, face, neck and hands had received the full blast of a flame thrower. His burns were shocking. A drip had already been started in Theatre, but his medical card was nearly blank. Nothing could be done until he came out of deep shock. Just morphine was ordered and more morphine. He died that night. The gods had had mercy.
When we are very busy a large Sergeant is brought in from Theatre, a huge man, hardly breathing and a very bad colour, intravenous drip ordered and Atropine. Together with an orderly I searched for a vein. No pulse and yet he is breathing faintly. We cover him with extra blankets and raise the foot of his bed and try for a reasonable vein in his ankles, there just wasn't a vein to be raised anywhere. Dreadful as it seems, for someone so near death, we could not spare the time, when those with a chance of recovery needed instant attention. We just had to leave him. Coming back after replacing a drip with a fresh bottle, I looked across at the big Sergeant. I stopped and stared, for there he was, leaning on his elbow, smoking a cigarette. Quite involuntarily it burst from me; “We thought you were dead Sergeant, this is wonderful”. Strong and contented, his voice answered, “No you won't kill me off so easily Sister”. What joy!
Another time an orderly appeared: could I spare a moment for the Matron? Where is she? At the far end of the ward was a short flight of stairs leading to a small door and I don't think I had ever noticed it. I opened the door and such a strangely pathetic sight presented itself. There was a short passage with a further flight of stairs leading down somewhere. It was quite light, but in the passage and crowded on the stairs stood and sat, forgotten men, as it seemed to me. The walking wounded from some convoy (from how long ago?), and among them our little Matron, bless her kind heart. She had found them and had re-packed and bandaged wounds, found slings to rest the heavy aching plaster-encased arms and now she wanted tea and food and cigarettes for them all. I shot back to the ward, ashamed that these patient men had waited silently behind that unknown door, unwilling to disturb us, knowing how much worse off their comrades were.
In this institution we had a great many extra comforts for the men; the German nuns who ran the place had left marvellous supplies of bottled fruit, preserved eggs, jams and best of all, a lot of lemonade in large demijohns. This was splendid for drinks for the men. (Even my ‘stomach wounds' could drink a little, even if it was sucked out again, it helped their mouths). I remember being very worried on that ward because we were so fearfully busy, that we couldn't even give the men mouth washes or wash their teeth. One man asked me several times to let him wash his mouth out and each time I had to hurry to something far more urgent and leave him in his discomfort.
To get to our own toilet we had to go right through our long ward and down a flight of stairs to a lower level. Many's the time I have disregarded nature's first and second call and then finally have had to make a dash for it, tugging at the large safety pin that held the trouser band round my waist! (No time to sew on a missing button).
The Army is, like every other Service, shockingly wasteful and all those course linen mattress covers and heavy sheets, (all duly stamped with the rampant Eagle) that were on the beds when we arrived, were thrown out and burnt. The Nuns came round and asked permission to collect and wash them, we had used the sheets till we unpacked our own, but the Army laundry refused to wash them and; worse, refused to allow the Nuns to, what a dreadful waste.
Among the stores taken intact were jars of stiff pink honey, which were delicious and a great treat for the patients, also the first dehydrated potatoes we had seen, and crocks of preserved beans, all a welcome change. I don't remember having any German patients here; perhaps the Nuns took charge of them. We did have one Russian patient once, a strange, surly man who never even thawed out among the friendly patients. He was quite unwarrantedly suspicious of all of us.
Gradually the Front moves on and our cases grow fewer. Instead of working from 7.30am to 9.30pm, with only scratch meals, we can now have a few hours off duty.
McTavish (name changed) has been moved into our ward. He is a badly burnt R.A.F. man, he is Scotch and he is bad-tempered. He occupies an old high bed by the night duty table. By nature he is a grumbler, but his pain and his treatment have turned him into a tyrant. He lashes out at all of us savagely, he screams his hate. We all do everything possible for him, but nothing is ever right. I wonder if someone turned on him and told him to behave better in his own language, it would do any good. He seems to have been with us for weeks, can it be possible it has only been four days?
