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- Nursing Sisiter
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- N Africa and Europe
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- Contributed on:
- 19 September 2005
Memories of Nursing life during the War Part 2
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In February 1944 I was sent to join the 84' Gen Hospital in Italy, who were awaiting return to England to re-form for the Normandy invasion:
On my return home I was posted to the 77' Gen Hospital stationed in Kent. This was a 600 bedded hospital with 50 Sisters, Matron, Assistant Matron, -Doctors, Padres and Medical Orderlies. We were all patiently waiting for the "second front" to begin. We were issued with battle dress, and a mass of equipment to carry on our backs.
When the final day came we were taken to Southampton and to a camp run by the Americans. Here we were given a hot meal, enjoyed an ENSA show and slept the night in bunks. Early the next morning we were given still more to carry, in the way of 24 hr rations. Everyone had to be self-supporting for the first 24 hrs after landing. Rations consisted of a solid methylated spirit block, concentrated meat, army biscuits and chocolate.
We were then taken to the docks and boarded a small ship, already overloaded with troops. All around us was an immense convoy. I have never seen so many ships in one place at the same time.
We sailed in calm weather, but a gale sprang up, and instead of crossing that day we spent 2 wretched days tossing about. The troops had to sleep as best they could and the sailors rigged up hammocks for the Sisters. Once you are in, it’s like being a pea in a pod and quite a difficult operation getting out. To see some of the rather fat and awkward ones being hoisted up by the sailors was good enough for Punch. Some never did succeed in getting in.
We were all very relieved to leave the boat and climb over the side into dinghies, and we landed on the famous Mulberry Harbour, which was working for the first time. (Large chunks of concrete towed across the channel and assembled to form a harbour). All this took place 13 days after D-Day.
Our hospital was set up in several fields at La Deliverade, 10 miles from the coast. We were deafened by the incessant barrage of our own guns by day, and enemy shells at night. The Sisters’ quarters consisted of small tents housing 2 or 3 sisters with our beds dug down into slit trenches.
Each ward consisted of 2 large marquees, divided by a small corridor. This formed on one side the kitchen and other surgical equipment. Packing cases were converted into cupboards and there was a small table in the corner for Sisters’ reports and clerical work
The hospital consisted of 6 such wards, 4 surgical and 2 medical. A reception tent which was the same as a casualty ward, operating theatres, kitchens and stores.
Now each casualty arrives with a Field Medical card attached to his person, with all his particulars and previous medical treatment received, such as morphine, anti-tetanus etc. When a soldier is wounded in the field of: battle he is attended to by medical orderlies, and a field dressing is applied. This is a sterile pack and everyone carried one as part of their equipment.
One never has time in the Army to prepare properly far admitting casualties, one finds the wards practically full before half the equipment is unpacked, but somehow everything eventually sorts itself out.
The first month in Normandy I was on night duty in charge of the hospital. with 5 other Sisters. I had to look after an officer and men’s ward with the help of one orderly, and supervise the running of the hospital.
In the officers’ ward, the beds were crammed together, most were dangerously ill cases. Almost everyone had a piece of rubber tubing either in his arm, nose, leg or stomach.
In the men's ward, there were stretcher cases waiting for attention to their minor wounds. All would be dirty, unshaven and with torn and blood stained battle dress. I always asked which they would prefer, eat, sleep or have their boots off. Sleep and boots off was the usual answer. We were able to supply them with unlimited hot drinks in self heating cans.
In the early days evacuation of casualties took place as quickly as possible. Anyone but the dangerously ill were sent back to England:
The admission of casualties went on until 11 pm at night, then the roads were thrown open for tanks and supplies. The wards were lit only by hurricane lamps and a strict blackout was observed. I felt a true Florence Nightingale doing my rounds, but it was not easy to see the.conditions of patients by so small a light.
At this stage of the war penicillin had become the wonder drug and saved thousands of lives. In those days it was in tablet form and had to be prepared for injection every 3 hrs. It was nothing to have 50 of these to do at one time. Everyone possible who could use a syringe was roped in, as the drug to be effective must be repeated every 3 hours.
One was really gratified for the amount of work there was to be done, it gave one no time to brood over the sick and suffering. It was important to make the men believe that living was necessary. This was not easy when a man found he had a double amputation of his legs.
