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Wartime Nursing in North Africa and Italy

by dmack44

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Jessie Park Smith (JP) now Aylett
Location of story: 
North Africa, Italy
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 November 2003

Wartime Nursing

Jessie Park Smith's (JP)experiences

1940 Rushgreen, England

I was appointed Sister surgical ward sister, Rushgreen Emergency Services Hospital, Essex (also fever hospital). We took casualties from the East End of London during the Blitz. I was on-call for theatres.

September 1942 Joined the QAs

I joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Services (QAIMNS also known as QA) Reserve. I was posted to Aldershot Infectious Diseases Hospital and was at loggerheads with the matron, who didn’t appear to know anything about fever nursing or isolation procedures. There was a great deal of cross infection there.

October 1942 Calling Papers

I received my calling papers to report to Netley General Hospital, Southampton Water to join the Army General Hospital. I worked there until Christmas, then because of lack of security, the Unit was disbanded and everyone was sent to various parts of the country. I was sent on training to Weston Super Mare where I went on night duty. They had never seen a QA before, so I was a bit of a novelty. I overslept one night (billeted in a private home) and I raced along the shore-front to the hospital, cap flying in the wind, to find that Matron was doing an early round! She ordered me to have by breakfast of bacon and eggs before I started my duties. That was welcome indeed. The staff were very kind.

January 1943 98th British General Hospital

I was recalled to Netley Hospital and joined the 98th British General Hospital (BGH) forming at Goodwood House. After 10 days of frantically collecting tropical kit from Harrods (awful hats) we left at 06.30 on secret convoys. Lots of people were out in the streets wishing us luck as we drove to Barry Roads. We were a fully equipped 1200-bedded hospital ship with 80 Sisters - the usual complement for that size of hospital.

February 1943 First Signs of Action

Sailed on the Tamaroa troopship (a converted New Zealand meat ship) and out in the Atlantic, we joined the main convoy of 13 ships, the Commodore ship being the Duke of Gordon. I caught my last glimpse of Ailsa Craig, just off Arran as we plunged forward, feeling sad, to the Atlantic. For 3 days, we sailed due west, then suddenly veered due east, the convoy keeping in formation the whole time during the day with Corvettes chasing around us the whole time. As darkness fell, the convoy split up each night and at dawn found us in exactly the same position as the previous day! On board was a Casualty Clearing Station Unit and Sherwood Foresters — great company, especially during drill on deck.

10 days after, through the Straits of Gibraltar, when depth charges were dropped every four minutes from our ship, we sailed through the minefields there. It was a welcome sight to see the Rock in bright sunshine. We arrived at 4pm in Algiers the capital of Algeria, to be immediately attacked by a German bomber and we found the convoy scattered. We were all back at sea until 9pm when we disembarked in darkness. Half of the Unit of Sisters (self included) was dispatched in 10-ton trucks to the mountain hospital at Rivet, the remainder to the RAF base at Blida, Algeria.

We rejoined the rest of the Unit after 10 days at Rivet and were given a tremendous welcome by the local villagers; fresh violets and freesias being thrown into the truck as we stopped in the street. We were billeted in an infant school where everything (and I mean everything) was built for infants — very difficult in the squat position! We ate in a restaurant in the centre of the town and I think that the population of Blida came to see us eat! After a month, the whole Unit entrained and travelled to Château Dun du Rumel.

March 1943 Château Dun du Rumel

At Château Dun du Rumel, we operated our first tented hospital of 600 beds where we took the remnants of the 8th and 1st Army casualties. When we disembarked from the train at our destination, our main objective was to set up our own living accommodation and Freda Gornall and I nabbed the nearest tent and put our hand-luggage down, claiming it. The next thing was to find our kit which was piled high amongst the others. It was dark, so we enlisted the help of an officer nearby. Having found the kits containing our beds, we asked him to help us fit up the beds. He duly did, and it wasn’t until the hurricane lamp was lit did we recognise Colonel Laird at the Hospital! Did we have red faces? Colonel Laird thought it was fun!!