Sometimes in a breathing space, one of my abdominals asks diffidently again if he could clean his teeth. Again I feel so guilty, how frantic for just a little time to really help. How dreadful to lie there with a dry, dirty mouth, not allowed to eat and with only sips of cordial or water. Such a little thing, but we don't even have toothpaste. The night orderlies manage wonderfully, washing the very first man who wakes in the early hours. They have so many bowls of water to carry round, towels and soap to fish out of lockers. Helpless men to wash and their backs to rub. Sometimes even helping them to shave. They have bed pans and urinals to help the men with, then breakfasts to pass round, porridge, tea, sausages and bread and butter. All have to be helped. Then it's light enough to dress those due for evacuation and to help the stretcher bearers get their patients comfortable on the stretchers. The Night Sisters, only two of them, hurry to give the last injections, fill in the last medical cards and shove them into their brown folders and take them to the correct man on his stretcher. This one wants a bottle; another has lost his personal belongings “dolly bag”. Two from the Theatre are coming round and one is vomiting. No-one has time at the moment to hand out mugs of water or toothbrushes.
Another Unit has moved up to replace us. Strange Sisters come into our ward and talk among themselves. One, ignoring me completely, asks her superior if she should add sterile water to the bottle at the top of the suction apparatus. I say nothing and wonder what kind of answer she got!
Outside it is raining, we are all off duty, suddenly slack, tired out, at a loose end and edgy. We wash our clothes, re-sort and re-pack our belongings. When the rain stops I go down alone into the woods, the leaves are young and fragile yet, the dead winter grass is soft and tufty, so I find myself a dry place and go to sleep. These woods are friendly and when I doze I hear the first cuckoo, how peaceful it is!
Later we hear that the Unit which took over from us (the 25th), had to call up twenty more Sisters to help them out. As they aren't getting in nearly as many wounded as we did, we feel smug!
This day we move to a rest camp. Down a country track past an attractive farm house and barn among the grass pastures, we set up our tents again. One of the first jobs of the Pioneers was always to dig the latrines, “thunder boxes”. For the Sisters there was a short row of three, surrounded by a head-high length of tenting material. Much to our derisive amusement, in the past, the third compartment was holy to the Matron's use. Our present Matron and her Assistant scorned such estrangement from the common herd, so conditions were less crowded. Much to our delight, the two huge “funeral” umbrellas appeared again, were opened wide and propped up over any occupant, thus giving us a much appreciated shelter, for we often had a good deal of rain.
Reaction soon set in for all of us, it's grand to have a rest, to get up without a rush, to get clean again, to sit about in your tent and mend your things and read in peace, but all too soon time lags, there is a feeling of finality in the air. Our C.O. has left us and is replaced by a man who doesn't know us, the not too pleasant type of Pukka Sahib, without the dedication of the genuine article. Several of the original Medical Officers have gone, when did they drift away? We have been just too busy to notice. There is now a new Captain who owns a small terrier he picked up somewhere on route. Apart from this one action to his credit, he is not a pleasant character.
We walk in the woods, where some men and girls are working with timber. The woods are light mixed deciduous trees, the kind of forest I used to know so well. We hear roebuck barking in the very early morning, sharp and staccato they answer one another from either side of the little valley. So many years have passed since last I heard that bark. How on earth are there any deer left after six years of war and Germany supposedly short of food? We also came across a small bunch of buck, no bigger than dogs, I have only heard of these specimens, but never seen them before. They were wary but not over timid.
Time is running down now, we can feel the inevitability of the end, the end to pain and maiming, to hardship and bereavement for so many, but to us also, an end to the comradeship of our months of striving together. We had grown to admire and esteem so many, learnt to tolerate the actions of the few unreliable ones. Now an ending was coming. Somehow we must begin to look to the future. How many of us could return to the cramping discipline of civilian hospitals, with their petty restrictions, but how many of us had the finance to do otherwise? How would we ever fit into a life among strangers, whose language we hardly seemed to speak now? The old, old dread of the returned campaigner, isolated from those who had shared his experiences.
We were isolated already, cut off from the War in our safe woodland resting place. The War was grinding to its bitter end without our help.
