- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Dr. Ivy Oates
- Location of story:
- Harlow, Ipswich, Chichester, Fife, Edinburg and Glasgow
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 April 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Bill Ross of the 'Action Desk — Sheffield' Team on behalf of Dr. Ivy Oates, and has been added to the site with the author's permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Italian prisoners of war
Next morning was my first sick parade. A sergeant with a dog, the size of a small pony said, 'My dog's got a bone stuck in his throat.' So, he pulled the dog's mouth open and there was the bone in the back of his throat. I got the forceps and pulled it out, and wondered whether I should have gone as a vet. Next a searchlight was having trouble with its grease-trap. I didn't know what a grease-trap was but I went to give my expert opinion. Had I known men then as I do now, I would have realised that the word had gone round that there was a woman Medical Officer and they wanted to see what she was like.
One of my jobs was that I was M.O. to an Italian P.O.W. camp near Braintree Essex. They were the happiest men in England. It was a tented camp surrounded by the obligatory barbed wire. This was not to keep Italians in, but others out. The Italians weren't going anywhere. Their first job was to build the camp. They were provided with concrete etc. and set to work to build their barrack rooms. They made moulds of the Virgin Mary in their arms, to ornament the doorways, but the Officers' Mess was not going up at all. So the Colonel got them all together and said that in England, in the winter, snow came up to your neck, icicles were everywhere and a bitter wind blew, and nobody was going into the barrack room until the Officers' Mess was built. It went up in a week.
The prisoners worked in the village. A coach came for them every morning to take them to work. They went out looking a bit like soldiers; they came back with bumps all over them, pockets bulging. Chickens, rabbits, eggs, everything they could lay their hands on, they brought back with them. The guards for the camp were first war veterans, dead keen soldiers, but a bit arthritic, short sighted etc. The guard stood with his rifle at the bottom to the coach steps. The Italians hopped in, two steps at a time. The last one handed the guard's rifle to one of the prisoners. It had helped him up the steps, and they were ready to go to work.
An air raid in Braintree damaged one of the roads. They asked for the prisoners to go and clear the road. They worked in their usual Italian way, singing, gentle pace, and at 5 o'clock, they were ready to get in the coach and go home for their tea. The sergeant went to the coach and said, 'Get out, the road isn't cleared, it has to be cleared before you go home.' The Italians said, the Geneva Convention stated that they must only work a certain number of hours. They knew the Geneva Convention by heart. The sergeant uttered a few well-chosen words about the Geneva Convention and got them all out. I said to the Colonel, 'What are you going to do, these prisoners are refusing to work?' He said, 'I thought of putting them into tents to sleep on boards for a week, but you have to say that it won't be detrimental to their health.' I said, 'Our men are sleeping on the ground under their vehicles. If they can sleep on the ground, the Italians can sleep on boards.' There was an Italian doctor in the camp and he went to the Colonel, tears streaming down his face. He would not be responsible if the men got pneumonia etc. He made such a commotion, the Colonel went to my Colonel, called the A.D.M.S. and said what he proposed and that I had passed it. My Colonel had a term of endearment for me, 'That bloody woman.' So he said, 'That bloody woman would.' So whether they slept on boards or not, I don't know.
One evening, two prisoners were missing. An escape; this is getting more like Colditz. I said to the Colonel, 'What are you going to do? Two men have escaped.' 'Nothing!' he replied. At ten o'clock that night, a call came from Harlow, to '…come and pick us up.' This was our great escape.
Women in charge
Another of my jobs was in Ipswich. When a unit came in transit, they brought their own medical officer. But when they went on embarkation leave, the unit had no M.O., so I covered for them for ten days. They decided to have some A.T.S. attached and the army had requisitioned a nice Georgian house that had been empty for a year. They colour washed the walls, made the house very comfortable and made a billet for the A.T.S. I had to pass it as suitable for the girls to go in. I said it was very nice, they could go in. Next morning, every girl on sick parade was covered in bug bites. When the raids were bad on the East End of London, some of the evacuees were housed in this fine house in Ipswich before being sent into the countryside. They took with them, fleas, bugs, lice, scabies etc. The M.O.H. cleaned the house, took out the skirting board, fumigated it and left it empty for one year. He refused to believe that bugs can live for that amount of time without food.
