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A Woman Doctor (Part Three)icon for Recommended story

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Dr. Ivy Oates
Location of 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.


Of course, the army had lost our records and wondered who we were. They thought we must be ENSA. So they had to rustle up a ship for us and they found the czar's yacht which sounds very grand, until you remember the czar and his family were murdered in 1917 and it was now the end of 43. It was crewed by Poles who could not speak English.

They put three of us in a cabin for two, two bunks, and a mattress on a sort of pirate's chest for the third. I thought, "I'm not sleeping on that," so I said to the officer, "I'll have a hammock." He said, they would put a hammock up for me every night on the deck.

Have you ever tried getting into a hammock? They tip over. A Colonel was chatting me up that day and at night, he said, "Go and get ready," He would get me into the hammock. So I came on deck in my nightie and he got me into the hammock. Once you are in, it's all right, however, I was definitely in the best place. There was a nice breeze across the water. In the Arabian Sea, when the waves break, you get phosphorescence in the water and it cannot be seen in the daylight. However, when you are in the hammock, you have to get out, each morning, I would hear a voice. The captain learned one sentence in English which he repeated every morning. "I am sorry to disturb you but the decks must be washed."

Years later, I wondered how many junior officers had a Senior Officer to put them to bed and a Ship's Captain to get them up. It was like the song the men used to sing, 'Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major, Wake Me With A Nice Cuppa Tea.' At the time, it seemed quite natural.

The Poles are very fond of soup; they make it then they add yesterday's vegetables chopped up forming a kind of potage. When I was in Hull, I once noticed the soup had a funny aftertaste and I said to the maid, "This soup tastes funny." "Oh," she said, "I expect the chef left the lid off the stockpot and a cockroach got in." Apparently, when this happened, he'd fish it out and boil the stock again. There was the same tang to the Polish soup, but I did not tell anybody. You had bread with soup, French stick cut in pieces. But the weevils got there first, so we took the slices of bread and held them aloft, dropped them onto the plates, so the weevils fell out. We dusted them onto the floor turned the bread over and treated the other side the same. And nobody was any the worse for it.

When we arrived in Bombay, we separated, never to meet again and I was to go to a place called Kirkee near Poona. Everyone knows the British settled in India to trade, but so did all the other seafaring nations, the French, Portuguese, the Dutch etc. This hospital was converted from Dutch barracks and was a TB hospital for British troops, officers and Indian army officers. India was riddled with TB and still is. When I arrived, we were briefed on how not to offend Muslims, their systems, and Hindus and their systems. It seems odd when people come here (to the UK) that nobody briefs them on how not to offend us.

Some of the men patients had escaped from Singapore. Singapore upsets me more than any other incident in the Far East. Why we didn't fight for it I don't know. It would have been better to die fighting than be taken prisoners by the Japanese. Some men escaped, they wandered through Burma. There were headhunters who would take a man's head off to keep as a trophy. They waded in swamps with leeches in them and they got malaria. And when they reached the border with India, they were riddled with TB. They had come to us to die. All you could say, they died in a clean bed amongst their own people instead of rotting in the jungle, eaten by wild animals.

There was no antibiotic treatment at the time. However, I am very interested in insects, particularly ants which were very large in India. Once an officer asked me if I would like to go to the Poona races. I said I don't know anything about racing, but he wanted me to go anyway. So in return, I thought, "He likes chocolate cake, I'll get a chocolate cake." We had a ration of a bottle of whisky a month, so I thought when he brings me back he can have some chocolate cake and whisky. As we approached the bungalow where I was billeted, I said to him, "You're not getting any chocolate cake." I said, "Look, it's just as though someone has taken a brush and dipped it in black paint and drawn a black line up the steps." The 'line' was a deluge of ants. One side of the line was going up towards the chocolate cake and other side was comprised of ants returning, full of chocolate cake. When we got to my room and looked in the cupboard, the chocolate cake was reduced to a pile of saw dust. We used to stand the cupboards in tins of water to keep out the ants. But these large ants, nearly an inch in length, had drowned themselves in the water so that their 'comrades' could crawl over their bodies in order to get to the cupboard.