Arriving early to breakfast one morning, I found the C.O. in the Mess with a sheaf of photos in his hands. The first extermination camps had been overrun by the Americans, the first horrifying pictures were being published and distributed. Skeletons in strange striped clothes like pyjamas and with shaved heads; they crawled and sprawled on rubbish-strewn ground. Naked heaps of grotesque piles of dead, long thigh bones and enlarged joints barely covered by loose flesh, flung up from the mass of dead thrown on top of one another. Shaved skulls, up flung arms and ribs piercing the grey scabby skin. How could one man do this thing to another? Was there no God to cry: “Enough, mankind has degraded himself below the level of any living thing, it is enough”?
One sunny morning I slipped into the woods from the back of the latrines and was alerted to something white lying in the undergrowth. My first thought was that it was a parachute, so I approached very carefully. No, it was no parachute, but a pile of linen, good linen embroidered pillow cases and table cloths, hand towels and sheets, all tied neatly with red tapes, taken no doubt from a linen cupboard. That evening I handed them all to the Matron, not fancying stolen property straight out of a private home. After that the Security Police were called in and the fur began to fly. It also came to light that the Company Cook had been stuffing leather handbags and other stolen stuff into the cook-house fires. The unpleasant Captain disappeared. Evidently he and the cook had been pillaging at revolver point from private homes in the neighbourhood.
Here we were told that R.A.M.C. Officers could now carry arms and that if Sisters wished to visit the town escorted by other Ranks, then their escorts must also be armed. This would mean borrowing a rifle from the Pioneers, but I never remember personally going into the town itself.
Small incidents often stand out clearly in every detail, while whole days of travel or work are now completely blank.
When did we go through Osnerbruck? Poor, devastated town. The huge buildings still standing were gutted shells with blackened window spaces. The inhabitants had hung out white surrender flags, and then towards the centre of the city sniping had begun from these very buildings. In retaliation the Yanks had gone in with flame throwers and the city was no more.
Yet I can well remember the cosy farm house built under the same roof as the warm barn where all the stock was housed. The beasts all facing inwards as they do in Europe, to facilitate feeding. The hens lived here as well, broody hens sitting on their clutches of eggs in nests attached to the beams above the heads of the cattle.
May and June.
When we left the rest camp, we moved up to Luneburg, the town where eventually the Armistice was signed. We were in the former S.S. barracks here, a very large well laid-out place. A big block on the right of the gate had been married quarters. Now our Officers and Administrative Staff were housed there. Then a very fine riding school with mirrors round the walls so that the riders could see their own faults.
The block which we turned into our wards was across the square and had evidently been office buildings. As we moved in our equipment, the Pioneers were merrily pitching desks, filing cabinets and whole cupboards out of the windows onto the grassy slope outside and here the locals were just as happily collecting what they could of the smashed and splintered wood. A long sloping road led past our third storey windows, going into the town and at first we watched the countrywomen toiling up this hill carrying their shoes. As they came below our windows they would sit down on the grass verge and put on their shoes and so be respectable for the rest of their journey on into the town. Very soon we had far more exciting things to watch as the freed P.O.W.s, ours this time, began arriving in our sector. Wild bearded, yelling and shouting young men, coming in any way they could, on foot, on tireless bicycles, in horse-drawn carts and camouflaged vehicles of every description. It was a grand and thrilling sight. Many of them turned into our barracks and were housed and fed. They were all deloused here too, put naked into a room and puffed well with D.D.T. Then they were re-fitted with British battledress. A big bonfire was made in the courtyard and all their filthy clothing was burnt. This proved quite a hazardous procedure as many of the P.O.W.s had acquired hand grenades on their way to us and happily pitched those into the flames with their rags. Every now and then there would be a vicious explosion, but who cared!
In our ward we had very little to do; I remember we had a French Canadian Officer and were sent in a bottle of champagne for him. As he had a bad gastric ulcer we didn't even tell him, so we solemnly shared it out with our orderlies and believe me, Champagne doled out in medicine glasses and enamel mugs has no sparkle or thrill at all. I can't remember ever going up into Luneburg itself, but we did go the other way, into the country, where it was very pretty. I had not realized that nightingales sang in full daylight, but these certainly did and they were really beautiful. We wandered along the country roads where all was peace here now, but among the trees or in the hedge bottoms, we could see small heaps of odd bits of German uniforms. Whether discarded for civilian clothes, or because their owner was dead or wounded, we didn't know, and we didn't investigate.