A man got up in Parliament and said, 'It is disgraceful, women being in charge of all male units.' I'd say, 'Who does he think has been in charge of men since the beginning of time?' If women had not been in charge of men and looking after them, how would they have had time for their theories, religions, inventions etc? My colonel, was a bit miffed by this, he didn't want to be told by M.P.s what he could do. He had one definite woman Medical Officer in charge of an all male unit. However, he came to the mess and started chatting. 'We are going to send you to Broadstairs, you'll like it there, it's at the seaside, etc.,' he said, as though he were a travel agent. At the end, I said, 'I don't like the seaside, I prefer the country.' You can see why he called me '…that bloody woman.'
I was doing Ipswich at the time and I said to the colonel, 'They're going to push me to Broadstairs.' 'Oh,' he said, 'If they're going to post you, the A.D.M.S. (Assistant Director of Medical Services) is a pal of mine, I'll get him to post you to us. When you first came, I said to the men, 'do you mind having a woman medical officer,' and they said, no, they preferred it.' So I kept quiet because that was another all male unit. When the colonels got together around their whisky, my colonel said, 'that b….y woman, if she's going from one all male unit to another, she might as well stay where she is.' So I never saw the delights of Broadstairs.
We were expecting the invasion, and troops were being moved toward the coast, so of course, they needed me and I was posted near Chichester, on the south coast. I've never suffered from men being nasty or disagreeable with me. But I have suffered from them being too kind and subsequently, I found there was little for me to do. We did get machine gunned in a field once, so we just laughed, saying, 'The Germans couldn't hit a haystack at five yards.' But I had been used to being very busy and I was bored. So I wrote to the A.D.M.S. and told him that there did not seem to be a job for me there. So, whilst I was having a read in bed one night, an officer poked his nose around the door and said, 'You're posted.' I said, 'What, now?' He said, 'No, we're not telling you until morning.' I said, 'Where am I going?' He said, 'Scotland.' So, if they were irritated with me, they couldn't have sent me much further from the south coast than to Scotland.
Next morning, I went to Edinburgh and an officer came and he was chatting me up on the station. I could not think who he was; then he said, 'I have never spoken to a woman Medical Officer before.' I realised, that if we were rare in England, we were unknown in Scotland. I went to get some tea, and the waitress said, 'Lady somebody or other, wondered if you would like to take a sherry with her.' I felt like the fat lady at the circus that everyone wanted to look at. However, it was a free drink. I was to go to a place called Aberdour, in Fife. It was a job after my own heart, an empty house, to start from scratch and establish a reception station. The Scots have their own language in Fife. My new corporal thought he'd met me before, and he said, 'Ma'am, do you mind my face?' I told him, I thought I could put up with it. But as all Scots know, he meant, 'Do you remember my face?'
I was the M.O. to the gunners on the Forth Bridge and I had another reception station at Kinghorn. I enjoyed being in Scotland, so I thought I would like to see more of it at the government's expense. I asked the A.D.M.S. if I could have the job of relieving M.O.s on leave. After all, Aberdour has been sorted out and would now be easy for a man to take over. Men do not like jobs moving about, they like to stay in one place, so there was no competition for the job, I got it. Whilst I was in Aberdour, my driver wanted to go to Edinburgh, but could not use the vehicle unless she was driving me. So she said, 'Would you like to go to Edinburgh ma'am?' Well, I wasn't keen, there wasn't much there, so she said, 'You could go to the cinema ma'am.' I never went to the cinema, but between the wars there had been one film that was highly praised and I had seen it: 'Tales From The Vienna Woods.' So I went into Edinburgh, to the cinema, and it was 'Tales From The Vienna Woods.'