April 1943 Sousse and penicillin

After a month in the Middle East, war there was over and we packed our belongings on the train again, this time to Sousse, Tunisia where we had a 1200-bedded tented hospital built by the Italian Prisoners of War, and again Freda and I shared a tent in the olive groves!

We were ready for casualties from Sicily where the ‘push’ started. I worked in the Officers’ tent; each tent took from 25 beds to 100 beds with the Sister’s Office in the middle. It was hot in the olive groves during the day, but cool by night. Our location, a few miles out of the town of Sousse, was Baker Street/Oxford Street and signposted as such!

We took our first casualties — malaria ++ as troops failed to take their Mepacrome!! At Sousse we worked extremely hard, admitting nursing casualties from Sicily and Southern Italy and spent 3 months, until September when we packed up again. Most of the patients were taken to Algiers, then to the UK or returned to their units in Southern Italy.

Professor Florey visited us in Château Dun du Rumel, to see the results of the use of penicillin dressings for the first time (100% success). We had a very busy 6 months, with casualties from Sicily and the toe of Italy. We used to be taken by ambulances to the beaches — Blue Road, Green Road and so on, where we enjoyed wonderful swimming and glorious beaches.

Army hospitals on active services were superbly conducted; patients’ needs always to the forefront. Information about their condition was given to every patient and docketed in his 'I -1220' which was attached to his clothing. Medicinal needs were given with expertise and ward orderlies were encouraged in their nursing skills to help the Sisters. We watched the invasion and capture by the allies of Pantelleria, an island between Sicily and Tunisia.

Various parties travelled, including Royal Engineers Unit 103 and the 51st Highland Division, en route to Algiers from Tunis. They marked their exit along the main roadway with the slogan HD, which meant Highland Division, but everyone referred to them as the Highway Decorators! They had good parties, though! We danced eightsome reels to the bagpipes in the olive groves and Colonel Easton, our Medical Officer objected to nine people in an eightsome. He was a stickler for the right thing! On the last evening at Sousse, Retreat was played - a memorable occasion.

Our Living Quarters

The Army commandeered a house in Sousse for rests and convalescence with Mess Sister Smart in charge. We called it Smarty’s Speakeasy. She did not like latecomers and would often open the locked door after 11pm, looking like Marley’s ghost — white long-sleeved nightgown with pigtails flowing over her chest and a look like thunder. Our escorts did a quick disappearing act.

Our living quarters at Sousse were our tents, but we slept mostly under the olive trees and listened to the sounds of the night and often heard camels being driven by. We had a bath-tent erected for us at the rear of the Sisters’ tents, but because the water-pipes were laid almost on the surface, the water was boiling hot during the day and we had to wait for ages for it to cool. Mostly, though, we managed to get an orderly to bring water to fill the canvas baths we each had and we had to suffice with that, though it was rationed. The toilet facility was also a tented affair with 8 boxes back-to-back and partitioned off with canvassing; the ankles and feet of the occupants being exposed. So a quick look round was necessary before any gossipy news was discussed.

September 1943 Sicily

The next phase in the 98th BGH saga was when we packed up our belongings at Sousse to embark by ferry to Sicily. We arrived at Catania and transferred to a block of flats in the town for two days. Then we transferred to Arcireale to a convent, half of which was occupied by the nuns, and all the sisters plus Matron and her batman occupied the other half. We didn’t do any work there except to pick oranges and make marmalade which we distributed to the local market.

We had a bit of a romance there as one of our Sisters, Phyllis got engaged to an American major, John; they wanted to get married. The Principal Matron, Miss Watts, paid us a visit, saw Phyllis and told her she had to have a ‘cooling off’ period. However, neither Phyllis nor John accepted that and arranged to have their wedding in Tunis, Algeria. A flight was arranged for eight Sisters, including me, to accompany the happy couple. I was allowed to attend only after an appeal by Phyllis to the Matron (I was still confined to barracks). She relented on condition that I report straight back from the wedding to nurse any sick Sisters in sick bay!

