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Nursing down under

by BBC Scotland

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
BBC Scotland
People in story: 
Margaret C Bannatyne (nee Coutts)
Location of story: 
Scotland, Australia
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 September 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Allan Price on behalf of Margaret Bannatyne and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

The British Red Cross no longer have a VAD section (Voluntary Aid Detachment) so it is perhaps worth recording their role during the Second World War. "Mobile VADs" helped out in First Aid Posts and civilian hospitals.

Having completed the basic training I volunteered as a Mobile VAD in 1943 and was posted to R.N. Hospital Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire. I remained there till November 1944 when a small group of us were transferred to R.N. Hospital, Kingseat Aberdeen to await the necessary documentation, inoculations etc. for our posting to the Pacific War Zone. In December 1944 we left on two weeks embarkation leave - complete with a list of the tropical kit required (which we had to acquire at our own expense). In the last week of December we left Glasgow Central Station for Liverpool en route for Australia. It was after midnight when we arrived at the docks to board the SS Athlone Castle. We were the first contingent to arrive but were too exhausted to wait around for our English colleagues. By morning the ship had filled with officers and men from all three forces and some Australian and New Zealand personnel returning home.

Crossing the Atlantic in convoy in December was not pleasant, and it was several days before we felt able to explore what was to be our home for the next six weeks. Conditions improved as we reached calmer seas, and as we had Officer Status our accommodation was very comfortable.

Our first stop was Cristobal at the entrance to the Panama Canal where we were allowed in a very restricted area. One big attraction there was the unlimited supply of bananas - something we had not seen for years. Eventually we arrived in Sydney harbour in February 1945. We were transported in double-decker buses, as we drove through Sydney people recognised the British uniforms and waved and cheered us on our way - an introduction to the warm hospitality we were to experience during our stay. The R.N. Hospital, Herne Bay, was about 20 miles out of Sydney, and our spirits dropped as we passed through the gates into a vast compound of wooden huts set in desolate scrub land. We went to our allocated hut which was furnished with 30 beds and nothing else. What with mosquito bites (the promised nets had not arrived) and homesickness we were not a happy lot. However we soon set about making our quarters more comfortable and more colourful - orange boxes were in great demand! There was also a lot of work to be done to get the hospital up and running. It soon became a busy surgical and medical base - the theatre unit being supervised by Cdr. Steele-Perkins who subsequently served the Royal family.

Severely injured casualties from the kamikaze bombings were flown down to Herne Bay and it also became necessary to open a psychiatric ward (staffed by Sick Bay Attendants) to cope with the mental trauma suffered by those who had been subjected to several of these raids.

Although the war ended in August 1945 our work was far from finished.

When the first contingent of P.O.Ws from the camps in the Philippines arrived at the hospital it was difficult for us to keep our emotions under control. Their average weight was around 7 stone and most of them had severe skin lesions - some were blind. We all volunteered to cut our off-duty to a minimum to provide round-the-clock care for the boys. Sadly for some it was too late, but it was a great privilege to be able to help in the gradual improvement of others.

I left Sydney in April 1946 and sailed home on the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable via the Suez Canal - thus completing the round trip. After several months at R.N.H. Haslar, Portsmouth, I returned to civilian life with some very happy and some very tragic memories.

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