Then we went to Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow and I was delighted to see the west coast of Scotland, after being on the east coast. However, I did not even see the side of the road, it was thick fog for all the ten days I was there. Nevertheless, my driver wanted to go into Glasgow, so she said, 'Would you like to go into Glasgow ma'am?' So I thought I might as well go to the cinema. It was 'Tales From The Vienna Woods.'
Within the next ten days, I was sent to Ireland. Wonderful, I went to Stranraer, sailed across to a place called Whitehead. There was a German P.O.W. camp on the Isle of McGeed, but they did not give me that because, Germans, like the British, think if you are a prisoner, you should try to escape. Whereas my Italians were glad they were comfortable and stayed where they were.
To the tropics
However, my driver wanted to go into Belfast, so I went into Belfast, and the film in the cinema was 'Tales From The Vienna Woods'. At the end of ten days, I got a phone call: 'Do you still want to go overseas?' I said, 'Yes.' So they said, 'Do not go to 'Derry next week, go back to Coventry where you will receive your papers for overseas.' I went back home, got my knife, fork and spoon which my mother wrapped in a lace doily (a small mat), and went to London, the only time I shall ever live in a Bayswater flat which the army had requisitioned. When we were kitted out with pith helmets and tropical kit, we knew we were going somewhere warm. Then, in the middle of night, we were put on a train and a few weeks after leaving Scotland, I was back in Stranraer. There were three large troop ships in the estuary and you couldn't see one of them, that fog which I had resented, when I was in Bishopbriggs was still there. It provided a wonderful camouflage to the ships. Think what a target three large troop ships would have been. As we were going to the tropics, we naturally had to go via the North Pole. It was December 1943 and the weather was atrocious.
The ship went up and down; everybody was seasick and for one whole day, I had nothing to eat. This is against my principles, so the next day, I was determined to get up. I fell about the cabin getting dressed, clung to the rail in the corridor and as I reached the steps, the ship tipped up. I do not know how to go down steps, upwards, so I had to wait till they went down again. I got to the salon, took the first chair in sight. There were rails round the tables to stop the plates falling off and there was no one there other than the waiters, enjoying doing nothing and being paid for it. I could have had everybody's breakfast.
We then went west and whilst in British waters, we were on British rations. When we left British waters, a wonderful sight appeared on the dining table, a big dish of oranges. We had not seen an orange for four years. We sailed into the Atlantic Ocean, and made a big circle. The clock kept changing, that's why we knew we were doing a circle; It was because we had to get through Gibraltar at night. Previous to this, all troops had to go via Durban in South Africa. The war in North Africa was over, but there, they were still trigger happy. One ship had tried to get through and had been hit. We were the next. We went through in the night, all wearing our Mae Wests and amazingly, there were lights along the coast. We hadn't seen lights like that for four years. We got through to port side, the first ship to do so and the M.D. was open. The ship, called Stratheden, was too big to go through the canal, so we disembarked, and went by train to a transit camp, put there by the navy and because it was built for W.R.E.N.s, it was called The Aviary.
There were about half a dozen women in The Aviary. Imagine a desert full of men when half a dozen women arrive. We got invitations to the Officers' Mess in tents. We made ourselves beautiful, all polished, while the men looked scruffy in their desert gear. And one woman, who ought to have had more sense, asked the Colonel where the ladies' room was; the middle of the Sahara, full of men, asking for a ladies' room. We were not going to miss this. The colonel took us to a little hut where there was a wooden seat with a hole in it. This was for the colonel. Near it was another with a wooden plank containing two holes. This was for officers. Those of us that were inquisitive, had a look round and found a long ditch, with a long plank with a row of holes. We were highly delighted to think what a cheerful time the men had in the morning, all together. We were laughing when we went back and I heard the Colonel mutter, not quite the ladies we're used to, but perhaps it's better this way.
One officer asked me if I'd like to go to the French club at Tewfick. I said yes, but he said it's out of bounds because there's a plague there. I thought, 'What's plague between friends?' so we went to Tewfick. It was wonderful to sit in a comfortable chair, after living with army issue for over a year. One of the women in our group was having an affair with a man awaiting his divorce. He was going to write to her in Bombay to tell her if it was going through.
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