The pilot was best man, and invited each sister to take control of the plane which we all accepted. My turn came as we were crossing over the coast of Tunisia and I could see where our hospital was at Sousse — a great thrill. The ceremony went well and we had a good lunch and then headed back to Sicily where we landed in a tremendous thunderstorm and the air-strip was flooded. We had to be carried off the place to out waiting Jeeps. It was a great day. A week later we boarded the ferry for Bari, southern Italy.

December 1943 Bari, Southern Italy

We arrived at Brindisi and transferred to ambulances which took us to Bari — approximately 100 miles north of the heel of Italy. The 98th BGH was housed in a large compound of brick buildings which was intended to be the University of the South of Italy, but not completed. The 98th BGH was to have 1200 beds, New Zealand Hospital 500 beds, South African Hospital, 500 beds and the Indian Combined Hospital, 500 beds, making a total of nearly 3000 beds. This vast compound, north in the city was called the Policlinic.

The Policlinic was the home of the 98th BGH as base hospital for the next 2½ years and bed capacity rose to 2000 during the battles which followed. We had various key departments; orthopaedics, heart surgery, neurosurgery, maxillo-facial (Max Factor unit) general surgery and general medicine. I worked on most of these units and did a month’s night duty in orthopaedics wards, containing 100 patients! I was mostly attached to the Officers’ wards and was in charge during my last 6 months before my leave home (LIAP — leave in lieu of python — army jargon!!).

Mustard gas burns and large-scale use of penicillin

Two weeks after we opened up and fully working, on December 17th we had an air raid on harbour areas and 17 ships sank. Most of the casualties were fished out of the water with huge blisters covering up to 80% of their bodies. It was identified later that we were dealing with mustard gas burns and we were ordered to use gas masks and gloves when dealing with affected patients. It was a high secret as one of the allied ships in the harbour was loaded with mustard gas bombs ready for retaliation if Hitler decided to use this type of warfare. We had to use the term ‘Burns Enemy Action’ on patients’ medical cards.

The treatment of all the burns was marvellously affected by the use of penicillin/Vaseline gauze dressings and we were all amazed at the speed of recovery of all the patients. This was just the first time that penicillin had been used on such a large scale and a real break-through in medicine. Penicillin was then given hypodermically by the Sisters only by the persuasion of Miss Thorpe the Matron, to Colonel D’Abreu that we were capable of carrying out this procedure! The Colonel flew back to the UK to report progress on the use of penicillin to the British Government.

From this time, we were all very busy with more casualties coming from Casualty Clearing Stations depending on which side of the country the war was being fought. If the fighting was taking place in the Naples side, then we took convalescent patients, and took casualties if the thrusts were on the east coast. We had a quieter spell during the hold-up at Monte Cassino when the German army had control, but once that was broken, we were flat-out receiving our usual quota of casualties.

I worked for a month on night-duty on the orthopaedic ward (100 beds) and that was very hard. I only had one nursing orderly and he was as much use as a sick headache. The walking patients were much more help and we got through all the bed-making by the time the day staff came on duty. The pleasure after we had breakfast was to be taken to the beach by ambulance and swam in the warm Mediterranean — pure heaven. There were usually 10 Sisters on night duty at a time and the Senior Sister had to report to the Colonel before going off duty — usually he was in bed! It was a bit embarrassing, but he was a real Scots gent.

Spring 1944 Vesuvius and the liberation of Rome

In the spring of 1944, I was given my first leave of a week. Four of us went together hoping to find our own transport to Sorrento where a hotel on the harbour was specially booked for QAs — all girls together. We had a wonderful time. Getting to know the local inhabitants and to know how they lived. It was a small village then, but we joined in the evening dancing of the tarantella in the square. We were permitted by the US Army Medical Corps to be taken across to the island of Capri where we were taken to Anacapri by army jeep and saw all the sights. Just before our leave, Vesuvius had erupted and the countryside was covered in black lava stretching over 200 miles, so the countryside was all black and the mountain had lost its top!

