- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Kinloch McCollum, Marian McCollum
- Location of story:
- Newcastle, Africa and Burma
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 July 2004
My parents were aged 27 and 24 years when WW2 broke out in 1939. They were both employees of Newcastle upon Tyne General Hospital, a busy city hospital which catered for all comers, both surgical and medical. My mother was by then a Theatre Sister, and my father a dashing young Irish Consultant Surgeon, graduate of Queen's, Belfast, and the Edinburgh College of Surgeons. Little did they know then just where their lives would take them.
My Mum was a very beautiful woman, with Scandinavian looks. She was from a poor background, and had worked her way to becoming a Theatre Sister from leaving school at 14. She was a bright, intelligent young woman who loved her work, and when war broke out she was in charge of Surgical wards at the hospital. Newcastle was not as badly bombed as other big cities, but it suffered its fair share of German raids nevertheless, and it was an exciting time to be in charge of busy wards. There were times when she was the overall Matron in charge, especially at night, and remembers the bombers flying directly overhead, on their way to the Tyne, which was just down the road from the hospital. She tells of standing outside watching the German planes fly in formation over the city, with the whole area lit up in flames. One night she was in charge, and had prior warning of a raid - apparently hospitals were always told of oncoming raids - and she busily went round the site, making sure she was as prepared as she could be for the expected casualties. As she bustled round the different parts of the hospital, a series of buildings which were fascinating in themselves because they used to be the old Newcastle Workhouse, and were therefore very stark and gaunt, she could not understand where the doctors had gone. Surely there should have been some doctors on the premises? She found them all - hiding in the Anderson shelters surrounding the buildings. She soon rounded them up and got them back to work, moving those who could be moved to the safety of the shelters. At last the hospital was as ready as she could make it - all theatres standing by, all wards prepared, all nurses at the ready and doctors rounded up. How many casualties did she have to deal with that fateful night of Tyneside bombing, with the ammunition factories just down the road from the General? You would be expecting me to report a serious loss of life, and dire injuries. Well, there was just … one broken leg! Unbelievable.
Another of her memories is when she was Matron in Charge of a convalescent home in Wylam on Tyne for those recovering from surgery. This was part of the Royal Victoria Infirmary situated in a different part of Newcastle, not as close to the river as the General. She was happy at that convalescent home, except for the rats, which she loathed. She tells of one day when she was tending a German Prisoner of War who had had surgery - they treated Germans just like their own, which I think was pretty marvellous and says much about the British character - and when she called into his private room to check on him, found to her absolute horror, a great big rat sitting on his chest, eating the pearl buttons of his German uniform! Needless to say she did not hang about, but I am not sure just what happened next. But I do know that she slept with the hospital cat on her bed after that.
My parents met at the General, my father the dashing surgeon, my mother the beautiful Theatre Sister. Those pre-war days must have been halcyon for them both. Everywhere was countryfied then - the hospital had a farm attached to it, and my Dad, of farming stock, remembered gazing at the cattle which grazed the fields at the bottom of the hospital site. He used to say to himself, "if Hitler does not get me, that hospital chimney surely will". He really hated the enormous industrial chimney which still belches out filth to this day, but no doubt then was much worse, and to the day he died in 1998, he used to complain about the chimney. It never did get him, though.
In June 1942 my parents married. Not for them a great big white wedding with a fancy reception. Just a small affair at the local Presbyterian Church, just along the road, and a group of hospital staff to wish them well. Really, their best friends of all time must have been there that day, in their uniforms, presenting my Mum with a bunch of much-prized flowers and a horse shoe. She wore a dark navy suit with a black pill box hat, I think, or it could have been dark blue - and she looked stunning: slim, elegant, narrow-waisted from all of that hard work on the wards. My father looked very handsome in a dark work suit, with shoes so polished you can still see how shiny they were in the one photo which I have. What a happy occasion it looked, and how sincere and simple. No reception, no cake, no fancy dresses. Just honesty and good friends.
My father got called up at that point, and in September they went down to Salisbury Plain where he trained for the RAMC, Mum accompanying him. The training was tough - lots of long route marches and keep fit, and by the following March, 1943, he was up in the Clyde, joining a troop ship to take him to heaven only knew where. Mum was by then back in Newcastle, living with her best friend for the rest of the war, and that same time as Dad was sailing down the Clyde, she was giving birth to their first son. It was six months before Dad knew he was a father, and had a little boy named after him - John Parlane Kinloch McCollum.
Dad's life was to take him to West Africa. We only found out just before he died a few years ago why he was sent there. Apparently, he had a rather "heated" argument with his posting officer - a fellow Northern Irishman - about whether or not cinemas should be open on Sundays. Dad, with his strict Protestant upbringing, was not in favour of pleasurable pursuits on a Sunday - the most we were allowed to do when growing up was go to Church in the morning and read the Bible in the evening, with perhaps some television in the afternoon while he slept off his Sunday Roast, cooked, of course, by my mother! But evidently the other Irishman did not have such strict views about the Sabbath, and clearly found Dad's determination an extreme irritant, because before he knew it, Dad had been posted to West Africa to join the Frontier Force - something which I suppose the other man must have thought sufficiently tough to put him in his place. But Dad loved it! He got on especially well with the African soldiers, whom he greatly admired, and I think enjoyed his time there. But not for long, because the whole Frontier Force was moved to the Far East - something which Dad never forgave the powers that be for, since the Africans had agreed to join the war on the understanding that they would never have to leave Africa. But leave their homeland they did, and sailed to India, and from there to the Burmese jungle. It was there that Dad's real war began.
