- Contributed by
- Ann Radloff (nee Reeves)
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- Ann Radloff
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- 22 June 2003
"Run for it Girls", barked the Landing Craft skipper "you're going in the Gooseberry Beach".The ramp was lowered and, cumbered about with much equipment, wearing tin hat and thick male battle dress, we ran, through the breakers and across the beach to hide in the sand dunes. It was getting dark and enemy aircraft were overhead, somewhat closer than usual. then, as people all over the world have popped up since, a soldier appeared with steaming mugs of tea and a "Welcome ladies, good to see you!" This was the moment for which I had prepared for four long years.
In May 1944, I became a nusing sister in Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve) whose full dress uniform consisted of a grey dress with grey and scarlet cape (passion freezers to the soldiers) and flowing white cap. It was to be a long time, however, before we were able to appear in such glory.
I mobilised at Hatfield house in May 1944. The large rooms, full of history and full of soldiers, echoed to the strains of Roll Me over in the Clover and Mares Eat Oats and Lillibebero.
We were issued with thick DDT impregnated men's battle dress, boots, gasmark and cape, tinhats and compo rations (these included optimistically 4 sheets of lavatory paper). We listened tensely ( to the wireless) until one morning we heard what we wanted to hear and we pored over maps.
One day we were bundled into trucks (or were they tumbrils?) and taken to somewhere on the South Coast where we spent the first of many nights on the floor. Later more trucks drove us to a clearing - a Shakespearean glade in the New Forest - and the luxury of an American transit camp and the bliss of camp beds.
Early one special morning I woke to the sound of the dawn chorus. I decided to beat the others to it so took a trip through the glade to the hygenic Elsan. then for a shower in the ablutions hut - the last for nearly four months. Resplendent in my battle dress with the blue and red 21 Army Group flash on its sleeves, I joined the others in the mess tent for breakfast. First, being on US territory, we must sterilize our mess tins in boiling water before holding them out, like Oliver Twist, to be filled. But unlike Oliver's they were filled to overflowing. A large black paw ladled quantities of porridge, prunes and honey into mine – “Better eat up, Lootenant – you’se going to be mighty hungry afore you’se finished” said a deep voice in grinning black face (British Army sisters carried army rank and we sported two pips on our shoulders). Then, weighed down with all our equipment we boarded trucks which took us to the docks. We embarked in an old grey hulk whose seaworthiness I doubted. At some time during the afternoon the coast of Normandy approached. (One of the joys of sea travel is that the land always seems to come towards you to welcome you). For the first time I was absolutely terrified, but we had reached the point of no return now…..
We joined a vast armada of ships of all nations, all shapes and sizes, some lying anchor, some bustling busily about. The sun went down and a voice over a loud hailer enquired of our Captain “Have you Adams or Eves aboard?” A stentorian reply informed everyone including the armies of the Third Reich only a few miles away, that he carried a cargo of Eves. A landing craft appeared to port. The choppy sea prevented her pitching synchronising with our tossing so that when we were told to “jump” we had to pick the right moment to fling ourselves, clad in Mae Wests, into the arms of welcoming sailors. The engines started up and we rushed towards the coast. And the command came “Run for it, girls – you’re going in to Gooseberry Beach”. Then I knew it was all worthwhile – that this was excitement and danger and a challenge beyond all imagination. It was also the beginning of involvement in such a courage, patience, tragedy, torment and laughter that was to transform us all into different people.
Our temporary destination was a shell-pocked château where allied soldiers in various states of undress peered sleepily and mischievously at us. All we could do was to sink exhausted to the floor, using those blissful Mae Wests as pillows.
Too excited to sleep I could only marvel that I was there and that it was good for me to be there. As I listened to another dawn chorus I could hardly believe that I was part of this huge vital terrifying enterprise. But this was only the beginning…..
“Sore hair Seester” laughed the Pole.
“Schwester: Schmerzen” grumbled the German officer Prisoner of War.
The British Tommy was too ill to say anything but just gazed at the roof of the tent.
“Sister, Sister, am I going to lose my leg? Please Sister, please do something” pleaded the Scottish Padre in terror and anguish.
The Polish private was a cheerful cove with a superficial head wound. Keen to show off his command of English he told me about his sore hair which was a euphemism for “head”. Knowing he was better off than most he didn’t demand attention.
The German had GSW (Gun shot wounds) of shoulder and forearm and lost no opportunity of telling us that he suffered schmerzen (pain). My limited German fortunately precluded my telling him that the thousands of others who were in real agony and far worse schmerzen than he was had uttered no word of complaint. I suppose I was prejudiced but it was difficult to be patient with this man.
The British Tommy had had a hurried operation to remove shrapnel and patch up a large wound which had punctured a lung. He could only groan and plead with his eyes. We kept him under sedation as far as practicable.
To my lasting shame and partly because he did not draw attention to himself I didn’t realise how ill the Scottish Padre was. If you have many patients its difficult to watch everyone – but I should have seen. When I turned back the blankets and smelt what was underneath I dragged an already exhausted and blood-spattered surgeon over to him. “Right Sister, straight to theatre” he ordered. I do not know if they saved his leg but I know that the episode haunts me still.
Surgeons and theatre staff worked round the clock under tilley lamps, amputating, replacing intestines which had spilled out through the dressings and performing miracles of temporary plastic surgery on mutilated faces. Saline and blood drips festooned the wards and everyone was tired – so tired with bearing pain or overworking. But no-one, except the German complained. Canadians, British and Poles all showed the same incredible courage and tenacity.