My second leave of a week was 6 days after Rome was liberated, so the air was a bit festive. We had to find our own transport again, but the US Air force were very kind and accommodated us to Rome where we had a wonderful time exploring a lot of the city. The Pope gave a special service in the Vatican for all the allied personnel in uniform and we all piled into this beautiful room to await the Pope who was carried on a white throne by four hefty men. Immediately in front of us stood a group of US soldiers and as the Pope came to our level a voice in front of me yelled out ‘Hold it, Pope!’ and flashed his camera to get a picture. The Pope just inclined his head and waved his hand. It was a great moment.

1944- 46 Bari, Greece and then home

Life at the 98 BGH was extremely busy. We had lots of casualties from different areas; the orthopaedic and maxillo-facial units being particularly active. Local staff were recruited for domestic duties, but there were problems with stealing from the wards, so an inspection of all bags was conducted at the hospital gates as the staff were leaving. All sorts of articles were found including tins of food and bed-lined and on one occasion a cut-out dress from some sheets was found. The culprit had apparently locked herself in the bathroom to cut out the dress. The control at the hospital gates was a success, but we had to take care of our stocks in the future.

Social life was good in Bari. It was a short walk from the Policlinic to the town centre and to the shops which were good quality but spending-money was in short supply. The lira was valued at 400 to the British pound — the cost of a pair of nylons! Fruit was in plentiful supply and the food in the mess was more than adequate and well-cooked by efficient chefs. Tinned bully-beef was cooked in about 100 different ways and we wouldn’t know what we were eating. Milk was either tinned or dried, but we got used to that.

My next leave in May 1945 was spent in Ischia and we celebrated VE-day in great style entertained by the RAF who were very miffed by the theft of all their balloons by the civilians! There was a great feeling that the war was over, and we returned to Bari in a more confident mood. In the past 2 years, the hospital had increased its bed capacity by 1000 beds — a new permanent hospital unit having been built to hold all the medical patients.

I spent a month on night duty in that unit which although very busy, was a happy period. A number of Sisters were transferred to India and the Far East while other went home for a month’s leave. My leave came up in December 1945, but I had to pick up my leave pass from Mestre, a town outside Venice. I found transport easily and my friend Major MacIntyre was willing to drive me with 3 other men from the Army Ordnance Corps to Venice. It was a memorable week, driving through war-shattered country, stopping overnight in various villages and towns till we arrived in Venice. We were met by Mac’s friend who was the Water Engineer in the British Army responsible for all the water engineering in Venice. We booked into the Europa Hotel for a week and enjoyed the luxury of being waited-on and eating superb food. In Venice we visited all the important sights and even saw a Jeep being driven through St Mark’s Square and down some steps to a waiting water-bus!

After I collected my pass from Mestre, I left the following day for Milan. After arrival, booking into the Savoy Hotel adjacent to the rail station, I found the train would not be available for 7 days, so I enjoyed the sights of Milan. The train was the first direct journey to Calais and full of troops — only 4 women on the train. There were lots of catcalls when the four of us got off the train to use the washing facilities at the various stations.

I enjoyed by 4 weeks’ leave, visiting relatives and friends, the joy of giving away masses of clothing coupons to my eager family. The train back to Bari from Milan had to wait for 3 days for some troops, so again we enjoyed the waiting time visiting areas we did not cover on our previous visit.

It was a slow journey back to the hospital in Bari, to find that it had been reduced to 800 beds — the orthopaedic unit was closed and various staff members had been posted elsewhere. When I reported to Matron, she told me not to unpack as I had been posted to Greece and that transport would pick me up the following morning. I was pleased really, as all my friends had gone, so this was a new challenge. I was posted to 63rd General Hospital at Kiffisia outside Athens. It was a brick building but sleeping accommodation was in tents. I worked there for 6 months before my release came through.

I was then transported to Egypt and reported to the Matron at Cairo Hospital. She didn’t want to see me and instructed me to take the train back to Ismalia, Egypt where I got transferred back to England, arriving at Southampton June 1946. The war was well and truly over.

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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 - Wartime nursing and penicillin.

Posted on: 28 November 2003 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Good story!
I'm writing up my father, Reg Gill's story, bit by bit but I've already noted you had a lot of place names in common. Reg was a radiographer on Malta from July 1941 to March 1944 and saw the Italian fleet surrender before moving to Taranto. From what he said I believe that penicillin played a part in the surrender and that isn't in the history books!

