As the living memory of the terror of the D-Day beaches sadly wanes as each anniversary passes, it is important to remember the role that members of the Royal Army Medical Corps played during that terrible, but ultimately successful invasion. The following extracts are drawn from my recent book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War
The men who sailed from the south coast on the night of 5th June as part of Operation Overlord and those who followed them in the ensuing days had been issued with a small folded card entitled First Aid for Fighting Men, `to help him to go on fighting and to aid his friend in that cold interval between getting hit and getting help.’ Men were reminded, `Wounds can look frightful. Be prepared for this. Remember modern surgeons can do wonders. Nature does her best to heal all wounds. But give Nature a chance. Stop wounds getting worse. That is your job. That is First Aid.’ Advice was given on prioritising treatment and avoiding exacerbating the injury. `There may be two or three wounded at once. Treat the most urgent first. Keep under cover. If mechanised, turn off petrol. Look out for falling walls. Any fool can be brave and get killed. Be brave, don’t get killed and save your friend instead.’ There was advice on how to stop bleeding by putting a fist into the wound, how to apply a tourniquet and how to tie down a broken limb.
Behind this initial advice on self-help came a layer of trained medics, with at least one medical orderly in each landing craft. Seventy landing craft were reserved exclusively as water ambulances to evacuate the wounded. Dressing stations would be set up on the very beaches as men fell, staffed by doctors, stretcher-bearers and blood transfusion units.
Four field ambulances sited across the Channel, three along the south coast and one on the Isle of Wight. Acting as ADSs, casualties would be resuscitated by men in these units. To compliment these dressing stations, hospitals at the Channel ports functioned as surgical centres for wounded troops who required an immediate operation. This arrangement was temporary, pending the establishment of general hospitals on the French mainland. During the early days of the invasion, all casualties were evacuated to Britain, except for a handful cases for whom transportation would have jeopardised their chances of survival.
One member of the RAMC who came under fire on D-Day was Private David Briggs, a conscientious objector who had managed to gain a transfer from the Pay Corps to the RAMC. Interviewed on the wireless on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he recalled the stillness before the storm as he waited to set sail across the Channel:
The thing that has always stuck in my mind was the sound of nightingales, the most beautiful sound, which drifted across the water into our boat. Every night we’d hear these wonderful songs from the nightingales and it was very, very peaceful. And it was the contrast between that and D-Day that has stuck in my mind.
Briggs had vivid memories of his first approach to the beaches, arriving around midday on 6th June:
There was of course an awful lot of air activity, planes all over the place and we never knew if we were going to be torpedoed or not. Although it was only a few hours after the invasion started, there was a kind of eerie quiet on the beach…The first thing I saw was a dead Canadian lying in the water…The landing craft was relieved of the tanks. The tanks rolled out onto the beach and then all the space that was left… we had brackets coming out of the walls to hold stretchers. Our job as medics was to go onto the beach to rescue the wounded of all nationalities; German as well as English and ferry them back to the UK. And then that job was finished and then we were discharged from the boat. We were told later that the boat was torpedoed and sunk.
The men from No. 223 Field Ambulance who were to land on Sword beach on D-Day were divided between two landing craft, in case one was attacked there would still be enough men to operate as a field ambulance. Private Jim Wisewell and the man who was sharing a stretcher with him decided to sleep under one of the tanks the craft was carrying for shelter. Like many, he sought strength in his religious faith, I remember I wasn’t particularly anxious. I read my Bible before turning in that night and prayed for all of us and got off to sleep fairly quickly.’
Wisewell landed on Sword Beach at Lion-sur-Mer between 10am and 10.15 on D-Day. The precious tanks were unloaded from the landing craft first, then an officer said “come on chaps” and Wisewell went down the ramp and made for the nearest shell hole, under intensive shelling and mortar fire. As well as the joint responsibility for a stretcher, he carried a large haversack of medical equipment, including hot water bottles to help counteract the shock the wounded would experience.
Although Wisewell could see a wounded man in the next shell hole to his, but he was under strict orders to leave the casualties on the sand to a Beach Dressing Station, and to move inland to form a Field Dressing Station near a rendezvous point at Hermanville. It was on the road between Lion-sur-Mer and Hermanville that Wisewell saw his first D-Day fatalities. A mortar had landed killing three of the division:
One of them had practically dissolved from the waist downwards. The other one was in a kneeling position on one knee and he seemed to be unmarked. And the other one was just a shapeless mess. And I looked down at my foot and there was something which looked like a pound of steak, and this was obviously part of one of them.
As the casualties started to pour in at the dressing station, the doctor had to `play God’ in deciding which men could be treated and which left to die. Wisewell, having qualified as a Nursing Orderly First Class, was splinting fractures, dressing wounds and injecting morphia and anti-gangrene serum.
Captain Geoffrey Haine of the No. 49 Field Surgical Unit left Felixstowe at dawn on 6th June, eventually landing on King Beach at 2am the following morning. The water-proofed ambulance lorries started up and went down the ramp and through three feet of water without any issues. On the beach the drivers expected to find markers to indicate where steel mesh tracks had been laid down, but they were not visible and the heavily-laden lorries soon become bogged down, axle deep, in the sand. Having tried to dig the lorries out, an irate Beach Marshall approached the unit and informed them that, as the tide was coming in, that they should carry off as much equipment as possible and abandon the lorries:
That did not sound like a very successful ending to our training and so seeing a Royal Engineer working with a Bulldozer, I persuaded him – or may be used my rank for I was then a Captain and ordered him to pull us out. Thanks to him he soon got us back on the track and we got into the little holiday resort of Ver sur Mer as dawn was breaking.
Haine then saw first battle casualty, a young man who had been shot and killed instantly. Rigor mortis had set in quickly and he was still in sniper firing position. Although he was to see many gruesome sights during the advance through Europe that young soldier remained in his mind.
Having proceeded to Jersualem on the road between Bayeux and Tilly, Haine was involved in a macabre episode. One of the first casualties was a man with abdominal injuries, suffering from severe shock. As he became more shocked during the operation, Major Tuckett placed an abdominal clamp over a bad injury in the bowel and returned him to the ward with the hope that after further resuscitation he would be fit for further surgery. After completing further operations on other casualties, it was discovered that the patient had died, and had been buried with the clamp still in situ. As the clamp was essential for medical operations, after consultation with the padre, it was agreed that the grave could be opened up and the clamp retrieved.
A fuller account of the actions of Royal Army Medical Corps personnel, both those serving with airborne and seaborne units during Operation Overlord, can be found in my recently published book. Faithful in Adveristy: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War
This post is dedicated to the memory of David Briggs, who died on 16th March 2020. I had the privilege of meeting David in Bedford in 2014.