"Life to be sure is nothing much to lose, but young men think it is” and they were all young men.
Severe burns require constant watching and attention. Their burns were mostly confined to their faces, chests and back, and keeping them supplied with fluid was a headache. With one orderly, it was almost one person’s job to feed them, so we fixed up a bottle by the side of the bed and attached to it a piece of rubber tubing. This we strapped to the patient’s hand, and gradually he learned to guide it to his mouth and suck up the fluid from the bottle. To have a drink just when they wanted must have helped towards their comfort.
After 12 hours on duty one felt much too tired to do anything but eat one’s meagre breakfast and fall into bed. There was great comfort in the feel of a nightdress after wearing men's clothing.
When the hospital was busy everyone else was, but as soon as things slackened off we found time to enjoy ourselves. We were not far from the sea and we took every opportunity and invitation to see all that was around us.
One of our great joys was to get a lift to "Bayeaux" and have our hair shampooed. They always gave you a friction' afterwards and you smelt delicious. The local people were all friendly but there was very little in the shops to buy and we were not encouraged to buy food stuff. One could get washing done for a few cigarettes and sweets for the children. We had a daily cigarette ration and sweets and chocolate to supplement the vitamin deficiency in our diet.
It was my one ambition to work in a Casualty clearing station. This was considered to be the cream of the service - one got away from red tape and Matron. After many requests for a transfer I was sent to a smaller hospital, the 86" General. I joined them after the fall of Caen, and we moved to a place called Caumont.
Here we took over from a CCS and the same routine followed as in Normandy.
We admitted soldiers from every regiment and from their stories, the defence of the German Panzer Division was stiff and heavy.
As the Germans retreated and the Army advanced so our busy days slackened and we had time to look around the countryside. We stayed at Caumont until the end of August and as the second Army moved we followed over the Seine and into Belgium our equipment was all packed into lorries and we rode in ambulances.
Our route was through the Falaise Gap where a terrific battle had raged and it was from there we had received our casualties. All along the road were abandoned and knocked out tanks and equipment. Bodies of Germans laid - everywhere bloated with gas-gangrene. It was a horrible sight and the smell was appalling. It was in the area that 5,000 horses were captured from the Germans and distributed to the French farmers. We spent the first night in the ambulance, then our tents were erected in a field near Bruges. Here we rested and waited for the liberation of Brussels. Our first highlight was a visit to the Mobile Bath Unit.
The unit was situated in a field by a stream. There was a large tank under which blazed a boiler fire. Two pipes led to the stream, one the waste and the other, suction apparatus. We entered a small tent and the sergeant greeted us with an amused smile, which is where we undressed. There were duck boards on the floor, a long bench and a mirror tied to the tent pole with string.
We then went into cubicles, each one-equipped with hot and cold water and so called shower. It was delicious to feel the water, splashing all over you after bathing in about 3 inches of water for months. None of us worried about the line of khaki figures to be seen through .the cranks in the canvas. We were their first women bathers.
Brussels was liberated on September 3rd. Here we were welcomed with warmth and gratitude and fruit and flowers were pressed upon us. We spent a few days helping at one of the large modern hospitals. It was full of our own troops who had been prisoners of war and left behind by the retreating Germans. They were all pretty ill but had received fairly good medical attention. It was difficult to get used to walking-in wards again after tents and having trolleys full of instruments and dressings.
Our next move was a place called Dieste. When we left the hospital the Belgiums gave us sprays of flowers and bunches of grapes with cards pinned to them - "Thanks to our liberators". We looked as if we were going to a wedding instead of a hospital in a field,
Here we took over from another CCS and had our first American casualties, V2 buzz bombs and German POW's.
The POW's were all youths of the German SS filled with beliefs of Adolf Hitler and utter contempt for us. They thought as prisoners, they would be shot and as wounded men, burnt alive. One almost resented the time spent treating them. They received the same treatment as our men, the only difference they waited until last. The buzz bombs were going over all night, but being the launching area we had no disasters to cope with as you did at home.
We trudged about the wards and hospital ankle deep in mud, we slept in tents and.our clothes felt wringing wet with the moist air when we came to put them on in the mornings. By rights, we should all have had pneumonia and rheumatism, but we all remained fighting fit.