I'd love to hear any comment you have on that.
On the way to Malta in the Leinster, he was shipwrecked off Gibraltar and says that the RAMC colonel there wore the Iron Cross apparently awarded for helping wounded from a German submarine damaged in the Spanish Civil War.

In Italy, he too saw Vesuvius arupt and the pope.
As he'd had no home leave since 1941 he was promised immediate release at the end of the war ..then sent to help with TB in Belfast!

Anyway, thanks again for letting me read your story.



Message 2 - Wartime nursing and penicillin.

Posted on: 03 December 2003 by dmack44

Dear Paul

Thank you for your comments on the wartime nursing story. It is my Aunt's story (she is 90 now) and her account of the war was always vivid to me. I have talked to her regards your message and your comments regards penicillin in your father's outstanding story. I understood that the one of the benefits of penicillin was to get the troops back to the frontline by curing their infections - wounds or other... I also find the maggot therapy fascinating as it current treatment, as you point out.

I am amazed how many stories there are on this site. It is such an excellent idea and all so 'readable'.

Thank you once again for taking time to comment.

Best wishes



Message 3 - Wartime nursing and penicillin.

Posted on: 28 March 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Dorothy,
you have managed to destroy what I had thought was the 33 Brit gen at Bari !
During the Gothic Line battle - aug/sep '44 I was wounded and made my way through the 33rd CCS at Ancona - then by Hospital Ship to Bari to what I thought was the 33 Brit Gen(main) -
then on to what we were told was to be blighty... but the rotten b'...s threw a dozen of us off at Catania where we were treated at 33rd (annexe)
until finally returning to active service back in Italy.
I had thought that the 98th Brit gen was close to the 100th at Naples/Rome areas.
Or wa that new building called the 33rd ????

regards and thanks for a wonderful story
tom canning


Message 4 - Wartime nursing and penicillin.

Posted on: 20 April 2005 by dmack44

Dear Tom

Thank you for reading my Aunt's story. She will be delighted. I will ask her about your observations and get back to you.

Best wishes


Message 5 - Wartime nursing and penicillin.

Posted on: 08 August 2005 by dmack44

Dear Tom
Apologies for not getting back sooner. My Aunt replies:
'I imagine you were quite confused when you thought you were in the 33rd and that the 98th BGH was in Naples area. The new unit at 98th was a medical block for 500 patients built in 1944/45 and I worked in that unit from 1944. I'm glad you made a good recovery and at the end of hostilities got married and raised a family.'

Tom, on investigating the hospital in Bari for my Aunt, I came across the following website about no 3 Hospital in Bari which was run by New Zealand ( so you were partly right about the name of the hospital). links

No 3 General Hospital was the first New Zealand hospital to operate in Italy and was established within the Bari Polyclinic. It occupied two blocks at one end of the horseshoe group for the hospital. Neighbouring units operating in the Polyclinic area during this period were 98 British General Hospital, 14 Indian Combined General Hospital, 30 Indian General Hospital, field hygiene, and MAC units. The 30th Indian General Hospital was later replaced by 102 South African General Hospital, while the field hygiene and MAC units moved to other locations, 4 Base Depot Medical Store occupying one of the buildings so vacated.

The website is an interesting read.
Thank you for your comments.

I am now a volunteer with BBC 3 counties action for story gathering for this site as it is such an exciting project.


Message 6 - Wartime nursing and penicillin.

Posted on: 08 August 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Dorothy-
I am not surprised that I was confused with the proliferation of hospitals all doing their best to keep the beds empty, as they all had their hands full with the quantity of casualties rolling in everyday from the Ancona and Gothic Line regions, as well as the partisan casualties from Yogoslavia, then of course there were the base wallahs who insisted on getting malaria and jaundice and other dreaded infections !
ALL of the nurses and medical staff did a fantastic job with a cheery smile - even when administering the awful tasting pamaquin - of course they didn't taste the stuff, which I am convinced was made from a mixture of dehydrated Camel and Monkey Muck !

please give your aunt my best regards
for looking after me so well !
Tom can

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