A nursing sister, a Q.A., said to me once, "I love chocolate éclairs. Do you think the chef would make me some?" So I said, "You can ask him for nothing." Yes, he could make them; he gave a list of ingredients, which he bought at the bazaar. He made a wonderful dish of chocolate éclairs and when we'd eaten some of them, there were quite a few left, so the sister said, "I'm not going to leave these for the night staff." She put the dish in the cupboard and when she went off duty, she put a note on the desk saying, "Look in the cupboard, there's a surprise for you." When night staff looked, they had their surprise, a pile of sawdust. I said once that I did not know how the ants found the éclairs, and a chap came to me and said, "You know how the ants found them?" I said, "No." He said, "It was the note the nurse left on the desk. 'Look in the cupboard.'"

The war in the Far East was going badly because money, men and munitions had been needed in North Africa and Europe, but things were going better in Europe and we were to get ready for what was called the Burma push. And our whole hospital, beds and equipment were to move by train to a place called Ranchi, near Calcutta.
Once we got started and organised in Burma we moved forward rapidly and when they got Rangoon, a port, it was more convenient to send casualties by sea, to Madras. So some of us were posted from Ranchi to Calcutta. One of my jobs in Calcutta was to go to a convalescent hospital, which was a Raja guest palace in Burracoti. It was the time of the 'quit India.' In every country, there is a group of people that knows what is right and what should be done, and that group is the students and they staged many demonstrations in Calcutta. Nobody wanted to quit India more than the British Tommy; he was fed up with taking meparcrien and fed up with Indian food. He wanted to quit India, so one student demonstration along Chowringee, was chanting, "Quit India." The British soldiers fell behind, shouting, "Quit India." And the students wondered why everyone was laughing. I was at Burracotee at the time that rioting started. It was well out of the town, away from British settlements. Consequently, the hospital had to be sealed off and no one could leave and no one could come in. So the nurses that had been on at night had to cover the day and the next night, and I was stuck there. Calcutta is very humid and you have to change clothes frequently.

My husband rang from Calcutta and said, "Are you all right?" I said, "No, I've got no change of clothes, I only brought enough for 24 hours." So he said, "I will put myself on a convoy and bring some."

The home sister who was imprisoned with me in the hospital said, "I have a friend in transport who could move this hospital to that building that the army has in Calcutta which was intended for the overflow from the hospital, but he hasn't enough men." So when my husband arrived with his convoy, I said to him, "We could move the hospital to the building in Calcutta, but we haven't enough men." He said, "How many do you want, 80, 100?" I said, "100 will do." Next day, a convoy, lorry loads of men and some 3 tonners, lined up. We put beds and equipment into the 3 tonners and went in convoy through Calcutta and the patients were put into the other building. I remember saying to the quartermaster, "I've got 100 chairs for you." He said, "What do I want with 100 chairs?" So I said, "I don't want them and you're the quartermaster."

The next morning, the corporal sent for me. He was not aware of what had taken place. Apologising for me being left out in the sticks he said how he'd tried and how the palace was unsuitable, but he tried to get the other place opened, but it hadn't been possible. And when we finished, I said, "I've moved it." He said, "Moved what?" I said, "The hospital." "You'll have offended the raja," he screamed as though I'd started a second Indian mutiny. He'd no more time for me. The silence afterwards was deafening, but I heard an officer say, "Only a woman would have got away with it."

I did not get a medal for doing what the colonel said was impossible. I was court martialed for offending the Raja. It was only years later that I realised that not only had I insulted the Raja by not waving goodbye, but I was a woman and women are not highly regarded in India. However, whilst we were in Ranchi we had a bad polio epidemic. Two nursing sisters died and many men were invalided by paralysis. I'm one of the few doctors who had seen polio in the raw where it was a killing disease.