The lilac was in bloom everywhere in most glorious profusion. I asked a friendly housewife if I might pick some and came away with a big bunch, my favourite flower.
So, one afternoon as we came past the guard on the barrack gate he told us peace had been declared. We had all known it was imminent, but it was still strange to hear the actuality. After that our own P.O.W.s really poured past, going to Luneburg town itself. I think there was a big crossroads there with signs showing where to go to join the British, American or Russian sectors and they could more or less choose which sector they wished to go to.
Later we had a celebration Mess dinner and dance, a very happy affair. Our own Brigadier Debenham was there and we had a few private words with him. I remember I danced with Baker our dear Mess Orderly. I am no dancer and he had chronically flat feet, so we wandered very happily round the dance floor, more or less to the music!
It was very sad that the actual day War ended, when relatives at home would be celebrating, not only this fact but the joy that their men would now be safe, that even in our small hospital, we should have several deaths caused by over exuberant celebrators crashing their jeeps. What a cruel waste of lives of young men who had survived the whole War.
In the barracks, our men were billeted in the attics of one of the buildings, and to their delight found all the band instruments were stored there. There was great fun and jollity for a night or two, all the men trying their hands ‘playing' all manner of instruments, or making a really fiendish din, until everything was firmly removed and put under lock and key.
In these S.S. barracks we found stores of the vile-smelling ‘ersatz' soap, made up into very small tablets. There were also stores of souvenirs for the troops, metal ashtrays, ‘from Luneburg', very tatty thin metal badges with a bit of red ribbon attached, “A Souvenir of Barrack Days”. The only articles of good workmanship, were small doe skin purses with a cord to hang round the neck, possibly for Officers' ‘dog tags', I still possess two of these.
When we left Luneburg we passed the famous Heath where the Armistice was signed. It was now a repository for all the magnitudes of old discarded vehicles which the P.O.W.s had commandeered to carry themselves to freedom. A really remarkable sight and a sample of every type of aged transport imaginable.
We moved on to Rendsburg, a pleasant enough town. We Sisters were in good clean billets in a private house. In the attic (and these attics were really rooms, with windows and very good tongue and groove flooring, well polished) were stored in trunks and suitcases, the personal belongings of the householder. It is strange to think now, that without any compunction, we all ransacked them, helping ourselves to linen and nightdresses, even saucepans. Actually it was a case of us, or the Displaced Persons taking the lot. These wild groups were everywhere now, bands of them roaming the roads; occasionally we would meet them, just the two of us confronted by twenty or more lawless wanderers. They made me nervous and I'm sure we were lucky that we never had any unpleasant incidents.
Much later, the Matron told me that she and, I think, two Sisters, were returning in a Staff car on a rather deserted road when they came upon a dying German civilian and his terrified fiancée. He had been stabbed to death for possession of their bicycle. They bundled his body into the back of the car and took the hysterical girl with them and left the area as fast as they could.
Rendsburg was on the Kiel Canal, on one of the backwaters of it, and we sometimes walked there. One day this Airedale dog attached himself to us; he must have belonged to the Engineers in the area for he understood English and came with us readily, whereas he would have nothing at all to do with the German civilians. An elderly German couple was sitting on the bank and tried to be friendly with him, without success. Perhaps it was the dreadful smell of that ersatz soap or else he recognized the distinction of uniforms.
One day in the Mess, a large case of very good new corsetry was brought in and we were told to help ourselves to what we wanted! I picked a smart lightweight and ‘elegant' corset for my mother and sent it home. She was delighted. Where on earth did such a windfall come from?
There was very little work for us these days, but strange things came to light. Our patients showed us their loot, a man would have wrist-watches all up one arm or another would have a pocketful of gold rings. It was no good asking questions!
There was still sniping going on; one of our men was brought in with a bullet wound in the leg, sustained only just outside the actual camp.
From Rendsburg a rather depleted Unit moved on to work in Belsen Concentration Camp. I did not go with them. H and I had been married, in Germany, in June and as he had been posted to India, I was sent home on compassionate leave to be with him until he left.
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