Our next move was to Eindhoven. This was south where the ground .was soft and swampy and dykes cut up the land into holdings too small to take our tents, so from then onwards we worked in buildings. With the change to soft conditions everyone had severe colds. We set up hospital in a convent and as usual there was plenty of scrubbing and cleaning to be done. At last I got my wish and .was posted to a CCS station at Helmond. This unit consisted of 8 Sisters, the one who was senior was in charge and we worked in shifts of four. The station was set up in a school, the work was not hectic as the casualties were coming in from the units patrolling the River Meuse. I arrived at this unit about a week before Xmas so spent quite a bit of time trying to decorate the wards. The patients were entertained by ENSA concert-parties, but the main thing I remember was the patients hanging up large woollen operating stockings on Xmas Eve which we duly filled with fruit, cigarettes and nuts, and a present from the Red Cross. Having no nut crackers, Army boots and the floor sufficed until we received an urgent message from the .operating theatre below that all the plaster was falling off the ceiling.
The local people were quite friendly and brought: their daughters along to help in the wards.
Just after Xmas we were all in turn given 2 weeks home leave arid we were flown home from Brussels. This meant a night in the gay city: I have never seen such shops filled with lovely perfumes. Unfortunately the pay-master general was fairly strict and we had to Choose between essential things and luxuries.
With leave over, the hospital packed up and we were on the move again. This time the Allied Armies had crossed the Rhine. I don't think I shall ever forget the sight of our Lancaster bombers flying over our heads, dropping thousands and thousands of tons of bombs and several hours later, our airborne troops were dropped, followed by gliders. This was to establish a bridgehead at Weesel.
At this point we crossed the Rhine on a pontoon bridge and saw the remains of the gliders in the woods. Our convoy was held up in the over-bombarded towns. Tens of thousands of displaced persons and German POW's blocked the roads.
We eventually arrived at a castle called Schloss Gemmen and had to prepare to admit casualties that night. It was a gloomy place and like the others, full of dirt. We had a wonderful time pulling down all the heavy curtains, thick with dust that hadn't been shaken for years. it looked rather odd to see iron bedsteads in the drawing rooms and stretchers on the parquet floor in the hall. Work was heavy and the turnover of casualties rapid. We found the German medical supplies very poor, by this time they were mostly paper bandages.
We had a visit from Field Marshall Lord Montgomery. I was amazed to see that he was such a small man with a large beaky nose. H was friendly and spoke to everyone.
Our parent CCS had been sent to Belsen and from the stories we heard, we were thankful it was not us. Our next move was to Luneberg, where we heard of the German surrender.
We then crossed the River Elbe and occupied a German Airforce training centre at Lubeck. Army casualties were few but we looked after patients of all nationalities from concentration camps. Most of them had TB, their bellies were swollen, their legs peeling and red from lack of vitamins. They were just skin and bone. They had animal habits and did not know how to behave decently. Long years of starvation had taught them to be cunning and they would hide food under their pillows, not understanding that more would come with their next meal.-
The Germans left behind an excellent cellar, so we never drank water with our meals. We practically lived on tinned and fresh pork and asparagus. It was nothing to go out to a party and presented with a whole pig by our hosts.
We had regular off duty time and officers of nearly all regiments would take us on picnics to the sea, which was on the shore of the Baltic. Also into Hamburg, where we saw miles and miles of devastation caused by our bombers. I can well imagine the German civilians offered up a prayer of thanksgiving when our RAF ceased their bombing raids.
All along the Baltic coast were convalescent- homes which had been used by the Germans. These were eventually taken over and all German casualties were nursed there by their own people: They were given medical supplies as theirs were practically nil. When we arrived in Lubeck, the railway station was full of ambulance trains filled with our own and German wounded.
On VE Day our one main 'topic of :conversation was when we should be demobbed. Being married I was released with the first group in June 1945. We were given masses of clothing-coupons and a thank you for our services.
My husband was demobbed in the November and we pooled our coupons and bought curtains for our first home.
Looking back on my Army Service, I feel proud to have been able to serve my Country. It was an experience I enjoyed, but one I.could have done without.
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