He was by then, Surgical Director of the West African Frontier Force, and I still have his uniform buttons to prove it. He had a faithful African servant who looked after him, and there is a photo of the pair of them standing together, Dad looking very slim and athletic in his fatigues. He was to remain in Burma as a surgeon for the duration of the war in the East. What tales he told. His time was spent on route marches through the jungle, and my son Luke still has his prized machete, issued to all troops to cut down the jungle as they marched. He remembered long, long hot marches, the best prize being a crop of magoes growing along the path, which the soldiers eagerly cut down and sucked for fluid and sugar. To the day he died, he always appreciated the sweetness and freshness of uncooked fruits. One time, on a march, they had to bed down in the jungle. Dad chose his spot, presumably himself, because he woke in the night to find to his complete horror, that he was covered from head to toe in horrible white ants. He said he just lay there, praying, waiting for them to move off him, which they did with no bother at all. The fact was that he had chosen the ant's own route march in which to set his bed, and those creatures are never deterred from their path, whatever comes in the way. So they just marched all over him until they had passed on their way. He was not stung, which must have been very lucky, since insects like that could, I imagine, cause terrible damage in such huge numbers. Character building or what?
His "theatre" was a large tent, erected in the middle of a clearing which the men had made. It must have been a far cry from Newcastle General - well, one hopes so. The heat was intense, of course, and because they were in the jungle, the animal life very colourful. He remembered one or two rather scary stories which delighted me as a girl: it was quite common for him to be in the middle of surgery, carried out on a makeshift table, with the trumpeting of elephants nearby. Sometimes they saw the creatures walk by. Once, he was operating, when he noticed a shadow outside the tent. They watched intently - it was the silhouette of a tiger prowling round the outside of the canvas. I asked what they did - nothing, of course. We just stood stock still and the tiger went on its way. Wow! I was impressed. Another time he had to take a raincheck because a very large and venomous scorpion walked over the patient! Again, what did he do, I asked. Nothing, of course. There was no need to kill these animals - they were in their own territory, after all. We just stood still and waited. The horrible insect just walked over the man and disappeared. It would undoubtedly have stung if provoked. Could you, reader, have just waited? I don't think I could. These tales may seem fantastical to us now, but I can assure you that they did take place in that faraway, distant location, where the Irishman and his team performed miracles.
He told of some food preparation while on the move. Apart from the mangoes, they also tried to make jellies, of all things. They kept them cold by digging a deep hole in the earth and lowering the jelly into it. It was reasonably cold down there, and I don't know if the jelly ever set but Dad really enjoyed it anyway!
While in the Far East, he did get some vacation, but it was too far for him to come home, so he took it in India, where he made the most of his time by going on fantastic trips on the railway into the mountains. I have a couple of post cards which he sent back to Mum - such poignant reading, they make. They are remarkably non-personal, censored I suppose, but the sight of a very small pony makes him wish that he was back in his native Ireland, so very far away, and he promises to take her there when he "comes home". One of the cards shows a mountain in the Himalayas, which at that time was unclimbed. He comments that many had lost their lives trying to climb it. It is the second highest peak in the world, he says, Kanchenjanga. The post cards are black and white prints, with his name, number and rank written on the bottom. He travelled extensively round north eastern India, into the Himalayas. One funny little episode involved being on the shore of one of the great seas. He was watching the progress of a little boat, bobbing around quite far out, when all of a sudden the man in the boat "fell" overboard. Much to Dad's consternation, he realised that the only line of help was himself, and brave man though he was, he was no swimmer. Had he not learned this skill in the scutch mill pool at Drumcroon Farm, County Derry? And had that prepared him for the Bay of Bengal? (or wherever it was). Well, no, not really! So he waited a few moments - would the man come back himself? After some time the man did surface, in all his Indian robes, totally soaked and presumably very heavy, holding something triumphantly in his hand. Dad could not see just what it was, but called for the man to come in to the shore, so that he could make sure he was OK. The man duly swung the boat in, and arrived with a big smile on his face -"no harm, Mister Sir. I got it back". There in his hand was his tobacco pipe. It had dropped into the sea.
Towards the end of the Eastern war, Dad was moved to Rangoon. I never knew what he did there, I was not particularly interested - I thought it was just part of the war. But a while ago, I read a book which said that the prisoners released from the Japanese camps at the end of the war were all sent to Rangoon for medical examination before being despatched home on troop ships. Perhaps this was what my Dad did. At any rate, he never discussed the more horrible things which he saw, but for the rest of his life occasionally he would dream about the things, and shout out in his sleep. It must have been deeply disturbing. It would not be politically acceptable now, of course, but Dad never bought anything which was Japanese or German. He had, after all, spent 4 years fighting them to the bitter end. He did say that a Japanese soldier never gave up, not even in death.
