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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Medical Units

The British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had their own separate medical organisations and nursing staff during World War Two.

The Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) had first been formed in 1898 as the single medical corps for the British Army. Each unit in the field had its own Regimental Medical Officer (RMO), supported by stretcher-bearers and medical orderlies. Army nurses were drawn from Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), formed in 1902, and the Territorial Army Nursing Service.

The first medical help for a battlefield casualty came from the Regimental Aid Post. The casualty was then taken to a Casualty Clearing Station and on to the Advanced Dressing Station, with the level of medical care increasing in sophistication at each stage. Once a casualty had been removed from the battlefield, treatment took place in military hospitals or in the military wings of civilian hospitals.

It was the Royal Naval Medical Service that provided medical officers and orderlies for those working on ships at sea and in naval bases ashore. Nurses for the Royal Navy came from Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service, established in 1902. Casualty evacuation and treatment at sea initially took place in sick bays on board individual ships. The Royal Navy also established 11 hospital ships, both as floating treatment centres and to convey casualties wounded on land to hospitals in non-combat areas.

Medical support for those serving in the RAF came from the Royal Air Force Medical Service and Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service (PMRAFNS). During World War Two these nurses became known as Flying Nightingales. RAF medical and nursing staff made pioneering developments in the treatment of burn victims during and after the Battle of Britain.

During World War One the British Red Cross and the Order of St John joined forces to administer wartime relief work. They organised units called Voluntary Aid Detachments, whose members were trained in first-aid and nursing. This was such a success that it was repeated in World War Two. VADs, as the members of these units were called, worked in convalescent hospitals, on hospital ships and in blood banks.

In World War Two, two-thirds of admissions to hospital resulted from disease, sickness and injury not received in military action. This followed the pattern of previous wars, with the exception of World War One, when battle casualties exceeded those from sickness. The incidence of disease among British troops was highest in South-East Asia, mostly due to malaria.

However, advances in medical science and improvements in the organisation of casualty services during the war did much to contribute to the recovery rates of sick and wounded servicemen and women.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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