The hospital area straddled a chemin de fer running Bayeux to the south. Acres of fields had been requisitioned near the wrecked village of St. Loup d’Hors in which a vast collection of marquees and tents appeared apparently overnight. Each ward consisted of four marquees with 25 beds apiece, erected in cross formation with a central area from which we worked and where all equipment was stored. The ubiquitous mud ruled our lives – we waded through it in thick army boots or Wellingtons which were seldom clean or dry. The Royal Engineers with their usual ingenuity produced sacks and matting, some of which were submerged in it and some absorbed it. We were never free of it.
We had no time to get to know our patients – fortunately they were labelled with name, rank and unit and a brief description of treatment given at the Casualty Clearing Station – i.e amputation (all too obvious), field dressing, removal of shrapnel or resection of gut. And fortunately again we had no time to think. Some died on stretchers, most were evacuated to the UK, but a few could be rendered fit for active service. This was almost the worst part – that a young man who had been helped to recover was so terrified that he cried and begged to be spared a return to the slaughter and carnage. But back he went – and again I do not know what happened to him.
Perhaps the luckiest were the hundreds of German boy Prisoners of War captured at the battle of Falaise. All they suffered from was malnutrition and there was no likelihood of them being sent back to the front. They were so bewildered and lost that I would have felt sorry for them if I hadn’t been so prejudiced.
The Sisters’ and Officers’ messes, though separate, were adjacent. I shared a tent roughly 12ft. x 9ft. with two others. The inimical army bed rolls had arrived by now and we luxuriated in camp beds, Beatrice stoves and canvas basins and tiny canvas baths. Only one person could wash at a time. Drinking water was rationed and was delivered by the Water Corporal in his lorry from which we filled our khaki flasks. Washing water was deposited outside the tent each morning by an orderly with an infuriating cry of “Wakee Wakee”. If we wanted extra water for washing hair or smalls (i.e khaki bloomers) we had to fetch it in canvas buckets from a nearby stream. This became a relaxation and an object for a country walk down the lane and we enjoyed it. We ate out of mess tins and drank from enamel mugs. Owing to the boring fact of life that we need to go to the loo (lats to us) much thought had been given to this activity. Three orange boxes perched over a trench and surrounded by sacking served as latrines.
Although tin hats and gas capes provided adequate protection from the rain, one enterprising Sister produced an umbrella under which she was sheltered and which was clearly visible over the top of the sacking. We were all pretty good scroungers by now, but some were better than others. My physiotherapist friends outscrounged us all by acquiring two folding bicycles on which they rode to the lats. (One was still in use in England long after its owner’s demobilisation).
A large gap in our sacking coincided with a gap in the hedge, through which three of us who were enthroned were greeted one day by a high pitched “Bonjour Mesdames”. How long had he been watching us? This was an enfant terrible aged about 12 – like all urchins cute and old for his years. “Allez-vous-ens” we chorused in vain, for Francois was nothing if not tenacious and wasn’t going to miss the fun…..(the sacking was eventually repaired). Francois became sort of mascot and camp follower. We looked forward to coming off a harrowing stretch on duty to be greeted by this little devil with his demand “Cigarettes pour Papa”. We were issued with 50 free cigarettes a week in those days and Francois, whose paternity was obviously in doubt, knocked points off us all when it came to scrounging, especially for fags to flog on the black market. He was a good friend, though, who took the edge off the tragedies.
As we were still in the Bridgehead we were supposed to sleep in tin hats. We became accustomed to the sound of gunfire and were veterans of air raids. But it was difficult to take the all pervading sight and smell of rotting animal flesh. If only the carcases could be buried before they swelled and purified, but they, like burnt out skeletons of tanks seemed to litter the countryside. The familiar signs “Achtung Mienen” (Beware of Mines) lined the sides of what had once been peaceful country roads.
We got around on these country roads however, especially after the breakout from the bridgehead. We could always cadge a lift to the ruins of Caen or St. Lô, and there were parties of the Naafi across the railway and at the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches. Sometimes we even changed into khaki skirts instead of trousers – but our boots or shoes were always wet.
A cousin in the Welsh Guards had been killed in the Bocage country. When I had time I hitched down there to see his grave (he has now been moved to a well-maintained cemetery) and there met a delightful Norman family. They plied me with cream and butter and promised to look after the grave. This was one of the delights which occasionally broke through tragedy. I kept up with Madame until a few years ago and have in my possession a little “Boîte de Normandie” which she gave me.
I loved the open-air services conducted by the Padre, his battle-dress barely concealed beneath a cassock and stole blowing in the wind. These were usually held in an orchard which resounded to lusty unaccompanied singing of well-loved hymns. Anyone who was free took part – MOs and Orderlies, walking wounded and Sisters and Francois joined in the fray. As well as acts of worship they provided opportunities for relaxation and letting off steam. It was at one of these services that I met two Physios (the aforesaid cyclist) – Mac and Peggy who have remained life-long friends. I can never sing Cwm Rhondda now without returning to that little orchard hearing again the sound of distant gunfire.
Perhaps it was a good thing that we were so crowded in the tents for it became very cold in October and more so by the time we moved in November. We put newspapers (I don’t know where they came from) on our camp beds to act mattresses and used greatcoats for eiderdowns. The tilley lamp gave out a meagre sort of heat and we were glad of the tot of rum issued by an ever imaginative army.
It is always sad to leave a place where you have been much involved, but by the time November came and the cold and mists enveloped us even through our thick greatcoats, we were glad to see the gradual striking of the tents in which so much drama, tragedy and courage had been enacted. What was once a vital vibrant area began to look like a skeleton town. In mid-November we embarked into trucks once more, with sadness, but with much relief and anticipation.
Never again would I work in such terrible conditions but never again would I be part of such camaraderie. It was good for me to be there – I feel very privileged to have been in the Normandy bridgehead.
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