Dad was decorated for his bravery and war work. I have a dress set of medals, but apart from the Burma Star I am unable to identify them. He had two brothers who were in the war, both doctors, one in the Western Desert, in charge of a field hospital, and defying Hitler's bombers by tending the wounded wrapped in a Red Cross flag, and one in Burma, but not near Dad. All three of them were honoured for their bravery, John, James and William McCollum of County Derry, Northern Ireland. They all survived and came back to spend the rest of their working lives in Newcastle, Belfast and Sheffield. All were colourful characters, once met, not forgotten.
And what was Mum doing during this enforced separation of almost 4 years? Well, she settled very happily into a house in Newcastle, with her best friend, a working lady whose husband was posted in Gibralter. Mum had to give up her nursing career when she married, and looked after her son. She became an expert with dried egg, and wartime recipes in general, many of which I was fed during my childhood in the '50s and '60s. My aunt happened to be "called up" into the Food Ministry, because she was a Domestic Science teacher, as they were in those days, and she was employed by the Ministry to go round the Townswomens' Guilds and Womens' Institutes giving demonstrations and talks about how to feed a family on one turnip and an onion, so she and my Mum practised a lot and Mum became very skilled at cheap cooking. Food in Newcastle was quite scarce, and she tells tales of walking several miles to a local farm just to buy a tomato or two. Unlike her country sisters, Mum did not have a ready supply of eggs and milk, and I think it was quite hard to manage, although she has always been a superb cook. One strange thing which she absolutely insists upon is that a ship from Denmark came faithfully to the Tyne every week, or was it month, carrying a load of Danish butter! How on earth this could happen from Denmark I do not know, but she always insisted it did. I suppose being a port we may have had some food rations delivered. And she always had a soft spot for the Scandinavians, of course. Our coastal defences were supposed to be heavy - Norway was our likeliest threat, once taken by the Germans. We have regular sailings to Norway today, and once to Denmark too, although I believe that has been stopped now. It is roughly 20 hours sail away - quite possible for the Germans to invade. This was one of the biggest threats up here. One thing which Mum did was go down to the river to watch the damaged ships come in for repair. Many of them were local, and it was a source of great pride that despite being torpedoed the ships did not sink. She remembers one in particular, possibly the Ulysses, which was so badly damaged she had a gaping hole in her side. A crowd had gathered to watch and cheer as she limped up the Tyne, from whence she had sailed, and to which she had returned for repair. Those were the days of real pride on the River Tyne. She remembers listening to the German planes coming over the house towards the river, and waiting for them to pass. In all the war years, both at hospital and at home, she never once ventured into a shelter, even though they had one in the garden - she was too scared of the nasty, smelly, damp hole! Might as well just watch the bombers, then.
She remembers D Day. The news went round the road by word of mouth - everyone knocked on everyone's door - have you heard the news? The troops have landed. It's begun. Such excitement. But Mum had to wait another year for Dad to return.
I remember her telling me what it was like the day he came back. She was really nervous. She caught the tram to Newcastle Central Station, and waited for the train carrying the troops to come in. In he came, tall, imposing, tanned, and thin. I wonder what it was really like for them both. They had only been married less than a year when he went away, and he had been in the East for almost 4 years. And his son was three and a half.
Mum and Dad settled back to ordinary life, but it was not easy for either of them. Mum had got used to being on her own, making her own decisions. Suddenly, the man of the house was back, and she was not used to that at all. When she had known Dad she had been a competent Theatre Sister. Now she was a wife and mother. He was used to all sorts of different and strange situations. Now he had to adjust to being back at the hospital. There were very unhappy times as they made their adjustments to the new life they had to share. Mum had two more boys very quickly - must build up the Armed Forces, you know - and then some time later I was born, the only girl of 4 children. I always feel that Mum's life was somehow undervalued once she had to give up her nursing, but there was no choice in those days, especially if your husband was an important Consultant. You were not expected to work.
Dad stayed at the General all of his working life, retiring in 1976. He never stopped being an eccentric, different, courageous man who made his own decisions about life and work. Many was the run-in he had with fellow staff about the treatment of patients, but he was in charge always - he always took the responsibility for his decisions and taught his house surgeons brilliantly. He lectured at the University of Newcastle in Surgery, and many was the barney he had with the Irish Professor of Surgery of the time. Also his co-surgeon, who shared the wards with him - another firey Ulsterman who knew what he wanted too. Even the anaesthetist was Irish - what a team! Such personalities, such fun and such dedication. I am convinced that the experience of the war helped to shape their personalities. Such truly remarkable lives.
My mother is now in a nursing home, a very old lady. One day my daughter, Morwenna went to visit her, and came home saying that Grandma had truly "gone" this time - she said she knew Hitler's doctor, that could only mean dementia had set in. But funnily enough, in the middle of some very strange things Mum now says, that particular one was true - she did know Hitler's doctor. After the war, he came over to the General Hospital, because he was very interested in neuro-surgery (!) and Newcastle was a specialist centre, and Mum met him there. Funny old life.
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