I was posted to Lahore for a time. It was terribly hot, so I always slept outside under the mosquito net. One night, the bed kept rocking about; it did not worry me because I was used to beds jumping about when I was in Hull, when the naval guns went off. I just thought there was a dog under the bed. The next morning, I went into the mess. Everyone was bleary eyed. "Wasn't it a terrible night?" they said. "Why, what was the matter?" said I. "The earthquake," they said. They had all been outside with their jewellery boxes and wallets. It's the only earthquake I've ever been in and I missed it.

I was then posted back to Calcutta, and I had a nursing sister on the ward who was very ill with an amoebic infection. The treatment involved a tablet with a heavy metal salt and I had an inborn reluctance to give metallic salts. I thought, "She's not getting better, I think the tablets are making her worse, I'm not giving her any more." When the consultant came round, he said, "Continue her tablets." I said, "I'm not giving her any more, if you want her to have them, write them up yourself." He didn't write them up, but apparently, they had a little meeting and they decided to send her home and let her die at home. To get me out of the way for a bit, I was to accompany her to Bombay where arrangements had been made for her to sail back to the U.K. This suited me and we went to Dum Dum airport, spent the night there and were ready to fly the next morning. The pilot sent me a message, "We cannot take off, we're in the middle of a dust storm." So we spent the day at Dum Dum, went to bed and got up next morning. Things were all right and off we went.

We'd been flying some time (the plane was a Dakota). I looked through the porthole and noticed something like lightning on wings. I'm probably quite wrong, but I thought you couldn't be struck by lightning if you weren't touching the ground, so I didn't worry. Then the pilot sent me a message, "We have run into an electric storm. I'm going back." I said, "Don't go back, we'll miss the boat." But he'd turned round and we were back at Dum Dum. On the third day we rose again, we flew to Bombay but the boat had left. I had to leave the sister at the military hospital there.

Unknown to me, my husband had heard that they were going to send me to Bombay, so he put himself on a convoy and came across India on a motorbike, and when I thought he was a thousand miles away, there he was with a grin across his face. He said to me, "We're going pigeon shooting, do you want to come?" So I said, "Yes, I'll go pigeon shooting." And his friend a major came round in a Jeep I sat at the front with the Major; my husband sat at the back. With the Major's bearer, he got his turban, he was all dressed up. We got into the country, and my husband was saying, "This is Black Cotton Soil, its very fertile. But after the Monsoon, it becomes very slippery. All of a sudden, the bearer shouted, "Stop, stop." So the major slammed on the brakes, the Jeep stopped but I didn't and I went sailing through the windscreen. I also made close contact with Black Cotton Soil, I had my face in it. The pigeons were safe, we had to return, my head was cut open, and I remember the M.O. stitching my head, and saying, "I can't understand you, my wife would be hysterical." I said, "I don't know about your wife, but you'd do better if you used a cutting needle, instead of a round bodied one." I could feel he had the wrong needle, so I had a great bandage round my head.

The other parts of this story can be found at:



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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - A Woman Doctor

Posted on: 12 October 2005 by Kaihoj

I was born well after WWII, but have always been fascinated by people's war stories. Probably from hearing my Norwegian parents and relatives talk endlessly into the night. Dr Ivy Oates has a fan on the south coast of Oregon. She needs to write a book - call it "That Bloody Woman". Thank her for her stories and her service, thank you for recreating her life for all. Julie Anderson


Message 2 - A Woman Doctor

Posted on: 13 October 2005 by actiondesksheffield

Thanks for that message. The sad thing now is that Dr. Ivy passed away about two months ago, not long after presenting the final chapter of her story. But I know, as you do, that she has left a lot behind for generations of the future. I enjoyed meeting her and compiling her stories which rank among the most memorable that we in Sheffield have been involved with.

Bill Ross, BBC People's War Story Editor.

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