- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Dorothy Mary Cole. Capt. John Eric Wilson.
- Location of story:
- Approx 40 miles off Salerno Beaches
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 December 2004
His Majesties Hospital Ship Newfoundland spent the first years of the Second World War sailing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic Ocean between the U.K. and Canada carrying the wounded out and bringing the rehabilitated troops back. She usually sailed between Liverpool and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
She was a large ship. Entirely painted in white except for large red crosses painted amidships and on the funnel. At night she sailed with all her lights on so that enemy submarines and aircraft would be able to tell that she was a non-combatant and therefore protected by the Geneva Convention.
She was commanded by Captain John Eric Wilson O.B.E.
Sister Dorothy Mary Cole of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Q.A.I.M.N.S.) joined HMHS Newfoundland in 1941 and soon settled down into the routine. Occasionally they were tasked to go to the South Atlantic and on one of these voyages she and her colleagues witnessed an oil tanker being torpedoed.
In September 1943, the Allies invaded Italy and HMHS Newfoundland was assigned as a hospital ship to the 8th Army. The HMHS Newfoundland was one of 2 hospital ships that had been sent to Salerno Beaches on 12th September, where they were to deliver 103 American nurses. There were only 2 patients on board so it was quiet for all the nurses and doctors on board. That evening there was a party held in honour of the American Nursing Corps and after this Dorothy and another Sister named Vera Schofield showed some of the American Sisters around the operating theatre on board the Newfoundland. Although the Americans had not been on board for very long they had made firm friends with the British nurses.
The Luftwaffe had already attacked the Newfoundland twice that day. The first occasion they were anchored with another hospital ship when they were dive-bombed. All the bombs missed although one landed between the 2 ships. A few hours after this incident they were dive bombed again. A third hospital ship had joined them and the bombs fell all around and amongst them. After this incident a decision was made to move further out to sea and anchor for the night. The 3 hospital ships were joined by a 4th and about 40 miles off the Salerno Beaches they all anchored for the night. They were all lit up like Christmas Trees to highlight the fact that they were hospital ships.
Around about 5 o’clock in the morning of the 13th September, a single aircraft was heard and Captain Wilson, who was on the bridge heard a bomb falling. It was thought to be an aerial mine and it landed on HMHS Newfoundland on the boat deck behind the bridge. It caused a large amount of damage. The communications were lost and more importantly the fire fighting equipment was completely shattered.
Fire immediately took hold.
The surviving British nurses and all the American sisters went straight to their stations in the smoke and flames and waited to be told what to do. There was another explosion and it became clear that the oil tanks had also caught fire so the order was given to abandon ship.
The survivors took to the lifeboats. The 2nd Officer who had a broken leg, a broken arm and splinter wounds took command of a lifeboat full of nurses
Meanwhile Captain Wilson and 17 volunteers stayed behind to fight the fire. They were soon assisted by USS Mayo who put a party on board and together they spent around 36 hours trying to put out the fires and search for survivors. They did not succeed and the ship was declared beyond all hope of recovery. Those on board were taken off and HMHS Newfoundland had to be sunk by USS Plunkett.
Of the 14 British staff nurses on board, 6 had been killed including Dorothy Cole. She was aged 29. All the medical officers too had been killed.
Vera Schofield survived as did all the American nurses.
The reason or motive for the Luftwaffe had for attacking HMHS Newfoundland has never been known. One theory has been put forward that the American nurses were mistaken for troops because of their green uniforms and maybe the Luftwaffe believed that the hospital ship was being used as a troop ship.
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