- Contributed by
- paul gill - WW2 Site Helper
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 29 September 2003
British soldiers going through the minefields as the Italian fleet surrenders
Reg's family went from relative wealth to extreme poverty after his father, an artillery man who lost a lung in WW1, died from an infection in the other one. Reg was nine years old. He left home at 14 and worked as a radiographer in Leeds General Infirmary until a friend suggested he joined the hospital branch of the Territorial Army (TA). The medical staff stayed together as an RAMC unit for much of the war.
The unit went as the 18th General Hospital to Etaples in the bitter winter conditions of 1939. Boots froze to the floor in the Nissan huts and had to be removed with a mallet! The ground was too frozen for Reg to erect the 80-bed marquees required; nor had anyone any training in erecting them but I have full details now. He was given six men, a shovel and a pick and told to build a road from the main gate, but the pick didn't even make a dent in the ice. The pioneer corps fortunately did better and Reg was duly equipped with a 4-kilowatt portable field X-ray machine and a generator that was rather inadequate for its prime purpose (the patients had to be strapped down to prevent movement during the long exposure times required for head or torso X-rays).
Reg also had a new piece of equipment called the Whetstone [sic] stereoscope, which was excellent in theory as it could detect foreign bodies in the flesh. In WW1 most soldiers died from gangrene because shrapnel and bullets were not extracted quickly enough. Reg therefore spent a lot of time trying to get the stereoscope to work efficiently, given the constraints created by using the generator. Then one day Colonel Walley, CO of Reg's unit, appeared on site together with a very senior officer. They asked Reg how he was getting on with the equipment. Reg replied that it did work but it was slow and would not be practical if a lot of casualties arrived. This response wasn't what they had hoped for and the officers went away. Another sergeant asked if Reg had been aware that one of the officers was originator of the stereoscope, Brigadier Whetstone himself!
Escape from Dunkirk
The unit escaped from Dunkirk and eventually went to Edgecombe Manor in Crowthorne [sic] where they treated any casualties from the Blitz that couldn't be dealt with by the London hospitals. The main hospitals coped well and Reg wasn't very busy.
On to Malta
In July 1941 he travelled to Malta in what I think was Operation Substance, but his ship ran aground and he spent three days on Gibraltar. To his shock he met a monocled officer in a British uniform but wearing the Iron Cross! No, Gib hadn't been captured. The Colonel had been awarded the medal during the Spanish Civil War for accepting the wounded from a damaged German submarine, which had put into Gibraltar. Unbelievable! Reg's years on Malta July 1941 to March 1944 covered the largest and most decisive air battles of the war and the patients included pilots of all nationalities. After the fall of Crete, with invasion apparently imminent, he was issued with a rifle, something he believes would have led to summary execution if captured.
Food was desperately short and Malta, lacking any natural soil, could not grow crops. Transport became even more difficult as all the horses had been eaten. There was one unexpected bonus from the air war when a griffin vulture, struck by a spitfire fell into the sea. Curried vulture is a magnificent dish and much recommended, but those around the table were well aware that the roles of diner and dinner could soon be reversed!
Italian fleet surrender
Reg saw and photographed the Italian fleet as it approached Malta to surrender, but last year he made a stunning statement: the Italian Naval commanders had excellent but I believe unpublicised personal reasons for surrender. Immediately on landing, the hospital was filled with numerous officers of the very top rank. Reg had never seen so much brass all at once. This was undoubtedly prearranged and his friend, the chief pharmacist, told him he had been instructed to withdraw large quantities of penicillin, still in desperate short supply and something the Axis simply did not have. Syphilis was a huge problem in the armed forces of all countries and Italy was no exception, but surrender meant treatment at least for those at the top. Reg and the pharmacist were appalled. Without doubt, those least useful to the war effort (British and American children) would die without the penicillin used by these people. However, there is no doubt that the loss of Allied life would have been far greater had the Fleet not surrendered. The authorities must have believed that it was a price worth paying and they took a pragmatic approach!
Once the Malta Blitz was over, there was far less work to do until the hospital received a visit from Marshal Tito and Lord Gort. The hospital was to treat Yugoslav partisan fighters, about one-third of whom were women. Due to the absence of proper medical facilities, serious wounds had been left untreated. The first patient Reg saw had gunshot wounds. The fighter had been splinted roughly with a couple of bars across his leg and he had survived for six months with the most appalling compound fracture of the femur. He was brought up by the Maltese orderlies to the X-ray dept and Reg was absolutely horrified to find swarms of maggots crawling all over his wounds and his X-ray table. However the consultant surgeon was quite pleased! He had seen similar wounds in WW1 and knew that the maggots had saved the patients life by preventing gangrene. It's strange how history repeats itself. In 2002, a long time after Reg told me this, maggot therapy re-established itself to deal with MRSA wound infections!
From Malta to Italy
Reg eventually left Malta and moved to Italy. At one point he found himself near a pocket of German resistance around Argenta and was instructed to move a large well-marked hospital wagon to a newly captured position. Noting a shortage of British Troops, he stopped at a farm building and went inside only to find it full of astonished Germans! Unfortunately the timing had been wrong and it hadn't quite yet been captured! The German medical corps were looking after their wounded and one or two British as well. Luckily the German Sergeant spoke English and as no one had any guns the situation was less threatening than might be expected. The sergeant merely handed over responsibility for all the wounded plus a portable Siemens X-ray machine, far superior to anything that Reg had seen. Reg told them to carry on working, which they did. Eventually that farmhouse became the 57th field dressing station.
When the war ended Reg had been away without home leave for four and a half years. He was given some short leave, then immediately posted to Belfast to help deal with a serious TB problem. He was finally demobbed in January 1946, making his war experience one of the longest.
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